June 08, 2008

In the Land of the Head Hunters

Edward Curtis' 'Head Hunters' takes another bow with film festival screening

Landmark film returns to the site of its 1914 premiereOn the evening of Dec. 7, 1914, Seattle's Moore Theatre was the setting for the world premiere of famed photographer Edward Curtis' epic movie melodrama of the Northwest Indian past, "In the Land of the Head Hunters," which the Seattle P-I critic at the time called "a powerful, gripping story ... a genuine sensation."

On Tuesday night at 7--93 1/2 years later--a newly restored version of the film returns to the Moore as a key event of the 34th Seattle International Film Festival, with its original orchestral score performed live and a dance recital by descendants of the film's Native American cast.

In the near century between its two Moore dates, much has happened to the film:

  • It flopped at the box office.

  • It vanished for 33 years.

  • It was found, re-edited, retitled and proclaimed a landmark in the 1970s.

  • It was castigated as a fraud in the 1980s.

  • It has been further restored, returned to its original narrative form and given a new historical respect.
  • Some milestones for this movie:In 1915 Curtis published a book about his experiences with "In the Land of the Head Hunters." It may be the first "making-of" movie book.The re-edited version was titled "In the Land of the War Canoes" andwas re-released in 1974 (through the UW Press), and the forgotten Curtis film suddenly was proclaimed by film historians to be a landmark production: the movies' "first documentary" and the first film with an all-Native American cast--eight years before the existing holder of these titles, Robert Flaherty's 1922 "Nanook of the North."

    In 1999 "Head Hunters" was added to the National Film Registry--an honor bestowed on only the most "culturally significant motion picture classics."
    How the movie came about:

    In the land of the headhunters

    For the Kwakwaka'wakw, dancing and singing for the camera would be like sending a message in a bottle to future generations of their peopleLike Boas, Curtis was drawn to the Kwakwaka'wakw because of their totem poles, masks and dramatic winter dances. The Kwak'wala-speaking people of northern Vancouver Island had developed a complex performing arts tradition that included props and theatrical effects. For some dances, performers would dress as bees and pretend to sting guests; in others, they would use puppets to imitate ghost spirits, which flew around the longhouse before returning underground.

    As a result, the idea of acting in a movie fit with what they had been doing for thousands of years.

    But when Curtis arrived, the Kwakwaka'wakw were in a cultural straitjacket. The visual and performing traditions that had attracted so much international attention were exactly what the Canadian government wanted to eliminate--in particular, the potlatch, a public ceremony where chiefs and other high-status individuals gave gifts to invited guests.

    So, In the Land of the Head Hunters seemed like a great opportunity to the Kwakwaka'wakw. Dancing and singing for the camera would have been like sending a message in a bottle to future generations of their people.
    Comment:  Neither of these articles explains why Curtis titled the movie In the Land of the Head Hunters.

    For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.

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