Format: 16mm Black & White
Runtime: 71 min
Newfoundland-Labrador Film Company
Two Newfoundlanders – good guy Luke Oarum (Charles Starrett) and bully Jed Nelson (Arthur Vinton) – compete for the love of Mary Jo (Louise Huntington). Not wanting to leave Luke alone with Mary Jo, Jed ensures that his rival comes seal hunting with him on a ship skippered by Captain Barker (Bob Bartlett), even though Luke has a reputation as a “jinker” – someone who brings bad luck to his shipmates.
After several misadventures on board ship – for which Jed always makes Luke appear responsible – the two become isolated on the ice during the hunt. Jed attempts to kill Luke, but when a fierce storm cuts them off from the ship and Jed becomes snowblind, Luke leads him back to land by crossing the ice-floes on foot. They arrive back in town just as a memorial service for them is being held. Jed tells how Luke saved his life and Luke wins the hand of Mary Jo.
This extraordinary portrait of the Newfoundland people’s “dramatic struggle for existence” was produced by the Delaware-incorporated Newfoundland-Labrador Film Company, headed by twenty-eight-year-old Yale graduate Varick Frissell, an explorer and documentary filmmaker who by the age of twenty-three had already explored the interior of Labrador by canoe. The role of the ship’s captain was played by legendary Capt. Bob Abram Bartlett, the Newfoundlander who had captained Robert Peary’s 1908-09 expedition to the North Pole.
Not only was The Viking one of the first talkies, it was also the first location shoot outside Hollywood financed by Paramount Studios and, most notably, the first film to record sound and dialogue on location – on the ice-floes themselves, no less. Though Frissell shot all the extensive actuality scenes involving life aboard ship and the seal hunt, Paramount insisted that Hollywood director George Melford (Dracula) direct the fiction scenes. When test screenings confirmed Frissell’s concern that the overt melodrama of these sequences conflicted with and detracted from the power of the actuality content, he returned to Newfoundland to shoot more footage that would replace many of the clunky romantic scenes. He set sail on the Viking in March 1931, but six days later the ship exploded, killing twenty-seven men including Frissell and all but one of his crew. The cause of the explosion was never determined and Frissell’s body was never found – despite a handsome reward offered by his wealthy family.
The film was released in its initial form, including the awkwardly staged love scenes that do indeed detract from the authentic portrait that Frissell had wanted. To capitalize on the publicity, the film’s title was changed from White Thunder to The Viking and was advertised as “the picture that cost the lives of the producers, Varick Frissel, and twenty-five members of the crew.” It enjoyed a good deal of success in the early thirties, then faded into obscurity.
Though The Viking is technically not a Canadian film, its particular mix of dramatic fiction with footage of the wild, hostile and foreboding landscape imbues it with an especially Canadian spirit and style that distinguishes it from many of the legally Canadian “quota quickies” of the same era. It has much in common with the work of Robert Flaherty and is comparable to the contemporaneous The Siilent Enemy in that the environment becomes a principal character in the drama.
A restored print was screened in St. John’s in March, 1997 as part of the Producers Association of Newfoundland’s “Featuring Us” retrospective series, in conjunction with the province’s celebration of the five hundredth anniversary of John Cabot’s discovery voyage.