Science | March 14, 2020 2:43 pm

How a Disney Documentary Misled the World About Lemmings

The 1958 film "White Wilderness" misled generations of viewers

Look at this fuzzy little guy!
kgleditsch/Creative Commons

When you think of lemmings, what comes to mind? Most likely, after decades of pop-culture portrayals, you’re imagining a small furry creature heading to its death with hundreds of its compatriots. But it turns out that might not be entirely accurate — in fact, lemmings do not engage in such practices. But it turns out that a lot of people believe they do. Why, exactly, is that?

Writing at Hyperallergic, Nathan Smith explored the legacy of the 1958 Disney documentary White Wilderness — a film which was initially made available on Disney+, but pulled down soon after its launch.

At the time of its release, one of the most striking aspects of White Wilderness was a scene of lemmings launching themselves to their deaths off of a cliff. Unfortunately, this was not remotely accurate. Smith explains how that scene was created:

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.

It’s worth mentioning here that White Wilderness was not an obscure curiosity — it won the 1958 Academy Award for Best Documentary. And scientists have been criticizing it for its incorrect portrayal of lemming behavior ever since. Admittedly, it’s not the most inaccurate nature documentary ever. But it does go a long way towards explaining how misconceptions like this can spread unabated.

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