White Wilderness controversy explained as Disney documentary resurfaces

Eve Edwards September 5, 2022
White Wilderness controversy explained as Disney documentary resurfaces
Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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Controversy surrounding a 1950s Disney nature documentary has taken over TikTok, with users speculating on whether the film studio led lemmings to an untimely death – it’s as mad as it sounds, trust us.

Throughout the 1950s, Walt Disney Productions created a number of nature documentaries using the power of Technicolor as it was popularised in film. Many of those documentaries ended up in the True-Life Adventures series, filmed between 1948 and 1960.

Although Disney had found worldwide fame via the animation industry, documentaries proved equally successful as the True-Life Adventure series won the studio eight Academy Awards.

However, some scenes have been called into question in recent years, notably White Wilderness and one particular feature involving lemmings.

Photo by LMPC via Getty Images

White Wilderness premieres in 1958

Walt Disney Productions kicked off its nature documentary wave with Seal Island (1948), followed by Beaver Valley (1950), and Nature’s Half Acre (1951). From 1948 to 1960, the studio released 19 nature documentaries, some short-form, others feature-length.

White Wilderness came towards the latter end of Disney’s nature documentary wave. It was released in 1958, the same year as Grand Canyon and Ama Girls, which won an Oscar at the 31st Academy Awards (1959) for Documentary Short Subject. White Wilderness would also find success at the 31st Academy Awards, taking home Best Documentary Feature.

The film was directed by James Algar and narrated by Winston Hibler.

New York Times trumpets White Wilderness and that lemmings scene

On August 13, 1958, The New York Times covered the opening of White Wilderness in US movie theaters. Explaining how the movie was made, Times journalist Howard Thompson also touched on some of the documentary’s most memorable scenes.

Thompson said of the now-infamous lemmings scene: “One eerie, hypnotic sequence shows a colony of lemmings making their traditional, mysterious ‘death march’ to the sea, where the jittery little mammals sail off a cliff like tiny parachutes.”

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Controversy resurfaces on TikTok

In the decades since its release, White Wilderness has been called out for propagating the myth that lemmings leap to their death from cliffs.

More than two decades after White Wilderness was released, CBC Television’s The Fifth Estate broadcast a documentary entitled Cruel Camera (1982). Cruel Camera explored animal cruelty in Hollywood and White Wilderness was one of the program’s major targets.

In Cruel Camera, Bob McKeown claims the lemming scene wasn’t filmed in the Arctic, as the documentary put forth, but at Bow River near Calgary, Canada. McKeown also interviewed an expert on lemmings who disputed many of the documentary’s claims, including the idea they would jump from cliffs. He also claimed the species of lemmings featured in White Wilderness didn’t migrate.

The Focus has reached out to The Walt Disney Company for comment.

TikTok is home to people who love deep-dives and conspiracy theories, so when users caught whiff of the White Wilderness controversy, it quickly went viral.

A TikTok user named The Suit Historian has created videos about the White Wilderness controversy, which have been picked up and reposted.

The lemmings seen are ‘the wrong species’

The claims about lemmings jumping from cliffs to their death is one that has been widely believed since the White Wilderness footage was released in 1958. In the decades since, scientists, anthropologists and the like have disproven the idea.

One expert, Henry Nicholls, told the BBC (via Smithsonian Magazine): “For a start, White Wilderness – filmed in Canada rather than Scandinavia – depicts the wrong species. Although all lemmings experience population highs and lows, the accounts of mass movements were all based on observations of Norwegian lemmings, not the brown lemmings Disney used.”

In the infamous sequence, lemmings reach the edge of a cliff as the voiceover states: “This is the last chance to turn back, yet over they go, casting themselves bodily out into space.”

However, the Smithsonian piece also quotes an accusation by Nils Christian Stenseth, of the University of Oslo, who claims: “They didn’t march to the sea. They were tipped into it from [a] truck.”

A Britannia article entitled Do Lemmings Really Commit Mass Suicide? states: “This myth is based on actual lemming behaviors. Lemmings have large population booms every three or four years. When the concentration becomes too high in one area, a large group will set out in search of a new home. Lemmings can swim, so if they reach water, such as a river or lake, they may try to cross it. Inevitably, a few individuals drown. But it’s hardly suicide.”

Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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Eve spends her days writing about everything culture-related. From celebrity news to music, film and television, Eve covers all bases. When she’s not writing you can find her making music or mastering the art of homemade pasta.