Since its re-release in the 1970s, In the Land of the Head Hunters has most frequently been understood as an example of documentary realism, a predecessor to later ethnographic travel films like Robert F. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and Martin and Osa Johnson’s Simba, The King of Beasts (1928). While it certainly makes sense to establish this connection—we know, for example, that Flaherty and his wife were treated to a private screening of Head Hunters at Curtis’s New York studio in 1915—our restoration of Curtis’s film brings to light its significance in the context of the then emerging feature film industry.
Very much an original work, In the Land of the Head Hunters was an attempt to combine high art and anthropology, to turn ethnographic spectacle into mass entertainment. Curtis intended his film to attract large audiences in an effort to raise much-needed funds for his “serious” life’s work—the North American Indian book series (his major patron, J. P. Morgan, had passed away in 1913 leaving Curtis strapped for cash). Neither like the many Indian-themed movies of its time, nor like the famous ethnographic documentaries that would follow it, Head Hunters is rightly understood as the meeting of two dramatic traditions, the emergent Hollywood film industry and the longstanding Kwakwaka’wakw tradition of dramatic public as well as ritual performance. It reminds us that from a very early date, neither was impervious to the other.
Curtis and Hollywood
In the Land of the Head Hunters opened at a time of rapid change in the motion picture industry—a period marked both by technical innovations and by a transition towards longer feature films with more coherent fictional narratives. Film historians point to D. W. Griffith’s landmark The Birth of a Nation (1915) as the first major Hollywood film to realize cinema’s popular and artistic potential. Though Curtis’s film was undertaken on a much more modest scale, its significance can best be understood by keeping the mass cultural appeal of Hollywood movies like Griffith’s in mind.
Later in his career, Curtis actually ended up in Hollywood as an employee of Cecil B. DeMille, where he worked in 1923 as a cameraman and still-photographer for the blockbuster production of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. His foray into filmmaking had ambitions to reach the same kind of mass audience, but at the same time it held itself aloof as a work of high art.
When it was first screened in 1914, In the Land of the Head Hunters entered into a field crowded with “Indian pictures.” From the beginning, Native Americans were not merely represented by the motion picture industry, but played a central role in its emergence. One of the first studio short films was the Edison Company’s twenty-second Sioux Ghost Dance (1894). Filmed at Edison’s studio in West Orange, New Jersey, it featured Oglala and Brulé Sioux who were touring in Brooklyn at the time with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. This short was followed by hundreds of others featuring Native American actors, many of whom had been involved with Buffalo Bill while others were brought in specially for the occasion.
The Innovation of Head Hunters
What Head Hunters brought to this mix was a desire to elevate the Indian movie to a new level of artistry, as well as a desire to portray Native American life outside the stereotypes established for it by the prior two decades of filmic representation—not to mention the even longer history of Native American representation since the 1830s in dime novels and Wild West shows. The mere fact that Curtis chose a picturesque but not stereotypical First Nations group—lacking the ready-made Indian icons of feathered headdresses, horses, tomahawks, and tipis—suggests his desire to avoid those clichés, even as he indulged in others (head hunting, sorcery, vision quests). Perhaps this denial of audience familiarity also in part explains its box-office failure.
Technically, Curtis’s film is remarkable not only for the quality and originality of its production, but also for the hyperbole of the advertising for it, which was clearly aimed at distinguishing it from other films in the market. Everything about the film—from the identity of its actors to the source for its musical score—were vigorously claimed to be “authentic.” It was a six-reel film, which was fairly long for the time, and it was shot entirely on location in British Columbia. It featured innovative moving camera shots. Its sequencing demonstrated Curtis’s basic understanding of principles of narrative continuity. The original advertising for the film stressed the significance of what was called “the Hochstetter process,” supposedly a natural color process that had been used in the making of the film. Although technical analysis indicates that it had, in fact, been tinted and toned in the standard way in the studio, the coloring of the Kwakwaka’wakw costumes and homes, as well as of the pacific coast landscape, is quite complex for the time.
In terms of its portrayal of indigenous life, In the Land of the Head Hunters differs significantly from previous examples of the genre because of its combination of fictional and non-fictional elements. Whereas “Indian pictures” followed standard plot lines—ranging from cowboy and Indian spectacles in the mold of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, to more delicately framed interracial love stories (known as “squaw romances”)— Head Hunters withdrew all traces of contact with whites or modernity. There is still a love story; only it is between the Native Americans themselves. And there is warfare, but not the standard fare with frontiersmen or cowboys. Moreover, at a time when the Canadian government had prohibited the performance of many ceremonial rituals in an attempt to force assimilation, the film portrays most such rituals in accordance with Kwakwaka’wakw protocols. It might be argued that by removing the film’s narrative from the historical moment of its production, Curtis denied the modernity of its actor/participants. However, in asking them to be movie actors in the first place, Curtis complicated his other claims to documentary realism and proved that Native people could perform their past as a way of imagining a cultural future. There is no clearer hallmark of modern consciousness.
Curtis brought to his film his own aesthetic proclivities, commercial ambitions, and racialized cultural imagination. For their part, the Kwakwaka’wakw contributed their significant artistic and dramatic talents as well as editorial input. Although Curtis retained control over its initial structure and shape, the film is best appreciated as an intercultural co-production, the first of its kind at this scale and in the cinematic medium. The peculiar history of In the Land of the Head Hunters suggests its potential for contemporary relevance and continual re-imagining by film historians, students of cultural and colonial representation, and Kwakwaka’wakw communities alike.