Monday, March 23, 2009

Great (But Forgotten) Documentaries: White Thunder

White Thunder
Image Entertainment // 52 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening shot:
Here is the amazing true story of fearless filmmaker Varick Frissell and the SS Viking disaster, presented here in a fascinating documentary. You should know about it.

Frissell was a wealthy New Yorker who abandoned a life of privilege during the Roaring Twenties in Manhattan to record the dangerous adventures of Newfoundland seal hunters with his 16mm camera — and met death in a horrific boat explosion.

Our Story…
The SS Viking steamed out of port from St. John's, Newfoundland, on March 9, 1931. On board were Frissell and his small crew. Their mission was to finish location shooting on their first feature film for Paramount, which had the working title The Viking. They would never be seen again.

Frissell's team joined 52 sailors aboard the ice-breaking ship to capture the concluding scenes for an adventure film on the hardships facing seal hunters and the even harsher plight of their prey. Although he had begun his career filming short documentaries about life on the North Atlantic, Frissell's test footage convinced studio heads at Paramount to finance a feature film. The idea was to incorporate documentary techniques into the picture, as test audiences had responded positively to the young man's earlier work, which remains astonishing today. One remarkable sequence features hundreds of hunters wrapped in parkas hopscotching across ice floes in the middle of the North Atlantic, carrying spears and clubs in their quest for seal pelts. The ice floes rise and fall to the arbitrary rhythms of the ocean as the men weave and bob in a surreal ballet across the surface of the frigid waters. Their movements could induce seasickness. Lethal cold surrounds these men, and the threat of imminent peril is obvious. One misstep could kill. Here, truly, is a desolate, godforsaken corner of the world.

Six days after leaving port, on March 15, 1931, an apparently accidental dynamite explosion aboard the Viking killed Frissell, his cameraman, and 25 other men. The pioneering director was 27.

Context, Historical Significance
White Thunder, directed by Newfoundland native Victoria King, recounts Frissell’s formative years as a documentary filmmaker as well as his adventures aboard the Viking. Born into a wealthy New York family, whose money enabled him to indulge in the pricey 1920s novelty of home movies, Frissell was seduced by the lure of the ocean and a thirst for adventure. He began financing and shooting his own short films in the 1920s.

His 1928 documentary, The Great Arctic Seal Hunt, had won critical acclaim from the New York Times and Variety. That was enough for Paramount to greenlight a feature film using the footage. Frissell was tapped to produce his first major Hollywood production. So he partnered with silent-film maestro George Melford (who had directed Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik and helmed the Spanish version of Dracula, shot on the same Universal sets as the more famous version starring Bela Lugosi). Melford was a busy man: The Viking, which is included on this DVD, was released the same year as his version of Dracula.

Melford shot dramatic sequences for The Viking in Newfoundland, while Frissell prepared for another voyage aboard the ship itself, where he proposed to capture another seal hunt on film. After his death, Paramount used his earlier footage and rushed The Viking into theaters with a tacky promotional campaign emphasizing that Frissell and his crew lost their lives trying to complete the picture. As drama, The Viking suffers from a weak script and mediocre acting by long-forgotten players. The film comes alive only while Frissell's footage unspools. The Viking is not without interest, although the real talent behind the camera was not Melford but Frissell, who had fought Paramount to eliminate a silly love story that stops the picture cold. He lost his battle with the studio and did not live to see the finished film.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. The film elements show their age, although it’s a miracle that prints still exist, especially considering that Frissell was shooting on volatile nitrate film stock in subzero temperatures. The Dolby mono track sounds fine. DVD features include Frissell’s original 39-minute documentary of the seal hunt (not for the squeamish or members of PETA), and The Lure of the Viking, a 14-minute peek at the vessel’s various ports of call in the North Atlantic. These are silent documentaries with intertitles, accompanied by a pleasing piano score. Rounding out the extra features, Image Entertainment also includes a digital press kit with extensive production notes and photographs, accessible via computer with a DVD-ROM drive. The press kit requires Adobe’s free software, Acrobat Reader®. Overall, this is a nice package of documentaries and added-value content for a suggested retail price of about $30. That's not a bad deal, as I can almost guarantee you've never seen anything like White Thunder.

In this fascinating footage of a forgotten era, White Thunder presents compelling evidence that Frissell was developing into a sophisticated documentarian before his life was cut short by a bizarre and still-unexplained nautical disaster. The Viking feature film is an interesting companion piece to the documentaries, mainly by demonstrating how much stronger Frissell’s material would have been without the imposition of an unnecessary love story and studio interference. His documentaries are admirable and often awe-inspiring, considering the all-but-impossible conditions Frissell toiled under to capture film footage that no one had ever seen.

Documentary enthusiasts will enjoy this compulsively watchable disc. Recommended.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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