JWR Articles: Film/DVD - In the Land of the Head Hunters (Director/Writer: Edward S. Curtis) - February 28, 2015
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In the Land of the Head Hunters

Plus several retoration bonus features

4 4
180 min.

Mile 00144
Silent revenge is universal

How curious indeed to have Edward Curtis’ ground-breaking, culture-preserving 1914 film restored and released even as the miserable practice of beheading is in the news with alarming frequency. Like ISIS, the perpetrators believe the grisly act is in full accord with their beliefs and rituals. In the case of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe, hailing from British Columbia, self-proclaimed war parties are perfectly justified in killing anyone in their path; women can also be forced into slavery.

The restoration by the UCLA Film and Television Archive is a spectacular result of bringing together damaged frames and filling in the gaps with period still photography. The titles dutifully serve the purpose of pushing the slight narrative forward but contain many spoilers that leave little suspense along the way.

John J. Braham’s original score has also been dusted off and given new recorded life by The Turning Point Ensemble (the performance is generally good but lacks razor-sharp ensemble and unity of attacks—particularly in the syncopations). Sadly, at times maddeningly, the music is the weakest link to the chronicle of Motana’s (Stanley Hunt) journey to manhood. Clearly, the largely romantic, simply constructed (with copious sequences repeated again and again and again—even a modulation or two is left for another day) soundscape is more a caricature of what white men assume will fit perfectly with First Nations’ art. On several occasions the result is more in line with Albert Ketlèlby’s semi-exotic depiction of other cultures (e.g., In a Monastery Garden, In a Persian Market) than at one with the numerous dances and drums that are seen but never heard in the film. Here’s hoping further funding can be found to commission an aboriginal score that can trace its roots back to BC’s Northwest Coast: a kind of “Truth and Reconciliation” with a musical theme.

As interesting as the film is, it is the bonus features that add more insight and understanding to the reconstructed result.

The Head Hunters Reconstruction Project is especially helpful in setting the context and describing the methodologies.

How very curious to see and hear the three different orchestras involved in the live performances at various theatres (along with The Turning Point Ensemble, UCLA’s house band performed some of the musical duties as did the Coast Orchestra—“an all-Native American orchestra of classically trained musicians” ). In the latter there is a compelling taste of what could have been as founder-conductor Timothy Long urges his charges to employ improv as a tonic to the near-tedious repeated sections of the original score. A few snippets of voice and flute doing just that whet the appetite for the whole meal.

From the relatives of the original actors (paid fifty cents per trip to Deer Island, one of the main sets during the shoot), the liberties taken by Curtis and his colleagues from unlikely whale hunting to hair length and costuming further weaken the historical truth in favour of public-pleasing melodrama. The slogan “Entire drama enacted by primitive Indians” featured on the movie poster speaks volumes.

For those wishing to view the 1973 version, In the Land of Canoes is worth a listen/viewing to hear the Kwakwaka’wakw language (subtitles are provided) and enjoy a more authentic music track. Better still in that regard is the audio bonus, which is compromised of the actual cylinders dutifully recorded by the filmmakers but barely referenced by Braham.

A performance by the Gwa’wina Dancers proves succinctly that the aural and narrative traditions of the Kwakwaka’wakw have been lovingly passed down.

Perhaps the next “version” of this historical work would be a reworking of the story, the commissioning of truly original music and a chance for some of Canada’s indigenous people to tell their history without Tinseltown calling the shots. JWR

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