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In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)

by on 2015/03/18

IntheLandoftheHeadHunters_1914“O that we might go, beloved, walking hand in hand along the misty path of copper.”

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Sometimes I take things for granted. I forget what’s important.

We have toiled away for many (many) years on this site. Late last month in fact, we quietly slipped past the five-year anniversary of During our half decade of doing this, a great deal has changed in our lives.

The site has been the one thing that has consistently endured. Sometimes we wander off (and by we I mean me) but we always return to it.

It matters.

Receiving a copy of In the Land of the Head Hunters in the mail the other day reminded me what we do all of this for. Getting access to this film was more than a little like receiving a crumbling scrap of the Magna Carta or a map to an ancient treasure in a bubble wrap envelope.

This film is an actual treasure. As Canadian film fanatics, how could we not jump at the chance to get our grubby mitts on the oldest surviving feature film made in Canada?

The story of behind this film is nearly as interesting as the footage gathered in this piece of history. Photographer and filmmaker Edward Curtis, a minister’s son born in Wisconsin, lived among First Nations people in an effort to catalogue their way of life. Bank rolled by legendary financier J.P. Morgan, Curtis’ captured day-to-day moments of Aboriginal peoples in the U.S. and Canada.

This feature film was shot among the Kwakiutl tribe of the Queen Charlotte Strait region of the Central Coast of British Columbia. The silent film is structured around a standard hero’s journey — a young man named Motana is on a spirit quest to become a man.

Motana finds love, visits the land of the dead, goes up against an evil sorcerer, fights a great battle and eventually gets the girl. Detractors of Edward Curtis’ work call the film that premiered in 1914 a “flawed documentary.” Some say he would stage some of his photographs of native life, removing aspects of Western culture.

Flawed or no, I’ll take this opportunity to see the people of Curtis’ film, see the inside the fur-lined bedroom of a long house, take in the shape of the war canoes cutting through the water, watch hunters harvest a whale and see a tribe dancing in celebration. There was truth and beauty in these frames.

This film is a unique opportunity to reach back in time.

According to my reading online, this film was almost lost forever. A single damaged, incomplete print of the film was fished out of a dumpster by an avid film collector, it was donated to the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History in 1947.

Thanks to some very dedicated people — UCLA Film and Television Archive (supervised by Jere Guldin), The Field Museum of Natural History, Milestone Films, Modern Videofilm, Brad Evans, Aaron Glass and Andrea Sanborn — this film has been returned to us.

My co-conspirator and partner in this site thinks I’m unfairly down on time travel but this movie gave me an opportunity to believe that time travel exists and it is, in fact, magic.

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66 minutes

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