IN THE LAND OF THE HEAD HUNTERS (Edward S. Curtis, 1914, USA, 65m, BW)
In the Land of the War Canoes
In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)
Directed by Edward S. Curtis
Written by Edward S. Curtis
Starring Maggie Frank
Cinematography Edmund August Schwinke
Distributed by World Film Company
December 7, 1914
Country United States
Language silent film
In the Land of the Head Hunters (also called In the Land of the War Canoes) is a 1914 silent film fictionalizing the world of the Kwakwaka'wakw peoples of the Queen Charlotte Strait region of the Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada, written and directed by Edward S. Curtis and acted entirely by Kwakwaka'wakw native people. The film was selected in 1999 for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant." It was the first feature-length film whose cast was composed entirely of Native North Americans; the second, eight years later, was Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North. It was the first feature film made in British Columbia, and is the oldest surviving feature film made in Canada.
The following plot synopsis was published in conjunction with a 1915 showing of the film at Carnegie Hall:
To gain power from the spirit forces, Motana, a great chief's son, goes on a vigil-journey. But though the tribal law forbids the thought of woman during the fasting, his dreams are ever of Naida; her face appearing in the coilng smoke of the prayer-fire he builds high upon a mountain peak. To forfend the anger of the spirits he must pass a stronger ordeal. He sleeps upon the Island of the Dead, then hunts and kills the whale; and raids the clustered sea-lion rookeries, a whole day's paddle out to sea.
Naida is wooed and won by Motana, and splendid is the wooing. But Naida, with her dowry, is coveted by the Sorcerer. He is evil, old and ugly. Waket, Naida's father fears the baleful “medicine” of the Sorcerer, and also stands in dread of the Sorcerer's brother, who is Yaklus, “the short life bringer,” and the head-hunting scourge of all the coast. Waket promises Naida to the Sorcerer. So then begins the Indian Trojan war.
Motana and his father, Kenada, and their clan resolve to rid the region of the head hunters. In their great canoes they attack the village of the Sorcerer and Yaklus. The Sorcerer's head they bring to prove his death to those who believed him “deathless.” But Yaklus escapes. After the wedding of Motana and Naida, with pomp of primitive pageantry, and dancing and feasting, in which the throngs of two great totem villages take part, Yaklus attacks and burns Motana's village. Motana is left for dead. Naida is carried away into captivity. Wild is the reveling that follows at the village of Yaklus. The beauty of Naida’s dancing saves her life. Naida’s slave boy, a fellow captive, escapes. His message brings Motana, who rescues Naida by stealth. The raging Yaklus pursues. Motana, hard pressed, dares the waters of the surging gorge of Hyal. His canoe flies through, but Yaklus is overwhelmed and drowned.
Documentary or melodrama?
In the Land of the Head Hunters has often been discussed as a flawed documentary film. The film combines many accurate representations of aspects of Kwakwaka'wakw culture, art, and technology from the era in which it was made with a melodramatic plot based on practices that either dated from long before the first contact of the Kwakwaka'wakw with people of European descent or were entirely fictional. Curtis appears never to have specifically presented the film as a documentary, but he also never specifically called it a work of fiction.
Some aspects of the film do have documentary accuracy: the artwork, the ceremonial dances, the clothing, the architecture of the buildings, and the construction of the dugout, or a war canoe reflected Kwakwaka'wakw culture. Other aspects of the film were based on the Kwakwaka'wakw's orally transmitted traditions or on aspects of other neighboring cultures. The film also accurately portrays Kwakwaka'wakw rituals that were, at the time, prohibited by Canada's potlatch prohibition, enacted in 1884 and not rescinded until 1951.
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.
This film about the Kwakwaka’wakw people of British Columbia is, according to Wikipedia, the oldest surviving film made in Canada. It is not truly a documentary, although it was made by an ethnologist and is a document of some aspects of the lives of Canadian First Nations people. However, it has a storyline written by its (white) director, Edward S Curtis, and which the actors clearly understood to be fictional. All of the actors are genuine Kwakwaka’wakw, so it’s a rather unusual mixture of truth and illusion – just as most documentaries are, I suppose. The story involves a young warrior who falls in love with a girl promised to an evil sorcerer, and how he and his tribe fight the sorcerer and his relations in order to free the young couple to marry. It is interesting to note that neither side consists of classically Western “individuals,” they all depend on their social group to achieve their ends. Also interesting are the clear depictions of rituals, costumes, and carvings such as those on the canoes, all of which are quite exotic compared to what one sees in Hollywood Westerns of the time. The movie was apparently a failure financially, either because audiences weren’t receptive or because of bad distribution.
A curiosity piece from the days of the silents. The early cinema landmark film is worth seeing for both film buffs and followers of Native American culture. In 1911, the gifted Northwest photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) came to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to do research and take pictures of the traditional native tribe of the Kwakwaka'wakw. Curtis ended up making for posterity a movie of their lifestyle, but did so by fabricating a tribal warring love story. The film's first disc is entitled "In The Land of the Head Hunters" and the second disc is entitled "In the Land of the War Canoes."
This historically significant film was made over a period of three years, and documents this particular Native American world before it was to vanish. The cast is entirely Native American and the traditions uncovered are said to be authentic (such as rituals, ceremonial dances and chanting), but their village sites were altered and a fictional head hunter war story is added to spice it up to be more melodramatic. In some scenes, it even substitutes the beaches of LA for the tribal villages. The tribe fully co-operated in this project. Of note, it was the first feature-length film to exclusively star Native North Americans. Though greatly impressing the critics, the film bombed at the box office. It was all but forgotten. But in 1973, using a copy found in 1947 in a Chicago dumpster and given to Chicago's Field Museum of History, it was re-edited by Bill Holm and George Quimby and re-released. The disc entitled "In the Land of the War Canoes," played for forty minutes.
Curtis's film is an exciting adventure story. The young man Motana, the son of his village's tribal chief, Kenada, is going through the spiritual tribe ritual for manhood on the desolate Island of the Dead. During this ritual, he must get on his own a whale and a sea lion while achieving supernatural powers. While in retreat Motana meets a beauty from another village, Naida, the daughter of neighboring chief Wakeda, and falls in love with her. The problem is Naida has been promised by her father to an evil sorcerer. As tribal custom goes, if Motana can bring back that sorcerer's head, he can marry the girl. This will prove to be no easy task, as the jealous elderly sorcerer orders his daughter to steal a lock of Motana's hair and his cedar neck-ring so he can place on him a death curse. The second disc depicts how Motana was saved from the curse by the sorcerer's lovelorn daughter and that Motana married Nadia after he achieved his end of the bargain. It ends in savage tribal warfare, with the hero taking back, in a daring war canoe rescue, his kidnapped wife from Yaklus--the brother of the dead sorcerer.
Make no mistake, though, this is an adventure story first and foremost, telling the tale of Motana, the son of a village chief sent out on a "vigil" to prove his worthiness. While there, he meets Naida, the daughter of another chief, who is promised to a sorcerer. If Motana can bring back that sorcerer's head, he can marry the girl, but assassinating such a man is seldom going to be a tidy way to end things. So there will be battles.
It's an exciting story, and while Curtis was primarily a still photographer famed for his pictures of Native Americans, he put an exciting narrative together. Though Head Hunters is only about an hour long, that was a full-length feature in 1914, and it's one that hits the ground running and seldom lets up. There are chases, battles, dreams, and all manner of other action, and while some intrigue and romantic plots fall a bit by the wayside, even a modern audience will seldom feel bored. It's a cracker, even a hundred years later.
Of course, part of the reason Curtis made this movie is to document the Kwakwaka'wakw people of the Canada's west coast, and while what he made was shot on locations purpose-built for the film rather than actual Kwakwaka'wakw villages, the cast is entirely Native American and the techniques are said to be authentic. What's on-screen looks spectacular; the culture's artwork is beautiful and showcased to great effect, from the raven's head that serves as a door to Motana's father's house to the canoes to the people dancing in full animal costume. The story may be sensationalistic in some ways, but what's on screen is often amazing.
In the Land of the Head Hunters is a fiction tale that nevertheless serves as an authentic record of tribal ways. Curtis and George Hunt made up the story to frame the ethnological activities Curtis wanted to record. The production was unusual in other ways as well. Curtis paid the Kwakwaka'wakw actors as well as the native craftsmen that constructed the props and buildings needed for the show. Canadian anti- Potlatch laws had suppressed some native customs, including ritual dances, with the idea of eliminating 'wasteful' Indian practices without economic benefit. Part of the reason Curtis obtained so much cooperation was that his movie allowed the construction of masks and other items that were at the time forbidden. Rather than the expected exploitative film project, Head Hunters is still a source of Native American pride.
Curtis's movie is like an illustrated lecture, with the story divided between title cards and illustrative scenes. Young Motana (Stanley Hunt) discovers his true love Naida (Sarah Constance Smith Hunt, Maggie Frank and Mrs. George Walkus) while on a vision quest. As Naida has been promised to an evil sorcerer, Motana raids Naida's camp in full battle mode and steals her away. The sorcerer's equally evil brother Yaklus (Balutsa) mounts a fierce response, destroying Motana's camp, killing his relatives and stealing Naida back once more. A desperate canoe chase follows.
The love story and battle saga are interrupted frequently for tribal dance scenes, elaborate rituals with just one, two, or a dozen dancers in elaborate costumes. A large wooden head mask figures in the impressive Thunderbird dance. As the dances were banned and the indigenous ways already beginning to fade, the costumes, canoes and other authentic Indian crafts-objects were some of the last constructed by natives that learned their crafts through tradition. For this reason In the Land of the Head Hunters is considered a valuable anthropological record.
The film did not survive intact. Bill Holm and George Quimby released a restored short version re-titled In the Land of the War Canoes in 1973; it's included here on a second disc along with a documentary about the restoration. The discovery of new film material and further research prompted a second restoration around 2011, which was completed and premiered in time for the film's centennial in 2014. A full 22 minutes longer, this more polished version carries the original title and also a recording of the original music score by John J. Braham. More title cards have been added to smooth out continuity, along with still images to stand in for missing scenes.
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