Disney Film History: White Wilderness

white wilderness

There have been rare occurences of the Disney company being surrounded by controversy. It eventually happened with Song of the South. That film will never be remastered and released due to it’s controversial look at race relations. The next great example of that came with our next movie decades after it’s release, White Wilderness. The True Life Adventure series, like the Fess Parker films, defined the 1950s and like the films all starring Fess Parker, True Life Adventures would be gone by the 1960s. Not that the series was bad or expensive, but more or less because of what Disney knew about their 1958 release of White Wilderness.

Starting in 1952, 12 videographers made their way to the Arctic and filmed. Due to the extreme climate of the Arctic, these film makers would travel back and forth so that they didn’t have to live in such harsh conditions for too long. Like all of the previous True Life Adventure documentaries, Disney funded but did not overlook the filming that happened in the Arctic. This lead to uninterrupted footage of many great and not so great shots that would eventually be in the film.

white wilderness 1

After cutting and editing, the film was released on August 12th, 1958. The film met similar reviews to their previous nature documentaries. They were criticized for the narration and unnecessary comedy, but because of the Arctic’s rough climate, it was the first time anyone had seen the landscape on film and in color no less. The animals documented in the film include seals, walruses, polar bears, ducks, lemmings, and wolves, all of which had not been seen on this terrain by the mass public.

Despite critical reviews, White Wilderness was still a box office success. It was released multiple times in theaters after it’s original release due to it’s popularity. Clips of the film were shown on Walt Disney’s television shows up until the 1980s when the film came under fire.

The Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), and one of it’s longest running news shows, The Fifth Estate, ran a new story in 1982 about White Wilderness and other animal documentaries. What came under attack was the use of footage that doesn’t actually take place in the Arctic. Journalist Bob McKeown reported that film makers used a studio in Calgary to recreate the Arctic landscape and shoot many shots there. A scene where a baby polar bear is sliding around on the ice is actually shot on the sound stage and the videographers pushed the bear around for added effect.

white wilderness 2

The most disturbing findings brought up by The Fifth Estate are scenes about lemmings. Scenes supposedly shot in the Arctic following lemmings who will live life as a group and will march together no matter the cost were said to be faked in Calgary as well. Lemmings were shown to march across the landscape and jump into the Atlantic Ocean one after the other, only to hope that they make it to the other side before drowning. The scenes were actually shot on a platform at the Bow River in Calgary where videographers forced the lemmings to walk right off the platform into the river where all of them died. Experts were asked and McKeown found that the lemmings filmed were actually not migratory and would not have followed each other no matter the situation, especially in a death march as shown in the film.

It’s unclear of Walt Disney or anyone at the Disney studios was aware of the footage they were editing being phony, but it does raise the question after knowing that White Wilderness was their second to last outing for the True Life Adventure series. It could have been that the studio was just running out of ideas for the series, but it could be somehow related to someone at the studio knowing and willingly adding fake footage to the film for dramatic effect. Regardless of anyone at the studio knowing or not, it’s an unfortunate incident tied to the Disney name.

What are your thoughts on White Wilderness? Have you seen it? Did you know what you were actually watching when you saw the film or did you believe everything was shot in the Arctic? Leave your thoughts and let me know.

Josh Taylor
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Posted on June 10, 2015, in Articles, The Whole Picture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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