With its colorful cast and impressive location photography—to say nothing of the admirable use of indigenous actors and language—The White Dawn should be engrossing. Set in the late 19th century, the story depicts what happens when three American whalers become stranded in Eskimo country, first assimilating into the local culture and then clashing with their Native hosts. The whalers are played by Timothy Bottoms, Louis Gossett Jr., and Warren Oates, all of whom are interesting actors, and director Philip Kaufman—helming only his second big-budget feature—displays his signature interest in sociopolitical subtleties. Yet not even Kaufman’s ethnographic approach can enliven the dull and unmemorable storyline, which unfolds in a predictable way and suffers from a paucity of significant events. Very little about The White Dawn lingers in the memory except for a general wintry vibe, because while the cinematography is tough and vivid—director of photography Michael Chapman operates way outside his usual New York milieu, to impressive effect—the narrative lacks surprises.
Producer Martin Ransohoff, who also wrote the underlying adaptation of the James Houston novel upon which the film is based, took a bold route by featuring extensive scenes of Inuit dialogue, and the fact that most of the cast comprises Eskimo performers gives The White Dawn authenticity other adventure pictures set in the Great White North lack. Yet one longs for a storyline as virile as those found in, say, the tales of Jack London. That said, it’s moderately diverting to watch vignettes of the white characters reacting to the strangeness of life in the Arctic Circle—as when they’re awoken by water from the melting ceiling of their igloo—and the picture features a few informative scenes showing Eskimo rituals. The White Dawn isn’t a bad film, of course, because it’s using the white characters as a means of exposing viewers to a rarely seen world, but the tone runs so close to that of a drably educational documentary that Ransohoff might have been better off just ditching the fictional contrivance altogether.
The White Dawn: FUNKY