Promotional image for White Wilderness (courtesy Disney)

If you’ve browsed the film selection on Disney+, it’s clear that the streaming service was curated to project a very specific image. The family-oriented platform offers a spotless selection of good, clean classics from the studio’s vault, along with non-Disney titles that also conform to its warm, wholesome image, like The Sound of Music and Home Alone. The House of Mouse now owns the rights to an unfathomable amount of content, which makes what’s not available on Disney+ as glaringly apparent as what is. Unsurprising but particularly glaring was the omission of 1946’s Song of the South, Disney’s racist adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories. But if the film that gave us “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” is Disney’s Birth of a Nation, then the Oscar-winning 1958 nature documentary White Wilderness is its Nanook of the North. It’s not the most inflammatory film in the company’s catalog, but it’s still an ethically thorny landmark. Though White Wilderness was on Disney+ at launch, the look at Arctic life was removed at the beginning of the year, along with a handful of other titles. This was likely because of a lack of interest in an old nature documentary, but it also dovetails nicely with Disney’s self-censoring impulse.

YouTube video

White Wilderness was an installment in the True-Life Adventures series, Disney’s first foray into nonfiction filmmaking and the precursor to Disneynature, its modern-day subsidiary which produces films like African Cats and Born in China. Almost all of the True-Life Adventures films were helmed by James Algar, a Disney animator best-known for the iconic Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment of Fantasia. (Later in his career, he’d write the script for Disneyland’s uncanny animatronic Abraham Lincoln.) The first installment in the series was the 1948 short film Seal Island. In the postwar period, Disney was nowhere near the monolith it is today. The film’s distribution was handled by RKO, which initially balked at the idea of putting a nature documentary in theaters — they only caved to a national release after it won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject, the first of many for the series. An obviously biased article by a Disney historian sees Walt Disney’s desire to make nature documentaries as humanitarian in nature, motivated by his concern for a “vanishing frontier.” 

In an unexpected way, documentary filmmaking laid the groundwork for the Magic Kingdom’s monopolistic stranglehold on contemporary media. After RKO refused to distribute the first feature-length True-Life Adventures doc, 1953’s The Living Desert, the companies went their separate ways, and it became the first film released under Disney’s new banner Buena Vista Distribution. The Living Desert went on to win the Best Documentary Oscar that year and surpass Gone With the Wind to become the highest-grossing film ever in Japan at the time. Disney would keep diversifying beyond animation, eventually becoming the behemoth we know today.

YouTube video

The True-Life Adventures films are not especially different from the Disney films that had come before, with Bambi as a clear narrative template. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther hardly distinguished between Disney’s documentaries and its animated work, writing that “the Disney boys are as playful with nature pictures as they are with cartoons.” He’d go further in his review of The Living Desert

[The films] hold up a mirror to nature, but the mirror isn’t always flat and clear. Sometimes it is willfully angled or distorted for the sake of a gag. Thus, in this random documentation of the fauna that still may be found in certain parts of the great American prairie lying east of the Continental Divide, they have mixed such sober observation as that brief shot of the birth of a buffalo with such trickery as a metronomic montage of mountain rams banging their heads together in time to ‘The Anvil Chorus’ … They simply desire to shape and order nature so that it will captivate and amuse.

Despite the intended family friendly appeal and their award-winning streak, the series wasn’t without controversy. Critics like Crowther regularly knocked them for excessive “goriness.” In 1954, New York state censors banned The Vanishing Prairie for its depiction of a live buffalo birth, only allowing the film to be screened after the ACLU filed a complaint on Disney’s behalf. But the biggest True-Life Adventures scandal didn’t emerge until decades after the last installment came out. In 1982, the Canadian newsmagazine The Fifth Estate broadcast Cruel Camera, an investigation of animal cruelty in the film industry by reporter Bob McKeown, which gave special emphasis to the many trickeries of True-Life Adventures

YouTube video

According to nature filmmaker Bill Carrick, The Living Desert was all fake. The filmmakers constructed “little studios” and sets, in which spiders and insects were wrangled and directed. The filmic forgery reached another level with White Wilderness, which famously shows the “death march” of a legion of lemmings flinging themselves off a cliff. In his review, critic Howard Thompson called the depiction of supposed lemming mass suicide “eerie” and “hypnotic.” Narrator Winston Hibbler describes the lemmings as “victims of obsession,” driven toward the sea (actually a river) before “casting themselves out bodily into space.” 

It’s a fraudulent segment on a number of levels. First, the sequence wasn’t even filmed in the Arctic, but in Alberta, Canada, where lemmings do not live. Lemmings also don’t throw themselves off cliffs — it’s a widely believed but misguided myth that the small species is prone to mass suicide, one propagated in large part by White Wilderness. Carrick, who was a cameraman on the production, alleged that the filmmakers paid kids in Manitoba 25 cents to wrangle lemmings and then transport them south for filming. The crew members constructed spinning turntables covered in snow to jostle the lemmings and send them tumbling, and then proceeded to throw them off the cliff . The resulting footage was edited to make the mass animal killing look like natural suicide. 

Disney’s intention with the True-Life Adventures series might have been conservational, but White Wilderness helped spread a scientific fiction that experts have devoted enormous effort to debunking. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game has published an excellent investigation of some of the more specific lemming-related inaccuracies in White Wilderness. Of course, Mickey Mouse doesn’t have a monopoly on misinformation; inaccuracy and even outright forgery are hardly unusual in nature documentaries. The case of White Wilderness illustrates how, to a media empire, nonfiction film isn’t a means of uncovering truth; it’s just another product. Disney might be able to rewrite its own history by suppressing a film or removing it from a streaming service, but nature is harder to change.

White Wilderness is no longer on Disney+, but can still be streamed on various other platforms.

Nadine Smith is a writer, DJ, and co-host of the podcast Hotbox the Cinema. Her work has appeared in publications like the New York Times Magazine, Pitchfork, the Outline, Bandcamp Daily, Observer, and...