I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.
Title: The Silent Enemy
Release Date:May 9, 1930
Director: H.P. Carver
Production Company: Burden-Chanler Productions
I’ve been curious about this movie ever since learning about it the documentary Reel Injun that mentioned as as sympathetic representation of indigenous Americans in early cinema. I guess my expectations were high because I didn’t anticipate the level of exoticism and “noble savage” mythology in this movie. It fits in clearly with movies like Nanook of the North and Tabu in depicting a romanticized view of indigenous cultures with a gloss of anthropology.
Like Nanook, The Silent Enemy represent a lifestyle that no longer existed at the time the movie was made. Also like Nanook, it has a documentary-style when it’s not really a documentary. A narrator tells the story of Ojibwe tribe of Canada with an ethnographic authority but also sometimes talking in broken English. (NOTE: There appears to be a longer version of this movie released as a silent film without the narration). The movie begins with a spoken introduction by Chauncey Yellow Robe (the only time one of the native actors speaks in the movie) where he declares “Soon we will be gone. Your civilization will have destroyed us. But by your magic, we will live forever.”
The highlights of the movie include over 100 native actors, mostly Ojibwe, star in this movie that was filmed on location in the wilderness of northern Ontario. For a movie from 1930, it includes remarkable shots of many wild animals (including bears, wolves, mountain lion, and caribou) and some impressive special effects. The story is pure melodrama with Chief Chetoga (Chauncey Yellow Robe) endeavoring to save his tribe from “the silent enemy” of hunger during a harsh winter. Two younger men, the handsome hunter Baluk (Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance) and the mendacious medicine man Dagwan (Chief Akawanush), compete to be Chetoga’s heir. The narrator lets us know that Dagwan is evil early and often in case you’re wondering who to root for.
I have mixed feelings about this movie, because it’s kind of cheezy and gives a false impression of depicting the real world of the Ojibwe. On the other hand, it is technically impressive as a movie and its sympathetic portrayal of native peoples is way ahead of what we would see in Hollywood westerns for decades to come.