Edward S. Curtis’ Film – In the Land of the Head-Hunters – Pt. 6

Edward S. Curtis - A Koskimo House. 1914.
A Koskimo House by Edward S. Curtis. 1914.

A 1914 film by Edward S. Curtis

In 1914, Edward S. Curtis’ film, In the Land of the Head-Hunters, featuring the Kwakiutl tribe, was shown to theater audiences. He worked on the film with George Hunt, an adopted member of the tribe. Hunt had been indispensable when he had worked for anthropologist Franz Boaz. The Kwakiutl tribe is from Vancouver Island and they rely on salmon fishing for their way of life. However, Curtis had them pretend to hunt whale in the film. Creating the film had its hardships including an incident when Curtis was dropped off on an “island” that flooded with the incoming tides. It left him waist-deep in water through the night.

The film includes a potlatch ceremony because Curtis thought filming it would be very dramatic. The Kwakiutl culture carved elaborate totem poles, canoes, and longhouse buildings. Tribal members wore full-body ceremonial garb made from wood, feathers, and skins that represented animals.

Group of winter dancers – Qagyuhl by Edward S. Curtis. 1914.
Group of winter dancers – Qagyuhl by Edward S. Curtis. 1914.

In the Land of the Head-Hunters is referred to as the first ethnographic film. Nanook of the North came out later and the creator of that film analyzed Curtis’ work frame by frame before he started filming. Edward S. Curtis’ film consisted of 8,000 feet of film.  It was the first film to feature a cast of Native Americans – instead of Italians dressed up in makeup and costumes. Shot entirely on location, it was the first film created in British Columbia. John J. Braham, who also did the score for Hiawatha., composed the musical score. The film flew in the face of stereotypes people had at the time about Native Americans. Unlike other films that included Native Americans in the plot, this film did not focus on conflicts with whites.

Behind the film

The Kwakiutl tribe enjoyed being a part of Edward S. Curtis’ film. The tribe gave input into what to include in the final film and what should be excluded to ensure its authenticity.  With this in mind, they made everything for the film – including buildings, canoes, and costumes. The story was meant to be a mythic tale about Native Americans before they came in contact with Europeans. It was almost like something out of Greek mythology. The potlatch and other ceremonies were banned in Canada in 1913 and enforcing those laws was at its peak when filming took place.

One of the reasons Curtis created the film was to help pay for the book project. At the time he was working on the film, he was compiling Volume 10. Edward S. Curtis had an interest in filmmaking as early as 1906. In the Land of the Head-Hunters cost $75,000 to $100,000 to make. It ended up being a complete bust financially. The film came out right as World War I was starting. There was a dispute with the distributor and it went to court but was never resolved. Consequently, Curtis ended up selling the film for only $1,500.

Edward S. Curtis - Wedding party - Qagyuhl 1914.
Wedding party – Qagyuhl by Edward S. Curtis. 1914.

A tragic loss and re-creation

Edward S. Curtis’ film consisted of six reels in its final version. Curtis mentioned he had given a copy to the Museum of Natural History. The Museum had no record of the donation. However, three badly damaged reels were found in a dumpster in 1947. UCLA had another partial copy. The film was painstakingly recreated, but approximately one third of the original film was lost. The Getty Research Institute had incorrectly linked the musical score  with another film but it was eventually reunited with the Curtis film.

Milestone Films produced a deluxe edition of the restored film in 2014, 100 years after the original film was created. Due to their efforts, the film can be purchased from their website. This movie is available to rent or purchase through Amazon Video and iTunes.

Photos by Edward S. Curtis in this article are from the following source: http://curtis.library.northwestern.edu/index.html

Posts in this series:

Edward S. Curtis Fever in Bend, Oregon

Edward S. Curtis Photo Techniques & Artistic Movements Pt. 2

Edward S. Curtis History – Childhood to Businessman Pt. 3

Edward S. Curtis’ Mission – A History (continued) Pt. 4

Edward S. Curtis’ life of twists & turns Pt. 5

Edward S. Curtis’ Film – In the Land of the Head-Hunters – Pt. 6

Controversy surrounding Edward Curtis & documentary – Pt. 7

Edward S. Curtis Discovery & Events Pt. 8

Edward S. Curtis Conclusions – Pt. 9