The North and Nanook: Chapter 1


I : Let a giant among men and a sultan of storytellers speak first:

Odysseus made his journeys and then Homer wrote about them. To discover and to reveal-that is the way every artist sets about his business. All art is, I suppose, a kind of exploring. Whether or not it's true of art, that's the way I started filmmaking. I was an explorer first and a filmmaker a long way after.

Even in my youth I was always exploring new country. My father was a mining engineer and, in a manner of speaking, we were a nomad family. We moved from one gold-mining camp to another in various parts of Canada. I was then about twelve years of age. I learned to track and hunt rabbits from the Indians and I had an Indian dog team and toboggan. It was a frontier country where the Indians were much more primitive than they are now. There used to be Indian dances near our camp. I also used to trade with the Indians in a small way. I couldn't speak Indian but knew a few words of a sort of patois.

They taught me many things. Hunting, for example. Hunting rabbits in the tamarack swamps. If you picked up the trails, you put your dog on one. He begins following the trail and chases the rabbit. All you had to do was to stand on another part of the same trail. The rabbit would come around to where you were because the trail was always in a circle. You had to be patient and wait, and then the rabbit would come loping along and you got him. This was in the depths of the cold winter, when there was deep snow on the ground and the rabbits couldn't burrow.


8 Robert J. Flaherty


As I grew up, even in my teens, I went on prospecting expeditions with my father, or with his men, often for months at a time, travelling by canoe in summer and by snowshoe in winter. It was sometimes in new country, country that hadn't been seen before, the then little-known hinterland of Northern Ontario. We mapped it and explored it, or at least my father and his men did. I was just an extra.

Most of this country was to the west and north of Lake Superior, forest land with a great many lakes. More water than land, really. The lakes were interconnected by streams, so that you could canoe for hundreds and hundreds of miles. Sometimes I went out on prospectIng expeditions with just one Indian in a birchbark canoe for as long as two months at a time.

On one expedition, I remember, we went north of Lake Superior and were away for two months. The expedition was headed by an English mining engineer, Mr. H. E. Knobel. [1]

He had been one of the Jameson raiders in South Africa. We went up north of Lake Nipigon, a wonderful lake about a hundred miles long, then up one of the rivers running into it to the Height of Land, where the water divides roughly going south into the St. Lawrence and north into Hudson Bay. As were crossing this Height of Land, the stream was very small-the beginnings of these streams were mere trickles-and we finally came into a lake called Little Long Lake. It was about twenty miles long. Knobel was in his usual position in the bow of the canoe. He'd do his mapping as we went along with a cross-section book and a little compass-a sort of mariner's paper compass.

Suddenly his compass began to turn around very quickly, more and more furiously as we went on. Then it stopped dead. We knew at once what was happening. We were passing over a body of magnetic iron ore under us in the lake. So with that little compass, we located a large range of iron ore. We staked out about five thousand acres of land covering several veins of this ore. They were not opened up until many years later. They were very far away and were simply held as a reserve. Thirty-five years later someone else went there and found gold.

There is a saying among prospectors-Go out looking for one thing, thats all you'll ever find. We were exploring only for iron ore at that time. (Flaherty 1949a, 1949b) [2]


Robert Flaherty was born in 1884. He was the eldest of seven children in the family of Robert Henry Flaherty and Susan Kloeckner. Robert Henry's father had emigrated from Ireland by way of Quebec in the midnineteenth century. Both father and son were Irish Protestants. Susan Kloeckner was a German Catholic from Koblenz.

David Flaherty recalls how his mother, known as the Angel of Port



The North and Nanook 9

Arthur, went to mass each day at six in the morning. "Maybe," says David, "my mother didn't know about music and such things, as my father did, but she loved people dearly and had a great and deep compassion." [3] Flaherty himself remembered the "poverty-stricken country in which we lived" in Michigan and how his father left the family to explore the little known frontier country where gold had been discovered (Griffith 1953 xvii-xviii).

Several attempts were made to give the young Flaherty a formal education. "The boy learned with ease," writes Robert Lewis Taylor in a New Yorker "Profile" (June 11, 1949), "far outstripping his tractable colleagues, but he refused to observe the rules. His visits to the classroom were spasmodic. When the humor was upon him, he would turn up every day for a week or so, but he was likely to lounge in around eleven o'clock smoking a cigar. He would verify that the capital of South Dakota was Pierre rather than Bismarck, parse a sentence, exhibit a working knowledge of long division, and leave for the mid-afternoon fishing."

Although Taylor's "profile" of Flaherty is both amusing and readable, it is not to be taken too seriously. It is fanciful and, in places, inaccurate. Nevertheless, at the time it was published Flaherty did not refute anything it said, even though it tended to picture him as something of a clown and playboy, which he was not.

In 1896, when Bob was twelve, his father took a job as manager at the Golden Star Mine in the Rainy Lake area of Canada, and the boy went along. Mrs. Flaherty remained in Michigan to care for the three younger children, two sons and a daughter. The population at the mine was a tough assortment of some two thousand miners from all parts of the world-South Africa, Australia, the United States, and Canada. Orthodox schooling was unknown. Bob and his father lived in a cabin but ate at a boardinghouse. It was at Rainy Lake that Flaherty's love for the primitive, the unsophisticated, and the rough ways of "uncivilized" life began to ripen. Also, sometime during his youth, he was taught to play the violin, perhaps by his father; it was an accomplishment he retained throughout his life and from which he derived great satisfaction.

Father and son stayed at Rainy Lake for almost two years. Then the ore gave out and they moved to Burleigh Mine in the Lake of the Woods country, where they were joined by the rest of the family. Concerned about young Flaherty's education, his parents sent him to Upper Canada College at Toronto. There is a firsthand memory of him there.

About the year 1897 Sir Edward Peacock, then a master at the College, was one of those who attempted to educate this "tousle-headed boy who had little idea of the ways of civilisation." [4] This strong, healthy, self-reliant child found a knife by itself easier to use at table than a knife and fork. He was popular with the other boys.

Flaherty's own memories were of a public school that resembled Eng-


10 Robert J. Flaherty

lish public schools with English masters. "They played cricket and football. I never learned cricket. We also played lacrosse, which is a Canadian game, and this I liked very much. It was originally an Indian Game" (Flaherty 1949a).

But at fourteen, Bob went back with his father to the frontier, the magic land of Indians, unknown lakes, tangled forests, and mysteriously winding streams (Griffith 1953:xviii). He remained in this wonderland for the next two years.

In 1900, the senior Robert Flaherty joined the U.S. Steel Corporation. He and his family moved to Port Arthur, which was to be their home for the next several years. In a final attempt to give formal schooling to their self-educated son, they sent him to the Michigan College of Mines, but he did not stay long enough to graduate. Richard Griffith tells us that the college authorities soon made up their minds that Flaherty had none of the qualifications considered necessary for an academic mineralogist and "bluntly fired him" (1953:xvii). During the seven months he was there, accordIng to some reports, he took to sleeping out in the woods. When he was expelled, his father wrote wishing him the best of luck in whatever he elected to do on his own in the future (Taylor 1949).

Flaherty's brief sojourn at the Michigan College of Mines may not have enriched his intellect, but it was where he met Frances J. Hubbard, who was to be his wife and lifelong collaborator. Her father, Lucius L. Hubbard, was a man of academic distinction, a philatelist, bibliophile, ornithologist, mineralogist, and geologist. Boston, his home, was the main financial source for Middle Western mining operations. Dr. Hubbard had been the state geologist of Michigan; when he retired he brought his family to the upper peninsula, where he worked to develop new copper mines.

Although Frances had had a normal middle-class education, including Bryn Mawr and "finishing" in Europe, she also had the unusual advantage when still very young of accompanying her father on expeditions in which he charted for the first time great areas of the forests of Maine. This experience profoundly influenced her, and when the family settled in Michigan, she took to wandering again. "I used to go off alone every day on my horse," she remembers, "following the faint, overgrown trails of the old logging days. I would pick out on the map one of the tiny lakes or ponds hidden in the woods and set off to find it. Sometimes I got lost, or darkness fell before I could reach home and I would spend the night in one of the deserted lumber camps that the forests had swallowed up. What I liked best was to wander all night on the shore of the lake by moonlight. I thought no one cared about these things but me" (Griffith 1953:xix-xx).

When she met young Bob Flaherty one day at Sunday dinner, she found in his words an answer to all she wanted to know about the wilds. Despite their differences-he lacked formal education while she had had



The North and Nanook 11

the best; his upbringing and experience were at the opposite pole from hers-she quickly realized that he represented all she wanted from life. "I thought, when we were married, we would go and live in the woods," she said.

But a very great deal was to happen before these two young people were married.

It seems that young Flaherty elected to go and work for a time with some Finns in a Michigan copper mine. Then his father, now with U.S. Steel, took him on several explorations for iron ore and he met with H. E. Knobel, as he recounted earlier. Later, it is said, he was taken on by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, which wanted a survey made of its territory because it was expanding in competition with the Canadian Pacific. He took the commission of a wide survey literally, and once, when the railroad officials believed him to be in the Winnipeg vicinity, he contacted them from British Columbia, saying he was there because he wanted to see the west side of Vancouver Island.

Frances Flaherty does not remember that he ever worked for the Grand Trunk Pacific, but she confirms that he prospected for marble along the West Coast of Vancouver Island in 1906. She spent a couple of months with him there on the Tahsish inlet in the Rupert District. H. T. Curtis, a retired mining engineer, remembered meeting Flaherty fortuitously about November 1906 at the Balmoral Hotel, Victoria. Curtis, who was assistant to the resident engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway (Island Division), found the young man "a most likeable soul, kind-hearted, generous, but improvident," [5] He appeared to receive an allowance from his mother, but, although he paid the hotel bills, he spent the remainder on books, fancy ties, socks, and the like. He and Curtis went on canoeing trips, in which Bob was expert and altogether in his element, though he showed no enthusiasm for fishing.

Curtis introduced him to various people in Victoria, among them a well-known local architect, Sam MacClure, whose wife was musical. Flaherty often brought his famous violin to the MacClure house, where he met Mr. Russell, the conductor of the local Musical Society. This acquaintanceship resulted in Flaherty and Curtis sharing a house with Russell and his brother. "We more or less mucked in together," says Curtis, "and Bob filled the role of house-boy."

On Christmas Day 1906, Bob and Curtis went canoeing toward the Indian settlement on the other side of Victoria Inlet. Flaherty was captivated by the Indians' music and songs.

Curtis adds, "He talked at one time of going to Alaska when the spring set in, but to do what I don't remember. He never needed to have any specific aim as to occupation or employment. In fact, work in my idea and experience was right out of his ken. However, I learned in later years of his

12 Robert J. Flaherty


success as a filmmaker, etc. I left British Columbia at Easter 1907 to follow my profession and had the occasional breezy note from Bob but finally lost contact."

Between 1907 and 1910, Flaherty worked as, a prospector for a small mining syndicate above Lake Huron. Then he switched his services to a bigger concern and headed north to the Mattagami River over a route that had not been used for a hundred and fifty years. He may have been, in Curtis's words, "improvident," but for a young man in his early twenties he certainly knew how to find his way about the wilderness. He discovered some iron ore deposits, staked a claim for his employers, and went south to Toronto. There an event took place that was to shape the remainder of his life. Says Flaherty,


A turning point in my life came when I first met up with Sir William Mackenzie, who in is lifetime was the Cecil Rhodes of Canada. He was building a great railway across Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was to be the Canadian Northern, now the Canadian National Railway. Mackenzie had heard that there might be iron ore and other mineral deposits along the sub-Arctic east coast of Hudson Bay on a little-known group of islands on Gulf Hazard. He asked me if I'd like to go up there and explore and then make a report to him. That was in August 1910. (Flaherty 1949b)


Flaherty first met Mackenzie through his father who, after ten years with U.S. Steel, had switched his services as a consulting engineer to the firm of Mackenzie and Mann In Toronto. It is not for us here to describe the tremendous part played by this firm In general and Sir William Mackenzie in particular in developing Canada at that time; we will only note that it was Mackenzie's judgment of men which helped to set Bob Flaherty off on his career. Nor do we propose to give detailed accounts of each of Flaherty's several expeditions for Mackenzie because they can be found better in his own words in his book My Eskirno Friends (1924), his articles in the Geographical Review (1918a, 1918b), and in his diaries [6] now in the Robert Flaherty Papers housed at the Butler Library of Columbia University. But the simple account he himself made as a series of talks for the BBC (June 14 and July 24, 1949) must not be omitted:


I jumped off with one companion named Crundell, an Englishman, from the temporary railway frontier at Ground Hog in Northern Ontario. By small canoe we paddled down the Ground Hog River, the big Mattagami and the swift Moose to the great fur stronghold of the North, two and a half centuries old, Moose Factory, at the southern end of James Bay. From Moose Factory we traveled by open "York" sailing boat some seventy miles to Chariton Island, and from Charlton

The North and Nanook 13


took a schooner to Fort George, a little post on the east coast of James Bay. Because of the headwinds, the journey of less than two hundred miles from Chariton to Fort George took ten days. At Fort George, hardly halfway to our final destination, the Nastapoka Island, we were caught by winter. My companion returned south. When the sea ice had formed, I went on by sledge with a party of Indians as far as the last northern trees, at Cape Jones. The Indian country always ends where the trees end, and there is the beginning of the Eskimo country. The Indians left me at Cape Jones, from whence I was at the Eskimo camp at Great Whale, the last northern post. I spent the night in a tent. All the Eskimos were in igloos. During the night a terrific storm came up and in the morning I found my tent had collapsed. I was covered with canvas and an awful lot of snow, but I was able to breathe. The Eskimos came around and with much laughter they pulled off the canvas and took me into one of their igloos. I could speak only a few words of their language, about a hundred words or so out of a vocabulary: Is it cold? Is it far? I am hungry-that sort of thing,

Their language is not a very extensive one but it is very difficult to learn, much more difficult than the Northern Indian languages. But I could always make myself understood. One can do a great many signs. And the white man has a way of expression. His face reveals so much to a native. He can read your face like a book, while his face remains impassive.

It was a long haul with a twelve-dog team over 250 miles but at last I reached the Nastopone Islands with my Eskimo companion, whose name was Nero. He could speak a little pidgin English.

When I surveyed the islands (Taylor and Gillies) which Sir William Mackenzie had sent me to examine, I found there was iron ore there all right but it wasn't very important-not economically important. It was what we call "lean" ore. The island which had the largest deposits was only about twelve miles long and about half a mile wide. It lay along parallel to and about a mile off the coast. It was crested with snow-covered rocks. We were in the sub-Arctic in the middle of winter. It was bitterly cold. A complete desolation. And I had to face the fact that the long journey had been for nothing.

At the south end of the island I saw a monument sticking up near some slabs of rock. It was about six feet high, what they call an American Man in that country, for what reason I don't know. I think it is an old raider term. I noticed how the moss was encrusted in fractures of the stone, apparently very old, and it had obviously been up there a long, long time.

To show how different is the Eskimo idea of figures from our own, when I said to Nero, "This is very old, isn't It?" he said, "Oh, yes, very." "How old would you think it would be?" I asked him. "Oh," he

14 Robert J. Flaherty


says, "maybe a thousand years." "How would you know its a thousand years old?" "Oh," he says, "I see it when I am small boy." A thousand years doesn't mean anything to an Eskimo....

It was on this trip, my first for Mackenzie, that Nero, mv Eskimo friend, told me something that greatly interested me. He said that far out to sea, perhaps a hundred miles out to the west, there was another group of islands which was very big. I had noted these islands dotted in tentatively on the Admiralty charts. They were called the Belcher Islands. No white man had ever landed there. They had been put on the map by a Captain W. Coates, a shipmaster of the Hudson's Bay Company in the early eighteenth century. The company had established its first post in the bay in 1670. They've had ships coming in once a year from England ever since.

When the Eskimos told me that this was "big land," I could hardly believe it. They were only little bits of dots on the map. However, when I saw more Eskimos along the coast, they told me the same story I asked them to make sketch-maps for me, and they all more or less coincided although drawn by different Eskimos. [7]

I asked Nero how far off the islands were. He said something like a hundred miles but I mistrusted his idea of figures. So in order to find out the size of the largest of the islands, I asked him, "How many sleeps would it take to sledge from this end of the island to that end of the island?" He said, "Two sleeps." So I knew that, if he spoke the truth, it was a big piece of land. He added also that there was a long narrow lake on the biggest island, so long that it was like the sea. What he meant was that looking from one end of it to the other, you could not see land. And he also told me that the cliffs of these islands looked as if they were bleeding when you scratched them.

Now one of the most important types of iron ore, hematite, looks blue but when it is scratched, it leaves a blood-red streak. So at this point I became really interested in the Belcher Islands. I had by now picked up so much information about them from so many Eskimos that I felt sure there must be something in the story. And when I finally returned to Lower Canada from this expedition in the autumn of 1910 and reported my findings to Sir William Mackenzie, he became as excited about the idea as I was. He asked me to make up another expedition and go back.

The second trip in 1911 took nineteen months and we got wrecked on the way trying to get out to the Belchers. [8] So I waited many, many months at the Great Whale River Post until the winter came. When we were about to cross over the sea ice, it broke the evening before our departure. It had been frozen 125 miles right across to the islands but now it began to drift. Sometimes the Eskimos got caught on big floes of ice this way. They may be adrift at large on the

7he North and Nanook 15

for a year or more. They may drift as far as a thousand miles. The ice doesn't melt. As the summer gets on, the ice works north and begins to go through Hudson Strait, which is the discharge of Hudson Bay into the North Atlantic Ocean. Hudson Bay itself is twelve hundred miles long-an inland sea connected with the North Atlantic by a strait that is five hundred miles long and over a hundred miles wide. So the ice that gets through into the ocean doesn't begin to melt until it reaches down towards the Gulf Stream away east of Newfoundland. When Eskimos have been caught like this, maybe a family has been separated and they have not met up again for years afterward and then perhaps hundreds of miles away. There have been cases of an Eskimo family camping on the sea ice when it has broken during the night. The igloo has been cut in half just as you'd slice an orange. One part of the family went one way on the drifting ice and the other half went the other, not to meet up again maybe for many months.[9]

So, after the ice had broken, I decided not to wait and make another attempt to reach the Belcher islands because almost a year had gone by. Instead, I made a survey of the Ungava Peninsula by sledge with an Eskimo. Also during this next summer (1912), I made two equidistant cross-sections of an area almost the size of Germany in the Barren Lands, about 125,000 square miles.[10]


This modest statement gives no indication of the hazards of these journeys or the degree of the achievement. Two previous attempts had been made to cross the barren of Ungava, one by A. P Low and the other by the Reverend E. J. Peck. Both had failed through the failure to discover game to supplement the rations carried by sledge.

Flaherty's expedition was no better supplied. But whereas Peck had turned back with a heavy heart after eleven days rather than face starvation, Flaherty took the risk and won through after a journey listing over a month.

He took with him four Eskimos. His favorite was Nero, a celebrated Great Whale hunter with a smattering of English who engaged to take them as far as Lake Minto and then return. Omarolluk and Charlie came for the deer they hoped to slay on the journey, and Wetunik was supposed to know the country between Lake Minto and Fort Chimo on the Atlantic coast of the Ungava peninsula.

The following extracts from the diary of the journey give some impression of the traveling conditions.


March 13: They clustered about me as I hung the thermometer on the ridge pole of the tent tonight. Of course I had to explain it all to Nero in our amusing "Pidgin English" fashion. He in turn explained it to his friends. But Omarolluk couldn't understand him very well,

16 Robert J. Flaherty


couldn't see if that slender thread of mercury went down to the black mark, all water would freeze. He was sure that the cold made water freeze, not my thermometer.

Marcb 16: Fed the dogs on seal blubber tonight. The dogs were tired and ravenous. Since we had no convenient way of tying them for the night, they were free. The scene just before feeding time was unforgettable. Omarolluk had to stand guard with his 6-fathom whip while Wetunik cut up the blubber. The dogs acted for all the world like wolves. They kept crawling up on their bellies from every direction, even braving the whip, a cut from which is certainly a painful affair. They are quick as lightning in snatching, a wolf's trait to the ground. Their fierceness and murderous temper as the odor of the seal meat came to the crouching circle of them Is beyond telling. They foamed at the mouth. What would happen to us without them?

March 18: Our Waldorf fare of Army rations, jam, and canned steak will soon be exhausted, then beans forever. Nero spoke of the flies inland, that often kill the deer. He had seen them inches deep on the deer, the deer's face being raw and swollen by their work. in July this happens when there are hot days and calm. He had seen them after being killed, and says they are bloodless through the flies' work. The Eskimos keep their dogs in their tents during this time, imagine the smell. At one point this A.M. we reached the summit of a portage and started descending, but barely managed to stop short of a 75' precipice. With our sledges that continually strain for speed, it was no small matter to stop in time. We also shortly discovered that while we were looking over for a new course, we were standing on a snow overhang which projected from the cliff about 25'. There are many snow formations like that in the rugged area here, and south along the Richmond Gulf country. The snow is everywhere wind-driven and packed to a picturesque extent, such as is not possible southward. This overhang of which I speak resembles the eave of a house on a huge scale. Many a hunter has lost his life through unconsciously walking to their edge, then suddenly breaking them off. Two men of Little Whale River Post plunged hundreds of feet to their death in that manner.

We are camped in a tiny valley, which contains a handful of stunted trees one of which is 5' high. Camped early as the dogs are tired with their trying journey today. Do not seem to be in good condition. When we get to the deer herds they will improve again.

March 19: This entire area is barren of soil silt and trees. The rounded hills are everywhere interlaced with small lakes that are in shadow most of the day. The snow on the shadow sides of the lakes
The North and Nanook 17

and slopes and cliffs of the hills never disappears. It truly is a desolate area. The confusing network of lakes in today's travels were too much for Wetunik, and we were consequently delayed while he climbed the hills to locate our course. At 2 P.M. we descended onto the surface of Lake Minto, though having lost the Eskimo route to it, we came onto it in strange country, so that Wetunik wasn't sure we had hit it until we travelled eastward some four or five miles and he did some further scouting on the hills. We saw two partridges, one of which Nero shot. It was given to "Beauty" tonight for supper. Would an Indian give his dog a lone partridge?

March 21: ... Omarolluk gave further information about whales last night. He said there were many whales on the north coast, that they were black, had divided spray, white about their mouths, and were very large. These are the Ottawa island whales of which he speaks, and other unknown islands west of Hope's Welcome. At one time the Eskimos managed to kill one and the bones of it are still there.... This is Nero's last day with us. He turns back tomorrow for Great Whale River... We missed the Eskimo trail completely coming to Lake Minto, it seems, and entered it on the south side. By tonight expect to be halfway across it. We depend upon getting to deer herds, and expect to see some signs of them today At lunchtime Nero and Wetunik climbed one of the hills to look for our route, as Wetunik had become confused again. When they came down they proposed camp so that they could devote the morrow looking for the route. Made them go on however as we started late today. Wetunik located himself again. We then made for shore and camped. Camp will remain here for tomorrow. Dogs will have a rest which they need as they are very thin. Hope we get to the deer herds soon so as to get dog food. Wetunik says we are more than halfway across the lake now. Very fine day, brilliant sun which hurts my eyes very much though I wore goggles part of the time. Clear, calm. Aurora and sun dogs.

March 22: ... Sun and snow reflection almost blinding. All but Nero off to north and south of lakes looking for deer. Nero baking bannock and fishing through ice. Hunters returned at sunset, and Wetunik saw fresh signs of about 80 deer. We push on tomorrow for east end of lake, there men will hunt for a day. Nero returns to Great Whale River tomorrow. Splendid calm and clear day. Nero drew map of lake for me in evening and we had a conference together afterwards covering route, deer herds, etc. Dog food is our greatest worry.

Marcb 23: Said goodbye to Nero at eight o'clock and then started on our way to Fort Chimo. I felt lonesome at seeing him go. No one to

18 Robert J. Flaherty

speak to now. My men cannot understand a word of English and I have a vocabularv of about 25 Eskimo words. Nero will arrive at Great Whale River in about seven days' time. He's one of the most remarkable men I've ever seen. Clever, a Jap's keenness for novelty and information, the greatest hunter of his people, a daredevil on ice or in a kayak, and the model generally of all his tribe, always smiling and alert, likes to be on journeys with white men, admires them, tho' withal intensely Eskimo. Nero is an illustration of the development the Eskimos are capable of. I parted from him this A.M. with regret indeed.

Wetunik confused again and later completely lost. We have travelled some forty miles today and are now camped within two miles of last night's encampment. But are located correctly this time! The lake is a maze of long finger-bays and islands. The saucer-like hills on every side hardly vary, and it is hard to pick up landmarks. And then everything is snow and ice, with no forests to relieve the color. Distances on that account are most deceptive. Have twelve dogs in fair condition, but a very heavy load, about 800 lbs. in all.

March 24: Head wind made a disagreeable day of it. About one o'clock Wetunik became confused again and the men climbed one of the high granite hills for sight. The lake is a monster and will prove to be the largest in Labrador, not excepting Lake Memussine, I think.

March 25: There seems to be no change in appearance of country as a whole, ever-lasting hills of granite and at wider and wider distances little patches of dwarf trees, snuggled in the valleys away from the winds. Heavy load for our dogs, one of which shows signs of giving way soon. I hope we see the deer.

March 26: Arrived at the end of the lake about 10 o'clock. The discharge is a small open rapid. We travelled on a mile further, then camped as the drift is blinding and wind very strong. Trees are increasing in size and number, and we are camped in quite a grove.

Marcb 27: Very cold day with a typical March wind and blinding drift. Became partly snowblind, and eye is very sore indeed this evening. About 2 P.M. came across deer tracks on river ice. Omarolluk went after them and Wetunik and I went on with the team. Camped at about three o'clock and no more than had it made when Omarolluk came with the news of two deer killed. He was as happy as a child over it as he has never even seen deer before, being an islander of Hope's Welcome. It means a great deal to us and nothing could have been more opportune. We all shook hands in high glee over it. The men returned at eight o'clock with the deer, cut and quartered, having

The North and Nanook 19

given the dogs a feast while cutting them. At noon they killed two ptarmigan which they are now eating.

March 28: Laid up with snow blindness, and a painful affair it is. The men are off after the deer with dogs and sledge. It seems Omarolluk wounded one besides the ones he got. It being a very stormy day, the deer will not travel but keep in the valleys. Omarolluck killed his deer yesterday with 30.30 shells in a .303 gun. He gave me to understand the bullets were very loose. The men returned at three o'clock minus deer. At supper tonight the men tried to tell me in signs and in our very limited vocabulary that the dog I purchased from Jim Crow died today, but I thought they said they were going back to Great Whale River. For a moment was alarmed and angry, but I caught their meaning in time. Much laughter.

March 29: Our travel was most trying and were in seemingly impassable places at times. All of us done up, Wetunik with snow blindness, Omarolluk with a lame knee, and I with cramps and headache after my snow blindness. Wetunik making me a pair of Husky goggles. Cached 80 lbs. of dog food. Sledge is very heavy.

March 30: Very fine travelling and in grateful contrast to yesterday. Dogs working very well after deer meat diet.

March 31: It was funny to see Omarolluk running ahead, and imitating a seal waving flippers in the air, to urge the dogs out of the ice jam we were stuck in today. Have acquired a few Eskimo words and our crazy-quilt conversations are laughable indeed.

April 1: Overcast and high southerly winds. Wetunik suffering agonies from snow blindness. Gave him some Cloridine for appearance's sake.

April 2: A late start, 9 A.M. Poor Wetunik in a bad way, cannot open his eyes and racked with headache. Have just put him in his blankets, a very sick Husky. Trouble at noon today. The men, I discovered, have been keeping their sealskin boots in my cooked-bean bag. The day is the warmest we have had. The iceing on our runners wore off quickly and part of our earthen shoeing is gone. Noted Omarolluk's method of baking bannock this evening: two handfuls of baking powder to about four pounds of flour-and we live!

April 3: Ruined our earth shoeing and had to run on the runners today. Tonight the men have made new shoeing. At feeding time one of the dogs mistook Wetunik's hand for deer meat and made a consid-

20 Robert J. Flaherty

erable mess of it. it's one damned thing after another with Wetuilik. Omarolluk's knee giving him trouble.

April 4: Last evening at camp noted a Canada Jay, first bird other than the ptarmigan seen on the trip. Travel very tedious and slow owing partly to the spring day, which makes both men and dogs very sluggish. We are all on edge now, expecting and wondering when we shall come to the sea.

April 6: About 1:30 arrived at the mouth of the river. Was much surprised and delighted as were the men. The river empties into a fiord of Ungava Bay. The mouth was choked with ice and we had a very hard time of it indeed. We were from 1:30 to 6 P.M. travelling about 3 miles, and then we had to camp on sea ice and walk about a mile for a few pieces of driftwood for a fire, with the result that we did not get into our blankets until about 9:45. Very tired but happy.

April 6: One of the most trying days we have had. We camped on the sea ice last evening and broke camp this A.M. at 8 o'clock. Very soon we were into impassable and treacherous ice, where at times we had literally to chop our way. Heartbreaking work. Left the team, climbed the hillside of the mainland and saw our course was hopeless. Open water in the distance and detached floes packing shoreward. There we were, like a fly in glue. Men and dogs done up. While in the thick of the ice, a snow squall came upon us with great force and blotted out everything. Fortunately was not of long duration. Pitched camp on mainland and tomorrow will attempt to travel overland and come out on southerly side of the bay, clear of the rough ice fields.

Work tried our tempers but all right now. Omarolluk baking bannock and singing fragments of Eskimo songs, and every little while humming the tune of "Waltz Me Around Again Willie" which he has heard on some phonograph at Fort George or Great Whale River. Our very limited conversations bear altogether on Fort Chimo and our arrival.

April 7: Stuck here for the day, a miserable camp with everything wet. Men off in the hills looking for a course for our travel tomorrow. Slight snow blindness again. Wetunik went off again this P.M. to see the ice fields from the top of the range. Returned at 5:30 saying ice was all broken. Expect we shall have a hell of a time tomorrow. Omarolluk and I poring over maps this P.M. The most miserable of all days, everything melting.

April 8: Started on our cross-country travel to avoid the rough ice fields. About 100 ptarmigan assembled on a distant knoll to see us

The North and Nanook 21

go. Very hard and long climb to an altitude of about 600' accomplished by noon in 100' jobs, with the usual Husky dog conversation at each one. In the true barrens now and away from trees. One long climb was compensated by a galloping coast down the long slopes this side of the range. Encamped on the main coast of Ungava Bay with another broken ice field staring us in the face. Fort Chimo seems farther away every day

April 9: Wetunik confused and does not know the route from here to Fort Chimo. He is certainly a useless guide and "attulie" has been his cry ever since we left Nero. It seems from what I can gather from the men that the sea coast is impossible to travel by sledge and the Ungava Bay is open water. An Eskimo route starts in from this Gulf Like overland for Fort Chimo. As Fort Chimo is more than 75 miles away in a straight line it is most important that we find the trail. The maps are misleading extremely. Travelled inland no more than a mile when in a clump of trees we found a fresh Eskimo cutting. Camped, then looked for tracks underneath the soft snow, found many Eskimo tracks but none of a sledge and as yet cannot tell if these cuttings indicate a sledge or not, which is an important thing to know. The signs indicate the Eskimos have camped here about seven or eight days ago. Wetunik went off to a distant mountain to scout, but returned with no information. Our grub is looking ill. Wetunik is pin head, I'm thinking. He has hunted this country and should know it. But Omarolluk makes up for him. Full of resource and brain, a "good Husky."

April 14: Westerly wind all night, heavy, still strong, less drift, partly clear. Travel fast and the excitement of nearing Fort Chimo a stimulus even to the dogs. We plied Charlie with anxious questioning all through the day trying to fix our location and nearness to the post. At about 4:30 we suddenly stood out on the last of the terraces. Fort Chimo, the great broad river, and a valley stretching to a blue haze of dazzling sun, lay before us. The white buildings of the post from our vantage looked like a strange far-off village. The descending sun shot into the innumerable windows. Bolts of light threw the surging figures of Eskimos, men and women, now aware of the arrival of a strange party, into vivid profile. The day and heat were made for our entry there, the color of sunset of the sky caught by the snow affected us strongly. The white mass of days of travel was at an end. (Griffith 1953:8-15)


Flaherty ended the journev across the Barrens of Fort Cilimo with four Eskimo companions, Omarolluck, Charlie, Nero, and Wetunik. But when he returned to Lower Canada in the autumn of 1912 and reported on
the findings to Mackenzie, he found that, as he had feared, from the geo-

22 Robert J. Flaherty

logical or mineral point of view his surveys were not important. Today, however, the big iron-ore deposits he discovered in both Ungava and the Belchers are being very gainfully worked by the Cyrus Eaton Company, "bringing in untold wealth to the New World." [11]

Despite Flaherty's failure to find deposits which at the time would have been economical to work, Sir William Mackenzie still insisted that he should go north again to the Belcher Islands, this time by proper ship. Mackenzie was still impressed by Flaherty's report of what the Eskimos had told him about the size of these islands and by the maps that had been drawn. So he bought for Flaherty a topsail schooner called The Laddie, eighty-three-ton register, from an uncle of the famous Captain Bob Bartlett, who had been Admiral Robert Pearys skipper on his North Polar expeditions.

The Laddie, which had been built in 1893 at Fogo, Newfoundland, was rerigged at St. Johns, and a crew of eight Newfoundland seamen was engaged under the command of Captain H. Bartlett. She was specially equipped for icebreaking and was outfitted for an eighteen-month expedition. All was set for departure on August 14, 1913. But one very important piece of equipment was missing.

Whether it was Flahertys own idea to take a motion picture camera with him on this, his third expedition, or whether it was Sir William Mackenzie's suggestion is difficult to determine. Richard Griffith, whose book was written mainly under the eye of Flaherty and the bulk of it read by him before his death, gives the impression that it was his own idea. "When Flaherty excitedly declaimed his enthusiasm for Eskimo life to his employer, the ever-receptive Sir William agreed [italics added] that he should take a movie-camera along with him on his next expedition" (Griffith 1953:36). Flaherty, on the other hand, says:

Just as I was leaving, Sir William said to me casually, "Why don't you get one of these new-fangled things called a motion picture camera?" So I bought one but with no other thought really than of taking notes on our exploration. We were going into interesting country, we'd see interesting people. I had no thought of making a film for the theatres. I knew nothing whatsoever about films. (Flaherty 1949a and 1949b)

Flaherty went to Rochester, New York, took a three-week course in motion picture photography from the Eastman Company, bought one of the earliest models of the Bell and Howell movie camera, and made some tests which were not very successful. He also bought a portable developing and printing machine, some modest lighting equipment, and, presumably, a fair amount of film." [12]

They sailed The Laddie a thousand miles northward round the Labrador Coast through the Hudson Strait to Baffin Land. Too late to have a win-

The North and Nanook 23

tering base in the bay itself, they put into Adadjuak Bay, and with the help of some forty Eskimos they set up a winter camp. In the last week of September, The Laddie sailed back south just before the ice began to form so that she could be wintered in Newfoundland. Flahertv and three of the crew settled in for the ten months of winter. There were two thousand miles of sledging to be done along the coast and island to the great lake of Amadjunk-and there was the filming. But Flaherty did not get around to using his new possession until early the next year, 1914. He tells us,


February came, cold but glowingly clear and calm. Then we began our films. We did not want for cooperation. The women vied with one another to be starred. Igloo building, conjuring, dances, sledging and seal-hunting were run off as the sunlit days of February and March wore on. Of course there was occasional bickering, but only among the women-jealousy, usually, of what they thought was the over prominence of some rival in the film. On June 10, I prepared for our long-planned deer-filming expedition, and on the following day, with camera and retorts of film [13] and food for 20 days, Annunglung and I left for the deer grounds of the interior. Through those long June days we travelled for. . .

We were picking out a course when Annunglung pointed to what seemed to be so many boulders in a valley far below. The boulders moved. "Tooktoo!" Annunglung whispered. We mounted camera and tripod on the sledge. Dragging his six-fathom whip ready to cow the dogs before they gave tongue, Annunglung went on before the team. He swung in behind the shoulder of an intervening hill. When we rounded it we were almost among them. The team lunged. The deer, all but three, galloped to right and left up the slope. The three kept to the valley. On we sped, the camera rocking like the mast of a ship at sea. From the galloping dogs to the deer not two hundred feet beyond, I filmed and filmed and filmed. Yard by yard we began closing in. The dogs, sure of victory, gave tongue. Then something happened. All that I know is that I fell headlong into a deep drift of snow. The sledge was belly-up. And across the traces of the bitterly disappointed dog team. Annunglung was doubled up with laughter. Within two days we swung back for camp, jubilant over what I was sure was the film of films. But within twelve miles of the journeys end, crossing the rotten ice of stream, the sledge broke through. Exit film. (Flaherty 1924a: 124-25)


Thus Flaherty describes with characteristic understatement the total loss of some of his first efforts at filmmaking.

The summer of 1914 was nearly over when The Laddie sailed back from the south. Flaherty and his men were ready to leave within a week, bound at long last for the elusive Belcher Islands.

24 Robert J. Flaherty

This time the expedition was a complete success. They discovered or rather rediscovered-the islands and mapped them. They proved to be even larger than Flaherty had imagined. The Eskimo maps, moreover, were wonderflly accurate. A rectangle drawn round them would have enclosed an area of some five thousand square miles, The longest island was over seventy miles in length. It had a freshwater lake on it, as the Eskimos had said. There, too, were the blood-red cliffs, just as Nero had forecast. But when Flaherty reported on the area later, it was with the same result-they were not considered to contain ore of sufficiently high grade to warrant operation at so remote a latitude.

Flaherty did, nevertheless, have two rewards for his expedition. The Canadian government subsequently decided to name the largest of the Belcher Islands after him. He had also in his possession a certain amount of exposed cinematograph film.

While at Great Whale River Post, on the way back, Flaherty had his first news that war had broken out in Europe. It was October, 1914.


When we landed I glimpsed several forms flitting past the window lights and dissolving in the darkness. Puzzled, we climbed to the cabin and strode into a lighted but deserted room. Nearly half-an-hour we waited there, our surprise and curiosity mounting the while, when at last the familiar, long, lanky form of old Harold (the Post's half-Indian, half-Swedish interpreter) stood halting in the doorway. Recognising me in a moment, his fear-beclouded face became wreathed in smiles. He reached out for my hand, exclaiming, "My God, sir, I t'ote you was the Germans." And so it was that we first heard of the great World War. (Flaherty 1924a: 43)


Flaherty's expeditions to the North had by now protracted his engagement to Frances Hubbard for ten years, and it was an engagement conducted, by force of circumstances, mainly by correspondence. But at last, on November 12, 1914, they were married. The ceremony took place at the home of one of the bride's cousins in New York City. Flaherty apparently was low on money at the time; Frances bought the wedding ring and also took him to the City Hall to get the license.

But it would seem-and after so many years these things can be told-that Miss Hubbard was not the only young lady to whom the young explorer had been paying attention. Writes Mrs. Evelyn Lyon-Fellowes, of Toronto:


I met Mr. Robert J. Flaherty a number of times when he appeared to be courting my chum, Miss Olive Caven. It was between his Arctic trips and his marriage. I chaperoned them once at lunch at the old Queen's Hotel (now demolished). On this occasion he gave me a

The North and Nanook 25

wonderful photo of a husky dog, taken I understand in an igloo. He gave Miss Caven many beautiful presents including a white-fox fur, and numerous photos of Eskimos which she accepted as she admired him very much. On his last return from Hudson Bay, he spent the first evening with her and left that night for the United States. A few days later he arrived back in Toronto with his bride, Frances, and asked poor surprised Olive to help them find a house to live in-which she did. She had not known of his engagement. She eventually recovered from the shock and married most happily and well. She died over a year ago. [14]


When the Flahertys were married, remembers Ernestine Evans, a longtime friend of theirs, the Hubbard family announced that they were seeking a Ford agency post for the bridegroom, assuming naturally that he would now settle down (Evans 1951). But the newly married explorer was to disappoint them.

During that winter of 1914­15, Flaherty put his film into some sort of shape. It was too crude to be interesting. But he was planning to go north again in the spring, this time to explore and winter on the Belcher Islands, and he was determined to attempt a better film (Flaherty 1924a: 126).

Thus, even at this early stage, Flaherty expressed dissatisfaction with his work as a cinematographer although he was still no more than an amateur.

In the summer of 1915, Bob and his new wife with Flaherty Sr., Margaret Thurston, a Bryn Mawr schoolmate of Frances's, and David Flaherty journeyed by canoe with Indian guides from the railhead in northern Ontario down the Ground Hog, Mattagami, and Moose rivers to Moose Factory on James Bay. There they boarded The Laddie. At Chariton Island, in James Bay, all the party camped for several weeks except Bob, who, with The Laddie and her crew, headed for the Belcher Islands once more. The others stayed on the island, which David Flaherty described as being "carpeted with springy white moss covered with delicious wild currants and cranberries. We caught trout in the streams and shot yellow-legs along the shore. Frost was already in the air when in late September the once-a-year Hudson's Bay Company steamer Nascopie picked us up." [15]

Meanwhile, now on his fourth expedition, Flaherty had reached his destination and had set about more filming, which included a sequence of Mukpollo, an Eskimo, harpooning a big walrus, which Flaherty "filmed and filmed and filmed until the last inch was ground away" Wrote Flaherty,


During the winter, we compiled a series of motion pictures showing the primitive life, crafts, and modes of hunting and travelling of the islanders-an improved version of the film we had previously made on the Baffin Island expedition. With a portable projector bought for

26 Robert J. Flaherty

the purpose, we showed the islanders a copy of the Baffin Island film, purposing in this way to inspire them with that spirit of emulation so necessary to the success of our filming. Nor were we disappointed. Enthusiastic audiences crowded the hut. Their "Ayees" and "Ah's" at the ways of these their kindred that were strange to them were such as none of the strange and wonderful ways of the kablunak (white man) ever called forth. The deer especially (Tooktoo! they cried), mythical to all but the eldest among them, held them spellbound. (Flaherty 1918a: 456)


Many years later Flaherty was to tell a story of how he was taught the rudiments of motion picture photography by a missionary whom he met on one of his expeditions and how later the missionary was found hanging by his neck in a hut that Flaherty had converted into a darkroom. We regard this story as almost certainly apocryphal, but Flaherty told it to at least three people. [16]

This expedition was also an adventurous experience. The Laddie had to be abandoned during the winter and its timbers used for fuel piece by piece. "Everything had to be left behind," Flaherty wrote, "saving the clothes we wore, some three weeks' food, notes, maps, specimens and the film-two boxes covered by the Eskimos with water-proofing of sealskin carefully sewn" (Flaherty 1924a:132). [17] Eventually they reached Lower Canada again.

Flahery now had sorne seventy thousand feet of film in Toronto which had been taken during two expeditions. Encouraged by his wife, he spent some months in 1916 putting a print (taken from the negative) into some kind of continuity order. For an unexplained reason, fortunate in the light of later events, this assembled print was sent to Harvard, presumably to be screened by someone there. Later, while Flaherty was packing the seventy thousand feet of negative in his cutting room in Toronto, ready for dispatch to New York, "much to my shame and sorrow I dropped a cigarette-end in it." The complete negative, of course, went up in a sheet of flame, and Flaherty, having tried to put out the fire without success, narrowly escaped losing his life. He spent several weeks in the hospital. John Grierson notes that Flaherty carried scars on his hands from this fire all his life, but others, including the author, do not remember them.

Flaherty did, however, have the positive print that had been sent to Harvard, which he sent to New York to a laboratory in hopes that a new negative could be made from the print. But this process,so common today, was not possible at that time. Thus he had only one copy of his film, which would, of course, get scratched and deteriorate every time it was screened. He did show it a good deal, nevertheless-at the American Geographic Society; at the Explorer's Club in New York, and to sundry friends at his home in New Canaan, Connecticut. Of its reception, he said:

7he North and Nanook 27

People were polite! But I could see that what interest they took in the film was the friendly one of wanting to see where I had been and what I had done. That wasn't what I wanted at all. I wanted to show the Innuit (Eskimo). And I wanted to show them, not from the civilised point of view, but as they saw themselves, as "we, the people." I realised then that I must go to work in an entirely different way. (Griffith 1953:36)


And later he added: "It was utterly inept, simply a scene of this and a scene of that, no relation, no thread of a story or continuity whatever, and it must have bored the audience to distraction. Certainly it bored me" (Flaherty 1950). [18]

Thus the "Harvard Print," as we might call it, the only example of Flaherty's first efforts with a film camera no longer exists. There is no doubt that he himself was only too glad to have it forgotten. His close friend and admirer John Grierson, who later described himself as his "self-appointed attorney" (1951b), saw a good part of the print and confirms Flaherty's poor opinion of it. [19] Grierson never mentioned it to him because "it was not in this thought or memory that anything survived." Grierson felt, however, that this first effort was important historically, for it meant that Flaherty was struggling to evolve what, after eight years of effort (1913­1921), became Nanook of the North.

It would be fair to state that Flaherty had no intention of making a film that would stand professional comparison with other films of the period. He stressed all along that he merely took the movie camera with him to make visual notes of what he saw. We do not know if he was familiar with the cinema of that time, let alone with the numerous travel films that had been routine fare almost since the motion picture was born. But there is no doubt that his dissatisfaction with the results of his first attempt opened his eyes to the possibilities of the movie camera as an instrument of expression and not merely as a means of recording. He could very understandably have put aside all thought of future filmmaking. He was an explorer and mineralogist by profession, not a cinematographer. Yet to correct his early mistakes in filmmaking became an obsession. In his own words:


My wife and I thought it over for a long time. At last we realised why the film was bad, and we began to get a glimmer that perhaps if I went back to the North, where I had lived for eight years and knew the people intimately, I could make a film that this time would go. Why not take, we said to each other, a typical Eskimo and his family and make a biography of their lives through the year? What biography of any man could be more interesting? Here is a man who has less resources than any other man in the world. He lives in a desolation that

28 Robert J. Flaherty

no other race could possibly survive. His life is a constant fight against starvation. Nothing grows; he must depend utterly on what he can kill; and all of this against the most terrifying of tyrants-the bitter climate of the North, the bitterest climate in the world. Surely this story could be interesting. (Flaherty 1950)


II : At this time, most of the world was occupied with the biggest and bloodiest war in history. It was hardly a good time to find financing for a filmmaking expedition to the Canadian North. After seventy thousand feet of film had gone up in flames, Sir William Mackenzie was unlikely to sponsor yet another film adventure.

So for the next four years, Flaherty and his wife spent some time with her parents in Houghton, Michigan, and later moved east to Connecticut, living for the most part in Silvermine and New Canaan. During this period, Flaherty began to write. He labored on his two detailed articles for the Geograpbical Review, and in 1923 he wrote a series for the magazine World's Work. Flaherty never found writing easy, but with the help of his wife he began on his book My Eskimo Friends, which was published in 1924. For this book he drew on the very full diaries which he had kept on his various expeditions. All this time he was trying to raise money for the film he was determined to make, but he had no success. The Flahertys' three daughters-Barbara, Frances, and Monica, were born during these years.

It was not until well after the war (in which he took no part) had ended that Flaherty came upon a source of finance which would enable him to realize his cherished film expedition. In 1920, when he was thirty-six years old, he met a Captain Thierry Mallet, of Revillon Frères, the well-known French firm of furriers, who were extending their trade in the north. They met, so the story goes, at a cocktail party, and Flaherty so inspired Captain Mallet with his enthralling tales of the Arctic that a day or two later the Revillon Company agreed to finance him to make his film at one of their trading posts, Port Harrison on Cape Dufferin on the northeast coast of Hudson Bay. This was actually in the sub-Arctic but to get there would take two months by schooner and canoe.

In return for backing the venture, Captain Mallet and John Revillon required that the opening titles of the film should carry the word "RevilIon Frères presents," to which Flaherty readily agreed. He was unaware that the film trade generally was strongly opposed to such gratuitous screen advertising. The reported cost of the film varies, but we do not believe it to have exceeded $53,000-an exceedingly small sum even in those days.

That entertaining but not too reliable reporter of early movie years,

The North and Nanook 29

Terry Ramsaye, comments about the venture: "The expedition was underwritten by Revillon Frères, the great fur-house, which coincidentaly was an important advertiser in the smart traffic of Fifth Avenue. So it came that Mr. Flaherty became a frequent guest at the Coffee House Club, frequented also by such as Frank Crowninshield of Condé Nast slick-class magazine affiliations" (Ramsaye 1951). This was presumably Flaherty's introduction to the haunt with which in later years he was to be closely associated. It lies near Times Square, and its atmosphere and furnishing to an English visitor have an Old World quality which is more English than the English.

Flaherty selected his equipment with care:


I took two Akeley motion picture cameras. The Akeley then was the best camera to operate in extreme cold, since it required graphite, instead of oil or grease, for lubrication. These cameras fascinated me because they were the first cameras ever made to have a gyro-movement in the tripod-head whereby one could tilt and pan the camera without the slightest distracting jar or jerk or vibration. (Flaherty 1950:13)


Camera movements are today so commonplace that it is worth emphasizing how little they were used in those early days of cinema. D. W, Griffith had pioneered the plan (sideways movement of the camera on its own axis) and had used other daring camera movements, but the problem of panning and at the same time tilting the camera (a tilt being a vertical up or down pan) was a great problem because the two movements had to be carried out by winding two separate geared handles; this dual activity not only restricted speed of movement but also tended to become so jerky that the scene would be unusable. The invention of the gyro movement, operated by one single arm, was therefore an important technical breakthrough.

Flaherty could rightly claim to be a pioneer in the use of the gyro tripod; and although Nanook does not contain many examples of pans or tilts, they are an important-indeed a vital-feature of all his subsequent work.

He continues,


I also took the materials and chemicals to develop the film, and equipment to print and project it. My lighting equipment had to be extremely light because I had to go by canoe nearly 200 miles down river before I got to Hudson Bay. This meant portages, and portages meant packing the equipment on my back and on those of the Indians I took along for the river trip. And God knows, there were some long portages on that route-one of them took us two days to pack across. (Flaherty 1950:13)

30 Robert J. Flaherty

Still conscious of his slight knowledge about making motion pictures, he is alleged to have made at least one tentative inquiry before leaving New York. According to Terry Rarnsave, he went to the Craftsman Laboratories in midtown, where Ramsaye and Martin Johnson were "trying to sort out an adventure feature from several miles of Martins often unrelated film recordings. Bob wanted some advice. He said he wanted to do in the Arctic what Martin was doing in the tropics. Irked with problems, I puzzled one and offended the other by saying, 'Please don't!'" (Rarnsaye 1950). [20]

Happily, Flaherty did not take this inane advice. Instead, he departed for the North:


On August 15, 1920, we let go anchor in the mouth of the Innusuk River, and the five gaunt and melancholy-looking buildings which make up the post at Port Harrison stood out on a boulder-ridden slope less than half-a-mile away. Of the Eskimos who were known to the post, a dozen all told were selected for the film. Of these Nanook (The Bear), a character famous in the country, I chose as my chief man. Besides him, and much to his approval, I took on three younger men as helpers. This also meant their wives and families, and dogs to the number of 25, sledges, kayaks and hunting implements. (Flaherty 1924a: 133)


As in 1913, the Eastman Kodak Company had supplied the processing equipment and had taught Flaherty the rudiments of its use. The printing machine was an old English Williamson, which he screwed to the wall of the hut. He soon found that when printing the film with this machine, the light from his little electric plant fluctuated so much that he had to abandon it. Instead, he used daylight by letting in an inlet of light just the size of a motion picture frame (in those days, approximately 1 X _ inches) through the window. He controlled this daylight by adding or taking away pieces of muslin from before the printing aperture of the printer.

The biggest problem, however, was not printing the film or developing it but washing and drying it. The enemy was the freezing cold. He had to erect an annex to the hut in which he spent the winter to make a drying room. The only heating he could obtain for drying the film was a coal-burning stove. Film in those days, as Flaherty knew to his cost, was highly flammable, but this time no catastrophe took place. When he ran short of fuel before a reel of film had dried, he had to send his Eskimos out to scour the seacoast for driftwood to keep his stove alight.

Washing the film presented an even worse problem. The Eskimos had to keep a hole chiseled through six feet of ice all through the winter and prevent it from freezing and then haul the water in barrels on a sledge with a dog team up to the hut. Once there, they used all their hands to clear the

The North and Nanook 31

ice out of the water before it could be poured for the required washes over the film. The deer hair falling off the Eskimos' clothes into the water worried Flaherty almost as much as the ice did.

Setting up and operating his own laboratory equipment, and especially training the Eskimos to help him, are very important in the story of Flaherty's approach to his medium. He emphasized that such participation by his film subjects in the actual making of the film itself contributed to its ultimate success and sincerity. It is historically as well as technically significant to recognize that Flaherty was never simply a director-cameraman who dispatched his negative back to civilization for processing under ideal conditions. Flaherty, and we say it strongly and at the risk of repetition, made his films-or at least his early films-the hard way.

He continues his account:


It has always been most important for me to see my rushes-it is the only way I can make a film. [21] But another reason for developing the film in the north was to project it to the Eskimos so that they would accept and understand what I was doing and work together with me as partners.

They were amazed when I first came with all this equipment, and they would ask me what I was going to do. When I told them that I had come to spend a year among them to make a film of them-pictures in which they moved-they roared with laughter. To begin with, some of my Eskimos could not even read a still-photograph. I made stills of several of them as preliminary tests. [22] When I showed them the photograph as often as not they would look at it upside down. I'd have to take the photograph out of their hands and lead them to the mirror in my hut, then have them look at themselves and the photograph beside their heads before, suddenly with a smile that spread from ear to ear, they would understand. [23] (Flaherty 1950:13,14)


Among the equipment Flaherty had taken a portable gramophone-the old wooden square type with a horn-and this he kept playing continuously with such records as Harry Lauder's Stop Your Ticklin' Jock and examples of Caruso, Farrar, Riccardo Martin, McCormack, Al Jolson, and the Jazz King Orchestra. Caruso's rendering of the Pagliacci prologue with its tragic finale was the comedy success of the selection. Nanook on one occasion tried to eat one of the records, an incident Flaherty filmed and included in the picture. Oddly enough, in his New Yorker "Profile," Taylor makes the unfortunate error of saying that Flaherty stopped filming just before Nanook bit the record; Taylor had no doubt not seen the film.

The little hut became a rendezvous for all the Eskimos, and Flaherty was able to command their friendship and understanding. He always kept

32 Robert J. Flaherty

a five-gallon pail of tea brewing on the stove and sea biscuit in a barrel when the weather conditions outside stopped filming. He had also his violin with him, and he frequently played it to his Eskimo audience.

The first sequence to be shot for the film was one of the most ambitious-the walrus hunt. From Nanook, Flaherty had heard of Walrus Island, a rock, surf-bound island twenty-five miles out in the bay. Nanook had been told by other Eskimos that on its south end there were many walrus in the summer months. The surf round the island made it dangerous for landing kayaks but Nanook believed that, if the seas were smooth, Flaherty's whaleboat could make the crossing and a safe landing. Some weeks later, Nanook brought to Flaherty the Eskimo who knew at firsthand about the walrus on the island. "Suppose we go," Flaherty said to him, "do you know that you and your men may have to give up making a kill, if it interferes with my filming? Will you remember that it is the picture of you hunting the iviuk (walrus) that I want, and not their meat?"

"Yes, yes, the aggie (movie) will come first," the man assured him. "Not a man will stir, not a harpoon will be thrown until you give the sign. It is my word" (Flaherty 1924a: 126). They shook hands and agreed to start in the morning. The story of the walrus hunt is best told in Flahertys diary entry:


But for three days we lay along the coast, before the big seas died down. The wind began blowing off the land. We broke out our leg o'mutton. Before the day was half-done, a film of gray far out in the west told us we were in sight of Walrus Island. We looked about for a landing. Just beyond the shoulder of a little cove, "Iviuk! Iviuk!" called Nanook, and sure enough, on the gleaming black surf-worn rocks lay a great herd sprawled out asleep.

Down wind we went, careful as to muffled oars, and landed waist deep in the surf. Nanook went off alone toward the sleeping herd; he returned, saying they were undisturbed. However, it was much too dark for pictures; we would have to wait until morning.

"Yes," said Nanook, in answer to my fears, "if the wind holds in the same quarter they will not get our scent." Not daring to build a drift-wood fire, we made our evening meal on raw bacon, sea-biscuit and cold water.

As luck would have it, the wind did hold. With harpoon set and a stout seal-line carefully coiled, and my motion picture camera and film retorts in hand, off we crawled for the walrus ground. The herd lay sleeping-20 great hulks, guarded by two big bulls. At about one minute intervals they raised their heads over the snoring and swinishly grunting herd and slowly looked round, then sank back to sleep again. Slowly I snaked up to the sheltering screen of a big boulder,

The North and Nanook 33

and Nanook, the end of his harpoon-line lashed round the boulder, snaked more slowly still out towards them. Once in the open he could move only when the sentinels dropped their heads in sleep.

Hours passed, it seemed, but finally he had crawled close in. The sentinels became suspicious and stupidly started toward him. Slowly they turned their slobbering heads to and fro: Nanook swung his own head in lugubrious unison. They rolled on their sides to scratch themselves; Nanook grotesquely did the same. Finally, the sentinels seemed satisfied; their heads drooped in sleep once more. Now only a dozen feet intervened; quickly Nanook closed in. As I signalled, he rose to his feet, and with his harpoon held high, like lightning fie struck down at the nearest bull. A bellow and a roar, and 20 great walrus rolled with incredible speed down the wave-washed slope of the rocks to the sea.

By night all my stock of film was exposed. The whaleboat was full of walrus-meat and ivory. Nanook had never had such walrus hunting and never had I such filming as that on Walrus Island. [24]


The postscript to the walrus hunt is told better elsewhe than in the diaries:


When I developed and printed the scenes and was ready to project them, I wondered if the Eskimos would be able to understand them. What would these flickering scenes projected on a Hudson Bay blanket hung up on the wall of the hut mean to them? When at last I told them I was ready to begin the show, they crammed my little 15 by 20 hut to the point of suffocation. I started up the little electric-light plant, turned out the lights in the room, and turned on the switch of the projector. A beam of light shot out, filled the blanket and the show began. At first they kept looking back at the source of light in the projector as much as they did at the screen. I was sure the show would flop. Suddenly someone shouted, "Iviuk!" There they were-the school of them-lying basking on the beach. In the foreground could be seen Nanook and his crew, harpoons in hand, stalking on their bellies towards them. Suddenly, the walrus take alarm; they begin to tumble into the water. There was one agonising shriek from the audience, until Nanook leaping to his feet thrust his harpoon. In the ensuing tug-of-war between the walrus now in the water and Nallook and his men holding desperately to the harpoon-line, pandemonium broke loose; every last man, woman and child in the room was fighting that walrus, no surer than Nanook was at the time that tile walrus would not get away "Hold him!" they veiled, A fold him!" (Flaherty 1950:14-15)

34 Robert J. Flaherty

"The fame of the film spread far up and down the coast," writes Flaherty in his book. "Every strange Eskimo that came into the post Nanook brought before me and begged that he be shown the iviuk aggie (Walrus pictures)." He continues:


One of Nanook's problems was to construct an igloo large enough for the filming of the interior scenes. The average Eskimo igloo, about 12 ft. in diameter, was much too small. On the dimensions I laid out for him, a diameter of 25 ft. Nanook and his companions started in to build the biggest igloo of their lives. For two days they worked, the women and children helping them. Then came the hard part-to cut insets for the five large slab-ice windows without weakening the dome. They had hardly begun when the dome fell in pieces to the ground. "Never mind," said Nanook, "I can do it next time."

For two more days they worked, but again with the same result; as soon as they began setting in the ice-windows their structure fell to the ground. It was a huge joke by this time, and holding their sides they laughed their misfortune away. Again Nanook began on the "big aggie igloo," but this time the women and children hauled barrels of water on sledges from the water-hole and iced the walls as they went up. Finally the igloo was finished and they stood eyeing it as satisfied as so many children over a house of blocks. The light from the icewindows proved inadequate, however, and when the interiors were finally filmed the dome's half just over the camera had to be cut away, so Nanook and his family went to sleep and awakened with all the cold of out-of-doors pouring in.

To "Harry Lauder" (one of the Eskimos christened after the grainophone record) I deputed the care of my cameras. Bringing them from the cold outside into contact with the warm air of the base often frosted them inside and out, which necessitated taking them apart and carefully drying them piece by piece. With the motion picture camera there was no difficulty, but with my Graflex, a still-camera, I found to my sorrow such a complication of parts that I could not get it together again. For several days its "innards" lay strewn on my work-table. "Harry Lauder" finally volunteered for the task of putting it together, and through a long evening before a flickering candle and with a crowd of Eskimos around ejaculating their "Ayees" and "Ahs," he managed to succeed where I had failed. [25]

The walrus-hunting having proved successful, Nanook aspired to bigger game-a bear-hunt, no less, at Cape Sir Thomas Smith, some 200 miles northward. "Here," said Nanook, "is where the she-bear den in the winter, and it seems to me that we might get the big, big aggie there."

The North and Nanook 35

He went on to describe how in early December the she-bear dens in huge drift-banks of snow. There is nothing to mark the den save a tiny vent, or airhole, which is melted open by the animal's body heat. Nanook's companions would remain at either side of me, rifles in hand, whilst he with his snow-knife would open the den, block by block. The dogs in the meantime would all be unleashed and like wolves circle the opening. Mrs. Bear's door opened, Nanook, with nothing but his harpoon, would be poised and waiting. The dogs baiting the quarry-some of them with her lightning paws the bear would send hurtling through the air; himself dancing here and there-he pantomimed the scene on my cabin floor, using my fiddle-bow for a harpoon-waiting to dart in for a close-up throw; this, he felt sure, would be a big, big picture (aggie paenialluk). I agreed with him. "With good going, ten days will see us there. Ten days for hunting on the Cape, ten days for coming home again. But throw in another ten days for bad weather, and let's see (counting on his fingers) that makes four times my finger-more than enough to see us through."

"All right," I said, "We'll go." And Nanook, his eyes shining, went off to spread the news. (Flaherty 1924a: 136)


On January 17, 1921, Flaherty, "Harry Lauder," and Nanook set out on their bear hunt for the big scene of the film. They were away for eight weeks and traveled six hundred miles. The going was tough. Two dogs were lost through starvation.


We were breaking camp before the sun had cleared the horizon. The dogs fought like wolves as they wedged in through the door of the igloo we had just vacated; the crew tried vainly by grasping legs and tails to drag them out for harnessing; Nanook, his arms round the master-dog, carried him bodily to the sledge. I unlimbered the Akeley, hoping to get a few feet of it all on film. But, to my dismay, as soon as I started grinding, so brittle was the film that it broke into bits, like so much wafer-glass. The thermorneier read 37 degrees below...We went back into camp. By keeping the film retorts in the igloo, I found that within the hour they took on its temperature. The film regained its ductility. I told Nanook to bury the film retorts and camera in his deerskin robe henceforth when we broke camp in the morning. The crew were convulsed over what they called the "babies" for which he had to care.


But still no bear had been sighted. They were getting near the limits of endurance.

36 Robert J. Flaherty

For the next three days what food sustained the dog-team was the igloo scraps and crumbs. When night came, cross-bars from the sledge and four 200 ft. rolls of film was the makeshift that boiled our tea.

Finally, they reached Port Harrison, their base. "What, no bear?" said Stewart, the post-trader, "Too bad, too bad, an' just to think that a week come Friday two huskies got a she-bear an' two cubs in a cave." It would have made a fine aggie, they said, what with the fightin' an' all-throwin' the dogs through the air an' chargin' here an' chargin' there, an' all this less'n a day away. (Flaherty 1924a: 136ff)


Flaherty remained on his location until August 1921. He had been at it for sixteen months. He used up his last few feet of film on a whale hunt made by the Eskimos in a fleet of kayaks, but nothing of this appears in the final film, it was Nanook's last big aggie, although he tried hard to persuade Flaherty to stay on for another year, talking of the wonderful things that could be filmed. Eventually the once-a-year little schooner arrived and Flaherty was aboard and the Annie's nose was headed south. Nanook followed in his kayak until the ship gathered speed and gradually drew away. "Less than two years later," says Flaherty, "I received word by the once-a-year mail that comes out of the north that Nanook was dead. He died from starvation on a hunting-trip." By that time Nanook of the North had been shown in many parts of the world. Ten years later, Mrs. Flaherty bought an Eskimo Pie in the Tiergarten in Berlin. It was called a Nauk and Nanook's face smiled at her from the paper wrapper. [26]



III: "Films," said Flaherty many years later, "are a very simple form and a very narrow form in many ways."


You can't say as much in a film as you can in writing, but what you can say, you can say with great conviction. For this reason, they are very well-suited to portraying the lives of primitive people whose lives are, simply lived and who feel strongly, but whose activities are external and dramatic rather than internal and complicated. I don't think you could make a good film of the love affairs of an Eskimo ... because they never show much feeling in their faces, but you can make a very good film of Eskimos spearing a walrus.

Nanook is the storv of a man living in a place where no other kind of people would want to live. The tyrant is the climate, the natural protagonist in the film. It's a dramatic country and there are dramatic ingredients in it-snow, wind, ice and starvation. The life there is a constant hunt for food so that among all Eskimos all food is com-

The North and Nanook 37

mon. It has to be-an Eskimo family on its own would starve. If I went into an Eskimo igloo, whatever food they had would be mine. They have no word in their vocabulary for Thank You. That is something that never arose between us.These people, with less resources than any other people on the earth, are the happiest people I have ever known. (Flaherty 1949b)


The subtitles of the film, written by Carl Stearns Clancy, presumably in close association with Flaherty, are simple and informative. At the start we are told that the film was made at Hopewell Sound, northern Ungava. We are introduced at once to Nanook, the hunter, and his familv emerging in surprising numbers from their kayak, or canoe. We are told they use moss for fuel. They carry a large boat down to the water (the launching is not shown). They go to a trading post. Nanook, a title tells us, kills polar bears with only his harpoon. He hangs out his fox and bear skins, which are bartered for beads and knives (the trading post itself is seen only in the far distance). While there, Nanook plays the old wooden gramophone and tries to bite the record. One of the children is given castor oil and swallows it with relish.

Nanook then goes off on the floating ice to catch fish. For bait he uses two pieces of ivory on a seal-string line. He also spears salmon with a three-pronged weapon and kills them with his teeth. News is then brought of walrus, and Nanook joins the hunters in their fleet of kayaks. They meet with rough seas. The walrus are sighted. One of them is harpooned by Nanook and dragged in by line from the sea to the shore. There is a great struggle. It weighs, a title says, two tons. After it has been killed, the hunters carve it up and begin eating it on the spot, using their ivory knives. The flesh is shown in close-up.

Winter sets in and a snow blizzard envelops the trading post. Nanook now goes hunting with his family. The dog team drags the sledge with difficulty over the rough ice crags. Nanook stalks and traps a white fox. There follows the building of an igloo, Nanook carving it out of the blocks of frozen snow with his walrus ivory knife, licking its blade so that it will freeze and make a cutting edge. The children play slides, and one of them has a miniature sledge. Everyone is gay and smiling. Nanook makes the window for the igloo with great care and skill out of a block of ice. He fixes a wedge of snow to reflect the light through the window. The family, with their meager belongings, then occupies the igloo. Nanook later shows his small child how to use a bow and arrow, using a small bear made out of snow as the target.

Morning comes and the family gets up. Nanooks wife, Nyla, chews his boots to soften the leather while Nanook rubs his bare toes. Then he eats his breakfast, smiling all the time. Nyla washes the smallest child with saliva. Presently they all prepare to set off for the seal grounds. They glaze the

38 Robert J. Flaherty

runners of the sledge with ice. There is some savage scrapping among the dogs before the family finally departs across the snow field.

Nanook finds a hole in the ice and down it thrusts his spear. Then ensues a long struggle between Nanook hauling on his line and the unseen seal under the ice in the water. At one point Nanook loses his balance and falls head-over-heels. Finally, the other members of the family arrive on the scene and help their father to pull the seal out. (It is obviously dead.) They cut it up and fling scraps to the dogs, who fight among themselves over them. The dog traces get tangled, causing a delay in the departure for home.

They came upon a deserted igloo and take refuge in it. The snow drifts round outside and the dogs become covered and hardly recognizable. A special miniature igloo is made for some small pups. Inside, the family beds down for the night, naked inside their furs and hide blanket bags. Outside the blizzard rages. The film ends on a close-up of the sleeping Nanook.

Described this bluntly, the film sounds naive and disjointed, and in some ways it is both. Its continuity is rough, and there are many unexplained interruptions. The passing of time is either clumsily handled or deliberately ignored. Technically, it is almost an amateur's work. These, however, are minor flaws when compared with the overall conception which the film gives of this Eskimo family living what we are told is its normal, everyday existence. Some sequences, such as the now-famous, carefully depicted building of the igloo and the carving of its window and the howling dogs being covered by the drifting snow will always be memorable in the history of the cinema.

It is also important to note that the spearing of the seal is the first example of Flahertys use of the suspense element in his work: Nanook struggles to drag the creature up through the ice hole out of the water for a seemingly endless time, but it is not until he finaly, succeeds that the audience can see that it is a seal. This element of suspense-keeping the audience guessing and revealing the secret only at the last moment-was to play a significant part in Flaherty's future films.

The photography, made on the long obsolete orthochromatic film stock, has some lovely moments, such as the sledge scenes across the vast snowscapes, and here and there appears a hint of Flahertys skill for moving his camera on the gyro-head tripod of which he was so fond. [27] There is a tilt shot down onto Nanook in his kavak, for example, and a left-to-right pan shot along the walrus heads peering up from the waves. The dragging of the dead walrus up the beach is shown in greater detail than would have been found in any other film of the period; it is broken down into several shots from different angles, and the same is true, of course, of the igloo-building.

More important than these technical points is the fact that the film conveys the sheer struggle for existence of these people and their carefree acceptance of their fight for survival. Flaherty does not show any of the

The North and Nanook 39

amenities of the trading post, nor is any reference made to the fact that the use of guns and traps for hunting was common long before the time when the film was made. No reference is made to social practices such as the sexual life or marriage customs of the Eskimo, so the film has little real anthropological value.

This lack raises an issue that has come up many times in regard to all Flaherty's films and will recur when we come to examine many criticisms of his work. Did he intend us to accept Nanook as an accurate picture of Eskimo life at the time when he made the film, or did he intend it to be a picture of Eskimo life as it used to be, as seen through Flaherty's eyes? Was he concerned with creating the living present through the film medium, or was he trying to create an impression of life as it was lived by the father or grandfather of Nanook? This fundamentally important question will exercise us at the assessment of each of his films and we shall consider it in detail in discussing the criticisms of Man OfAran.

What concerns us now is that in Nanook, for the first time in film history, a motion picture camera was used to do more than just record what it finds before its lens. This is the major significance of Nanook.

Flaherty, in 1913, was not the first explorer to equip himself with a camera. Travel films, or "scenics" as the trade called them, had been popular since the turn of the century, beginning with what might be best described as moving picture postcards of familiar places in one's own or a neighboring country, which gave way in time to scenes in more distant and exotic lands. The word "travelogue" was used as early is 1907 by Burton Holmes in the United States. In her absorbing history of early British cinema, Rachel Low tells us:


The fashion whereby explorers and big-game hunters took cinematographers with them on their expeditions seems to have begun when Cherry Kearton left England in 1908 to accompany Theodore Roosevelt on his African hunting-trip, and spent the next five years travelling in India, Africa, Borneo and America.... In the summer of 1909, Lieutenant Shackleton showed some of the 4000 feet of film exposed during his recent expedition in the Antarctic. Probably the most important of the big-game films was the 6000 ft. record of the Carnegie Museum Expedition in Alaska and Siberia, led by Captain F. E. Kleinschmidt. The expedition was organised in 1909, and during the two years it took to make the film some 10,000 ft. were exposed.... Soon a cinematographer was regarded as a normal part of an explorer's equipment although his films were not always originally intended for commercial distribution. (Low 1949:153-55)

Of all these travel and exploration films, Rachel Low very rightly claims that Herbert G. Ponting's record of Captain Scott's expedition to the Antarctic in 1910­11 was the most important. She calls it "one of the really

40 Robert J. Flaherty

great achievements, if not the greatest, of British cinematography during this unhappy period." [28]

But there were certain vital differences between Flaherty and these other early cinematographers. First, he combined the talents of a trained explorer and mineralogist with those of a filmmaker. He learned the technique of cinematography for himself, the hard way, in order to express what he found among the people on his expedition. Second, he was familiar with Eskimos and the land where they lived and where he was going to make his film, having eight years of experience among them. He knew his subject at firsthand, a tenet that was to become an integral part of every Flaherty film. Third, and perhaps most Important, his abortive first attempts at filming in 1913 and again in 1915 had shown him clearly that just to set up his camera and record scenes in a strange country was not sufficient to dramatize the struggle for survival of his friends, the Eskimos. Flaherty knew that something fundamental was lacking in his early efforts; he knew when he went north again in 1920 that it was not just to remake what he had lost in the flames at Toronto.

As Walker Evans, the distinguished American photographer, puts it,


You learn that he (Flaherty] shot a lot of movie footage on exploration trips previous to the time of Nanook. You find that this led him to one of the best experiences a young artist can have: he got sore at himself for his own lack of originality. These first reels of his evidently looked just like the asphyxiating stuff ground out by any ass who's seen an Indian squaw or some mountain goats. Anger, almost certainly, gave Flaherty his first artistic drive. (Evans 1953)


This judgment is confirmed by Grierson's description of the first Harvard print of the abortive Nanook.

Nanook, as Flaherty gave it to the world in 1922, contained the seeds of "the creative treatment of actual ity," John Grierson's often-quoted definition of the documentary approach to filmmaking (Hardy 1946: 111). Grierson's assessment of Flaherty's film was as follows:


Nanook of the North took the theme of hunger and the fight for food and built its drama from the actual event, and, as it turned out, from actual hunger. The blizzards were real and the gestures of human exhaustion came from life. Many years before, Ponting had made his famous picture of the Scott expedition to the South Pole, with just such material; but here the sketch came to life and the journalistic survey turned to drama. Flaherty's theory that the camera has an affection for the spontaneous and the traditional, and all that time has worn smooth, stands the test of twenty years, and Nanook, of all the films that I have ever seen-I wish I could say the same for my own-is

The North and Nanook 41

least dated today. The bubble is in it and it is, plain to see, a true bubble. This film, which had to find its finance from a fur company and was turned down by every renter on Broadway, has outlived them all. (Davy 1938:146)


Walker Evans writes:


No one will ever forget the stunning freshness of Nanook of the North. The mere sight of a few stills from the production has the power to bring it all back. Here is happy, feral little Nanook, seated beside the hole he has cut in the ice; his face hidden in fur; his bent-over figure shielded by that cunningly built ice-block shelter; waiting, with that steady ready knife; waiting for his seal. Here is the harpoon picture. Nanook drawing back for the throw; just the deadliness of these half-lowered eyes on the aim can drain the lining of your stomach again as it did in the theatre. Add to this the sheer line of that particular photograph: the diagonal shaft of the weapon, the sweep of the cord looping to Nanooks raised hand, then coiling in black calligraphy against the sky...The core of Flahertys whole career is in the solitary, passionate filming of Nanook of the North. (Evans 1953)


In a survey in 1923 of the best films of the previous year, Robert E. Sherwood, the critic and playwright, wrote:


There are few surprises, few revolutionary stars and directors of established reputation. Nanook of the North was the one notable exception. It came from a hitherto unheard-of source, and it was entirely original in form....There have been many fine travel pictures, many gorgeous "scenics," but there has been only one that deserves to be called great. That one is Nanook of the North. It stands alone, literally in a class by itself. Indeed, no list of the best pictures of this year or of all years in the brief history of the movies, could be considered complete without it....Here was drama rendered far more vital than any trumped-up drama could ever be by the fact that it was all real. Nanook was no playboy enacting a part which could be forgotten as soon as the greasepaint had been rubbed off; he was himself an Eskimo struggling to survive. The North was no mechanical affair of wind-machines and paper snow; it was the North, cruel and incredibly strong. (Sherwood 1923)


On the other hand, Gilbert Seldes, usually a discerning critic of the arts, in his book The Seven Lively Arts, dismissed the film as follows: "What can you make of the circumstance that one of the very greatest successes, in America and abroad, was Nanook of the North, a spectacle film to which

42 Robert J. Flaherty

the producer and the artistic director contributed nothing, for it was a picture of actualities, made, according to rumor, in the interests of a furtrading company?" (Seldes 1924:332). Flaherty is not mentioned by name anywhere in the book, which purports to be a survey of the American arts in the early 1920s.

The first suggestion that Nanook was not authentic, so far as we can trace, appeared briefly in Iris Barry's book, Let's Go to the Pictures (1926: 185), in which she quoted Vilhjalmur Stefansson as saying that it "is a most inexact picture of the Eskimo's life."

But Flaherty's conception in Nanook has been challenged on other and more important grounds than whether its material content was falsified and contrived. Flaherty was accused of ignoring the social problems and realities of the people among whom he made his films. As Forsyth Hardy commented:


When Flaherty tells you that it is a devilish noble thing to fight for food in a wilderness, you may, with some justice, observe that you are more concerned with the problem of people fighting for food in the midst of plenty When he draws your attention to the fact that Nanook's spear is grave in its upheld angle, and finely rigid in its downpointing bravery, you may, with some justice, observe that no spear, held however bravely by the individual, will master the crazy walrus of international finance. Indeed, you may feel that in individualism is a yahoo tradition largely responsible for our present anarchy, and deny at once both the hero of decent heroics (Flaherty) and the hero of indecent ones (the studios). (Hardy 1946:82)


The social-realist documentary movement which Grierson founded in Britain in 1929 represented a whoily different conception of the use of the cinema from that held by Flaherty, although the British group was deeply indebted to Flaherty's method of filmmaking, always acknowledged the debt, and always respected his superb visual sense.



IV: To have made the film Nanook single-handedly was in itself a heroic achievement. To get it shown to the public, however, called for a different struggle. Flaherty tells the story:


When I got back to New York, it took the better part of a winter to edit the film. (He hired Charlie Gelb, a technician, to help him.) When it was ready to be shown I started to make the rounds of the distributors in New York with the hope that one of them would be kind enough to give it distribution. Naturally I took it to the biggest of the distributors

The North and Nanook 43

first. This was Paramount. The projection-room was filled with their staff and it was blue with smoke before the film was over. When the film ended they all pulled themselves together and got up in a rather dull way, I thought, and silently left the room. The manager came up to me and very kindly put his arm round my shoulders and told me that he was terribly sorry, but it was a film that just couldn't be shown to the public. (Flaherty 1950:16, 17)


Only slightly discouraged, Flaherty showed the film to First National, another big distributor, but "they didn't even answer the phone to me after seeing the film." He had to go to the projection room and apologetically ask to take the film away. Finally, after more setbacks, Nanook of the North found a distributor more by coincidence than by its own merits, a not uncommon event in the film industry.

Flaherty screened it to the Pathé Company in New York, which was an important distribution organization controlled by the parent Pathé Company in Paris. He hoped that because both Revillon Frères and Pathé were French in origin, some magic might arise and they'd get together on the film. Though calling it an "interesting" picture, Pathé did not think it could be put into the public theaters as a feature on its own account. (It was five reels, approximately seventy-five minutes long.) Pathé suggested that it should be broken into a series of short educational films.

A day or two later, however, when Flaherty was running his film again at the Pathé projection room, Madame Brunet, the wife of the president of the company, was present, as well as a friend of Flahertys who was a journalist who worked with Pathé and was the only member of the company who asked to see the picture a second time. "They caught fire," exclaims Flaherty. Their enthusiasm for the film finally induced Pathé to take it and to release it in its original uncut form to the general public. Recalls Flaherty:


The problem then was to get one of the big theatres to show it. Now the biggest theatre in New York then was the Capitol, run by a great film exhibitor, Roxy. But we knew very well that to show it to Roxy cold was to invite failure. Said Pathé, "We'll have to salt it." The sister of the publicity-head of Pathé was a great friend of Roxy's. [29] So it was arranged to show it first to her and some of her friends and tell them where to applaud through the picture, and then they would come along to the showing to Roxy in his very elaborate projection-room at the Capitol. We also told them never to talk directly to Roxy about the film but to talk to each other across him as if he were not in the room. Well, by the time the film was over, Roxy was tearing his hair. He used such words as "epic," "masterpiece" and the like. He booked it. But even then Pathé were not too trusting, and they de-

44 Robert J. Flaherty

cided to "tin-can" it (block book was the common trade phrase)-that is to tie it to Grandma's Boy, Harold Lloyds first big feature film which every theatre in New York was scrambling for. Roxy could have Grandma's Boy, but he'd have to take Nanook too!

A few days later when Major Bowes, the managing-director of the Capitol, saw the film he threatened to throw Roxy out. His rage knew no bounds. Desperately, poor Roxy tried to get out of the contract, but no-No Nanook, no Grandma's Boy.. (Flaherty 1950:17)


Nanook opened as a second feature on Broadway during a hot spell; it did only middling business. Robert Sherwood records that it played one week and did $43,000 of business, but he does not say if this was Nanook's share of the double bill with Grandma's Boy or if it was the gross for the two pictures (Sherwood 1923). Terry Ramsaye records that its total gross was about $350,000, which if correct provided a modest profit to Revillon Frères for what had been an advertisement investment (Ramsaye 1951).

Flaherty's brother David contradicts his account of the film's opening: "Nanook did not share a double-bill with Grandma's Boy at the Capitol. It opened there on Sunday, June 11, 1922, as the sole feature, ran a week, like other pictures, and, according to Variety, did 36,000 dollars business, which was considered good. It was a 7,000 dollar increase on the previous week's 29,000 dollars take." [29]

This inauspicious beginning, accompanied by lukewarm or cautious reviews by the critics, was no guide to the eventual impact of the film. As time went on, Nanook began to attract press comments that differed significantly from those of the trade or fan papers, who were interested only in films from Hollywood. Editors and columnists drew attention to it as a new approach, doing what the movies ought to do but never did. Similarly, it attracted an audience often made up of people who were not habitual filmgoers but were attracted by its realistic yet tender treatment of far-off places and people.

In Europe, too, Nanook had wide success, opening in September 1922 and running for six months at the New Gallery; London. A royal command performance was held at Balmoral. The film ran for six months at the Gaumont in Paris, was equally successful in Rome, Berlin, Copenhagen, and other capitals. In Germany especially it had long runs everywhere and was frequently revived in subsequent years. Critical reactions from overseas slowly filtered back to America and must have affected the attitude of the film business. Few serious writers on film paid it much attention, perhaps because the film was not recognized as an art form. Later generations of writers were to make amends.

Flaherty's main lesson from his experience with Nanook was that overcoming the obstacles to making a film is only the first hurdle and that getting the finished film shown can be even more difficult. Throughout his life, with

The North and Nanook 45

the exception of the hybrid Elephant Boy, Flaherty had to fight hard to ge adequate distribution for his films. He learned that showmanship was essential in dealing with the film-trade network that operates between the completed film and the public. Flaherty had sensible and imaginative ideas about film distribution methods that eventually were proved practicable and shrewd.

Nanook's release date in the United States was June 11, 1922. At about the same time the master filmmaker D. W Griffith made the spectacular Orphans of the Storm about the French Revolution, Charlie Chaplin had recently shown The Kid, and Rudolph Valentino had burst upon the public in Rex Ingram's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In the same year Nanook appeared, Douglas Fairbanks presented Robin Hood, Nazimova appeared in Salome, and Cecil B. De Mille gave his Swimming Pool Masked Ball In Saturday Night. Another Arctic film, Buster Keaton's The Frozen North, appeared the sarne year and would have made an ideal double bill with Nanook. Thus Flaherty's film predated The Covered Wagon, Down to the Sea in Ships, and The Iron Horse, all films made with a minimum of studio fabrication.

In Europe, the German cinema was entering its famous golden period of studio craftsmanship. In 1922 Warning Shadows., Vanina, and Nosferatu (Dracula) appeared. In France, Delluc had made Fievre and Abel Gance his locomotive film La Roue. In England, Bruce Woolfe had produce a reenactment of the war exploit, Zeebrugge. In Russia, Dziga Vertov was issuing a monthly newsfilm called Kino-Truth and developing his theories about catching life unawares; Sergei Eisenstein was still working in the theater.

None of these contemporary films was comparable to Nanook. Of the films mentioned above, only those by Chaplin and Flaherty have stood the test of time. The only one to be reissued was Nanook, by United Artists,
twenty-five years after it was first released, in July 1947. It ran fifty minutes and had a narration written by Ralph Schoolman and spoken by Berry Kroeger and music composed by Rudolph Schramur. Its title was displayed in twenty-foot neon letters above the canopy of the London Pavilion, one of the West End's main theaters in Piccadilly Circus, sometimes called the hub of the world. London critics acclaimed it as the film of the week. In New York, it played at the Sutton Theatre shortly before the premier of Louisiana Story in the late summer of 1948. In 1950-51, this sound version was made available for 16-mm distribution, and it is still being widely shown in several foreign language versions as well as in its original American. It has been shown on television in the United States and Britain, as well as in West Germany, Italy, and Scandinavia.

The timeless quality of Nanook has been stressed by many critics, but the undisputed success of its reissue is the greatest tribute to its maker. Yet, at the time of its premier in 1922, the reviews by the New York critics were

46 Robert J. Flaherty

not remarkable. "The notices were mixed," records Flaherty. "One critic damned it with faint praise, but then wrote a better review a few weeks later."

Says Richard Griffith,


They had nothing but their own tastes to guide them, and those whose mouths were set for romantic make-believe called it a "novelty" and let it go at that. Some others cautiously opined that it was more than a novelty in the usual sense, that Nanook was indeed something new under the sun: a dramatic, and human pattern, not contrived from paint and plaster and machinery, but elicited from life itself

The picture began to gather itself a Press entirely different from the trade and fan publications which attend feverishly upon the phenomena of Hollywood. Columnists and editorial writers praised it as the sort of thing people had always thought the movies ought to do, and now it was plain they could. And as it made its way through the theatres, it seemed to draw an unusual audience, an audience of people who didn't often go to ordinary movies but who liked adventure, or travel, or just simple beauty. (Griffith 1953:49)


Neither Flaherty nor Nanook occupies much space in the serious literature about the film industry written in the 1920s and early 1930s. Among English-language books, for example, no reference to the film occurs in Elliott's Anatomy of Motion Picture Art (1928), Messel's This Film Business (1928), L'Estrange Fawcett.s Films: Facts, Facts and Forecasts (1927), or Rudolf Arnheims Film (1933), nor is it included in the German edition of Der sicbtbare Mensch (1924) by Bela Balazs, the distinguished Hungarian critic. In the two massive volumes of Terry Ramsaye's wellknown A Million and One Nights (1926), Nanook is given one line (p. 600) as against an extravagant buildup for Martinjohnson and his lurid adventure films.

From its first issue in July 1927 until August 1928, in that little mine of information and theory, Close-Up, the only significant reference to Nanook was as a substitute for Under Arctic Skies ("which gives a good idea of northern life and links up, via Siberia, with Asia") in a suggested list of films for children. Bryher, the associate editor of the journal, added "I have always missed this picture [Nanook]" (vol. 1, no. 2 [1928]: 20).

Caroline Lejeune, however, in praising The Covered Wagon, compared it to Nanook: "There had been earlier films with an impersonal theme-Flaherty's Nanook the greatest of them all, with a sheer statement of drama that has never been equalled to this day. But Nanook did not impinge closely enough on emotion to win the suffrage of the public; its theme was too pure, too remote from audience psychology. It had successors; it was not sterile.... But it was The Covered Wagon that opened

The North and Nanook 47

the picture-house to the impersonal film" (1931:179-80). Even in Lewis Jacobs's commodious and valuable work, The Rise of the American Film (1939), Nanook received only a bare half-page, with a brief mention elsewhere. The British documentary group who were writers as well as filmmakers in the late 1920s and the 1930s were the first to recognize Flaherty and his Nanook (Rotha 1929,1931, 1936). In France, Flaherty made a deep impact on such critics as Moussinac and Delluc, who were quick to point out what they called the purité of Nanook.

In 1925, a book appeared with the title Nanook of the North, by Julian W. Bilby (London: Arrowsmith). A publisher's note stated:


For several years the name "Nanook" (The Bear), as that of an Eskimo hunter, has been widely familiar in England and America, since Nanook of the North was the title of a cinematograph film produced by Mr. R. G. [sic] Flaherty, and exhibited by Messrs. Revillon Frères and Messrs. Pathé. In that film was told the life-story of a certain Eskimo who chanced to bear the common Eskimo name-Nanook. Mr. Flaherty, in a chapter in his book My Eskimo Friends, has described how these pictures were taken. The present volume gives in words the lifestory of a typical Eskimo-as the cinematography film gave it in pictures; but it makes no claim that this is the history of the Eskimo named Nanook who was known to Mr. Flaherty. On the other hand, the illustrations in this volume are reproduced, some from the film (by kind permission of Messrs Revillon Frères and Messrs. Pathé) and others from photographs taken at the same time as the film; so that many of them contain portraits of the most celebrated bearer of the name.


Of twenty-nine illustrations, eighteen are credited to the film but they are not stills from it in the accepted sense but photographs taken at the same time, presumably by Flaherty. Some show incidents not in the film.



V : In The World of Robert Flaherty, Walker Evans reminds us that Flaherty was closer to Sherwood Anderson's generation than to Ernest Hemingway's. "He certainly had one foot in an age of innocence" (Evans 1953). [31] As an artist, Flaherty was self-educated and self-discovered. Moreover, he had found a new medium. When he made Nanook, such a film was only beginning to be recognized as an art form.

But if Flaherty belonged to Sherwood Anderson's generation, he was not creatively a part of it. Nor was he ever a part of the spirit of revolt that flared up when Greenwich Village became the new Bohemia around 1913 in the days of the birth of the New Masses, the New Republic, and the Seven

48 Robert J. Flaherty

Arts. Rather than participating in the urban cultural revolution, Flaherty was being wrecked on the Belchers or wintering among his Eskimo friends at Amadjuak Bay. While the socialist writer John Macy was proclaim- Ing in his Spirit of American Literature (1913) that "the whole country is crying out for those who will record it, satirize it, chant it" (quoted in Kazin 1943:178), Flaherty was actually accomplishing the first and last of these tasks. While Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis were becoming known as the new realists with publication of Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and Main Street (1920) and were soon to be challenged by the bitterly cynical writing of e. e. cummings, Ernest Herningway, and John Dos Passos and by the new decadents and smart stylists including Carl Van Vechten, Thomas Beer, and the middle-aged James Branch Cabell, Robert Flaherty, a poet with a new visual perception, had produced and placed on Broadway one of the first masterpieces in a new medium which was revolutionizing all media of expression. And he had done it single-handed. His first work, born out of anger and frustration at his early failure, was destined to live a good deal longer and be understood by a great many more people all over the world than all but a handfull of the literary products of the early postwar years in America.

Out of the tangled wilderness of northern Canada and the barren ice of Hudson Bay had come a man who, on the one side, challenged the art of the cinema as it had been gropingly developed up till then and, on the other, struggled against the industrily organized machinery of the film trade. It is impossible to overrate the magnitude of this challenge and the courage of the man who made it. But it would be wrong to think that Flaherty was part of the American cultural tradition.

The span of years Flaherty spent in the Canadian North were not only to find consummation in his film in 1922 but to have a profound and indelible effect on his outlook for the rest of his life. The emptiness, the expanse, the cold-the very loneliness of this barren snow-and-ice world where the wind seems never to cease-may have given him time to contemplate and to compose his thoughts. The small black figures on a vast white landscape, the snow drifting in the wind, the huge distances to be traversed with a minimum of equipment and comfort all bit deeply into a man whose intense china-blue eyes reflected his experience.

In the North Flaherty learned that when peoples' life situations were so hazardous that at any moment they might suffer disaster, they depended absolutely on each other. Thus there existed "an atmosphere of loving kindness and forgiveness of sins"-the words are Grierson's-that was extraordinary. Whatever was to happen later-in the South Seas, in the Aran Islands, in Mysore, and in the United States-Flaherty the artist, poet, and explorer was already developed and mature at the age of thirty-eight, the year he finished Nanook.

In his book Eskimo, Edmund Carpenter writes of the acuteness of ob-

The North and Nanook 49

servation of the Eskimos, of their ability to recognize the identity of objects or animals at great distances. He does not suggest that their eyes are optically superior to ours but that supersensitive observation is vitally important to them because they live in barren surroundings. Over years they have unconsciously trained their eyes to observe accurately and meaningfully. "Moreover," he adds, "they enter into an experience, not as an observer but as a participant."

Writing about their art-a word that does not occur in their language-he makes the significant point that the carver of a piece of ivory will hold it unworked in his hand, turning it around and saying to himself, "Who are you?" and "Who hides there?" Only after some thought does he decide that he will carve out of it a seal or a fox. He tries to discover its hidden form from within, and if that is not forthcoming he will carve at the ivory cautiously until a form suggests itself. "Seal, hidden, emerges. It was always there, he didn't create it; he released it. . . . The carver never attempts to force the ivory into uncharacteristic forms, but responds to the material as it tries to be itself, and thus the carving is continually modified as the ivory has its say." This attitude is reached only by long experience and contemplation.

We believe that these two Eskimo qualities-the acute power of observation and the letting of material shape its own meaning-form an integral part of Flahertys art as a filmmaker. His training from early youth as an explorer and mining surveyor must have taught him to use his eyes acutely, but his many years of living in close contact with the Eskimo people and his love of them must have taught him even more about keenness of observation. We know, too, that he made a close study of Eskimo carvings and took many fine examples back home with him. He must have fully understood their attitude toward such craftsmanship.

Carpenter confirms our belief:


I am sure you understand that what I said (in the book Eskimo) about discovering the form within the ivory is just a minor illustration of an attitude towards life that pervades Eskimo thought and especially Eskimo human relations. Flaherty must have been very close to these people, as few Westerners have been; there are insights, observations in his writings that could only have come from the most intimate contact. His writings are so casual in style that someone unfamiliar with the Eskimo might regard them as happy travel stories, nothing more, and conclude that his relations with the Eskimo were fleeting. This could not be the case: one tale alone refutes it: that short story about the family marooned on an island and finally escaping via a crude craft. So it may not be unreasonable to suppose that Flaherty was influenced by the Eskimo, or at least found their attitudes understandable and congenial to his own temperament. His writing might mis-

50 Robert J. Flaherty

lead readers into also supposing that his northern trips were without grim ordeals. Actually, he must have had some rough times. [32]


We shall discuss later an important part of Flaherty's filmmaking-the actual filming of raw material in real surroundings and the subsequent assembling of such material into a shape or form fit to be presented to spectators-and it will then be seen that an analogy can be found with the method of the Eskimo carvers. Both these points are emphasized at this early stage of the discussion because they may well have emerged from Flaherty's close association with the Eskimo people and their environment over almost a decade.

"Bob was forever always telling me," said Frances Flaherty, "that he wanted to go back to the north. 'I go to come back,' he would say. He wanted to go back to dwell in his mind, to find a refuge. The memory of the north never left him. But Bob never did go back." [33]

As Flaherty began this chapter, let him end it:


You ask me what I think the film can do to make large audiences feel intimate with distant peoples? Well, Nanook is an instance of this. People who read books on the north are, after all, not many, but millions of people have seen this film in the last 26 years-it has gone round the world. And what they have seen is not a freak, but a real person after all, facing the perils of a desperate life and yet always happy. When Nanook died of starvation two years later, the news of his death came out in the Press all over the world-even as far away as China.

The urge that I had to make Nanook came from the way I felt about these people, my admiration for them; I wanted to tell others about them. This was my whole reason for making the film. In so many travelogues you see, the filmmaker looks down on and never up to his subject. He is always the big man from New York or from London.

But I had been dependent on these people, alone with them for months at a time, travelling with them and living with them. They had warmed my feet when they were cold, lit my cigarette when my hands were too numb to do it myself; they had taken care of me on three or four expeditions over a period of eight years. My work had been built up along with them; I couldn't have done anything without them. In the end it is all a question of human relationships. (Flaherty 1950: 18, 19)

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