The arctic ocean reflects the sky in the opening shot, a polar bear swims through until a spear thrust into the frame adds red to the white and blue, the first of Nicholas Ray’s instinctive effects. Anthony Quinn’s big face comes from anywhere but the frozen North, yet his Inuit roamer-hunter remains his most heartfelt noble-primitive incarnation, the axis on which the director’s blend of ethnography and artifice pivots. The Inuit are easy laughers and casual wife-swappers, prone to negotiating conflict via head-bashing and not averse to mother-in-law jokes. Quinn’s search for a wife (Yoko Tani) has the physicality of Hot Blood's gypsy courtship, their oneness with "nature’s eternal tragedy" is illustrated as Tani’s mother (Marie Yang) exiles herself into the tundra, the one serene death in Ray’s oeuvre. "Civilization" is a trading post in the horizon, Quinn and family have a good chuckle over those Caucasian weirdoes ("The white man has no liking for old meat and frozen fish!") but decide to give bartering a try after witnessing a rifle blow off the left side of the widescreen. The jukebox bewilders and delights the couple, a missionary (Marco Guglielmi) comes proselytizing and ends with a cracked skull, two Mounties (Peter O’Toole, Carlo Giustini) track Quinn back to his igloo. Nanook of the North is the obligatory starting point, Ray notes it in the hunting of the seal and then moves away from it -- this is really his The River, an outsider’s view of outsiders, harsh and enchanted. Cinematic coups abound: A colony of walruses disbands as the camera bobs toward them in an unbroken take, Giustini is dropped dripping wet in the middle of a blizzard and turned into a blue statue in under two minutes. The dubbing of O’Toole’s voice is sheer vandalism, though the voluptuous fatalism of his Lawrence is already in place as his trooper lies on the ice in screen-filling close-up, hoping to be left to die by his prisoner. Little Big Man, Dersu Uzala and others flow from it. With Kaida Horiuchi, Lee Montague, Andy Ho, and Anna Way Wong.
--- Fernando F. Croce