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Return to the Land of the Head Hunters: 100 Years Later, Edward Curtis' Movie Plays Again

Photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) is primarily known for his 20-volume photographic work The North American Indian, a document published between 1907-1930 that captured images of what he called the "Disappearing Race." The North American Indian defined—and, lamentably, continues to define—the image of Turtle Island's Indigenous people in the age of photography. Curtis' other major work was a feature-length silent film, In The Land of The Head Hunters, which he created with the team who assisted him in collecting his songs and images. Curtis had hoped Head Hunters would save him from financial ruin. But the film, which had reportedly cost $20,000 to make, only grossed $3,269 when it premiered in 1914.

Critics loved it, though -- reviewer Stephen Bush could scarcely contain himself in Motion Picture World:

If I were asked to point to some particular film illustrating the educational value of the motion picture I would unhesitatingly mention this production. As a drama it may be a mere curiosity though even as a drama it has a singularly compelling charm. As a gem of the motion picture art it has never been surpassed. As I saw it at the Casino, New York City, with suitable music the picture is overwhelmingly beautiful and impressive. You get the impression of having feasted one of the world’s great picture galleries and there follows that most delightful of sensations, a new perception of pleasure in which the eye and the brain take special shares.

Poster for 'In the Land of the Head Hunters' by the World Film Corporation.

Until recently, In the Land of the Head Hunters was all but lost. Experts would say that the film hadn't been viewed in its entirety since the 1940s. But dogged preservationists have pieced together a narratively coherent—if not totally complete—version of the film, which went on sale through Milestone Films on February 14, 2015

In the Land of the Head Hunters was never a documentary—it was conceived as a fictional melodrama of the Kwakwaka’wakw people and set in the mid-1700s. Filmmaker Barbara Cranmer, a descendent of the film’s assistant director, George Hunt, himself a Kwakwaka’wakw Indian, said the more macabre headhunting aspects of the film were fictional, and played upon the propaganda of the time -- this was an era, after all, when when the Kwakwaka'wakw ceremonies had been outlawed. Filmed in beautiful Northeast corner of Vancouver Island, Canada, the film contains accurate depictions of Kwakwaka’wakw ceremonies and dances performed decades, and even a century, earlier. As such, despite its fictional narrative, it's an important document of culture that may have otherwise have been lost.

A still from the film shows tribal members entering the house through the Raven’s mouth. The decoration of the homes has enabled the Kwakwaka’wakw to see how their ancestors lived as far back as the mid 1700s.

According to William Cranmer, hereditary chief and chairman of the U'mista Cultural Society in Alert Bay, Canada, “Many of our old relatives were part of the film and when we saw them as teenagers, that was great for us. We appreciated that the story was told in the way things happened in those early days. We saw the canoes as they were expertly paddled by the people of the day. We saw the way they used the designs on the house fronts and the history of those designs. There is a lot of information that is useful for us today. If Mr. Curtis hadn’t made that film, we wouldn’t see it.”

In the Land of the Head Hunters has been called the first feature film to hire Natives as actors and crew. [Note: a subsequent ICTMN article, "What Was the First Feature Film With an All-Native Cast?", found that a production of Hiawatha with Native actors predates Headhunters by a year. --Ed.] “There was a degree of respect that Edward Curtis had for Kwakwaka’wakw culture,” explains Sarah Holland, executive director of the U’Mista Cultural Centre. “The 'princess' in the story was too high-ranking to do some of the things the role required, so she had two body doubles. That shows there was dialogue around what was appropriate. People from this area can identify people in the film by their particular regalia or by the song they were singing or dancing to.” 

Head Hunters was notable for its use of tinted and toned color, and has the earliest surviving orchestral score. Moreover, the directorial skill of Curtis -- love him or hate him, a visual genius -- makes for many stunning shots. “It had huge artistic ambitions for a film in 1914,” says Brad Evans, associate professor at Rutgers University, who was involved in the film’s reconstruction.

The cover for the 2015 Blu-Ray release of 'In the Land of the Head Hunters' by Milestone Films.

Aaron Glass, assistant professor at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City, NY, has spent 20 years working with the Kwakwaka’wakw, and he sees the film as a testament to the incredible shift within the tribe at the time.

"Participating with Curtis to stage outlawed ceremonies was really a sign of their status as a modern people in 1914," Glass says. "They maintained a lot of ceremonial practices and found a way to maintain them under very modern conditions."

Some aspects of the film have been dramatized and do not depict ceremonies accurately. However, George Hunt, who served as the films assistant director and was the chief of the Kwakwaka’wakw in 1914, left thousands of detailed records of what was done in the film as well as historical documentation.

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Barbara Cranmer recalls traveling with the film to the Seattle Public Library, where it was shown to an audience of 300. “It was a full house,” she says. “People were really interested in Edward Curtis but they were also happy to hear my perspective as a descendent of George Hunt, shedding some light on his abilities because he was way ahead of his time. The Potlatch Prohibition stopped us from being who we were. For me, [George Hunt] had a lot of perseverance and foresight. He was a leader." A book containing speakers' lectures, historic information and other details about the film, Return to the Land of the Head Hunters, is also available through University of Washington Press. 

Following the 1914 premiere, the film's distributor, the World Film Corporation, screened it in a number of locations throughout 1915 and 1916 -- we may never know the full list, but it included Lima, Ohio; Lowell, Massachusetts; Oakland, California; Placerville, California; Fairbanks, Alaska; and Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Then it all but disappeared; Curtis himself sold the only known copy to New York’s American Museum of Natural History for $1,500 in 1922. In 1947, a 35mm print popped up, owned by a Chicago film collector who said the film had been found by a friend, in a dumpster behind a theater. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago created a 16mm black and white copy and destroyed the original deteriorating 35mm print.

Dances and songs recorded for the film are an asset to the Kwakwaka’wakw, who can identify their ancestors in accurately depicted wear and ceremonies.

In 1972, only remnants of the film appeared to exist, and were put together to create a new film called In The Land of the War Canoes, which was promoted as a documentary. By 1991, War Canoes' distributor, Milestone Films, began searching for a complete 35mm copy of the original film. “No one had seen Curtis’ original version since the 1940s,” Glass and Evans wrote in “The Innovation of In the Land of the Head Hunters."

Evans and Glass finally discovered some of the original 16mm elements at the Field Museum. They also found two more reels at UCLA -- reels that were not supposed to exist. At the Library of Congress, they found a large number of film frames, in story order, that they have used as substitutes for lost footage in the restored version.

"By then, nobody even remembered that it was a Curtis film," Evans says. "When they found the film, it had been preserved at the Field Museum because of its representation of Kwakwaka’wakw life.” The film was restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive in cooperation with The Field Museum.

During the Potlatch Prohibition, masks, carvings and other cultural items were removed by the Canadian government. Many were repatriated in the late 1970s, at almost the same time the film was rereleased as 'In the Land of the War Canoes.' 'It was around the time the U’Mista Cultural Centre was founded,' Brad Evans recalls. 'In the first wave of repatriation of Indigenous artifacts, and to a certain extent, the movie was also repatriated.'

Currently the restored version is 65 minutes long, but Evans and Glass believe that “the original probably ran about 85 minutes, but we can’t be sure. The story line is intact.”

Hunt recalls hearing stories of the film’s production when she was growing up, and she has heard family members say they had a good time working on the film. "Just imagine it, over on an island by Fort Rupert, building a big set with a big house front, and all those wigs!" The actors in the film are wearing wigs because by 1914, they had cut their hair.

Hunt adds, “I am proud we were a part of the film and I would say thanks to the ancestors that we have a living culture today as a result. The thing is, it's about being humble with it and how we share our own story.”

Protagonist Motana dances around the fire in a vision quest ceremony. The dancers who appear in the film are said to have been the best dancers among the Kwakwaka’wakw.

The Thunderbird dance is one of many that are performed in animal regalia in the film.

In a scene from the film, the enemy drums while the rescuers appear in masks and other disguises.

This behind the scenes view gives a clear look at the artistry of the masks, and other artifacts of the time.