We have all heard of the mass suicide of cute little Arctic lemmings, but has anyone ever seen it? You have if you’ve seen the Walt Disney True Life Adventure called White Wilderness (1958), directed by James Algar. And the reason you’ve seen it is because the filmmakers faked it. According to the Alaska Fish & Wildlife News in September 2003:
According to a 1983 investigation by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation producer Brian Vallee, the lemming scenes were faked. The lemmings supposedly committing mass suicide by leaping into the ocean were actually thrown off a cliff by the Disney filmmakers. The epic “lemming migration” was staged using careful editing, tight camera angles and a few dozen lemmings running on snow covered lazy-Susan style turntable.
“White Wilderness” was filmed in Alberta, Canada, a landlocked province, and not on location in lemmings’ natural habitat. There are about 20 lemming species found in the circumpolar north—but evidently not in that area of Alberta. So the Disney people bought lemmings from Inuit children a couple provinces away in Manitoba and staged the whole sequence.
In the lemming segment, the little rodents assemble for a mass migration, scamper across the tundra and ford a tiny stream as narrator Winston Hibbler explains that, “A kind of compulsion seizes each tiny rodent and, carried along by an unreasoning hysteria, each falls into step for a march that will take them to a strange destiny.”
That destiny is to jump into the ocean. As they approach the “sea,” (actually a river—more tight cropping) Hibbler continues, “They’ve become victims of an obsession—a one-track thought: Move on! Move on!”
The “pack of lemmings” reaches the final precipice. “This is the last chance to turn back,” Hibbler states. “Yet over they go, casting themselves out bodily into space.”
Faking documentaries is nothing new to the film industry. In the famous early documentary Nanook of the North (1922), filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty had to teach his Eskimos how to build an igloo. And the women who were supposedly the star’s wives were actually Flaherty’s common-law wives, who happened to be Inuit. So much for verisimilitude!