White Wilderness is an Academy Award winning nature documentary produced by Walt Disney Productions in 1958 noted for its splendid visuals as well as its propagation of the myth of lemming suicide.
The film was directed by James Algar and narrated by Winston Hibler. It was filmed on location in Canada (specifically Alberta and Manitoba) and Alaska over the course of three years. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
White Wilderness contains a scene that supposedly depicts a mass lemming migration, and ends with the lemmings leaping to their deaths 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 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation news magazine The Fifth Estate broadcast a documentary about animal cruelty in Hollywood, 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.
In popular culture
The scene of lemmings leaping off a cliff in White Wilderness was used as political metaphor in a campaign ad promoting Andrew Monroe Rice, an Oklahoma candidate in the 2008 U.S. Senate race. White Wilderness was the inspiration for 1988 Dead Kennedys song Potshot Heard Round the World. The film also inspired the theme of the video game Lemmings.