Originally titled “In the Days of Vancouver,” the detailed scenario for those days of early cinema was elaborate. Curtis had already decided that the film could not be a simple documentary record. It would have to be a story that reflected the rich dramatic character of the people.
Salvaging the film and score
Some aspects of the film do have documentary accuracy: the artwork, the ceremonial dances, the clothing, the architecture of the buildings, and the construction of the dugout, or a war canoe reflected Kwakwaka'wakw culture. Other aspects of the film were based on the Kwakwaka'wakw's orally transmitted traditions or on aspects of other neighboring cultures. The film also accurately portrays Kwakwaka'wakw rituals that were, at the time, prohibited by Canada's potlatch prohibition, enacted in 1884 and not rescinded until 1951.
By jefferson metcalf (cleveland)
If you like Nanook of the North, I recommend In the Land of the War Canoes. Unfortunately this is all that survives of the only motion picture made by the "super-photographer of the American Indian," Edward S. Curtis, "In the Land of the Headhunters." This film predates Nanook of the North, and it is known that Robert Flaherty visited Curtis to view this film, before he made Nanook. The film has been retitled for two reasons. A) the previous title is considered sensational and outdated (the Kwakiutl had not practiced head hunting for many generations) and B) the film has been significantly altered (in order for it to be presentable, after much of it was destroyed in a fire). The newer film is an erudite reconstruction that involved visiting the original tribe. There are no known complete prints surviving, so this is what we will have to settle for.
What is so fascinating about this film, aside from the subject matter, is how cinematic it is, and considering this in respect to this being the only film made by this photographer. He seems to have an absolutely inspired intuition for drama and the play between realism and form. It is unfortunate we will never see it as the author intended, but the process of viewing a "film artifact" is also very exciting. I know no better example of one.
Amazing glimpse into native american folklore, September 29, 2002
By Joe Sixpack--Slipcue.com
A fascinating docu-dramatization of an ancient folk legend of Vancouver's Kwakiutl Indians....This ethnological tour-de-force has a compelling, if simple, plot, of bloodshed, revenge and justice, but is really noteworthy for its vibrant presentation of the Kwakiutl culture, especially their rich heritage of wood carving, fabric arts, costuming and dance. The animal-spirit costumes are truly amazing, as are the huge canoes and painted lodges. An amazing glimpse at the world of the Pacific Northwest, before white men came, filmed over a three years period by documentarian and folklorist Edward S. Curtis.
The first thing we need to address is the burning "documentary or melodrama" question. The answer is "melodrama."
At first the movie shows disjointed scenes of the two young lovers and the jealous old sorcerer. The thin storyline almost seems like an excuse to string together a series of brief, unrelated scenes. You're wondering if Curtis filmed genuine Kwakwaka'wakw incidents and then invented a story to fit them.
Eventually the scenes become longer and more connected, and you realize Curtis must've staged everything. Either that or he just happened to be present during several raids and got the victims' permission to film them being captured or killed.
A DVD featurette titled The Image Maker and the Indians makes it clearer what happened. Curtis built a fake village on Vancouver Island, hired actors to play the parts, and bought or made all sets, props, and clothing needed. In short, War Canoes is fiction.
One question still left unanswered is where the story came from. Did the Kwakwaka'wakw invent it, or did they recount a historical event? Or did Curtis or Hunt invent it? Knowing the story's origin would make a difference in judging it.
According to the featurette, Curtis moved to the Seattle area when he was 19 and lived there 37 years. He spent a lot of time with the Kwakwaka'wakw; his book on them has twice as many pages as the others. So he may have heard the story firsthand. It may have some authenticity.
On the other hand, Curtis was a businessman who needed to recoup his investment. The way to do that was to sensationalize the story with a love triangle, supernatural rites, kidnappings, and warfare. Hence the name change from In the Days of Vancouver to In the Land of the Head Hunters.
Someone said Kwakwaka'wakw hunted heads generations ago, long before Curtis made his film. Maybe so, although I haven't heard anything about it. But since the practice ended ages ago, showing it in the film was inflammatory. The Kwakwaka'wakw were right to demand a name change. The film is more about the war canoes than it is about the heads, which take up only a minute or two of screen time.
Today movies give you dates or other cues to tell you when the story occurred. Did anyone in Curtis's audiences realize War Canoes was a historical drama set in the distant past, not a documentary?
How good is it?
In the Land of the War Canoes starts off like any old ethnographic documentary. It gets better as the action (Naida's capture and rescue) kicks in. As Joe Sixpack said, the best parts are the animal-spirit costumes, the canoes, and the painted lodges.
If you're like me, the main problem is that you spend most of the film asking yourself questions. Is War Canoes supposed to be a documentary of Kwakwaka'wakw life? Is it a staged recreation of Kwakwaka'wakw life? Or is it a complete fiction about Kwakwaka'wakw life?
I'd say War Canoes is better than an old documentary. And better than a hokey old silent film from that era. Recall that filmmakers had yet to perfect cinematic techniques such as staging their stories realistically. In that respect, the movie is probably a significant achievement.
But it's not hugely better than an old documentary or silent film. Whether you like it will depend on your tolerance for these genres. If you want to see how traditional Indians looked and acted, it's probably worth watching. If you want a compelling or "fascinating" story, you probably can skip it.
Rob's rating: 6.5 of 10.
For more on the subject, see Curtis's Head Hunters Sucks and In the Land of the Head Hunters.
Below: "Kwagu'ł girl, Margaret Frank (née Wilson) was featured in Curtis's In the Land of the Head Hunters. Here she is shown in a portrait by Curtis wearing abalone shell earrings. Abalone shell earrings were a sign of the noble class."
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