"Eskimo" is without any question the best picture of its type that has ever been produced; but more than this, it is one of the best pictures of any type. It comes as close to being a work of art as an expression founded on photography can; and it omits the usual errors of carelessness in direction or photography which have almost come to be regarded as an integral part of Hollywood efforts. It is so cohesive and consistent throughout that it could have succeeded even with another subject than the excellent one it portrays.
The film, as the title and the press blurbs indicate, is an attempt to record the social structure of savage arctic communities; coupled with this aim, as one expects, there is a human story, that of the life of Mala, chief hunter of one Eskimo village. The role of Mala is taken by Francis Lederer, while all the other parts, with the exception of a few Canadian police and sailors who enter the story briefly, are played by genuine Eskimos. Naturally, Mala's life is not a complicated one: he eats and sleeps and lies down with the ladies; and that is about all; the part is remarkable for the restraint with which Lederer handles it, a restraint upon which the whole structure of the film turns, and which must have been difficult of attainment. He is required to pass his well-loved wives around among his friends, to lose a wife, to murder, and to suffer excess of thought; through all these turns with lady Fate, he avoids heroics, and at the same time veers away from the equally dangerous wall of intellectually squalid sentimentality which might so easily block his performance; he covers a middle-ground of mindless, emotionally dulled savagery which is absolutely genuine. The Eskimos in minor roles are ably directed; the more difficult parts, Mala's wives, are treated with a surprising delicacy.
The other motive of the picture, as I remarked above, is to show the social structure of the Eskimo colonies. I cannot, of course, vouch for the accuracy with which this has been done; I imagine that the whole sequence has been rendered a bit too idyllic and too pleasantly pastoral to be an exact study, such as one might find in Prof. Tarbottom's third Ph.D. thesis on "Brow-ridge Variation in the Eskimo, with Concomitant Hypertrophy of the Frontal Sinuses." For all that, the photography is superb, the selection of scenes is accurate, and a coherent picture, a beautiful picture, is presented. A particularly good bit is a whale chase, in which a whalebone whale is successfully harpooned and killed; another perfect shot is the simple, graytoned, opening scene. But many more like these might be mentioned. Never is the hunting, wild-nature aspect so overemphasis as to emerge into the usual naturefaker travelogue; always it fits quietly and briefly, nicely timed. The picture as a whole accomplished two things which I never thought to see done: it makes the hackneyed and hitherto invariably repulsive love-among-the-savages theme ring true; and it wipes out the station on Hollywood left by a long succession of darkest Africa, raw-meat-in-the-jungle, ameba-love abortions.