Resistance is futile (or so we’ve been told) and when you are up against an inhuman alien force armed with superior weaponry and unencumbered by conscience you don’t stand a chance. Just ask the Native Americans. Or as Old Lodge Skins said in Little Big Man, “There is an endless supply of white men, but there has always been a limited number of human beings.” Oh, how true, how true.
By 1900 the last of the Indian Wars were over. Between then and the consciousness-raising 1960s, when novels like Little Big Man (and it’s filmed adaptation) appeared, the Native Americans lived in a limbo of red-face-minstrel cigar-store-Indian Big Chief-tablet ugh-caricature. The waters of that racist flood are slowly receding leaving the occasional team mascot awkwardly high and dry but for most of the 20th Century, Native Americans were the Indians, noble savages, clowns or monsters.
Now Milestone Films has brought to us (on DVD and Blu-ray) a lost and utterly forgotten film from out of the heart of that darkness: Daughter of Dawn. This is a great companion piece for Milestone’s earlier release of Edward Curtis’ Land of the Headhunters. Daughter of Dawn is most remarkable for two reasons: when it was made (1920) and that, like Land of the Headhunters, it was cast entirely with Native Americans... over 300 Kiowa and Comanche people who, unlike the Kwakwaka’wakw people in Land of the Headhunters, brought their own authentic clothing, tipis and even their own horses with them to be filmed. These folks are not re-enactors playing their roles. Anybody in the film over 30 might remember when Wounded Knee happened. When they ride bareback after a herd of buffalo, running full tilt, the horsemen are in earnest and this is no stunt. Daughter of Dawn is a straight-up drama, but it comes close to being a documentary.
Daughter of Dawn was very capably directed by Norbert A. Myles but the probable guiding light was the producer Richard E. Banks. Banks lived with or around “the Indians” for 25 years so he wasn’t a total stranger to them, and he made it all happen by way of his Texas Film Company. Did he make Daughter of Dawn because he had that company, or was the company created to make the film? I’m inclined to think the latter.
Between the novice producer and an all amateur cast, this film could have been painful to watch... were it not for Myles, who seems to have had the chops to turn out a decent product. With its conscious and astute composition, organized action shots and solid editing, Myles made a very competent film. It was strange to then find out he ended his film career as a recognized makeup artist. Well, do what you like to do and you’ll never work another day in your life.
The liner notes tell us that the story for Daughter of Dawn comes from a traditional Comanche tale about a young man who, to prove his love for a woman, jumps from a cliff (spoiler alert) survives the fall, bests his rival and wins her hand. Around that core is wound a four-way love-quadrangle, buffalo hunting, and intertribal war raids.
Sure, the acting is not stellar, but I think it better than Land of the Headhunters perhaps because the actors in Daughter of Dawn were given more leeway than Curtis allowed in his film? It’s also possible that between 1914 and 1920, and between backwoods Vancouver Island and the open plains of Oklahoma, the people in Daughter had simply seen more films and had a better idea of what to do when on camera.
Where the real amateur effect was felt was in Banks’ nonexistent distribution of Daughter of Dawn. The film screened once in Los Angeles, apparently to good reviews, then was never seen again apart from an inexplicable screening in Kansas. After that it fell off the map and was thought gone for good, if anyone thought about it at all.
Flash-forward to the first decade of the 21st century when Daughter of Dawn resurfaces in North Carolina in the hands of a private detective who had received it as partial payment from a German client... You can’t make this kind of stuff up. In fact this whole story is begging to be made into a movie... whether comedy, documentary, or tragedy remains unclear. Are you listening Hollywood?!
Copyright records from the time had Daughter of Dawn as a six-reel film, but this newfound print was only five reels. Was there a missing reel? No, it turned out this was an editing copy with only a single frame given over to the silent film title cards. By the time the title cards were fleshed-out to a readable length, a sixth reel’s worth of film was created. So not only is the whole film in remarkable condition given its age, it is all there. Apparently it’s obscurity was also its salvation.
The original text from the tile cards is used throughout and, where possible, the original art as well. Sadly these antique titles are the biggest sore thumb in the film. They are written in an awful Kemosabe-Tontoish dialect that is totally out of place in the context of the film... but not in the context of 1920s America. Ideally the title cards would have been done in Kiowa with English subtitles, but you can’t have everything, and I get why there is an argument for keeping the 1920’s historical accuracy of the film itself.
At first I thought the accompanying score was excellent. It was written for this release and ably performed by the Oklahoma City University student symphony. But as with the title cards, it is Eurocentric and really doesn’t have much to do with Native Americans... though it is nowhere near as egregious as the title cards’ condescending dialect. There is a back-story to the composer David Yeagley (who died in 2012), but what his full story is remains a puzzle to me. He claimed to be a recognized Comanche, but some dispute that, and his name has been associated with White Power websites. As with the reason for the nonexistent distribution of the film, Yeagly’s story is not included in the liner notes, nor on-line, and really is a distraction from the bigger story of Daughter of Dawn. As an alternative to the Yeagly score, I tried watching Daughter accompanied by Patti Smith’s old album Horses, and that really put a different spin on the film’s action. But is that any better or more appropriate than the Europeanized symphonic music? It seems that like so much else about Daughter, there is no good answer.
Looming large in the historical accuracy department, is the Oklahoma Historical Society, through whose efforts Daughter of Dawn was rescued, restored and which now owns the film in legal fact and in spirit. Of all the states in the U.S.A., Oklahoma may be the best suited to curate Daughter with the least amount of exploitation. Sadly the exploitation is unavoidable. Banks and Myles could not help but build it into the film. And that leads me to wonder if Banks realized this and so lost interest and heart in promoting the film. I have a disturbing vision of the white audience laughing at those few screenings and Banks putting the film back in the can and moving on to other things. We are simply lucky to have it available today and I’d like to think that Old Lodge Skins would have approved of Daughter of Dawn.
As with the Milestone presentation of Land of the Headhunters, the best extra features here are the interviews of family members of the people who appeared in the film. The rest of the world may have forgotten about Daughter of Dawn but the family stories were handed down as they certainly would have been had it been my own family.
The several other extras are mainly the Oklahoma Historical Society congratulating itself on a job well done. This could have been done in one extra feature, but who’s counting? And indeed, well done Oklahoma Historical Society!