Film Review
By Ray Young


Varick Frissell


White Thunder

The Story of Varick Frissell
and The Viking Disaster

A DVD collection including:

White Thunder—Directed by Victoria King. Released in 2002.
The Lure of the Labrador—Directed by Varick Frissell. Released in 1926.
The Swilin’ Racket (Great Arctic Seal Hunt)—Directed by Varick Frissell. Released in 1928.
The Viking—Directed by Varick Frissell and George Melford. Released in 1931.

For more information contact

Milestone Film & Video—or call them at (800) 603-1104


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    When Paramount Pictures agreed to finance Varick Frissell’s proposed portrait of seal hunters in Newfoundland, it was on the strength of two short documentaries he’d made of northern Canadian exploration and arctic sealing, The Lure of the Labrador and The Swilin’ Racket. Plus, there was a growing market for anthropology and outdoor adventure: Robert Flaherty’s landmark Nanook of the North (1922), Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s Chang (1927), and the romantic mountain films of Arnold Fanck were all moderately successful. It was thought that adding a staged melodrama to the documentary footage would attract a larger audience — a gimmick similar to what was about to unravel in the South Seas involving Robert Flaherty and F.W. Murnau on Tabu (1931). Flaherty nor Frissell knew much about or had any interest in scripts, rehearsed dialogue and scenes, so they needed co-directors. Flaherty had Murnau, but Frissell was with George Melford, a contract studio worker, for the picture he intended to title White Thunder. It was changed to The Viking (the name of the actual ship used in the film) once production got underway.
    In dedication to Frissell, White Thunder is now the title of Victoria King’s documentary about his life and work. She neglects to mention the coincidences between Flaherty’s and Frissell’s pictures, their combinations of documentary with narrative, their ties with Paramount (Tabu’s distributor), the same year of release, their tumultuous filming conditions, and the deaths of their creators. Flaherty and Melford survived, but Murnau died in a car crash shortly before Tabu was set to open, and Frissell perished with twenty-six others when their ship went down en route to film additional footage. It was the worst cinema-related catastrophe of its time.
    Milestone Films have brought together Frissell’s films with King’s documentary, making a comprehensive study of a regrettably abbreviated, generally forgotten career. King’s White Thunder is a solid introduction, tracing Frissell’s privileged upbringing in New York City, his education at Yale, and the wanderlust that sent him north with a 16mm camera. It’s so good, in fact, that one wishes it were longer and more detailed. It touches on his momentary association with Flaherty, and attempts to reconstruct a life that never had a chance to grow and develop. (He was only twenty-eight-years-old when he died.) Interviewing several of his descendants for reminiscences of Frissell seventy-five years after his death, King turns to Kevin Brownlow for his bead on the films and their historic and artistic merits.
    Brownlow understandably dismisses Melford’s contribution to The Viking — this is where all correlations with Murnau end: he was a journeyman unable to transcend static imagery and the grandiose gesture and mime of silent pictures, and made films of no lasting impression (save for The Sheik, which survives for Valentino). But The Viking is additionally hampered by Frissell’s childish scenario, obviously written in a pinch by a man with no training as a screenwriter. Between the empty-headed dialogue, stagnant camera, and Sarah Bernhardt style of performance, it wouldn’t be snide to compare the melodramatic parts of the picture to an Ed Wood movie.
    And yet these wretched passages segue into Frissell’s dynamic footage of an arctic sea adventure with its breathtaking panorama of a primal culture threatened with extinction throughout the twentieth-century. The Viking is essentially an expansion of The Swilin’ Racket, Frissell’s short study of Newfoundland sealers. They call their prey ‘swils,’ but whether ‘racket’ is slang for vocation or for the cacophonous screams of the seals as they’re clubbed is never clarified. (The Viking and nearly all of The Swilin’ Racket shy away from the actual slaughter, a good indication of Frissell’s unease with his subject’s inherent barbarism.) You can see why Paramount were intrigued: vessels cracking through miles of ice; bergs shooting up unexpectedly from below; actual sealers, not actors, bounding from floe to floe, many of them looking underdressed in raggedy street clothes on the frigid tundra; and the bizarre effect of ‘rolling ice’ as dozens of hunters walk across a bobbing, white terrain blanketing the ocean, all of it passionately rendered and beyond Hollywood manufacture.
    In a prologue to The Swilin’ Racket, there’s a list of dangers associated with seal hunting, and one of them is the possibility of an onboard explosion. They carried dynamite in the event the vessel became encased by ice (a hazard captured in the films). Frissell set out on the SS Viking to shoot additional scenes after principal photography wrapped, but an accidental blast destroyed the ship. Most of the crew survived, but cinematographer Alexander Penrod (who, in a twist of black irony, filmed Down to the Sea in Ships in 1922) and Frissell were among the missing. (His body was never recovered.) Through the portrait assembled by Victoria King, Frissell’s unmistakable fervor to explore and film primitive society, and the powerful reach of his imagery, our loss is a considerable one.
Varick Frissell in Newfoundland

For more information contact Milestone Film & Video—or call them at (800) 603-1104


Copyright © 2004 by Ray Young