A brilliantly innovative telling of the story of Dr. John Rae who discovered the awful truth about the fate of the Franklin Expedition's attempt to find the Northwest Passage.
Directed by John Walker
Produced by Andrea Nemtin (PTV Productions),
John Walker (John Walker Productions, Ltd.), Kent Martin (NFB)
Starring Rick Roberts & Geraldine Alexander
Based on the book "Fatal Passage"by Ken McGoogan
Scenes from "Fatal Passage" screenplay by Andrew Rai Berzins
Director of Photography: Kent Nason
Sound Recording and Design: Alex Salter
Editors: Jeff Warren, John Brett
Music by Jonathan Goldsmith
Executive Producer: Bill Nemtin
Produced by PTV Productions Inc. & John Walker Productions Ltd in co-production with the National Film Board of Canada
It was news that shook the English-speaking world: celebrated British explorer Sir John Franklin and his crew of 128 men had perished in the Arctic ice during an ill-fated attempt to discover the Northwest Passage. More shocking, they had descended into madness and cannibalism.
"One of the great triumphs in Canadian documentary film history." Martin Knelman, The Toronto Star
The report came in 1851, from John Rae, a Scottish doctor working for the Hudson's Bay Company. Travelling thousands of miles on foot and in small craft, Rae had done what six years of searching by the British, Americans, French and Russians had failed to do: discover the fate of Franklin and unlock the final link in the Passage, a 300-year-old dream.
But Rae's horrific news did not sit well with Sir John's widow, Lady Franklin, nor with many others in British society, including Charles Dickens. They waged a bitter public campaign that would discredit Rae's version of events, banish him to the margins of history and mark an entire nation of northern Inuit with the horrifying label of murderous cannibals.
With Passage, filmmaker John Walker employs an innovative approach to structuring the incredible multilayered story of John Rae and brings it to vibrant life. Using a unique blend of dramatic action, and behind-the-scenes documentary footage, Walker pulls back the curtain on his own research into Rae's life and that of his actors, as they determine how to portray the characters and scenes in the film. The line between real and dramatic begins to blur as we move closer and closer to the film's climax, a stunning face-to-face meeting between Charles Dickens's great-great grandson and Tagak Curley, an honored Inuit statesman who challenges the fraudulent history. In one moment, Walker vaults the story from the past into the present and we are witness to history in the making.
Set in the actual locations of Rae's journey, from his boyhood home in the remote Orkney Islands off Scotland's north coast to the epic landscape of his Arctic expeditions to the boardroom of the British Royal Navy -- the center of power of the British Empire -- Passage is a story of incredible sacrifice, stunning distortion of the truth and single-minded obsession. It challenges the way we look at history.
Grade Level: 10-12, College, Adult
US Release Date: 2009
Copyright Date: 2008
DVD ISBN: 0-7722-1348-8
VHS ISBN: 0-7722-1347-X
"One of the great triumphs in Canadian documentary film history."
Martin Knelman, The Toronto Star
"The most revolutionary documentary made in Canada since John Grierson founded the National Film Board."
Stephen Pedersen, The Chronicle Herald
"An ambitious and fascinating exercise in postmodernist filmmaking. ***1/2"
The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
"An elegant, multi-layered film that interrogates the mid-nineteenth historical record on who found the Northwest Passage, tales of cannibalism, and the ever shifting dangers of telling the truth. Using historical re-enactments, documentary footage of actors reading scripts, and a contemporary journey into the Northwest Territories, the film has us re-imagine a doomed voyage of discovery, a Victorian England that refuses to acknowledge that its sailors might have cannibalized one another, an Inuit people seeking justice for their slandered ancestors, and an overlooked but unforgettable Arctic explorer named Dr. John Rae. A compelling story, imaginatively told."
Robb Moss, Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, Harvard University, Filmmaker, The Same River Twice and Secrecy
"John Walker's Passage is a documentary film like no other; it intermingles historical re-creations with story sessions, roundtable discussions, and the actors' own reflections. By doing so, it opens up a dimension of truth missing from much of the documentary tradition since Nanook of the North; it not only admits but foregrounds its own means of production, again and again urging us to pay attention to the proverbial 'man behind the curtain.'
Dr. John Rae was one of the greatest Arctic surveyors and travelers of his era. Through terrain in which seemingly better-equipped men dispatched by the Royal Navy had met with scurvy, starvation, and death, he hunted with such skill that he often had extra food to give to Inuit he met along the way. Whether or not one believes, as does the Canadian author Ken McGoogan, that Rae's survey of the strait which bears his name should be recognized as the true discovery of the Northwest Passage, knowing his story sets the better-known tragedy of the Franklin expedition in a fuller and richer light.
The acting in the dramatic segments of this film is superb. Rick Roberts' portrayal of Rae is absolutely compelling, and in combining the actor's and the viewer's journey to Rae's character, he comes all the more vividly alive. Geraldine Alexander's Lady Jane Franklin is equally vivid, her determination evident in every word and gesture; Alistair Findlay is true to form as Sir John Richardson, and Guy Oliver-Watts does a brief but brilliant turn as Charles Dickens.
In a scene near the end of the film, Walker manages a strange and strangely compelling feat, getting Dickens's great-grandson to make a personal apology to Tagak Curley, a well-known Inuit politician, for his ancestor's harsh judgment of the Inuit people, whom he denounced as savages with 'a domesticity of blood and blubber.' It's a moment that could have happened in no other film."
Dr. Russell Potter, Professor of English, Rhode Island College, Author, Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture, 1818-1875
"The intention of John Walker's spare, graceful film Passage seems clear enough: to tell the story of Dr. John Rae and his discovery of the missing Franklin Arctic Expedition in 1853. Yet nothing in this daring film is straightforward. As much as it chronicles Rae's journey across the Arctic, Passage also traces a journey across time, an encounter with the Victorian world that will mesmerize viewers."
Michael Robinson, Humanities Department, Hillyer College, University of Hartford, Author, The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture
"I found it to be an intricate and quite clever presentation, intellectually rigorous yet delightfully modern...Part debate, part historical reenactment, the story of John Rae's intrepid wanderings in the Canadian Arctic is an insightful and provocative weaving in the tattered cloth of polar history...John Walker's Passage charts a new course in an artful blend of history and perception...In a refreshing blend of formats, combining theater and contemporary discourse with period reenactments, the film facilitates a diverse set of perspectives and voices that resonate as much with the Arctic of the Victorian Age as with the Arctic Nunavut of today."
Dr. Stephen Loring, Arctic Archaeologist and Museum Anthropologist, Arctic Studies Center, Smithsonian Institution
"Thought-provoking...Gives the viewer an odd sense of having 'been there'...The film can be watched for educational enrichment, or for pleasure. It could enhance lessons in history, anthropology, Arctic studies, and even literary studies. It is recommended for high school, college and general adult audiences."
Carrie Macfarlane, Middlebury College, Educational Media Reviews Online
"Intriguing...Particularly interesting are the contemporary interviews with the descendants of the native Inuit, who have incorporated Franklin's story into their cultural heritage...A fascinating film for libraries."
Dwain Thomas, formerly Lake Park High School, School Library Journal
"A combination of stunning visuals of the harshly beautiful northern Canadian landscape, together with a close examination of [John] Rae's life and work...Engaging...Highly Recommended."
"Raise[s] some important issues about cultural differences and cultural perceptions...Suitable for high school and for college courses...in cultural anthropology of exploration/colonialism, anthropology of disasters, and Inuit studies, as well as general audiences."
Jack David Eller, Community College of Denver, Anthropology Review Database
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includes scene selection. For classroom use, choose Scene Selection at the Main Menu. Select Chapter 1. The film will play to the end of Chapter 12 and stop. To play the second half, start at Chapter 13.
Trailer and the film's website
Awards and Festivals
Erik Barnouw Film of the Year Award, Organization of American Historians
Best Director & Best Cinematography, Atlantic Film Festival
Best Documentary Program, 2009 CFTPA Indie Awards
Grand Prize for Best Canadian Program, Banff World Television Festival
Silver Chris Award, Columbus International Film and Video Festival
Hots Docs International Film Festival
Vancouver International Film Festival
Sunny Side of the Doc
Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for Youth
Arctic Film Festival
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"Inventive and intriguing...Walker combines documentary footage with dramatic action in order to place the viewer in a unique atmosphere of antiquity and realism."
Karlene Ooto-Stubbs, The Uniter
"Passage, a truly remarkable piece of historical filmmaking, is a lyrical model of how to construct a historical project while showcasing both the processes of making that history, as well as the changing political stakes of a specific historical narrative over time. The film's historical subject is Sir John Franklin's doomed expedition to discover the Northwest Passage; the shocking report of Hudson's Bay physician John Rae, who found evidence in 1851 that the starving crew had resorted to cannibalism in their last days; and the British counter-narrative which blamed the Inuit for the crew's death, rather than accept Rae's report of cannibalism. Formally, filmmaker John Walker constructs a documentary within a documentary: we see the film crew making the documentary, period costume and all, in the Arctic, in Rae's childhood home in Scotland's Orkney Islands, and in London, while also pursuing (in contemporary garb) the contested historical evidence. As the film unfolds, we learn the extent to which
the Victorian narrative of Inuit treachery continues to shape some contemporary understandings of the Franklin expedition. The film's narrative tension builds to an explosive meeting in the boardroom of the British Royal Navy, as Tagak Curley, an honored Inuit statesman, confronts the ongoing, contemporary production of a narrative of British heroism and Inuit savagery. For its unparalleled brilliance in showcasing the historical consequences of making choices in the production of historical narrative, Passage is exemplary for the 'promotion of history,' a central criteria of the Erik Barnouw Award."
Organization of American Historians