NEW YORK - A century-old silent melodrama featuring a colorful First Nation of the Pacific Northwest was a box-office flop on its original release.
Now "In the Land of the Head Hunters" is finally reaching a national audience as a DVD and Blu-ray release from Milestone Films.
Already a renowned ethnographic photographer, the director, Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), had a deluded notion that he was preserving the record of a vanishing race in Vancouver, British Columbia, before it was subsumed into white Christian culture.
The movie's cast, all members of the Kwakwaka'wakw, may have had another idea. Namely, that their involvement in the film constituted a small rebellion against the Canadian government, which had legally prohibited aspects of their cultural expression.
Aaron Glass, an anthropology professor at New York University who participated, along with the University of California, Los Angeles' Film & Television Archive, in the movie's restoration in 2008, cautions against the notion that the Kwakwaka'wakw were taking up the banner of religious liberty.
"That's very modern language," he observes. "They didn't argue in religious terms. Many of the participants in the film were at least nominally Christian."
Instead, the Kwakwaka'wakw were reacting against the Canadian government's Potlatch Ban, a law from the 1880s that forbade the potlatch -- a public ceremony that marked the birth of children, the death of elders and other significant family occasions. The ritual included dancing and lengthy banquets as well as the bestowing of titles and wealth.
So putting their ancient customs on display in Curtis' film "wasn't a strategic evasion of the law, because the law didn't prevent them from making movies," Glass says. The repressive legislation stayed on the books until 1951.
The potlatch and its dances were "expressions of indigenous spirituality, but also tied into their legal, political and economic systems," says Brad Evans, an English professor at Rutgers University who also participated in the film's refurbishment.
Evans calls Curtis "an artist who was fascinated by ethnographic subjects and who fancied himself an anthropologist." Curtis' most famous photo, of a Navajo posed riding into the sunset, Evans explains, "promoted the myth of the vanishing race."
Catholic clergy had sometimes made their way from Quebec to Vancouver Island in the 1700s. But the religious conversion of the native peoples that eventually caught on resulted from the work of Anglican missionaries a century later.
Aside from the potlatch, little of the Kwakwaka'wakw's authentic culture endured after many of them found work in the timber and salmon canning industries.
The costumed dances at the heart of the film "are not religious," Evans says. "They're spiritual family rituals and protocols that connect back to family mythology."
He and Glass have spent years researching the subject. They've also published a book of essays, "Return to the Land of the Head Hunters," for the University of Washington Press, examining the Kwakwaka'wakw's motives for participating in Curtis' project. Put succinctly, their ultimate conclusion on that topic was: "It's complicated."
Curtis hoped the movie's profits would finance his 20-volume collection of photographs documenting the 80 remaining North American tribes.
Although it failed in that respect -- it took Curtis until 1930 to complete his books -- "In the Land of the Head Hunters" has long been recognized as an important historical document. The Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry in 1999.
The picture, in which a warrior named Motana competes with a sorcerer for the hand of Naida, a maiden princess, contains all the elements that are still considered crowd-pleasers. There are murders and a kidnapping as well as exotic touches, like totem poles, giant masks and an altar of skulls. Additionally, most of the second half of the running time is devoted to a pageantlike sequence showcasing dancers dressed as birds and other animals.
Obsessed with finding sensational visual elements, however, Curtis also included anachronistic details such as the severed heads suggested by the title, the practice of collecting which had died out long before the film was made. Equally inappropriate was the presence of a tethered whale -- a blockbuster sight, certainly, but one which would have had no place in Kwakwaka'wakw culture.
Even at just 60 minutes (about a quarter-hour shorter than the original) modern audiences may find "In the Land of the Head Hunters" a tough slog. Curtis didn't include any close-ups, and their absence makes it difficult to connect to each character as an individual. A few missing scenes, moreover, have been replaced with stills.
John J. Braham's score, by contrast, though long believed lost, was rediscovered by Glass and is here reunited with what remains of Curtis' work, possibly for the first time since the film's initial run of screenings in 1914. So far as is known, it ranks as the oldest surviving complete score for a silent feature.
Each sequence has color tints such as blue for night, green for forest scenes and red for fire and danger. Early 20th century moviegoers presumably enjoyed that effect. Yet, outside a theatrical setting, some today may find it a bit distracting.
Evans understands these strains. His advice is to hang on for the sake of the last scene: "I love the panorama of the long shots of the coast. It ends with seagulls across the water. It's as beautiful and peaceful now as when the film was new."
Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.