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In the Land of the Head Hunters
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by Jay Seaver

"Worth hunting down, because you won't see many movies like it."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: As is so often the case with early silent movies, you can't just watch "In the Land of the Head Hunters" as intended; the new restoration is pieced together from two incomplete prints and still has plenty of segments that are just missing, filled in with stills. That's almost cruelly ironic, because while many films from that time period were considered disposable entertainment, it's clear that Edward S. Curtis was trying to make something that documents as well as entertains.

Make no mistake, though, this is an adventure story first and foremost, telling the tale of Motana, the son of a village chief sent out on a "vigil" to prove his worthiness. While there, he meets Naida, the daughter of another chief, who is promised to a sorcerer. If Motana can bring back that sorcerer's head, he can marry the girl, but assassinating such a man is seldom going to be a tidy way to end things. So there will be battles.

It's an exciting story, and while Curtis was primarily a still photographer famed for his pictures of Native Americans, he put an exciting narrative together. Though Head Hunters is only about an hour long, that was a full-length feature in 1914, and it's one that hits the ground running and seldom lets up. There are chases, battles, dreams, and all manner of other action, and while some intrigue and romantic plots fall a bit by the wayside, even a modern audience will seldom feel bored. It's a cracker, even a hundred years later.

Of course, part of the reason Curtis made this movie is to document the Kwakwaka'wakw people of the Canada's west coast, and while what he made was shot on locations purpose-built for the film rather than actual Kwakwaka'wakw villages, the cast is entirely Native American and the techniques are said to be authentic. What's on-screen looks spectacular; the culture's artwork is beautiful and showcased to great effect, from the raven's head that serves as a door to Motana's father's house to the canoes to the people dancing in full animal costume. The story may be sensationalistic in some ways, but what's on screen is often amazing.

The restoration is relatively new, done in part by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and Rutgers University from as many sources as could be put together, some in their original black and white, some tinted, and while occasionally it's clear that the source material is pretty beat up or sadly missing, it's still quite watchable. The soundtrack presented was the original composition by John J. Braham, partly inspired by Kwakwaka'wakw chants and music, but given a new and impressive orchestration for the restoration.

"In the Land of the Head Hunters" is at times as pulpy as the title implies, and it's always been more a curiosity than a mainstream piece. It's a fascinating artifact, though, and should be interesting to people whether they're interested in early cinema or First Nations culture.

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originally posted: 07/22/14 02:36:42
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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