Blood and Sand (1922)

“In a man’s life there is sometimes a good love and a bad love.”

Synopsis:
An aspiring bullfighter (Rudolph Valentino) marries his childhood sweetheart (Lila Lee), but breaks her heart by having an affair with a vampish noblewoman (Nita Naldi).

Genres:

Review:
This enormously popular Rudolph Valentino vehicle (directed by Fred Niblo, and based on a novel by Vicente Blasco Ibanez) was purportedly one of Valentino’s personal favorites, but hasn’t held up all that well for modern audiences. Other than some refreshingly candid Pre-Code sadomasochism (with Naldi biting Valentino’s hand in an act of aggressive erotic pursuit), the cliched storyline is largely uninspired, and the bullfight scenes come across as patently inserted external footage. Meanwhile, pedantic attempts to convince audiences that bullfighting is a bloodthirsty sport worthy of condemning (“The wide world over, cruelty is disguised as sport to gratify man’s lust for excitement”) is insufficiently explored, and ultimately just feels hypocritical, given the clear valorization of Valentino’s character. Remade by Rouben Mamoulian in 1941 with Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, and Rita Hayworth.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some surprisingly candid pre-Code sensuality

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look simply to see Valentino in one of his best-known roles. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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True Heart Susie (1919)

“Do men look for the true heart in women? Or are most of them caught by the net of paint, powder, and suggestive clothes?”

Synopsis:
A “plain” country girl (Lillian Gish) secretly loves her handsome neighbor (Robert Harron), and helps pay for his college education by selling her family’s cow. Upon his return, she expects him to court her for marriage, and is devastated when he’s seduced by a fun-loving seamstress (Clarine Seymour) instead.

Genres:

Review:
Among the many Peary-listed films Lillian Gish made with D.W. Griffith — including The Birth of a Nation (1915), Hearts of the World (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921)True Heart Susie is the sweetest and least complicated. It tells the touching tale of a naive country girl (Gish) who genuinely believes that her ambitious yet sincere young neighbor (Harron) is meant to be her future husband, and gives up her beloved cow towards this good cause; Harron’s continued oblivion of Gish’s feelings — and Gish’s shifting reactions (from blind optimism to heartbroken acceptance) — form the emotional backbone of the film, which is ultimately little more than a love triangle involving a deceptive vamp. It’s Gish’s performance which really elevates the movie above its somewhat predictable material: watching her face as she learns about Harron’s engagement, one is reminded once again about her status as silent cinema’s most accomplished actress.

Note: The life-story of handsome Harron — who had earlier co-starred in the modern episode of Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) — is quite tragic and mysterious; he died from a gunshot wound the year after this film was released, under shadowy circumstances (was it suicide or an accident?).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lillian Gish as Susie
  • Robert Harron as William
  • Fine cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly recommended for Gish’s nuanced performance. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book, though I’m honestly not quite sure why.

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Poor Little Rich Girl, The (1917)

[Note: The following review is of a non-Peary title; click here to read more.]

“Mother promised to see me, just one little minute to-day.”

Synopsis:
The lonely daughter (Mary Pickford) of a hardworking businessman (Charles Wellesley) and a socially conscientious mother (Madlaine Traverse) is placed in harm’s way when abusive servants mistreat her.

Genres:

  • Heiresses
  • Mary Pickford Films
  • Silent Films

Review:
Mary Pickford — a.k.a. “America’s Sweetheart” — remains an iconic star of early cinema, both for her enormous popularity as an actress, and for her admirable business acumen at a time when film actors were just beginning to be acknowledged for their box office potential. It’s therefore interesting that Peary only lists two of Pickford’s many films — Sparrows (1926) and My Best Girl (1927) — in his GFTFF, given that both these titles were made near the end of her career, and thus don’t represent her at the true height of her fame. For this reason, I’m recommending The Poor Little Rich Girl as a “missing title”, simply so that film fanatics will have a chance to see Pickford in one of her earlier successes — and, more specifically, to see one of her infamous portrayals as a much younger girl.

Unfortunately, the cliched storyline for TPLRG (scripted by Frances Marion, and based on a play by Eleanor Gates) isn’t all that interesting or well-told; indeed, at times it almost seems like a parody of itself, given that Pickford’s supporting cast members were intentionally chosen for their extreme height, and certain sets were built to provide a skewed vision of Pickford’s stature. Yet director Maurice Tourneur (father of Jacques Tourner) manages to turn the final third of the film — as a drugged Pickford translates some of the little-understood metaphors she’s heard into literal imagery — into a uniquely surreal Wonderland dreamscape. This section alone at least partially redeems the movie, helping to justify my claim that it’s “must-see”; however, it’s likely that any of Pickford’s other popular child-role titles — such as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), Pollyanna (1920), or Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921) — might suffice just as well.

Note: The 1997 documentary Mary Pickford: A Life on Film (scripted by Rita Mae Brown and narrated by Whoopi Goldberg) is highly recommended as an insightful overview of Pickford’s life and career, one which places special emphasis on her role as a pioneering female businesswoman in Hollywood.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Mary Pickford as Gwendolyn
  • The inventively surreal hallucination scenes


Must See?
Yes, simply to see Pickford in one of her popular “child” roles. Selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1991.

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Potemkin / Battleship Potemkin, The (1925)

“Death to the oppressors! We shall take revenge!”

Synopsis:
In pre-Revolutionary Russia, sailors on the Battleship Potemkin mutiny against their superiors after being served bowls of maggoty soup. When one of their men (Aleksandr Antonov) is killed, they decide to rise up collectively against the Czarist regime.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin by pointing out that it was “probably the first or second film you saw in your Introduction to Film course” (that’s certainly true for me!). He goes on to concede that since at the time you likely “knew little about 20th-century Russian history and the importance of the film in that history or cared [much] about the importance of ‘montage’ in film history, you probably fell asleep” (or, like me, simply didn’t understand what all the fuss was about). But he argues that “if you see it again… then you’ll understand why critics and devoted filmgoers regard it as one of the greatest pictures of all time”. Indeed, though I’ve seen certain sections (most notably, of course, “The Odessa Steps”) several times in different contexts, I only recently revisited the film again as a complete narrative, and — with years of film appreciation and viewing now under my belt — I’ll admit I was duly impressed.

As Peary notes, this “first non-documentary about a political action/historical event proved not only that a cleverly edited series of images could draw viewers into the film’s action and stimulate the emotions but also that the juxtaposition of two images — one of a character, the other of a symbolic object/prop — was a valuable propaganda device because it forced viewers to deduce that the symbol relates to the character”. Peary points out that in the remarkably effective opening section of the film (the first of five), “Eisenstein builds tension by cutting back and forth between armed guards and helpless sailors”. In the film’s most celebrated (third) section — in which “the Czar’s forces march down the ‘Odessa Steps’ and massacre men, women, and children in their path” — Eisenstein similarly “builds tension and creates terror by cutting back and forth between marching faceless soldiers and their victims (whose scared faces are shown in close-ups).” (Indeed, this sequence is so relentlessly devastating that virgin viewers deserve a few words of forewarning — and if you haven’t seen it in a while, get ready to feel your stomach in your throat.)

Peary further points out that during the Odessa Steps sequence, “time stands still, so what would take place in seconds goes on and on — [the] camera pans down the steps, moves back to where the soldiers are, and we start over again”. He notes that “there’s an odd rhythm to the sequence, so that we feel things are going fast (too fast for the victims to think clearly) but simultaneously feel that the cruelty will never stop”; he then makes a potent connection between ‘The Odessa Steps’ and the most famous horror movie sequence of all time — the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho. He concludes his review by noting simply that Potemkin (which circulated in various states of disrepair and politically strategic editing for decades, and was recently restored) is “certainly as influential as The Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane.” It’s a film which, despite its seemingly distant and foreign subject matter, bears multiple viewings, simply for its overall cinematic impact.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The opening mutiny sequence

  • The truly devastating, infamous Odessa Steps sequence

  • Countless memorable images (highlighted through Eisenstein’s incomparable use of montage)

Must See?
Of course; this one is a no-brainer must-see, at least once.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Sherlock Jr. (1924)

“Say, Mr. Detective: before you clean up any mysteries, clean up this theater!”

Synopsis:
A movie projectionist (Buster Keaton) is falsely accused of stealing a watch owned by the father (Joe Keaton) of the girl he’s in love with (Kathryn McGuire), and soon finds out the crime was really committed by his rival (Ward Crane). While napping on the job, Keaton imagines himself entering into the movie he’s projecting, where he takes on the persona of a suave detective and attempts to solve a jewelry heist, also committed by Crane.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary points out that this “dazzling, surreal comedy” — the “most technically innovative feature of the silent era” — had at the time of his book’s publication “finally achieved [the] masterpiece status” it so richly deserves. He notes that, like in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) (which clearly “borrowed [this film’s] daring premise”), it “explores the nature of film, both as an art form and as a world to which those with wild imaginations can escape…; it treads the fine line between dream and reality, art and life”. In sum, it’s a movie film fanatics will readily embrace, and see much of themselves in.

After discussing the “brilliantly conceived and edited scene” in which Keaton “dreams that he walks toward the screen and climbs into the action”, Peary highlights just a few of the film’s many others “great moments” — including “Keaton riding on the handlebars of a fast-moving, driverless motorcycle, [Keaton] playing expert pool, and, in a bit you have to see to believe, [Keaton] escaping during a chase sequence by diving into a small case held by a peddler woman (actually his male assistant) and apparently disappearing through her body”. He labels the action in the film “furiously paced, inventive, [and] stupefying”, and ends his review by noting that this “picture is proof positive that Keaton was more in control of and in love with the film medium than Chaplin”. (Ah, the enduring Chaplin-versus-Keaton wars — even Peary, an avowed Chaplin fan, clearly can’t help taking a stance.)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The hilarious “lost dollar” sequence
  • Keaton’s initial entry onto the screen
  • The billiard ball sequence
  • The vaudevillian peddler-woman sequence
  • The expertly timed chase scene
  • The quietly knowing and hilarious final sequence

Must See?
Yes, as one of Keaton’s greatest films — and that’s saying a lot!

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Enchanted Cottage, The (1945)

“Oh no, it’s not haunted — just enchanted.”

Synopsis:
A fighter pilot (Robert Young) disfigured in the war goes to live in a cottage managed by a widow (Mildred Natwick) and a homely young girl (Dorothy McGuire). He eventually marries McGuire simply to prevent his concerned mother (Spring Byington) from meddling in his life — but as the two begin to fall in love, they mysteriously find themselves looking more and more attractive to each other.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of John Cromwell’s The Enchanted Cottage by noting that “one of Hollywood’s schmaltziest films has found the soft spot in enough moviegoers’ hearts to make it a cult film of sorts” — thus presumably justifying its inclusion in his book, given that he spends the rest of his short review roundly criticizing it. Despite acknowledging that “Young and McGuire give sensitive performances”, he insists that they’re “done in by [an] embarrassing script by Herman Mankiewicz and De Witt Bodeen, and overwhelmed by lush music”; in sum, he states, “The syrup is laid on thick and it’s a bad brand”. And he’s not alone in his negative assessment: Time Out refers to it as “icky romantic whimsy”, while TCM’s staff writer simply concedes it’s “a movie with its heart in the right place”.

I actually don’t find the script to be “embarrassing”, given that it unabashedly sets out to tell a particular tale of romance between two deeply troubled individuals. The “fantasy” element (i.e., the fact that Young and McGuire genuinely believe they’re seeing physical changes in each other) mostly worked for me, on a metaphorical level; let’s just say I was willing to go along for the ride. What’s less convincing is McGuire’s physical appearance as a dowdy lass: it’s perfectly true, as many have pointed out, that her “defects” could be (and are) easily fixed by a new haircut, a bit of make-up, and a renewed sense of self-confidence. One scene — in which multiple GIs at a dance glance at her from afar, then turn away once they get a closer look — edges close to campy melodrama, but is believable if you’re willing to acknowledge that McGuire (prior to falling in love with Young) simply projects, without meaning to, some kind of “stay away from me” vibe of “ugliness”. Young, meanwhile, does a fine job shifting from self-assured pilot to embittered veteran to a man renewed by love; and Natwick projects an appropriate aura of mystery as a landlady who’s lived with her house’s secrets for many decades.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Young as Oliver
  • A touching, unconventional romance
  • Ted Tetzlaff’s romantic cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended simply for its cult status — and you may actually enjoy it!

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Friendly Persuasion (1956)

“A man’s life ain’t worth a hill of beans except he lives up to his own conscience.”

Synopsis:
During the Civil War, the son (Anthony Perkins) of pacifist Quaker parents (Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire) is deeply conflicted over whether or not to join the fight; meanwhile, his sister (Phyllis Love) is smitten with a Union soldier (Mark Richman), his younger brother (Richard Eyer) is plagued by his mother’s pet goose, and Cooper and McGuire quibble over the controversial presence of a new organ in their house.

Genres:

Review:
William Wyler’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of Jessamyn West’s 1945 novel — about the messy interplay between family values, religious beliefs, and patriotic duty — remains a heartwarming and provocative mid-century classic. The Birdwells represent a family seemingly content in its religious convictions and sheltered lifestyle, with just a handful of tensions — Eyer’s hatred of his mother’s pet goose; Love’s crush on a soldier (and her forbidden desire to dance with him at a local fair); Cooper’s friendly horse-racing rivalry with his neighbor — demonstrating that every household or neighborhood (even one surrounded by impossibly idyllic rolling landscapes) has its share of conflicts to grapple with on a daily basis. Indeed, the bulk of this leisurely paced film is taken up with simply showing us the Birdwells’ reasonably contented existence — but lurking behind the entire affair is the unavoidable shadow of War.

Indeed, the presence of fighting nearby causes an enormous internal conflict for Perkins, who hates the very idea of harming his fellow men, yet knows that to stay away from the conflict entirely is (for him) equally detestable. To that end, Wyler and black-listed screenwriter Michael Wilson (whose Oscar nomination was rescinded, then later restored) do a remarkable job infusing the narrative with strong hints of how challenging it can be to maintain a pacifist attitude during wartime; numerous powerfully-written scenes highlight the ways in which various characters struggle against either the urge, or the perceived need, to harm someone else — such as when Perkins’ tussle-happy friend (John Smith) agrees to participate in a wrestling match at the local fair, then stops as he realizes (in horror) that he’s actually hurting his opponent. Later, in a series of provocative but sensitively handled scenes, not only Perkins but Cooper and McGuire each find themselves squarely confronting the need or desire to act against their pacifist ideals.

The performances throughout the film are simply wonderful. Cooper and McGuire’s marriage is presented as firmly grounded in mutual respect and love; the scene in which they butt heads over whether Cooper will be allowed to bring the organ he’s bought into the house shows their ability to eventually resolve marital conflict through loving compromise. Love (who, on a personal note, I knew later in her life, when she went by a different name completely) is simply charming in one of her few film roles, and Eyer demonstrates once again why he was one of the most natural and appealing kid-actors around. Meanwhile, Perkins appropriately won rave reviews (and an Oscar nomination) for his sensitive portrayal as Josh Birdwell, whose internal conflict over whether or not to take up a gun never hits a false note.

Note: There’s an odd little interlude in which Cooper and Perkins travel the countryside selling their wares, and stay the night with a widow (Marjorie Main) and her three man-hungry daughters (Edna Skinner, Marjorie Durant, and Frances Farwell); the broad humor of this scene feels a touch out of place, but is so enjoyable that one doesn’t really mind.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gary Cooper as Jess Birdwell
  • Dorothy McGuire as Eliza Birdwell
  • Anthony Perkins as Josh Birdwell
  • Phyllis Love as Mattie Birdwell
  • Fine supporting performances throughout

  • Many powerful moments
  • Lovely Technicolor cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a still-powerful classic.

Categories

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Circus, The (1928)

“Keep him busy and don’t let him know he’s the hit of the show.”

Synopsis:
A tramp (Charlie Chaplin) accidentally becomes the hit star in a circus run by a cruel ringmaster (Al Garcia), who pays him the lower wages of a prop-master; meanwhile, he falls in love with Garcia’s abused daughter (Merna Kennedy) — but does she feel the same way about him?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that if this “sweet, deceptively simple, flawless film… doesn’t quite equal other Chaplin masterpieces on first viewing, that’s because it seems that Chaplin didn’t invest it with quite as much emotion” — which is exactly why I find it to be such an underrated gem. Unlike the overly maudlin tenor of many of Chaplin’s other, better-known films, The Circus possesses almost purely comedic energy, with just enough romantic tension and longing to move the narrative along. As Peary notes, “there are [many] wonderful scenes: hungry Chaplin eating a hot dog that a little boy (whose father looks the other way) holds in his hand; Chaplin eluding a pickpocket and a cop in a hall of mirrors; … Chaplin finding himself locked in a cage with a sleeping lion inside and a barking dog outside; Chaplin attempting a tightrope act and having a wild monkey latch its teeth onto his nose”. Other laugh-out-loud scenes include Chaplin posing as part of a mechanized display outside a fun house, and Chaplin’s hilariously failed attempts to officially audition for a role in the circus. It all represents Chaplin’s “usual number of brilliant sight gags and moments of slapstick”, and is simply great fun throughout.

Note: In his Alternate Oscars book, Peary names Chaplin Best Actor of the Year for this film, pointing out that “as usual, Chaplin’s tramp is both touching and funny as he maintains his dignity”, and — thankfully – “doesn’t play for pity”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many memorable, expertly crafted scenes





Must See?
Yes, as an early comedy classic by Chaplin.

Categories

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Wind, The (1928)

“Day in, day out, whistlin’ and howlin’ — makes folks go crazy, especially women!”

Synopsis:
A young Virginian woman (Lillian Gish) comes to live with her cousin (Edward Earle) and his family in wind-swept Texas; but Earle’s wife (Dorothy Cummings) quickly becomes jealous of Gish’s presence, and demands that she find another place to live. Rather than accepting an offer to be the mistress of a married man (Montagu Love), Gish agrees to marry an uncouth but earnest cowboy (Lars Hanson), who is distressed to learn that his new wife doesn’t love him; meanwhile, Gish’s mental stability becomes increasingly volatile, especially when Love re-enters her life.

Genres:

Review:
Peary doesn’t review Victor Sjostrom’s final American silent film in his GFTFF, but he discusses it extensively in his Alternate Oscars book, where he not only gives Lillian Gish the “Best Actress” award, but names the film itself “Best Movie of the Year”. Sjostrom, screenwriter Frances Marion, Gish, and Hanson had previously worked together on a successful cinematic adaptation of The Scarlet Letter (1926); they collaborated again for this film (based on a novel by Dorothy Scarborough), which afforded Gish another opportunity to perform in an “ahead-of-its-time feminist drama about a woman without money or opportunities who tries to survive in a man’s world”. (Interestingly, Gish isn’t the film’s only female protagonist in such a position; though we may dislike Cumming’s character for “her cold treatment of Gish”, we understand that despite being a “bitter woman she is no villain”, given that “she dearly loves her husband and without him, in this harsh world, she has no life, no options”.)

Peary accurately notes that “The Wind is beautifully acted by Gish and the talented, handsome Hanson”, whose portrayal here in a tricky role possesses a surprising amount of subtlety and emotional nuance. Gish, of course, can’t be equalled: as Peary notes, she’s “dynamic in a role that lets her run the gamut of emotions”, and “well aware… it is through her incredible eyes that we perceive the changes her character goes through”; he argues it’s likely that “no one was more aware of the camera than this shrewd actress”. Meanwhile, the film itself is “exquisitely photographed (by John Arnold), with much emphasis on motion”, and Sjostrom creating a “tremendous sense of claustrophobia with repeated shots of the sand swirling towards windows and penetrating everything”. (To that end, one can’t help wondering what area of Texas actually has sandy wind storms that are this insistent and this devastating; would people really choose to live in such a place, given any other option?)

The Wind (like all of Sjostrom’s work) is filled with many memorable, psychologically complex images — not just Gish’s “fantasized image of a white horse charging through the skies”, but her very breakdown itself, represented with increasingly expressionistic flair as the elements around her (the incessant sand storms, lecherous Love’s creepy return) eventually destroy every bit of resistance she possesses. Without saying more about the film’s controversial denouement (changed at the insistence of the producers), I will note that the ending manages to satisfy on multiple levels: Gish’s ultimate fate (while perhaps “a little hokey”) is the only one we would have wished for this most put-upon of feminist heroines.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lillian Gish as Letty
  • Lars Hanson as Lige
  • Dorothy Cumming as Cora
  • Many powerful, memorable images


Must See?
Yes, for Gish’s knock-out performance, and as a provocative silent melodrama by a master director. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Nanook of the North (1922)

“The mysterious Barren Lands — desolate, boulder-strewn, wind-swept — illimitable spaces which top the world.”

Synopsis:
An Inuit hunter (Allakariallak) struggles to help his two wives (Nyla and Cunayou) and two children survive in the harsh Arctic Circle.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of Nanook of the North — “probably the most famous of all documentaries” — by noting that its director, Robert Flaherty (a “mining-explorer-turned-filmmaker”), made the picture “to show audiences around the world why he admired the Eskimo people”, who (in Flaherty’s own words) “had taken care of [him] on different expeditions over a ten year period”. Peary argues that while “visually the picture is still fascinating”, the “human drama seems a little lacking”; he complains that “you never really learn what these people are like, just what they do to survive”. He also notes that “critics have always complained that Flaherty had his subjects create scenes specifically for the camera”, with some of them “com[ing] across as phony”.

I’m much less concerned than Peary about either of these two issues. Watching how a group of humans manage to survive in seemingly unlivable conditions is sufficient “drama” for my tastes; and while it’s true that many of the scenes were commissioned specifically for the film, as Roger Ebert puts it so bluntly in his “Great Movies” review, “If you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn’t seen the script.” What does concern me a bit are two other points: first, that Nanook and his “family” aren’t really a family (apparently Flaherty talked openly about this fact, but it’s not mentioned at any point during the film itself, which feels deceptive); and second, that the survival techniques used by Nanook were already becoming antiquated at the time Flaherty shot his footage. In both cases, simply providing a written disclaimer at the beginning of the film would have been enough to satisfy my needs.

Regardless, Nanook… remains a movie all film fanatics should see — not only for its incredible pseudo-ethnographic footage of a bygone era, but for its undeniable (if controversial) place in documentary filmmaking history.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine pseudo-ethnographic footage of early-20th-century Inuit life


  • Many fascinating scenes of Arctic survival and ingenuity



Must See?
Yes, as a classic of the documentary genre.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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