White Wilderness (film)

White Wilderness

Original poster
Directed by James Algar
Produced by Ben Sharpsteen, Walt Disney
Written by James Algar
Narrated by Winston Hibler
Edited by Norman R. Palmer
Distributed by Buena Vista Distribution
Release dates
  • August 12, 1958 (1958-08-12)
Running time
72 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $1.8 million (est. US/ Canada rentals)[1]

White Wilderness is an American nature documentary produced by Walt Disney Productions in 1958 noted for its propagation of the misconception of lemming suicide.

The film was directed by James Algar and narrated by Winston Hibler. It was filmed on location in Canada over the course of three years. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.[2]


White Wilderness contains a scene that supposedly depicts a mass lemming migration, and ends with the lemmings leaping into the Arctic Ocean. There have been some reports that the Disney film describes this as an actual suicidal action by the lemmings, but the narrator in the film states that the lemmings are likely not attempting suicide, but rather are migrating and upon encountering water, attempt to cross it. If the water they attempt to cross is too wide, they suffer exhaustion and drown.

In 1982, the CBC Television news magazine program The Fifth Estate broadcast a documentary about animal cruelty in Hollywood called "Cruel Camera", focusing on White Wilderness as well as the television program Wild Kingdom. Bob McKeown, the host of the CBC program, found that the lemming scene was filmed at the Bow River near downtown Calgary and not at the Arctic Ocean as implied by the film. He found out that the lemmings did not voluntarily jump into the river but were pushed in by a rotating platform installed by the film crew. He also interviewed a lemming expert who claimed that the particular species of lemming shown in the film is not known to migrate, much less commit mass suicide. He also discovered that footage of a polar bear cub falling down an Arctic ice slope was really filmed in a Calgary film studio.[3][4]

It remains unclear if Walt Disney was notified or approved of the lemming incident.

Marlin Perkins was indirectly accused of being involved in similar controversies, and took umbrage, striking CBC journalist Bob McKeown who challenged Perkins in an interview as to whether he had ever done something of that sort. Perkins, then in his seventies, "firmly asked for the camera to be turned off, then punched a shocked McKeown in the face." [5]

The 1976 Graham Parker signature tune "Don't Ask Me Questions," which hit the Top 40 in the UK,[6] contains the line "Well I see the thousands screaming, rushing for the cliffs, just like lemmings into the sea."

The band The Lemmings from Berkeley, California, used the image of cars driving off a cliff on the cover of their 1983 album Running.[7] This image was re-created in a mural on a wall of Barrington Hall. Their song "The Sea" included the lyric, "The sea will grow larger with our fall."

White Wilderness was the inspiration for 1988 Dead Kennedys song "Potshot Heard Round the World".[8]

The film also inspired the theme of the 1991 video game Lemmings.

The Blink-182 song entitled "Lemmings," from their 1997 album Dude Ranch, contains the line, "People are what they want to be/ They're not lemmings to the sea". This is an obvious reference to the myth as depicted in the documentary.

The scene of lemmings leaping off a cliff in White Wilderness was used as political metaphor in a campaign ad promoting Andrew Monroe Rice,[9] an Oklahoma candidate in the 2008 US Senate race.

See also


  1. "1959: Probable Domestic Take", Variety, January 6, 1960 p 34
  2. "NY Times: White Wilderness". NY Times. Retrieved November 8, 2008.
  3. Cruelty to Animals in the Entertainment Business, CBC News
  4. "Snopes.com suicides". Retrieved July 12, 2009.
  5. "How We Work - the fifth estate". Archived from the original on October 11, 2012. Retrieved 26 April 2014.
  6. Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.
  7. Lemmings album cover
  8. Dead Kennedys official website
  9. Andrew Rice campaign website
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