April 23, 2015
In the Land of the Head Hunters – Canada, 1914
It is said that Edward S. Curtis’s In the Land of the Head Hunters has great historical significance, and I cannot dispute this. The cast of the film is made up entirely of members of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe of British Columbia, and it captures that tribe’s unique artistic legacy, as well as many of its cultural practices, including a gift-giving ceremony known as the potlatch, which was banned by the Canadian government until 1951. All of this makes the film important and worthy of study and preservation. It does not, however, create an involving narrative, and praising a film for its cultural importance while ignoring its narrative defects would be akin to recommending a bad Hollywood film for its special effects while ignoring its confusing and lackluster plot.
The film’s biggest problem is its use of intertitles, for instead of using them as dialogue or as a way of explaining what characters are thinking or doing, Curtis elected to use them as a way of explaining what happens next in the film. Therefore, viewers read explanations about someone’s arrival on an island and then that person arrives. In one scene, the intertitles tells viewers that the film’s villain leads an attack on a fishing boat and then we see the attack. The result is not so much excitement as déjà vu.
The film’s other problem – one that it never truly recovers from – is its absence of a true hero. This does not mean that the film does not have a protagonist, for it does. That role falls to Motana (Stanley Hunt), the son of Chief Kenada (Paddy ‘Malid). After putting himself through a series of challenges, thereby proving himself to be a man, he sets out to marry the love of his life, Naida (Sarah Constance Smith Hunt). There’s just one slight hitch – it seems Naida has been promised to the sorcerer in the next village. If Motana really wants to marry Naida, he is told, he must sneak over to the sorcerer’s village, kill him, and bring back his head. Mind you: Montana is the protagonist in this story. Just imagine what someone has to do to be the villain.
Now imagine the focus of the movie reversed. A young sorcerer has been promised a young woman’s hand in marriage. He has no reason to doubt that the wedding will take place, as he believes the words of Chief Kenada to be iron clad. Imagine his surprise when the chief’s son arrives to kill him. Told this way, Motana would be the villain, and any act of vengeance that followed would seem entirely justified.
Truth be told, there is not much of a narrative in the first place, and because of that, long stretches of the film’s running time are devoted to the presentation of the tribe’s rituals. Viewers are exposed to Motana’s early tests of courage, which includes a whale hunt that looks entirely authentic; a “dance of acceptance”; Motana’s wedding ceremony, during which three canoes arrive led by three men in bird costumes; and a celebratory dance in some of the most magnificent costumes imaginable. All of this is interesting to the eye, and I watched it with an interest not unlike that of someone visiting a new culture for the first time.
However, the film also includes numerous instances of heads being used as trophies, and several scenes show men – both “protagonists” and “antagonists” - returning from battle with the heads of their victims and handing them to family members, who act as if they have just received a gift from loved ones who were returning from a long vacation. Seeing it, I couldn’t help wondering what the effect was on the audience that saw the film in 1914. Did they cover their eyes in horror, or did they watch with the fascination that often accompanies seeing something you think is authentic and that may in fact reinforce what you already believe to be true?
Edward S. Curtis spent much of his professional life photographing the American West and Native Americans, and his film is evidence of his remarkable talent. Some of my favorite moments in the film are shot from a distance and give the audience the sense that they are observing something from a distance, the same way a photographer may. In one scene, Curtis films a meeting of tribesmen from an elevated position, and I felt as if I were eavesdropping. In other scenes, Curtis seems intent to put his camera in position and just allow his audience to witness what must have been to many members of the audience entirely new customs and dances. As I’ve said, the film is historically and culturally important, and as such, it will delight. For people more interested in narrative films, it will likely feel deeply flawed and not nearly as rewarding as it had the potential to be. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
3 stars (as a narrative)
3 and a half stars (as a historical document)
*Much of the film only exists in still photos, and intertitles have been added to fill in the gaps in its narrative.
*A shorter version of the film was released in 1973 as In the Land of the War Canoes.