The Newfoundland Museum, when still on Duckworth Street, had a small collection of films to screen for visitors. The first one I ever showed was The Viking. I had never heard of the film or the story behind it. After I got the reel running, I stood in the doorway to make sure it was working okay. And I began watching. Finally I pulled a chair over so I could watch the movie more comfortably while also keeping an eye on the lobby. It was spellbinding – the 1930 seal hunt with ice and cold and deprivation, and a romance and survival story.
Later I learned that the sealing ship, SS Viking, had exploded during the filming and 27 men had died. One of them was the film’s producer Varick Frissell, along with his dog Cabot. The real life story was as filled with ice and cold and deprivation as the fictional one, and it had a much worse ending.
I read Earl B. Pilgrim’s book The Day of Varick Frissell. It is wonderful. Pilgrim tells how Frissell came to Newfoundland and how he came up with the idea for a movie he called White Thunder and got practical and financial backing for it. The Viking sailed to the sealing grounds with a film crew aboard. She had two captains for that 1930 voyage: Captain Sid Jones commanded her and real-life captain and explorer Bob Bartlett portrayed her captain in the movie.
Frissell didn’t get the dramatic shots of the huge ice fields, the “white thunder,” that he wanted. The following year, in March of 1931, the film crew sailed with the Viking again with Captain Abram Kean Jr. in command. The objective was less to seal and more to film, and dynamite, the northerly ice fields. The journey soon became disastrous, due to human error as much as nature.
Loss of the SS Viking
Pilgrim includes a full list of all aboard the Viking on her final voyage and of the men who lost their lives on her. Despite the loss of the ship and men and presumably the footage shot on that second journey, the film was released in 1931 as The Viking.
It is a tribute to the men who sailed on the Viking and other sealing vessels. It is also a tribute to Varick Frissell who saw the beauty in the sea-ice and the men who battled it every spring. He also believed it was important to share that dangerous beauty with a world that enjoyed seal fur without thinking of the rigour of its production. Pilgrim’s book pays further tribute by giving us a glimpse of the real and tragic events, through reconstruction of known facts and surmise of what may have happened. He tells also of romance in Frissell’s life, with a Grenfell Mission nurse named Sarah who came from north of St. Anthony. If her existence is fact, I wonder who she was.
The Day of Varick Frissel is available on Amazon. If you are connected to the Northern Peninsula Kean family of ship captains, you’ll be especially interested in this story. If you would like to see the movie, you no longer have to wait for a museum attendant to show it. You can buy it here on Amazon. Brooklyn newspaper accounts are here.