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Milestone Film & Video presents
White Thunder (2004)

"If my moving pictures can convey any fraction of the grandeur that I surveyed, people will gasp, as I did."
- Varick Frissell

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: December 13, 2004

Stars: Varick Frissell
Director: Victoria King

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 00h:50m:24s
Release Date: December 14, 2004
UPC: 014381001624
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-B+B A

DVD Review

The early history of motion pictures is chock a block with unsung, underappreciated, even forgotten heroes, but one of those gets his due here, on this impressive, informative, entertaining disc. Varick Frissell was one of the pioneers of documentary filmmaking; his life was cut terribly short by an awful accident, and though his output is relatively meager, it was of a very high quality. This documentary surveys the man's life and his work, and there are many virtues to be found in both.

Frissell grew up in a time and place reminiscent of the novels of Edith Wharton—born and raised in a prominent Manhattan family, he summered in the enormous cottages of Newport, Rhode Island, and was educated at Yale. His niece and nephew are interviewed here, and Uncle Varick even in life was a mythic figure: devastatingly handsome, impossibly tall (6'8"), always off on yet another daring adventure. Frissell had two great fascinations—technology and Newfoundland—and they came together gloriously in the new realm of documentary filmmaking. He relentlessly documented his journeys to the north country, not only on film, but with still photographs and in his journals; this smartly made film uses these archival documents along with an actor reading from Frissell's lovely letters to his parents, and the re-creation of these trips captures much of the energy of those journeys. Frissell's goals were to photograph parts of Labrador never before captured on film, and to make an epic on a grand scale; he achieved his ends, and even if we're numbed somewhat by documentaries from seemingly every exotic corner of the earth, Frissell's work is still strong and spirited, very much in keeping with the work of Robert Flaherty, with whom he worked.

As some others did before him and many more have since, Frissell went west to Hollywood, where Paramount commissioned him to make a feature; the studio insisted on providing a melodramatic framing story for Frissell's seemingly exotic documentary footage, and the result is just the sort of mishmash that you might expect. (More on this in the Extras.) Frissell's story, alas, does not end happily; the name of this documentary was to be the name of his feature, and, dissatisfied with Frissell's ending, Paramount packed him off to do some reshoots. While on a sealing ship, Frissell and everyone else on board was killed in an explosion; his body was never recovered, and he left this earth at all of 27.

A few who knew him remain, and others are interviewed—the best of these is probably silent film historian Kevin Brownlow—but Frissell remains something of a distant, unknowable figure, a romantic specter of another time and place. So this isn't in quite the same territory as more contemporary movies like Hearts of Darkness and Burden of Dreams, though Frissell's quest for grand images in exotic places was surely the equal in passion and fervor as those of Coppola and Herzog. 

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Pretty solid transfer, especially given the varying states of the period material; the new interviews are well shot and appear without any interference. 

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Unremarkable and satisfactory; not much to speak of, especially since much of the footage that Frissell shot was silent.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
2 Documentaries
3 Featurette(s)
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: AGI Media Packaging
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Frissell's The Viking, in its entirety
Extras Review: It's the extras package that elevates this from a respectable documentary to a mini-seminar on the early days of location filmmaking, for much of Frissell's own work is included. First is Frissell'sGreat Arctic Seal Hunt (39m:25s) a documentary that certainly isn't PETA-friendly, but includes some pretty extraordinary footage, of Newfoundlanders out on a kill. The technical limits are evident—for instance, when a ship rams into an ice floe, we get a fuzzy intertitle that rapidly comes into focus, reading "CRASH!"—but the basic, man-versus-nature elements are raw and powerful. It's a silent movie, with occasional title cards; on one, the boat captain hollers at his crew, "Pull, ye sons-of-scaldys!," which, coincidentally enough, is what our editor here at dOc says to us when we're lax about turning in our reviews.

The Lure of the Labrador (13m:44s) pulses with the thrill of the earliest days of filmmaking, Frissell taking us to places heretofore unshot, unseen; perhaps best of all is The Viking (01h:12m:12s), the feature on which Frissell lost his life. Providing a preface is Sir Wilfred Grenfell, a mentor of sorts to Frissell; as predicted, the melodrama at the center of the story is pretty wooden—will Mary Jo go with Jed or Luke?—but the documentary footage that surrounds it is pretty extraordinary. Just seeing the actors on location is kind of amazing, their breath frosting up with every line; and knowing the fate of the filmmaker and those who were on board with him, the shots of the sealers have a haunted quality—which of these men died with the director? You'll also find a set (19m:47s) of outtakes from the feature, which are atmospheric and picturesque.

There are stills galleries for both The Lure of the Labrador (04m:29s) and The Viking (02m:35s), the latter of which includes publicity materials for the movie, and news accounts of the disaster at sea; and another gallery (02m:32) of Frissell family snapshots. Pop the disc into your computer, and you can open up the White Thunder press kit, a PDF file.

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

The life of Varick Frissell was full of storybook elements: privilege, a thirst for adventure, a challenge to nature, a tragic end. This documentary provides a cogent, brief overview of the man and his brief times, and the voluminous package of extras offers an opportunity to see the work of the man first hand, and to see how his daring inspired and influenced generations of documentarians. Fascinating stuff, well presented and produced.


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