Filmed by Curtis, directed by the Kwakwaka’wakw

Billboard for In the Land of the Head Hunters, from

In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914) is a remarkable, anomalous and much-misunderstood film. It was made by Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), the renowned photographer of Native American life, in the hopes of attracting funds to support his North American Indian book series (the series, completed in 1930, would eventually run to twenty volumes). His chief benefactor, J.P. Morgan, had died in 1913, and it seemed a good idea to create a dramatic work which would appeal to the millions that were by then flocking to the cinema.

Note the term ‘dramatic work’. In the Land of the Head Hunters has gone down in rather too many film histories as a documentary endeavour, and one which falsified reality by getting the Kwakwaka’wakw, or Kwakiutl, people of British Columbia to enact customs that they no longer practiced (not least, head hunting), and to cheapen things further by spinning a love story in the hopes of attracting an audience. As the impressive, indeed almost dauntingly thorough and knowledgable website Edward Curtis meets the Kwakwaka’wakw states:

Since the 1970s, Curtis’s film has been treated as a documentary, adorning the halls of natural history and anthropology museums and being criticized for its staging of savage scenes from a “pre-contact” past as if they were part of the everyday life of contemporary tribal communities (as was also the case with his photography). Yet the film was intended as an innovation in feature film—one meant to stand out in the already crowded field of popular Westerns or “Indian Pictures” of the time—because of its exclusive use of “authentic” Native actors, its on-location shooting, its dynamic camera work, its spectacular color tinting and toning, and its ambitious musical score. The film truly represents an active, artistic collaboration between two dramatic traditions: the rich Kwakwaka’wakw history of staged ceremonialism and the then-emergent mass-market colossus of American narrative cinema.

The website has been created to complement a restoration of the film, which is about to start doing the rounds of American venues. In the Land of the Head Hunters was not the financial success that Curtis had hoped, despite glowing reviews, and it soon disappeared from view. In 1947 a single, incomplete copy was rescued from being binned as rubbish and was donated to the Field Museum, Chicago. A re-edited version of this was released in 1974 as In the Land of the War Canoes, with a new soundtrack recorded by members of the Kwakwaka’wakw. More material also turned up at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and a copy of the original orchestral score ended up at the Getty Research Library. The present resotration has brought all of this material together, in the hands of project co-ordinators Brad Evans and Aaron Glass.

The website currently makes available a handful of clips of the unrestored version, with the promise of clips from the restored version to follow soon. The remainder of the website explains in incisive detail the film’s history, restoration, score, images and above all its relatation to and reflection of Kwakwaka’wakw culture. It is significant that in giving the history of the film’s production the site reverses the usual narrative by relating things from the Kwakwaka’wakw perspective. From this point of view, the Kwakwaka’wakw had significant control over the film’s production – agreeing to its being made in the first place, vetoing inauthentic scenes, while actively encouraging scenes which recreated customs that were on the wane or archaic in part through the assimilationist policies of the Canadian government. The film therefore became an important means for their cultural self-expression.

So to look on In the Land of the Head Hunters as either drama or documentary is merely to hold up both terms for their inadequacy. The film used the tools of the cinema to express a collaboration between two cultures, to document through drama. This is not to say that it is not a problematic film – that sensationalist title alone betrays Curtis’ muddled sympathies. But for a cinema where ‘cowboys and indians’ were predominant, any tale which put the native people (there are no white performers in the film) and the commemoration of a culture first was radical and affirmative. No wonder it failed at the box office.

The restored version of In the Land of the Head Hunters recives its premiere at the Getty Research Centre on 5 June 2008, with the score performed by the UCLA Philharmonia. Various screening dates are then in place for June and November 2008, with more to follow.

To find out more about Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian project, visit the Library of Congress’ excellent American Memory exhibit, which reproduces Curtis’ famous photographs volume by volume.

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