CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 19 . . . . May 23, 2003
White Thunder is a spellbinding film that captivates the viewer because of its historical film footage and because of the stories it tells. The video documents the life of early film documentary maker Varick Frissell, whose early death came while capturing the life of sealers off the coast of Newfoundland in 1931. In doing so, Frissell gave Canada a film legacy of a tragic but important part of maritime history.
Frissell hailed from a well to do family in New York at the turn of the last century. He was educated at Yale, sang opera and owned an early camera that he used to shoot family movies. He was intrigued by the potential that the moving picture offered and was soon documenting the lives of ordinary people, including European farmers and the Innu people of Labrador. He worked for the International Grenfell Association, bringing medical care to fishermen in Labrador, and fell in love with the rugged geography and the people. Frissell voyaged inland by canoe to Grand Falls, Labrador, recording the rigours of the trip with a heavy camera as his canoe pitched in the rapids. The daring footage of roiling rapids, steep cliffs and the entourage making heavy, difficult portages through dense, mosquito infested bush is awe inspiring and priceless.
Imbued with the spirit of adventure and entranced by the tough, dangerous life of the sealers from Newfoundland and Labrador, Frissell convinced Paramount films in California to bankroll a movie in 1929. His intention was to produce a record of a disappearing way of life in which desperately poor men risked their lives walking miles over frigid, rolling packs ice to kill seals for the wealthy ship owners in St. John's. But Paramount wanted a story that would sell commercially and so insisted on a script that had two sealers fighting on the ice over the love of a woman. The melodrama was too soppy, and Frissell returned in 1931 to reshoot the end of the movie. After three days of traveling north, Frissell was literally in the process of writing a notice to warn the crew about the danger of smoking near the gunpowder and ammunition when the ship exploded. One hundred and twenty five men were rescued off ice pans, many after floating for days on the cold ocean. Frissell's body was never found. Twenty five sealers also perished.
The title of the video comes from the description of the ice as it rolls with the waves. To this truly remarkable visual spectacle, Frissell added sound which had until then been reserved mostly for the studio. He said, "The Silent North could yield a record of unearthly sound never heard by man." His spirit of adventure was undaunted by the physical difficulties of hauling bulky and heavy camera equipment on a small, crowded wooden ship and organizing the filming in extremely dry, cold temperatures on ever moving ice packs.
The narrative is interspersed with Frissell's letters home and interviews with, among others, Frissell's nephew and niece, and even the lead actor in the original film, who recalls Frissell's talent and drive. Quotations from Newfoundland author Cassie Brown's Death on the Ice: The Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914 describe the terrible living and working conditions experienced by the sealers the hunger, cold and grueling work that left them soaked in blood and frigid sea water with little more than bread and tea at the end of a day. The economy of Newfoundland was controlled by relatively few families who bought the fish and seal pelts and who also owned the stores and determined the prices of goods and the prices paid for the catch. The outport residents who made up the bulk of the sealing crew were never able to break away from this stranglehold, thus ensuring there would be a continual supply of men showing up each spring to sign on for the seal hunt.
Those interested in discovering more about this period of Newfoundland and Labrador history should read Death on the Ice. White Thunder will complement a history unit and can be used in a film studies class. Students will be in awe of Varick Frissell's talent and determination, but even more, of the humanity that made him realize the importance of documentary film making. Thanks to Frissell and others like him, the history of ordinary people is captured for future generations.
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher librarian at Niakwa Place School in Louis Riel School Division in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.