In 1914, 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 who had been adopted by 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 and left him waist-deep in water through the night.
The film shows 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.
In the Land of the Head-Hunters is said to be 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. It was shot entirely on location and was the first film created in British Columbia. The musical score was composed by John J. Braham, who also did the score for Hiawatha. 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.
The Kwakiutl tribe enjoyed being a part of the Curtis film. They made everything for the film – including buildings, canoes, and costumes. The tribe gave input into what should be included in the final film and what should be excluded. 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 been interested in filmmaking as early as 1906. In the Land of the Head-Hunters cost $75,000 to $100,000 to make but it was a complete bust financially. It 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. Curtis ended up selling the film for only $1,500.
The finished film consisted of six reels of film and Curtis said that he had given a copy to the Museum of Natural History. The Museum had no record of the film being donated. 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. It can be purchased from their website. This movie can be rented or purchased 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