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In 1914, famed photographer Edward Curtis (1868-1952) produced this
melodramatic, silent film. The first feature-length film to exclusively
star Native North Americans (eight years before Robert Flaherty made
his documentary "Nanook of the North"), it features non- professional
actors from Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl) communities in British Columbiaa
people already famous then for their spectacular visual culture and
performances. The film was only screened a few times on both coasts,
accompanied by a live musical score composed by John Braham (1848-1919;
best known for his work with Gilbert and Sullivan in New York) that was
based in part on Curtis's c.1910 wax-cylinder field recordings of songs
and chants. A critical success but a financial disappointment, Curtis
quickly abandoned it.
The film was largely forgotten for decades until it was restored and re-edited around 1970 by Bill Holm and George Quimby, at which point its name was changed to "In the Land of the War Canoes." This version is marked by a slightly restructured narrative, the addition of new, less sensational inter-titles, and a new Kwakwaka'wakw-produced soundtrack of music, sound effects, and dialog (it is currently released by Milestone Films). Until now, all contemporary scholars have relied upon this re-edited version in their appraisals and analyses of Curtis's film.
Recently, Brad Evans has examined the original, silent cut of the film (via a black and white, 16mm copy at the Field Museum in Chicago, the same that Holm and Quimby used), which retains Curtis's narrative structure and inter-titles (see bibliography below). In addition, the UCLA Film and TV Archive (Los Angeles) has discovered three nitrate reels from the original filmcomplete with extensive tinting and toning as well as a whole scene absent from the Field copywhich have never been examined by film scholars. Meanwhile, Aaron Glass located the original musical score (at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles), and the original Curtis field recordings (at the Archive of Traditional Music in Bloomington, Indiana). None of this material has been presented publicly since 1915.
A project is now underway to reunite the film with the music commissioned for it (and the Native music which inspired that), and present it at screenings in the summer of 2008 with the involvement of indigenous people who participated in its making. The project promises to restore a number of important, historical elements to better contextualize Curtis's original vision for his film: its title, inter-titles, melodramatic narrative, tinted colors, and music. At the same time, presenting the film today with current Kwakwaka'wakw performers will reframe the film from being a document of the "vanishing races" to being visual evidence of cultural survival during the colonial era.
For more information, see www.curtisfilm.rutgers.edu.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Tuesday June 10, 7:00pm The Moore, Seattle
Native Americans played a prominent role in early motion pictures. Scenarios often included warfare, a love story and public celebrations, but the Indians most often played antagonists. Avoiding these established clichés, photographer Edward Curtis produced In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914), with a cast of Pacific Northwest Indians. The film included warfare, celebrations and a love story.
The son of a tribal chieftain competes with a sorcerer for the love of a girl. Their conflict leads to kidnapping, warfare and murder.
British Columbia's Kwakiutl Indians used the opportunity to participate in ceremonial traditions made illegal by the Potlatch Prohibition (1884-1951), while creating a portrait of their pre-historic ancestors. In the Land of the Head Hunters was also intended to raise funds for Curtis' ongoing ethnological studies.
Most extraordinary in this film are the details of costumed celebrations, beautiful wood carvings and a romantic sense of tribal marine society.
Land of the War Canoes is a black and white silent film remastered in
1973. Mainly they added a sound track. All the dialogue is in Kwakiutl
without subtitles. The film is in terrible shape. It needs modern day
digital retouching to fix the wildly fluctuating exposure levels and
It is a surprisingly long film. The plot is two tribes warring over a female. It has sorcery, head hunting, whale hunting, many tipped canoes.
The best parts are the athletic dancers in clever costumes to mimic various birds, animals and insects.
Everybody looks the same, so it hard to keep track of who is fighting whom.
The main value of the film is how alien it is. None of the attitudes, dress, food, customs... is familiar. The beauty of the film comes from the many elegant war canoes.
Okay, first off, check the date - "In the Land of the Head Hunters" is
a reconstructed and remastered print of a film made in 1914, by Edward
S. Curtis, known mostly now as a photographer and ethnographer. As
such, it is entirely of its time - i.e., racist, sexist and certainly
specious in its depiction of a First Nations people. But valuable for
all of that. The story line, for what it's worth, concerns a young son
of a tribal chief who does his manhood rituals, falls in love and
marries the daughter of another tribe's chieftain; this upsets the
Sorceror, brother of yet another tribal chief who wanted the girl for
himself - mayhem ensues, mostly in canoes but also on land, until
eventually the good guy prevails. It's simplistic and definitely racist
- the people are portrayed as quaintly primitive, the women are
completely subservient to the men, and the main occupation of the
tribes involves war and cutting off the heads of enemies.
Given that this is actually set in the Pacific Northwest, between Washington State, USA, and British Columbia, Canada, the whole head- hunting aspect is completely off. Not to mention the "primitive" label - these peoples were highly sophisticated, just not in a form recognized (at the time) by Europeans. But the positives in this film are quite striking too. First of all, the actors are all actual members of the Kwakwaka'wakw Nation, from Vancouver Island, and the costumes, totem poles and especially the special dances are all authentic. The story, by white director Curtis, is worthless; as a bit of filmed historical information, however, the movie is quite valuable. Many scenes were lost over the past 100 years, and the restorers opted to insert still photographs (also by Curtis, of the same people) to bridge the gaps, which doesn't work all that well dramatically, but is again useful as an historical artifact; they also were able to restore the original orchestral soundtrack, which adds drama to this silent movie. Certainly not for everyone, but film historians and anthropologists might find something of value here.
I really would not venture to give this silent film a score--it is not
a film in the traditional sense and probably has very little value to
the average viewer. However, at the same time it IS of tremendous value
to anthropologists, ethnographers and the like, as it records a way of
life that has long disappeared--even if the manner in which it is
presented is less than satisfying.
In 1914, Edward S. Curtis released a documentary film about the Kwakiutl Indians--a tribe living near Vancouver in the Pacific Northwest. However, this film was later cut apart and pieced together in the early 1970s and music, sound effects and native dialog were clumsily added. I was not able to see the original version and I doubt if it is available (another reviewer said this is a restoration work in progress).
Style wise, the film is very old fashioned. Like only the early films, intertitle cards described (at length) what was about to happen in the following scenes instead of telling as or after the events occurred. This made viewing a tad tedious. Also, the story about Indian wars and violence seemed artificial (as it was) and I have no idea if the Kwakiutl ever hunted heads or behaved the way they do in the film--as instead of a true documentary, the end product is a romanticized version of the tribe. This damages the value of the film for professors from the University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and the like--all schools that have large and well-respected Ethnographic/Anthropological Studies departments. But, at the same time, as it DOES show native dances, costumes, animal costumes and the like, it is like gold to these same people. To the average non-academic, however, the films are probably of little lasting interest--though I know that this would disappoint many.
To me, this was mildly interesting as I am a true cinemaniac and my daughter studies this sort of stuff in college and has infused some of her enthusiasm in me....a bit. But, I certainly would not like a steady diet of this sort of film. As for me, I prefer later and better presented films like "Nanook of the North".
Edwin S. Curtis's primary medium was still photography; he took pictures of aborigines. This documentary about the Kwakiutls of British Columbia contains some nice images--especially those from a buoyant camera within a canoe. The animal costumes and collecting of heads is worth looking at. The story that Curtis attached to his ethnographic record is uninteresting and untrustworthy, though. The films of Robert Flaherty to the films of Michael Moore have been accused of fictionalization, but at least those narratives, true to documentary film-making or not, are entertaining. As far as making the subject interesting to me, Curtis failed. The documentary itself, however, is very old--the earliest feature-length documentary I've seen. The film itself more so than the subject has become the artifact of interest.
"The plotters, anticipating Motana's death, "mourn" him as his hair,
into the bodies of toads, smokes over their fire" reads one of the title
cards. This is, after all, a documentary about the Kwakiutl Indians. And
yet, clearly, it is a directed story film. It's an unusual sort of film
these days, limited to "novel and astonishing works of unprefigured
like THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY, but in reality, this is how documentaries
started. Flaherty "cheated" by modern standards on NANOOK OF THE NORTH.
CHANG has a story line imposed on it. While unedited footage of Kwakiutl
Indians carving totem poles might have been a big draw in 1896, by 1914
sophisticated filmgoer demanded more: a story line. And so we had this,
modern standard, odd .... well, call it a "mockumentary", but not in the
sense of a Christopher Guest film. We see real Kwakiutls in real Kwakiutl
regalia dancing real Kwakiutl war dances aboard real Kwakiutl war canoes.
It's just that it's edited together and given titles to make it a story.
Interestingly, although a story film, this movie survives because it was saved at a couple of museums. So what can we make of it?
Well, make of it what you want. A feature film from the dawn of feature films; fascinating shots of Kwakiutl Indians when they still did these things. Do you want egg in your beer?
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