"In the Land of the Head Hunters," out
on Blu-ray and DVD from Milestone, is the reconstruction of a
reconstruction. It preserves an artifact that used a once advanced
technology to document a no longer extent way of life, and was itself
all but lost to history.
dancers photographed by Edward S. Curtis.
(photo by Edward S. Curtis)
Around 1911, Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), the celebrated photographer
of Native Americans, began preparations for a six-reel feature about
the Kwakwaka'wakw (formerly Kwakiutl) Indians of British Columbia.
The movie, a commercial enterprise intended to underwrite the cost
of Curtis's lavish photographic albums, was to be set before the
arrival of European explorers and to feature a Kwakwaka'wakw cast.
In addition to collecting masks and ceremonial objects, Curtis created
a movie location off Vancouver Island, constructing false house-fronts,
commissioning totem poles, and having wardrobes of cedar bark clothing
By organizing indigenous peoples to dramatize and thus conserve
an ancestral way of life, Curtis's enterprise paralleled the "salvage
paradigm" advocated by the anthropologist Franz Boas to rescue disappearing
cultures. Curtis, who was perhaps the first to employ the term "documentary"
with regard to film, also anticipated Robert Flaherty's 1922 portrait
of the Inuits, "Nanook of the North." "In the Land of the Head Hunters"
is the original ethnographic romance.
The luridly titled narrative (supposedly based on oral tradition)
is reminiscent of an Icelandic saga: Motana, the son of a Kwakwaka'wakw
chief, embarks on a rite of initiation. He sees a young woman, Naida,
in a dream and falls in love, only to discover that she has been
promised to a local sorcerer; wresting her away from the older man,
the newly minted warrior precipitates a violent feud between the
clans. But "Head Hunters" is not so much a love story as a spectacle.
Beginning with Motana's visit to the Island of the Dead, the movie
lays out a feast of exotic imagery. One can only guess how the movie's
original spectators responded when Curtis's "photodrama" was first
shown at the Casino Theater on Broadway in 1914, accompanied by
John J. Braham's original score.
Appreciatively citing the movie's attractions
("whaling, sea lion hunting, dancing by Indians costumed as mythic
animals and monsters, marriage, the sacking and burning of villages,
sea fights between 80-man canoes"), The New York Times also
noted a new photographic process by which "all the colors of
the spectrum can be attained." Writing in Moving Picture World,
W. Stephen Bush compared Curtis's movie with Wagnerian opera: "The
fire-dance, the vigil journey with its command of silence and chastity,
the whole character of the hero were most strangely reminiscent
of 'Parsifal' and the 'Ring of the Nibelungs.' "
Nevertheless, "Head Hunters" was a flop. Curtis sold his original
negative, since lost, in the early 1920s. The few nitrate prints
that existed were left to molder, although one, given to the Field
Museum of Natural History in Chicago in 1947, formed the basis for
"In the Land of the War Canoes," a 44-minute black-and-white re-edit,
given a soundtrack and new intertitles, that was made in 1973 (and
is included, along with other supplementary material, on the Milestone
release). More partial prints were consequently discovered. These,
along with original stills found in the Library of Congress, formed
the basis for a fragile, hand-colored restoration made by the U.C.L.A.
Film & Television Archive and the subsequent Milestone digitalization,
which includes Braham's score.
This, too, is a heroic tale. As Curtis used motion pictures
to help preserve Kwakwaka'wakw life, so a tribe of archivists and
historians applied their skills to approximate his approximation.
His ambitious "salvage anthropology" has itself been salvaged.