First we had “westerns” from Hollywood, which mutated into “spaghetti westerns” from Italy. Then came the “easterns” by way of samurai movies from Japan, which in turn mutated into the high-flying martial arts movies from Hong Kong and China. And now we have the “northerns.”
There may be earlier “northerns” than The Savage Innocents, which I found absolutely absorbing and mesmerizing when I first saw it in 1960. Directed by Nicholas Ray, it’s about an Eskimo (Anthony Quinn) in the early 1900s who, true to the rules of hospitality in his culture, offers a stranded white missionary (Peter O’Toole) not only a place to sleep in his igloo, but his wife (Yoko Tani) as well. When the missionary is horrified by the offer, the Eskimo is gravely offended and, in the ensuing scuffle, accidentally kills the missionary. The Eskimo flees into the Arctic wilderness with his family, and the rest of the movie shows the cavalry and/or police in hot pursuit.
Now comes The Revenant (2015), directed by Alejandro Inarritu, in which a frontiersman (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the 1820s, having been mauled by a bear and left for dead by avaricious members of his own hunting team, somehow manages to survive against great odds. He decides to pursue and confront the evil men who tried to bury him alive just so they could profit by his death. The narrative is riveting, the cinematography spectacular, the acting flawless, and yet…
The Savage Innocents won no awards in its day; the movie came and went without much notice, and only recently did it become available on DVD. The Revenant, on the other hand, has already won three Golden Globes (Best Movie, Best Director, Best Actor), and we are just waiting to see how many Oscars it will take home (it has been nominated in twelve categories) at the Academy Awards. It certainly deserves all the awards it can get, but in my mind, The Savage Innocents was the first “northern” I saw, and I remember it now, more than fifty years later, more vividly than The Revenant, which I saw only a couple of weeks ago.