Sunday, August 17, 2008

Review – The Silent Enemy

August 16, 2008

The Silent Enemy – U.S., 1930

H.P Carver’s silent drama-adventure The Silent Enemy takes place before the arrival of Columbus in a land untouched by European explorers. It is a land of relative peace, of nomadic tribes who must pick up and move whenever the food supply dwindles or the weather undergoes an extreme and threatening change. The biggest danger to these tribes is not war, as tribes have rules that govern their actions toward other tribes. Rather, the danger is the threat of hunger, that unseen menace that can creep up and wreak havoc upon a population.

In this environment stand two men, each with different motivations. First, there is Baluk (Buffalo Child Long Lance), a man committed to ensuring the survival and safety of his tribe, the Ojibways. He is the kind of person who leads hunting parties and springs into action when he thinks someone is in danger. Then there’s Dagwan (Paul Benoit), a self-absorbed medicine man more out for himself than for his tribe. He is the kind of man who has no qualms with simply taking what he wants, whether it’s the chief’s snowshoes or another tribe’s food. As the film begins, he has set his eyes upon a young woman named Neewa, the daughter of the chief. It is not an aim that Neewa or her father are in any hurry to see fulfilled.

As winter approaches, Baluk is convinced that the food supply in the tribe’s present location cannot support them any longer, and he advocates finding a new hunting ground as quickly as possible. Making the opposing argument is Dagwan. Working against the tribe is the fact that they have enjoyed six years of prosperity, and history tells them that the seventh year may bring suffering. Chetoga (Chief Yellow Robe), the chief of the tribe, makes the decision to send out a massive hunting party. It is a last-ditch attempt at finding the food necessary to survive the winter and avoid having to uproot the entire tribe, which consists of many young and elderly members, for whom the journey could prove hazardous. The hunt yields only disappointment and increasing desperation. Adding to their plights is the early arrival of winter, and with it, the advancing specter of famine. Even under such brutal conditions, Dagwan cannot see beyond his own self-interests, and he openly blames Baluk for the tribe’s woes. Nevertheless, Chetoga makes the painful decision to uproot the tribe and move them north. There are simply no other options left.

One of the most fascinating aspects of The Silent Enemy is the way in which Dagwan undermines Baluk and manipulates the Ojibways. Like an opportunistic politician, Dagwan takes all of the credit for the tribe’s previous prosperity and heaps all of the blame for their current misery at Baluk, consistently reminding others that it was Baluk who insisted they leave the safe confines of their previous home, as if staying would have prevented their present misery. Dagwan has an additional advantage over Baluk. His status as a medicine man, as a man of magic, enables him to make claims that others cannot dispute. If he says that the Great Spirit has given him a message, who among them can possibly disprove that? While most films about Native Americans appear to buy into the notion that Native American medicine men had visions that helped them see into the future, The Silent Enemy shows how easy it would be for someone to exploit this belief, which Dagwan does to perfection.

The Silent Enemy contains strong performances all around. I particularly liked Paul Benoit’s performance as Dagwan. The way he is able to alter his face to appear both conniving and convincing, sometimes simultaneously, is impressive. Also well-played, with only a few moments of awkwardness (watch the way he uses a bow and arrow), is Baluk. In addition, Chief Yellow Robe brings class and respectability to the role of Chetoga. At the time of its release, The Silent Enemy was billed as having a cast of all-Native Americans. This is mostly true. George McDougal, Paul Benoit, Molly Nelson, and Chief Yellow Robe are all of Native-American ancestry. However, if you find yourself wondering about the actor portraying Baluk, there’s a reason for that. The actor billed as Buffalo Child Long Lance was – contrary to his own claims - not a chief of the Blackfoot nation. He was in fact Sylvester Clark from North Carolina, and he was officially registered as being African-American.

The Silent Enemy does not always work. Too much time is given to Chetoga’s young son Cheeka and Cheeka’s two bears, and some of the film’s shots of nature go on a tad bit too long. However, the rest of the film works extremely well. And while the ending of the film is not a complete surprise, what precedes it is dramatic and unexpected. The Silent Enemy is a fascinating look at a time that does not exist anymore, and those willing to give it a chance will not regret the experience. (on DVD from Image-Entertainment and Milestone Films)

3 and a half stars

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