“White Thunder” (Documentary on “The Viking”)

June 19, 2008

“White Thunder” (2007) is about the making of “The Viking” (1931).

As I’ve noted before, seeing “The Viking” has been one of the great unexpected discoveries of this journey of mine. It’s a very interesting film which mixes documentary footage of seal-hunting culture in Newfoundland with a melodrama starring Charles Starrett. It’s notable for the authentic footage, and being a sound film shot in such an extreme location. It’s also a very beautiful film.

“White Thunder” follows the life of the filmmaker, Varick Frissell, and how this Yale-educated moneyed fellow from New York came to be fascinated with the people of Newfoundland, and how this film came to be made.

Unfortunately, for our purposes, “White Thunder” relies on a number of talking heads who choose to blame the shortcomings of Frissell’s film on “Hollywood”. Paramount funded the film and insisted on inserting the melodrama, and upon their own director to film those portions.

For this part of the documentary, poor Charley gets dumped on. Talking Head says “over the top” and we see an image of Charley collapsing into his lovers arms in the aisle of the church at the film’s (to me, touching) ending. Talking Head says “hokum” over the image of Charley slugging it out with his rival on the ice under the bulkwark of the ship.

However, a 1974 radio interview with Starrett in Laguna Beach is more respectful. Charles says “Of course, I remember Captain Bob Bartlett” and recalls a story of using dynamite to blast their way through an ice jam.

He also talks about how everyone on board chipped in to protect the film and sound equipment. And shares some memories of Frissell doing some of the actual cinematography on the films. He calls Frissell “inspiring to work with.”

The true story has a tragic ending. Frissell’s first cut didn’t test well, so he set out once again on the the Viking to shoot some more footage. The ship exploded, killing Frissell, Captain Bartlett and many of the crew. It was a huge news story. One can still find old newspapers clippings about it on the web.

The new distributor, cashing in on the tragedy, changed the name of the film from it’s shooting title, “White Thunder” (thus the name of the documentary), to “The Viking.” Sort of like naming a film “The Titanic.”

Both films are worth checking out. If not for anything else, then for the footage of the ice drifts and the faces of the men who work on them.

What sticks in my mind, though, is a short behind-the-scenes shot of Charley and a weathered old extra waiting for the clapboard operator to clear frame.

It’s hard to describe, but, in that instant, the future Durango Kid seems to embody every nice thought I’ve had about him.

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2 Responses to ““White Thunder” (Documentary on “The Viking”)”

  1. Peter Valenti said

    This sounds like the film screened at MOMA about ten years ago. Actual deaths are depicted in storm-at-sea sequences.
    Thanks for posting all your thoughts on Starrett/Durango. I met him a few times in the 1980s and wish I had had the presence of mind to ask him more intelligent questions about the Durango role. I believe Durango’s name recognition is unique in that no other screen cowboy achieved continued recognition without the benefit of endless tv reruns across the 1950s to familiarize new audiences with the character, which means that his screen performances (and his comic book performances, although his comic publisher didn’t have the distribution that other cowboy stars enjoyed) must have made very strong impressions. Maybe something deeply elemental, primal, in the simplicity of that iconic mask.
    Are you working on a biography of Starrett?

  2. stevesomething said

    That’s a cool observation. There is something arresting about the image — it certainly grabbed me — I was captivated by this character long before I saw any of the films.

    I plan on putting together a book proposal when the research is further along. Thanks for reading and your kind comments. Best, Tim

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