In 1896 an American whaling ship in Artic waters loses one of its boats when a harpooned whale carries the small craft too far into the ice. The crew is left for dead, but three survive. They are rescued and graciously absorbed into the life of an Eskimo tribe living on the coast of Baffin Island. The leader of the clan, Sarkak, hopes that they will bring good fortune — these "dog-children": Daggert (Timothy Bottoms), an amiable youth; Portagee (Lou-Gossett), a strong black harpooner; and Billy (Warren Oates), a cunning and cantankerous second mate. Of the three, Daggett adapts best to the ways of the Eskimos. He begins to learn their language, entertain them with his drawings, wins the friendship of Sarak's son Kangiak, and falls in love with Sarak's youngest wife Neevee.

But the wandering Shaman suspects the three foreigners. His fears prove to be well founded. Billy introduces gambling to the Eskimos; Portagee turns violent in a friendly wrestling match with an Eskimo boy; and the strangers create havoc in the camp with some home-made liquor. The resultant clash between the three men and the tribe is tragic and depressing. The drives and consuming desires of the "dog-children" upset the balance of life within the Eskimo community.

Director Philip Kaufman has drawn out fine performances from the three leading characters and some surprisingly beautiful acting from the Eskimos: Simonie Kapapik as Sarkak, Joanasie Salomonie as Kangiak, and Pilitak as Neevee. The White Dawn is one of those unforgettable film experiences where everything — cinematography, music, acting — coheres in a unified and rewarding work of art.