From Flicker Alley comes H.P. Carver’s The Silent Enemy (1930), a landmark in the genre of ethnographic drama. The story attempts to tell a culturally valid semi-documentary about the Ojibway tribe in the Canadian Northwest long before it was called the Canadian Northwest and long before the advent of European explorers and settlers.
The “silent enemy” of the title is hunger. The story tells of the rivalry between two men who want to take over the duties of the current wise chief. The new chieftainship will go to that man who can best provide for the tribe with his hunting prowess, and that’s either the strapping and handsome Baluk or the dishonest medicine man Dagwan, who abuses his powers. In other words, all conflict is either against nature or within the tribe and has nothing to do with outsiders.
Shot in real Ontario locations, the film’s true star is the often magnificent photography of Marcel Le Picard, who provides one gorgeous shot after another. He spent most of his unbelievably prolific career at Hollywood’s low-budget and indie studios, clearly not for lack of talent. Dotting the dramatic proceedings are interludes with bears, mountain lions, and a stampeding herd of caribou in nature footage not always shot by Picard.
Two lovely orchestral soundtracks are offered on the Blu-ray. We don’t have the option of the original 1930 score by someone named Massard Kur Zhene. This is his only credit listed on IMDB, but the website adds the curious note that he wrote an article in the April 1927 issue of Occult Digest: “When Pitch Is Really Black – The Practice of the Black Arts in Music” by Prince Massard zur-Khene, “Oriental Violinist/Composer”. The Discography of American Historical Recordings lists him as a songwriter for three 1939 releases on the Victor label. He sounds like a fascinating subject for further research.
The third soundtrack option is an archival interview between historian Kevin Brownlow and the film’s producer and driving force, W. Douglas Burden, a scion of the Burden Iron Works and later co-founder of Florida’s Marineland. Burden recounts that he was inspired to make this film after seeing another ethnographic film from Paramount: Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927) by explorer-barnstormers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. They are now more famous for King Kong (1933).
Burden was interested in Ojibway life since childhood and realized that such a film might be possible and that it should be done sooner rather than later because the people were dying out. He states that many of the more than 100 Native Americans, mostly Ojibway, whom he recruited to appear in The Silent Enemy were dead within a few years of its shooting due to various illnesses.
Burden co-produced with a money guy, William C. Chanler, and pitched the project to Jesse Lasky at Paramount. Director H.P. Carver had experience working with Indians, Burden recalls. Carver called the shots in production while Burden mostly lay ill in bed.
Our hero Baluk is played by a famous figure of the time who dubbed himself Buffalo Child Long Lance. Speaking of being dead within a few years, he was found dead by gunshot in 1932, according to Wikipedia. Burden expresses the unprovable opinion that he was murdered for sleeping with the wrong woman. Wikipedia avers that he was employed as a socialite’s “bodyguard”.
Long Lance is a controversial and revealing figure in the history of American pop culture and Native American studies. His current Wikipedia entry states that he did possess legitimate indigenous heritage through his Lumbee or Croatoan mother. The state of North Carolina, however, considered him of mixed white and black heritage, and therefore he was legally deemed “Negro” and subject to Jim Crow segregation. He re-invented himself as a Cherokee authority and spokesman through his crusading Canadian journalism and his bestselling 1928 autobiography, Long Lance (Cosmopolitan Book Company), which was largely an invention from whole cloth.
While this led to some embarrassing publicity about his being an impostor, some modern historians point out how the mythology of “race” and racial laws contributed to conflicted identity and its defensive strategies. Long Lance, born Sylvester Long, certainly found it advantageous to be “Indian” instead of “Black”. His work as a crusader and publicist for native peoples seems to have had at least some basis in his ancestry and to have been a serious commitment.
Playing Chief Chetoga is a Sioux named Chauncey Yellow Robe, another well-known activist. His introduction is the only talking part of the film. Among other statements, he says, “Soon we will be gone. Your civilization will have destroyed us. But by your magic, we will live forever.” He also declares that only six Indians in The Silent Enemy had seen a motion picture.
Sadly, by the time this ambitious production of more than two years was ready for theatres, Hollywood had experienced the talking revolution. Non-talkies were the new “silent enemy” as far as the box office was concerned, and “The Silent Enemy” was among the last silents distributed in the US. While greeted with critical huzzahs, it suffered the fate of later recuts and dubbed narration, as detailed by Brownlow in the liner notes, before the original edition was finally exhumed from Paramount’s vaults and played to acclaim at the American Film Institute in 1973.
Flicker Alley’s packaging states: “The Silent Enemy, while progressive in many ways (including its early use of Indigenous actors), is nonetheless a product of its time in terms of ethnographic depiction of Native American life before the arrival of European settlers. The film therefore should not be viewed as a document of anthropological accuracy, but rather as a flawed though beautiful, suspenseful, and well-intended attempt to honor the Ojibway people.”