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Making of The Savage Innocents:
An Eye Witness Account
by Henry Wyatt
Late in 1959 we landed in Southampton (UK) after three summers and two winters in Antarctica. We knew we had papers to write and reports to do, but what then? We were all unsettled after so long away. So when the British Antarctic Survey London office asked if anyone was interested in managing sledge dogs for a Pinewood Studios film I decided to apply.
The Savage Innocents was about the clash of cultures when a Mountie (Peter O’Toole) went north to arrest an Eskimo (Anthony Quinn) for a killing. At the time the film was panned by critics but seems to have become a classic since. The film was directed by Nicholas Ray who had achieved fame as the director for James Dean. To set the time, Anthony Quinn went from this film to make The Guns of Navarone and Peter O’Toole went on to make his mark in Lawrence of Arabia.
Pinewood Studios is west of London. The twenty-odd dogs came from somewhere on Hudson’s Bay – I’m not sure where. They were a raggedy lot. Because they were in quarantine they lived in secure wire-mesh kennels at the studio. As dog trainer I lived in an adjacent trailer.
Quarantine was supervised by a wonderful Irish vet whose use of English was interesting. When he parked his car on the road outside, usually at least a yard from the curb thus obstructing traffic, he would run out shouting, “Oh, are you in my way?” or similar twists to the language to any complainant trying to pass.
The dogs were fed on prime steak. The meat looked good to me so I ate with them, though I confess I did cook my steaks first. Sometime later, when the film needed scenes with seals emerging from holes in the ice, small grey Atlantic seals appeared in a huge tank near my trailer. Again they were fed only the best – fresh trout as I remember – so I was able to balance my meat diet with fresh fish. So I can truthfully say of my time in the film industry that all I had to eat was dog food and fish.
Each day my job was to escort the dogs to a large trailer with small kennels aboard, and drive the trailer to the film set. There I would take each one from his kennel, harness him, and take him on to the huge stage.
A huge stage it was. Icy bits were made of wire mesh on wooden frames covered in plaster-of-Paris wraps. The snow, spread over everything, was salt. Under the lights the set was hot and the dogs spent much time lazing around until the next “take”. The dogs didn’t seem to like sitting on the set where their bottoms and other parts were exposed to salt, but they endured as sledge dogs always do.
Screen capture from The Savage Innocents
They were all edgy in the kennel. One of them, a fierce fellow, took a lunge at me whilst I brought the steaks and managed to puncture my ankle. Nothing really, but they were in quarantine. So the studio doctor recommended the full anti-rabies routine. That was awful. Syringes full of anti-serum injected in and around the puncture, then a series of shots under the skin of the belly wall. All this followed by what I thought must be serum sickness, for I lay in my trailer shivering and shaking for hours.
A day or two later the same dog bit Peter O’Toole. The fuss was much bigger than I had experienced. Big star, film at stake and so on. But despite heavy pressure from the studio doctor he absolutely refused the rabies routine. I said nothing to him but had he asked I would have told him not to bother. He came to no harm, though perhaps it explained some of the wildness in him.
At the end of each day the directors and the other important folk would gather in a small cinema to view the completed sequences from the day’s work. Not much more than two minutes of useable film for each day. In one scene Peter O’Toole was supposed to have frozen his hands. Anthony Quinn was supposed to grasp one of the dogs, slit its belly open, and plunge Peter’s frozen hands into the hot, bloody belly. So the shot showed the two men and the dog with O’Toole’s hands frozen. As Anthony Quinn raised his knife the camera came closer so that the dog disappeared below the frame out of the picture. Quinn made the stabbing gesture, grasped O’Toole’s hands and supposedly plunged them into the dog’s belly out of the picture below. Then all in the same shot O’Toole lifted his bloodied but now unfrozen hands into the frame. Great so far, but the end of the sequence was not useable. Before the fade-out the always wild and energetic dog pushed its happy head up into the frame and licked Peter’s face.
Some scenes needed polar bears. Two bears came with their trainer in great wheeled cages from Chipperfield’s Circus. To contain the bears the whole set had been surrounded by close-spaced scaffolding poles with one small entry tunnel on one side. But where to put the camera crew? In the middle of the set was a much smaller cage of scaffold, only big enough to house the cameras and crew. So there we were with the bears roaming free around the set and the crew stuck in the middle in their cage. What a reversal of roles. When I asked the bear trainer how he would encourage the bears back into their travelling cage he had, he said, no solution other than to wait until the bears were hungry. No dogs involved in those scenes of course.
These little problems were legion. During a hunting scene one of the seals was to surface through a hole in a block of ice laid over a tank in the middle of the set. When all was ready the cameras would roll awaiting the seal’s appearance. But no seal, so stop the cameras. Then as soon as the cameras stopped the seal would appear. So a cap was put over the hole leaving no place for the seal to surface. A few trials allowed estimation of the optimum coverage time. Now put on the cover, start the cameras rolling, then take off the cover and in a moment the seal would pop up in the hole bursting for air.
Truth to tell it was on the film set that I saw the cruellest treatment of a child. All those folk are gone now so perhaps it can be told. One scene needed a sequence of a crying child. An Asian mother brought her little two or three year old along. There he was, all dressed up in the middle of the set. The mother was asked to tell the child that she was about to leave without him. But tell him as she might he would not believe her. So eventually, on the directors instruction, she spoke so sternly at the little one saying that she was going away now without him and walked out of the building. And of course, the little one broke into tears. All a strange unfamiliar world to me.
Whilst I was there several other films were in the making. Perhaps the best known was Sink the Bismark. For that film huge five foot deep tanks were set up in the studio with ship models 7 to 10 feet long. They were manoeuvred around by links to the bottom of the tank. A great place to take a dip after everyone had gone home for the day and everything was quiet, with only the security staff far away at the main gate.
That film had a Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber set up in studio. Those were the aircraft whose torpedoes damaged the Bismark’s rudder leaving it so vulnerable. With little else to do I spent many hours in the evenings sitting in the cockpit dreaming of flying.
I don’t know what happened to the dogs after the film. I know they did not go back to Hudson’s Bay. They must have found homes somewhere in Europe, but they can’t have been family pets. I don’t think I would trust such basically wild creatures around children though I know that happens in the North. And yes, over the years dogs in the North have savaged children, though mercifully rarely.
So the summer passed with long days in the studio, lazy evenings wandering around at Pinewood, sometimes a game of chess with Anthony Quinn or bantering with Peter O’Toole, and sometimes visits from friends and family curious about what I was doing and where I was living. And I do know that my parents wondered whether I would ever settle down again and get on with some sort of medical career. They must have thought me frightfully unsettled. I don’t know how I ever managed to make a career in medicine. I guess I was just plain lucky. Well yes I was, but not before six months of locum tenens with a wife and a little boy, first in the Falkland Islands and then at the whaling station in Grytviken, South Georgia. But that’s another story.
After his Antarctic experience, Henry Wyatt wandered a bit, first as a junior assistant with a Medical Research Council climatic research unit travelling to the Middle and Far East during acclimatisation research, then working with sledge dogs for Pinewood Studios used in the film The Savage Innocents, about the polar north, starring Anthonly Quinn and Peter O’Toole. In 1970 he moved to Canada and for 23 years worked at the University of Alberta, where his department collaborated in studies of eye disease in the Canadian North. In that way he visited settlements in the North many times over the years as far north as Sachs Harbour on Banks Island, and as far east as Pelly Bay. Dr. Wyatt’s hobby since 1970 has been flying one thing or another, nowadays mainly gliders.
Read another first person account by Henry Wyatt “Conducting Dog Feeding Experiments on the Antarctic Huskies: a behind the scenes look at how it got done!” in the September 2010 issue of The Fan Hitch.