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The Silent Enemy

The Silent Enemy(1930)

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teaser The Silent Enemy (1930)

The Silent Enemy (1930) not only seems influenced by Robert Flaherty's milestone docudrama, Nanook of the North (1922); it is in several important respects a companion piece to it, unfolding on much the same turf. While Nanook depicted the lives of Inuits living north of the ever-shifting tree line of Canada's Hudson Bay region, The Silent Enemy is a serious attempt to depict Ojibwa Indians living below that same line in Quebec and northern Ontario before their lives were forever changed by Caucasian incursions. Given the film's respect for their tribal life and ways, it's perhaps the first revisionist Western, before the genre veered off into depicting Native Americans as target practice for cowboys and colonizing armies. It is, in short, a major rediscovery.

A silent film with a prologue spoken by one of the real Indians in the cast, it's a mix of ethnographic authenticity and creaky melodrama, pervaded by genuflections to the harsh, elemental Canadian wilderness and carried by a force of conviction born of its determination to do justice to its subject. The otherwise silent film is introduced by a prologue written and spoken by Chief Chauncey Yellow Robe, a dignified Sioux and a descendant of Sitting Bull (the facial resemblance is unmistakable), who plays the wise old Ojibwa Chief, Chetoga, in the film.

He asks the audience to regard the performers not as actors, but as people revisiting their heritage, noting that while the white man has all but destroyed their civilization, the white man's technology ironically will help keep that civilization alive through images like the ones we are about to see. He adds that many of the Ojibwas in the film had never seen a motion picture. A further irony he could not have realized was that he himself would not live to see the film. It was released in August, 1930 but Chief Chauncey Yellow Robe had already died of pneumonia in April, 1930.

The Silent Enemy quickly dispels any doubt about its titular meaning when a title card appears at the outset, saying HUNGER in capital letters, with a superimposed image of a wolf (the same image closes the film). One of the things that makes the film memorable is its animal footage - a fight between a bear and a mountain lion, a wolverine raiding a food cache, a gripping caribou stampede. Underpinning the animal sequences, some still pretty remarkable, is the sense of struggle we realize is faced by all the life forms in the region. More often than not, desperation is in the air, and we feel it.

It's not so much that the people and the animals are enemies. Rather, they're competing carnivores who spend most of their waking hours chasing a never quite sufficient food supply. We also become keenly aware that while summer encampment interludes support canoe expeditions and loincloths, these Indians are most of the time covered in chamois tunics and trousers, adding furs and wraps in colder weather, of which there is plenty. Lots of stunning landscape photography, especially in the areas north of the tree line, referred to with grim aptness as The Barrens.

The drama in The Silent Enemy hinges on two alpha males (Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance as a hunter, Chief Akawanush as a dirty-tricks medicine man) competing to succeed the old chief and vying for his pretty maiden daughter (Molly Spotted Elk, a Penobscot from Maine). When famine looms, the medicine man points the tribe south. The hunter counter-intuitively leads them north instead, hoping to intercept a caribou crossing as all struggle against weakness, hunger, cold, fatigue and ever-relentless elements before proceeding to a life-and-death finish.

Despite being drawn from Ojibwa legends chronicled by 17th century Jesuits, the elemental power and poignant recording of tribal culture (right down to the pictorial writing on skins hung inside tepees) battle clichs lifted from Victorian melodrama that must have seemed pretty hoary even in 1930. Stereotypes abound, too. Even Chief Yellow Robe, in the spoken prologue he wrote, refers to the proverbial "happy hunting grounds" -- not that we can't imagine why his tribe, ever menaced by the all too real spectre of starvation, wouldn't be happy to find anything to hunt. In the end, Chief Yellow Robe's dignity carries his remarks past the pitfalls of narrow perspective and the script's antiquated delivery system. The same goes for the film, (tinted sepia for day scenes, blue for night) shot by a largely indigenous native crew more acclimated than most to the harsh conditions accompanying much of the shoot.

A few words are in order about the man behind it, producer (and original scenarist) William Douglas Burden. A rich New Yorker and Vanderbilt family heir, he was a hunter, explorer and adventurer who knew the Canadian wilderness from having spent time in it as a youth, had a feel for the land and the people in it, and was a member of The Explorers' Club and The American Museum of Natural History. In 1926, he famously journeyed to Komodo Island in what is now Indonesia to hunt its giant lizards he called Komodo Dragons. He brought back two live specimens for The Bronx Zoo and twelve dead ones for the American Museum of Natural History, where three are still on display.

His social circle included filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, whose documentaries Grass (1925), about nomadic tribesmen in the steppes of Asia Minor, and Chang (1927), about Laotian jungle villagers menaced by marauding elephants, tigers and leopards, also influenced Burden and The Silent Enemy greatly. Not that Burden didn't return the favor. After Cooper and Schoedsack heard of Burden's Komodo expedition, they reinvented Komodo Island as Skull Island, changed the giant lizard into a giant ape, and presto: King Kong (1933)!

Producers: W. Douglas Burden, William C. Chanler
Director: H.P. Carver
Screenplay: W. Douglas Burden (story); Richard Carver (scenario); Julian Johnson (titles); Chief Yellow Robe (prologue, uncredited)
Cinematography: Marcel Le Picard
Music: Massard Kur Zhene; Karl Hajos, W. Franke Harling, Howard Jackson, John Leipold, Gene Lucas, Charles Midgely, Oscar Potoker, Max Terr (all eight uncredited)
Cast: Chief Yellow Robe (Chetoga, tribe leader), Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance (Baluk, mighty hunter), Chief Akawanush (Dagwan, medicine man), Spotted Elk (Neewa, Chetoga's daughter), Cheeka (Cheeka, Chetoga's son)

by Jay Carr

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