September 02, 2009

Review of In the Land of the War Canoes

In the Land of the Head HuntersIn the Land of the Head Hunters (also called In the Land of the War Canoes) is a 1914 silent film fictionalizing the world of the Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl) peoples of the Queen Charlotte Strait region of the Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada, written and directed by Edward S. Curtis and acted entirely by Kwakwaka'wakw natives. It was selected in 1999 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." It was the first feature-length film whose cast was composed entirely of Native North Americans; the second, eight years later, was Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North.The Production of the FilmIn 1911, as part of his massive undertaking, Curtis travelled to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to visit the Kwakiutls. By the next year, needing money for his project and to add to his research and still photography work, Curtis decided that the best way to record the traditional way of life and ceremonies of the Kwakiutl people was to make one of the first feature motion pictures. Curtis had already shot footage in 1906 of the Hopi Snake dance, which he had previously showed during his talks, but this was to be on a grander scale. On March 28, 1912, Curtis wrote in a letter to Frederick Webb Hodge: “I am still doing some figuring on the possibility of a series of motion pictures, and am very much in hopes that it will materialize, as such an arrangement would materially strengthen the real cause [his books].” In his promotional letters to raise money for the series, he estimated the profits would be $25,000 to $100,000 a year. This was simply not to be. It took three years of preparation for this one film including the weaving of the costumes; building of the war canoes, housefronts, poles; and the carving of masks. Assisting on the film was George Hunt, a Kwakiutl who had served as an interpreter for the famous anthropologist Franz Boas nearly twenty years before. Hunt helped contribute substantial portions of the film’s story as well.

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 scoreA single damaged, incomplete print of the film was salvaged from a dumpster and donated to Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History in 1947. Bill Holm and George Quimby re-edited this print in 1974, added a soundtrack by Kwakwaka'wakw musicians, and released the result as In the Land of the War Canoes.Documentary or melodrama?In the Land of the Head Hunters has often been discussed as a flawed documentary: it combines many accurate representations of aspects of Kwakwaka'wakw culture, art, and technology from the era in which it was made with a melodramatic plot based on practices that either dated from long before the first contact of the Kwakwaka'wakw with people of European descent or were entirely fictional. Curtis appears never to have specifically presented the film as a documentary, but he also never specifically called it a work of fiction.

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.
Customer Reviews:  In The Land Of The War CanoesBetter than Nanook in every way, October 11, 2007
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

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.
Rob's review

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.


  • The Kwakwaka'wakw Indians all have long black hair held by a headband. No feathers. They wear shapeless kilts, dresses, robes, shawls, and capes made of skins. It's a good reminder that many of the well-tailored, form-fitting buckskin outfits you see Indians wearing are fake.

  • After each canoe raid, the returning victors wave decapitated heads, or something. It's hard to tell what they're waving. Some of the items look like wigs--perhaps representing severed scalps. Others look like heads, with their faces barely visible amid the hair. Apparently Curtis used dummy heads in his filming.

    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.

  • At one point two men are wrestling atop a 50-foot-high cliff when one clubs the other and sends him plummeting into the sea. I sure hope Curtis used a dummy for this scene, because the flailing, falling body looks lifelike. I don't think most people would've survived the fall.

  • The final "drowning" scene doesn't have this problem. The boat capsizes a mere 20 feet from some rocks. I presume that anyone who fell overboard would swim to safety, not drown.

  • As with Curtis's photographs, we don't see any signs of modernity. No frame houses with glass windows, no missionaries or churches, no passing ships with cargo or passengers, no roads or Model Ts, and no camera equipment. The government probably sent these Indians to boarding schools, cut their hair, taught them English, and made them wear regular clothes.

    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?

  • The Kwakwaka'wakw Indians come from the same cultural region as the Quileute Indians. War Canoes may be the best film source for learning what these Indians were like. When the Twilight sequel Eclipse shows its phony werewolf history, fans can see how far it is from reality.

  • 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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