When I heard that Milestone Films was going to release a 2-disc set (on DVD or Blu-ray) of Edward S. Curtis’s 1914 film about Pacific Northwest Native Americans, I jumped on the chance to see it like it was the pre-Christmas sale-day down at the big-box store. Everyone remembers Curtis for his 20-volume photographic magnum opus The North American Indian, but I had no idea that he had made a film... and in 1914? That was 8 years before Nanook of the North. Why had I not seen this Curtis film? Why had I never even heard of it? If the film was anything like his still photography, this would be something to see.
No. No Nanook.
Sadly, the film is not as amazing as the stills. The individual shots are jaw-droppingly beautiful and there is no doubt this is the same Edward S. Curtis whose landscape photographs of Canyon de Chelly and thousands of portraits of Native American chiefs and children are standard photographic fare today.
In the Land of the Head Hunters is set in the pre-European-contact Pacific Northwest and Curtis was scrupulously authentic to the time and place, building a shore-side village, using real great-canoes and creating all the costumes, both every-day and ceremonial, used in the film. Because all the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) men had European-length hair cuts (and some were too fair-haired to be really "authentic") Curtis had all of them wear long black wigs!
But as for the narrative filmmaking in In the Land of the Head Hunters... not so good. Admittedly the film we have today is incomplete, but I’m guessing even if we did have all of the footage, the storytelling would limp along at the same fractured pace. It is difficult to empathize with the hero or revile the villain when both are seen only in long shots and who behave in much the same way. There is a story of sorts here trying to be an epic tale but it’s mainly a string of events coming from nowhere in particular and returning to the same place. In contrast consider Nanook of the North whose title character we see in an intimate portrait along with his family and the life they lead in the Arctic. Perhaps this is why In the Land of the Head Hunters fell out of sight and Nanook of the North is remembered today?
For someone who made his living first as a portrait photographer and later as the creator of the definitive portrait of Native Americans, In the Land of the Head Hunters is strangely void of close-in shots. Perhaps Curtis was just too taken by the land and seascapes of British Columbia? His cinematography is lush, and each shot’s composition is brilliant — they just don’t add up to an engaging story.
But not for want of trying on the part of the restoration team. The production values here in the restored version are the best I’ve ever seen for a film of this vintage. The title cards are gorgeous. The accompanying score, written for the original film by John J. Brahan and recently rediscovered, is a solid piece of composition and is said to be the earliest known full score for a feature film. It is performed beautifully by the Turning Point Ensemble. Missing parts of the film are filled in with surviving still shots (that Curtis submitted to the Library of Congress for purpose of copyright) which add temporal weight, and all of the film is tinted perfectly. My suspicion is that if this restoration were to be set next to the original, the 2014 version would win the beauty prize.
So, somewhat disappointed by the film itself, I pushed on to the extras on discs one and two. By the time I was finished I realized that the marketing team it wrong. This is actually a two-disc set of features, and the narrative film is the "bonus."
If there is any center at all here it is the Kwakwaka’wakw people who appear across generations and throughout the set. And when I went back and watched the 1914 film twice more (once for the commentary track and once to see an earlier 1970s restoration), I found it was totally engaging. The lackluster film In the Land of the Head Hunters had become a charming and wonderful home movie.
You pick up on this idea early on in some of the interviews with surviving cast members (from the 1980s) and later comments by their descendants. The people in the film are their family. And as with Nanook’s family, you are drawn into their story. For instance, almost every dance and ceremony and song depicted in the original film would have been illegal for the actors to have performed off-camera in 1914 — Canadian anti-potlatch laws prohibited them. It was only because Curtis was making his movie that it was allowed — a point not made in the original film but which makes those acts all the more powerful when seen today.
Also of interest is the juxtaposition of the 1973 version (entitled In the Land of the War Canoes) with the 2014 restoration. In 1973, the drive for a more authentic silent film experience was not yet as developed as today, so the film has spoken dialogue and singing (off camera) and sound effects, but not the accompanying score. To its credit, the dialog and singing are in the Kwakwaka’wakw language, which then requires English subtitles. I think that In the Land of the War Canoes is the first silent film I’ve ever seen with subtitles.
Then there is the curious The Image Maker and the Indians, a documentary from 1979 about the making of In the Land of the Head Hunters. Several scenes seem to be lifted straight from Monty Python with a tweedy professor narrating from an ivy-covered window or standing strangely alone on a pebble-beach shore. Where did that come from and was it for real? Maybe there’s a story here that can be told in a future third disk.
It is a rare DVD set that is better than the original film but this is one. It is in a class by itself.
The Rest of the Bonus Features
In the Land of the War Canoes (1973 version by Bill Holm & George Quimby, 44 mins, B&W). With optional English subtitles for the Kwak’wala dialogue on the 1973 soundtrack.* If nothing else, this will make you appreciate the high production values on the 2014 Headhunters.
The Image Maker and the Indians, a making-of documentary by Holm and Quimby (1979. Color, 16 mins.) See above for comment.
Turning Point Ensemble and the score (2013, Color, 3 mins.) An interesting look behind the scenes at what it takes to recreate a silent film score.
Documents of Encounter: The Head Hunters Reconstruction Project. (2014. Video, 38 mins.)*
Cultural Presentation by the Gwa’wina Dancers (2008. Color, 83 mins.).* If I had not seen the previous material, I’m not sure I would have sat through this performance. But having seen all the above, I was sorry when it ended. Not the best cameral work but neither is it to be missed.
Commentary Track featuring Bill Holm, Andy Everson, and Aaron Glass, Edited by Keith Sanborn.* This is a commentary track that is more than a list of trivia; it turns the feature into a home movie — a home movie that is 100 years old.
Still Gallery, courtesy of the University of Washington Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture and Mick Gidley
Sound clips of various tribal and ceremonial songs.
* New 2014 material produced by Aaron Glass, Brad Evans and the U’mista Cultural Centre.