The year is 1896 and a whaling ship is making its way about the Arctic coastline around Canada. When it reaches the waters around Baffin Island, one of its boats gets lost when it harpoons a whale that drags the crew onto the ice. Without transport, the men are forced to wander across the snowy wastelands, one by one succumbing to the freezing temperatures until there are only three left alive. Billy (Warren Oates) looks as if he will be next to die as he crumples to the ground, but Daggett (Timothy Bottoms) and Portagee (Louis Gossett) are shocked to be suddenly face to face with an Eskimo who seems as surprised as they are. The native brings help and the three men are taken to the nearest encampment to recover...
Based on a true story, The White Dawn was scripted by James Houston (from his novel) and Thomas Rickman and adapted by producer Martin Ransohoff. It recalls the old adventure tales of yore with its study of the three Southerners and their experiences in fitting in with the Eskimo culture (they're called Eskimos in the film, rather than Inuit), only this time it has a peculiarly nineteen-seventies twist, that is, as realistic as possible and featuring no happy ending. It follows that we get to know an awful lot about the natives of the Arctic, and while the lack of a partronising tone is welcome, for most of the film there is a decided sentimentality about their uncluttered way of life and the harsh beauty of the landscape.
Fortunately the film benefits from such sympathy with the Eskimos, but the three Southerners don't entirely escape the romanticism either. Once they are rescued, the unconscious Billy is taken to one igloo while the other two are warmed up and fed in another. At first deeply suspicious of their saviours, they learn to get along with them, little knowing that the Eskimos are of the opinion that they are "dog-children" - we are privy to the Inuit dialogue thanks to the subtitles, which puts us at an advantage over the whalers. It's not long before all three are back on their feet again, and marvelling at the ingenuity of their hosts as they watch a polar bear killed by a man with a spear.
Alas, the troublesome figure that will haunt their stay shows up soon after: the Shaman (Sagiaktok). All the actors playing the Eskimos are genuine locals which offers an air of authenticity, and when the Shaman starts proclaiming ill fortune will rain down on the tribe's heads for taking in the whalers, we fear the worst about how human nature reacts to strangers (having seen it in Billy and Portagee's attitudes). However, while they take his advice about not eating the bear, the Eskimos hold no malice towards their visitors and they are welcomed with some measure of bemusement. Soon they are being fed regularly, sleeping in the igloos and wearing the animal skins to keep warm, and even though Billy (Oates at his most irascible) is keen to get back, Daggett is loving this new life.
Two cultures cannot meet without influencing each other in some way, and the example displayed here is no exception. The Southerners learn about hunting and fishing and free love, while the Northeners learn about gambling, stealing and alcohol. Despite being made welcome and safe, the whalers are restless (or at least two of them are), and after taking their pleasure with the native women and eating their food they steal a boat to get back to what they regard as civilisation. They are then humiliated when they fail miserably and have to be saved by the tribe once more, and when the Shaman arrives to blame them for the lack of food this winter, tragedy looms. If there's anything to take away from this, it's that humanity brings people together, but superstition and prejudice draws them apart. And more than that, good manners cost nothing. The White Dawn, while expertly made, is one of those films where you wish things would turn out differently. Music by Henry Mancini.