As Shawn Conner reported on December 6, 2014 in The Vancouver Sun, “It’s been lost, found, restored, misunderstood, and restored again. This weekend, 100 years after its initial release, In the Land of the Head Hunters is once again being released, this time in a digitized format. Written and directed by Edward S. Curtis, the 1914 film is the American photographer’s attempt to document the customs of the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) peoples of the Central Coast, while telling a story about how their ancestors lived.
But the film, which opened in New York City and Seattle, disappeared soon after its initial release, having made less than a seventh of what Curtis spent on it. It wasn’t until 1947 that a film collector found a 35mm nitrate print in a back alley. He donated his find to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. In the late ’60s, anthropologists Bill Holm and George Quimby used the museum’s damaged, incomplete version to make a 16mm version. Holm then took the 16mm up the Inside Passage and showed the film at a number of Kwakwaka’wakw villages.
‘It was the first time anybody up there had seen it, even though many of their parents had acted in it,’ said SFU emeritus professor Colin Browne, who served as a consultant for a new restoration. Holm brought some elders to watch the film at the Newcombe Auditorium at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. ‘They spoke to the screen the words they thought the characters were saying, and layered those with some comments,’ said Browne, who taught film history, production and critical writing at SFU School of Contemporary Arts until about a year ago. ‘That became the soundtrack of the movie.’
Adding the recordings of the Kwakwaka’wakw elders, Holm and Quimby refashioned the film as In the Land of the War Canoes. ‘That’s how it showed up in the ’70s, with new intertitles and the Kwakwaka’wakw soundtrack,’ said Browne. Good portions of the beginning and ending were missing. ‘It seemed to everybody that it must be a documentary.’ In the Land of the War Canoes, with its depiction of warring tribes and First Nations customs, was mostly shown in anthropology classes in universities, and rarely in film studies classes.
But the original got a revival following the discovery of the original score in 2007. Around the same time, a 35mm print of the film’s final reel was also discovered. A restored version was screened in various cities, including Vancouver in 2008. The restored version is made up of footage from both the 16mm and 35mm prints, as well as still images in places where footage has been permanently lost or damaged. (The still images come from the Library of Congress. At the time In the Land of the Headhunters was made, producers copyrighted their work by submitting stills from every scene of their films.)
At the screenings, orchestras and ensembles played the original music along with the restored version. Among the musical groups was Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble, and it is their recording that appears on the digital version, which [was] released Sunday, Dec. 7 on DVD by Milestone Films. The Land of the Head Hunters is the first feature film made in B.C., and the first ever with an all-indigenous cast. It deserves to be seen for those reasons alone, but it’s also full of indelible images that have inspired other filmmakers, Browne notes.
‘People haven’t really had a chance to see the film the way we’re going to see it now, which is probably the best restoration we’ll ever have,’ Browne said. ‘I’m hoping film scholars and historians will see it and they’ll go “Oh my God, here’s another great film, we have to include this in the canon of cinema.’” And indeed, the canon of film is constantly expanding – due in large part to archival work like this.