June 15, 2009

Review of Romance of the Vanishing Race

Last year Rich-Heape Films kindly sent me this DVD to review. Here's the text from the case and my thoughts.This DVD includes three historic motion pictures of Native Americans and their life-style in the early 1900s. Featuring Tribal Chiefs who participated in the Last Great Indian Council and several who fought at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Originally produced on 35mm film, this priceless footage, recently discovered within the lost treasures of the National Archives is re-mastered to include an original music score and soundtrack to further preserve Native American history and culture.

Three motion pictures that shed a hitherto dim light on an important chapter in the history of a proud people who inhabited the land before it was "conquered" by another race.
The Romance of the Vanishing RaceProgram #1–The Romance of the Vanishing Race–A view of Indian life in the Southwest featuring Navajo, Pueblo, Crow, and Hopi tribes. Originally released in 1916, this footage shows everyday life and a re-enactment of an Indian battle on the plains. Running time 29 minutes.Except for a couple of scenes, Romance is all about the Crow. It shows a pipe ceremony, a sweat lodge, and a lot of staged riding, stalking, and fighting scenes.

It's kind of like a "live" version of Edward Curtis photos. Although the film was released in 1916, there are no signs of modern life or technology other than rifles.

The narration makes some good pro-Indian points:Indian warfare before the coming of the white man was desultory and infrequent. There was no motive for war. The country was large and the tribes were widely separated.

The white man came. Civilization made aggressions upon the Indian's home, his honor, and his life ... robbed him of his God-given heritage. The Indian resisted. It was his right to resist.

Because he was masterful in fighting a masterful foe--because he resented broken treaties and gross injustice--we called him a savage.
But it concludes with several heavy-handed "end of the trail" speeches--telling us how the Indians were fated to fade away into the sunset.

Rodman Wanamaker Expedition of CitizenshipProgram #2–Rodman Wanamaker Expedition of Citizenship to the North American Indian–Carrying the Flag and a Message of Hope to a Vanishing Race–Dr. Joseph Dixon explains the symbolism of the flag and dedication ceremonies to numerous Indian tribes who look on with mute interest. Originally released in 1913. Running time 26 minutes.This film covers a little known aspect of Indian history. Apparently the Wanamaker "expedition" crisscrossed the country to convert the recently pacified Indians into patriotic Americans. It wasn't enough to strip them of their freedom and culture; they had to kiss the flag almost literally to prove their loyalty.

Unfortunately, the film consists of a series of repetitious rituals: explaining the flag's symbolism, dedicating the flag, raising the flag, and signing a declaration of allegiance to the US government. Seeing them once is enough.

The film ends with a plea to give Indians their rights and free them of government control--good. And with odd images of sheep and Biblical passages that somehow link Indians and Christianity--bad.Program #3–Winter Farm Life on a Crow Reservation–Featuring WWI French hero General Ferdinand Foch, this film shows reservation life including butchering a cow, raising a teepee, and ceremonies welcoming Foch. Released 1921. Running time 8 minutes.Although it's short, this is probably the most interesting film. You've got a train full of French soldiers; Crow Indians in farm clothes; horse-drawn wagons, tractors, and Model Ts; and tipis and chiefs. It's quite a melange of cultures and images.

Redoing Romance

These films are important for historical reasons. But I don't think they're "a must have resource for schools and libraries," as the package says. I'd say they're worthwhile if you're doing research or if you're a Crow--since the majority of the films feature the Crow--but most people won't find them fascinating.

In fact, if I were Rich-Heape Films, I would've done things differently. Sure, I'd include the films in their original form to preserve them. But they're in the public domain, right? If so, that means anyone can freely edit them.

I'd do something radical like splicing the highlights of the three films into one. Ditch the original flutes-and-drums score for something less New Age-y. Most of all, replace the pro forma narration with one or two historians talking about the scenes. These films desperately need some context to make them meaningful. Tell us what's happening on and off the screen and why.

Add this film to the existing films and then you'd have an interesting package. As it is, I wouldn't recommend Romance except to special libraries. A book of Curtis photos will give you more information at a lower cost.

For a previous Rich-Heape film, see Our Spirits Don't Speak English. For more on the subject, see Native Documentaries and News.


Anonymous said...

Well, if those films are lacking meaning, accoding to you, maybe because they were made in the early 20th century(pre-WW2 era). Which is probably why they're not as "facinating".

I wasn't sure if you meant that the Crow tribe isn't as much facinating or the film.

Realistically, if I can name one thing that's facinating about the Crow tribe, they're known as "the tipi capital of world" or the Crow fair, which is also features their many horses, and great horsemanship.

Sure, non-Natives are not gonna find any indian tribes that facinating to begin with.

Rob said...

The "them" in "people won't find them fascinating" refers to "these films," the subject of the previous two sentences. That's standard English.

I've reviewed many Native media projects that should be entertaining to non-Natives. The We Shall Remain series, for instance. Unfortunately, the Romance documentaries don't qualify.

The films are old...yeah, I got that. I noted the original release dates, so pointing out their age doesn't help us much.

FYI, I gave a good review to the Edward Curtis book The North American Indian. A product's age doesn't necessarily make it less interesting or worthwhile.

Rich-Heape Films is selling the DVD to consumers in 2009, not the 1910s or 1920s. That makes the response of today's viewers relevant. I reviewed the films with that in mind.

The company didn't have to present the films with nothing but a score and a narrator. I offered some ideas about how it could improve the package. Therefore, I'd say I've done my job as a critic.