In The Land Of The Head Hunters

Edward S. Curtis

Scen.: Edward S. Curtis (research: George Hunt). F.: Edmund August Schwinke. M.: John J. Braham. Int: Stanley Hunt / Łiłalgamlilas (Motana), Margaret Wilson Frank / U’magalis (Naida), Paddy ‘Malid / Kamgidi (Kenada), Kwagwanu / Ha’etła’las / Long Harry (Sorcerer). Prod.: Seattle Film Co.
DCP. D.: 67′. Bn e Col. Tinted. 

T. it.: Italian title. T. int.: International title. T. alt.: Alternative title. Sog.: Story. Scen.: Screenplay. F.: Cinematography. M.: Editing. Scgf.: Set Design. Mus.: Music. Int.: Cast. Prod.: Production Company. L.: Length. D.: Running Time. f/s: Frames per second. Bn.: Black e White. Col.: Color. Da: Print source

Film Notes

In 1914, the American photographer Edward S. Curtis made a silent feature film entitled In the Land of the Head Hunters. An epic story of love and war set before Europeans arrived on the Pacific Coast, it starred non-professional actors from Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) communities in British Columbia. Head Hunters was accompanied by an original orchestral score, composed by John Braham, which is now thought to be the earliest surviving score for an american silent feature film. A critical success but a financial failure, Curtis’s film was soon forgotten. A collaborative team of scholars, working with the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Kwakwaka’wakw, has overseen a complete restoration of the film. Until now, the only available version was one retitled In the Land of the War Canoes, which had been synched to a new naturalistic soundtrack in 1973 and marketed as a ‘documentary’. Available in late 2014 from Milestone Films, the newly restored Head Hunters features the original title and intertitle cards, long-missing footage, original color tinting and publicity graphics, and a new recording of the original musical score.
Head Hunters
‘ early audiences found an epic adventure story of ‘primitive life’ – a ‘northern’ film doing what the “westerns” had long done on the Great Plains. It was promoted as a “mighty spectacle drama”, meant to take its place alongside a revered class of Italian art dramas; one 1914 review called it “a companion offering to [Giovanni Pastrone’s] Cabiria, as enthralling and as beautiful”. Although clearly a fictionalized tale, the ethnographic aspects of the film also proved to have lasting influence on documentary cinema. Curtis personally screened Head Hunters for Robert Flaherty between the historic trips to the Arctic that would result in Nanook of the North (1922). 
Rather than documenting Native life in 1914, Head Hunters documents a moment of cultural encounter and creative collaboration between Curtis and the Kwakwaka’wakw cast and crew who were performing his scripted version of their own historical past. Moreover, they were doing so at a time when the ceremonial potlatch was outlawed by the Canadian government in an attempt to force assimilation. By adapting traditional rituals for Curtis’s camera while refusing to play stereotypical members of a ‘vanishing race’, the Kwakwaka’wakw made a vital contribution to the development of the motion pictures.

Brad Evans

Copy From

Music Turning Point Ensemble and The Vancouver Film Orchestra.