Review Roundup: Newly Restored Edward S. Curtis Film and Book

Just over a century ago, the famed–and controversial–Edward S. Curtis produced a groundbreaking silent feature film, In the Land of the Head Hunters. Made in cooperation with the Kwakwaka’wakw of British Columbia, this melodramatic feature-length film was the first to star an all-Indigenous cast. It employed innovative camerawork and narrative structure that had yet to be seen in other early motion pictures and was extensively color tinted and toned. At early screenings, it was accompanied by a live orchestra playing an original musical score said to have been based on recordings Curtis made with the Kwakwaka’wakw. Although the film received rave reviews from critics, it was a failure at the box office and was soon forgotten and nearly lost completely.

Over the past decade, Brad Evans and Aaron Glass have worked with the U’mista Cultural Centre and a team of experts to meticulously restore this lost treasure of American film history. In the book, Return to the Land of the Head Hunters, Glass and Evans bring together an impressive slate of anthropologists, Native American activists and community members, artists, musicians, literary scholars, and film historians to recount the complex and challenging process of restoring the film and to discuss its legacy.

Now, after screening in select cities across the U.S. and Canada, the fully restored version of In the Land of the Head Hunters is available on DVD from Milestone Films. Noting the film’s significance, The New York Times and Indian Country Today have reviewed the film on the occasion of its DVD release.

From The New York Times, In the Land of the Head Hunters,’ a Recreated Artifact of Ancient Ways:

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

“Around 1911, Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), the celebrated photographer of Native Americans, began preparations for a six-reel feature about the Kwakwaka’wakw (formerly Kwakiutl) Indians of British Columbia. The movie, a commercial enterprise intended to underwrite the cost of Curtis’s lavish photographic albums, was to be set before the arrival of European explorers and to feature a Kwakwaka’wakw cast. In addition to collecting masks and ceremonial objects, Curtis created a movie location off Vancouver Island, constructing false house-fronts, commissioning totem poles, and having wardrobes of cedar bark clothing woven.

‘In the Land of the Head Hunters’…is the reconstruction of a reconstruction. It preserves an artifact that used a once advanced technology to document a no longer extent way of life, and was itself all but lost to history.

Read the full New York Times review here.

From Indian Country TodayReturn to the Land of the Head Hunters: 100 Years Later, Edward Curtis’ Movie Plays Again:

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 […]

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.”

Indian Country Today: 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.

Read the full Indian Country Today review here.

Watch the trailer for the restored film here and the book trailer here:

Visit www.curtisfilm.rutgers.edu to learn more about the book and the film.

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