December 8, 2016
The Daughter of Dawn – US, 1920
Norbert A. Myles’s The Daughter of Dawn is a film I wanted to love, but couldn’t. It is a film that was considered lost for almost ninety years, it stars a Native American cast from the Kiowa and Comanche tribes, and it was written by R.E. Banks, a man who is said to have lived among Native Americans for twenty-five years. All of this is supposed to give the film an aura of importance, and it invites the unfortunate expectation of above average quality. Because of that, I feel a bit guilty for finding the film slightly underwhelming.
The problem with The Daughter of Dawn is that it takes a group of characters that should be interesting and puts them in a situation that we’ve seen a million times – and this includes before 1920. The film is essentially a love triangle involving Daughter of Dawn (Esther LeBarre), the daughter of the Kiowa chief, and her two suitors, Black Wolf (Jack Sankey-Doty) and White Eagle (White Parker). (With names like that, it’s not hard to guess who the good guy is.) It’s a set-up similar to that of Abel Gance’s J’accuse only without that film’s heartfelt reversal of fortune and tragic conclusion. Eventually, the two of competitors are given a task to complete in order to be awarded Daughter of Dawn’s hand in marriage. I will not reveal the task, but if Mr. Banks indeed saw something like this in real life, it’s one of those actions for which seeing would truly be believing. As presented here, it produced a surprising degree of incredulity.
In a plot point that is never followed up on, a group of Comanche decide to steal the Kiowa’s horses. Their plan is to have the Kiowa men set out to find them, thus leaving the Kiowa women unprotected. However, after building up this plot, it is left to linger in the air. The men return on horses and, as far as I could tell, never even notice the horses are gone. Soon, the film has the Comanche come up with a plot so sinister that I’m surprised actual Comanche would be part of a film depicting it.
Another aspect of the film sure to provoke debate is the acting style to the film’s non-professional cast. From the film, one gets the impression that the Kiowa are pretty reserved. The actors’ faces rarely show much in the way of emotion; instead, they seem to be relying on wide physical gestures to get their points across. It makes for an interesting, yet somewhat odd experience, for in many scenes, arms are flailing excitedly while the face remains stoic. It’s a contradiction, and no one in the film – not even the all-knowing intertitles – even tries to explain it.
Having said all of this, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the work of the cinematographer, for he consistently comes up with interesting shots of 1920s Oklahoma, as well as the camps of the two tribes. Several scenes feature long panoramic shots of nature that are truly awe-inspiring, and while it is apparent that Myles shot the film with a stationary camera, I only occasionally felt that the lack of movement or close-ups during key moments short-changed the film.
As I mentioned earlier, it is the narrative that fails The Daughter of Dawn. The plot simply never really rises above standard dime-novel melodrama, and if you think about it, that is both a missed opportunity and a completely understandable outcome. After all, present-day sentiments demand more from a film of this kind; they demand a complexity and depth that was likely impossible to put on celluloid in the 1920s. It would be quite some time before Westerns consistently depicted Native Americans in non-stereotypical roles, and perhaps a plot like the one in this film was welcomed for the very reason that I have dismissed it – its familiarity. It may have conveyed the message that certain experiences are universal, and in 1920, that may have been a revolutionary concept. In 2016, however, it just seems lazy. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
2 and a half stars