Saturday, 5 December 2009

The True Story of Eskimo Nell (1975)

After seeing Not Quite Hollywood I’m going through a phase of watching as many 1970s ozploitation movies as I can find. The True Story of Eskimo Nell was perhaps not a good place to start!

The biggest single problem with this film is trying to work out what on earth the makers’ intentions were. It was promoted as a sex comedy. In an ideal world a sex comedy would contain generous quantities of sex and would be funny as well. We don’t live in an ideal world but I think most of us would agree that such a movie should contain at least one of these ingredients. In fact this one contains very little sex, and I found very little to make me laugh.

It’s not that it’s a completely incompetent movie. It’s just a very confusing one. When the director claims that his two biggest influences in the making of the movie were Blazing Saddles and Midnight Cowboy you know you’re in trouble. They’re not exactly movies most people would normally associate in their minds. And when the director of a movie that is supposed to be a bawdy sex comedy is most proud of the homages to John Ford and D. W. Griffith that he included in said movie, you start to wonder what exactly he thought he was doing.

It’s based extremely loosely indeed on a notorious bawdy poem. The one-eyed Deadeye Dick (Max Gillies) has travelled the world following the gold rushes of the mid-19th century, and his travels at one time took him to the frozen wastes of Canada’s Yukon. There he met and fell in love with the legendary Eskimo Nell, the most famous and the most beautiful whore in all the world. He has dedicated his life to finding her again. Or at least that’s his story. LIke most of his stories, it probably contains little if any truth. At some point he has hooked up with a pal, Mexican Pete (Serge Lazaroff). Mexican Pete is a legend as well, a legendary performer in the bedroom. He’s almost a male version of Eskimo Nell.

Dick persuades Pete to join him in his quest. If Eskimo Nell is as beautiful as Dick claims, then Pete is certainly interested in getting to know her. If they don’t find her, they’re bound to find plenty of other women along the way.

Rather than playing the story as a sex comedy, though, director Richard Franklin plays it as a rather poignant tale of friendship and of the quest for true love. And perhaps of quests in general, since the quest really matters more than the object of the quest. This is not entirely a bad idea, but it’s combined very unsuccessfully with a good deal of rather unfunny schoolboy humour. Quests for true love don’t combine all that well with fart jokes, and contests to find the most successful obscene insults.

It probably doesn’t help that I’ve always found Max Gillies’ humour to be extremely feeble. Richard Franklin’s direction is muddled and hesitant (excusable faults in someone making their first feature film) and the script is all over the place. The various elements of the movie would be difficult enough (although perhaps not impossible) to combine successfully, even in the hands of more experienced film-makers. They’d have done much better either to have included lots more sex and a lot more energy, or to have dropped the sex altogether and just made it a kind of buddy film.

On the plus side, it’s visually very impressive for a very low-budget movie, and the silent-movie style D. W. Griffith homages work surprisingly well. The ending does achieve a real an unexpected poignancy. It’s just too much of a jumbled mish-mash, so I can’t really recommend this one at all. Even as an interesting failure it’s not quite interesting enough.

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