Like most so-called ethnographic films, The Silent Enemy owed as much to museum exhibits as to Hollywood studios. Early ethnographic films were shown as companions to natural history lectures concerned with exotic corners of the world, but quickly grew into self-contained film exhibits shot on location, such as 1910’s In Africa, described by one critic as introducing “a little known and marvelous land.” These films increasingly blurred the line between science and movie culture, resulting in many of the most exciting examples we know today, such as Grass (1925) Chang (1927) and The Silent Enemy. The aura of authentic adventure and veracity these films gained by their association with museums and science brought with it a substantial commercial danger, as contemporary critic Robert Sherwood cautioned in a Toronto Star review of The Silent Enemy:
“To say that this admirable production is ‘educational’ is to condemn it to be shown in empty theaters. There is no more demand for education among movie fans than there is among college students. So I shall carefully avoid all use of this ugly word in writing of The Silent Enemy…for it is beautiful, it is superbly acted and in many of its scenes, tremendously exciting…”
Unfortunately, the Toronto Star’s readership did not extend far enough to save The Silent Enemy; it was a box-office failure, and one of the last silent films to be shown on Broadway. Adding insult to injury, the film’s primary viewership came later, after a scratched, poor-quality print was edited and over-dubbed to become an educational film featuring a newly designated cast that included “Mr. Beaver” and “Mr. Bruin.” It was only in the 1970s that the original version was rediscovered. A victim of its own categorization, The Silent Enemy owes much of its fascination to its intention and context.
Did Burden and Chanler set out to make an ethnographic film? How are we to understand the term? The great 20th Century anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss identified two antithetical lenses through which Western anthropology views human populations: the historifiable, for technologically advanced people who have a written archive of history, and the ethnographiable, for primitive people who lack a written language and its accompanying archives. The word ethnographiable is used here to refer to those who are the subject of ethnographies – written volumes that result from anthropological fieldwork, which are themselves the product of a member of an historifiable population. An ethnographic film, then, is the cinematic record of a people who lack the technology to record and present themselves, made by a people who are distinguished by their possession of exactly that technology.
In practice, the term ethnographic film has acquired a racial definition, referring to any pseudo-documentary portrayal of a non-Western, exotic, primitive people. Ethnographic films like Grass, Chang, The Silent Enemy and Nanook of the North (1922), all focus on non-white populations. And while it is increasingly acknowledged today that concepts such as the exotic and the primitive are largely defined from the perspective of a given audience, the desire to make a film that would authentically record Native American life before the arrival of Columbus was very much the idea at the heart of W. Douglas Burden’s production. As Burden told Kevin Brownlow, “Chang electrified my mind to the possibility of an Indian picture along the same lines…it was all too obvious that the Indians were dying off so rapidly from the white man’s diseases that if the story of their endless struggle for survival against starvation was ever to be captured on film, we had no time to lose.”
It is hard to say whether The Silent Enemy achieves its goal of ethnographic accuracy, but it is easy to see that it achieves its cinematic goal of being a beautiful and exciting film. While the story is fictional, Burden based it on a 73-volume account of Jesuit missionary work entitled Jesuit Relations, and he claimed that “not one episode was invented by us, with the exception of the bear on a cliff.” However, later critics have pointed out that the film contains a scene of execution by immolation, a custom not held by the Ojibway Indians. The Silent Enemy is almost as notable for its failures in terms of ethnographic accuracy as its successes. Indeed, by striving for anthropological precision, Burden and his co-producer William Chanler took on a larger challenge than the already formidable task of making a feature film in the harsh environment of Northern Canada.
Seeking to correct the spurious and demeaning image of Native Americans in mainstream films, Burden and Chanler attempted to film only aboriginal people, their tools and their activities, in their actual habitat. Some of their achievements in this regard are staggering. Filming into the harsh Canadian winter, the cast and crew lived exclusively in teepees. Burden himself shared a teepee with Chief Yellow Robe. All the hunting implements and crafts shown in the film were made on the set by local Ojibway Indians, and many were exhibited at the American Museum of Natural History. Warren Iliff, director of the National Zoological Park, claimed 40 years after the film’s release that “without qualification, the wildlife photography is the best I’ve ever seen” and, no doubt to the shock of an as-yet uninvolved SPCA, many animals were in fact harmed in its filming.
Burden did concede many aspects of the film’s anthropological integrity to cinematic and commercial considerations. Traveling in a canoe for six weeks, he scoured the area around Abitibi Lake in northeastern Ontario for Ojibway Indians, but found few to act in his film apart from 13-year-old George McDougall. The cast Burden ultimately assembled represented an earnest yet compromised authenticity which would come to characterize the making of The Silent Enemy. Casting a wider net, director H.P. Carver discovered Chief Yellow Robe, a majestic and dignified Sioux Indian chief, in the halls of the American Museum of Natural History. For his leading lady, Burden selected a Penobscot woman from Old Town, Maine whom he found dancing nightly in a Manhattan cabaret. Finally, to add a little star power, Chanler and Burden convinced Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, one of the most notable Indians of his day, to play the lead role. Long Lance himself eerily parallels the challenges to authenticity faced by The Silent Enemy, as it was later revealed that he had lied about his Indian heritage throughout his entire life, for both the purpose of shameless self-promotion and in earnest service to his adopted culture. In a further tragic twist, many of the Ojibway Indians who appeared in The Silent Enemy died soon after of tuberculosis, flu or pneumonia contracted from the white filmmakers.
Ultimately, we should be cautious in responding to the film as an authentic anthropological document. However, we should equally be eager to view it as the immensely impressive and exciting film it is. The filmmakers, cast and crew were unequivocal in their intention and commitment to honor the heritage of a noble and disappearing people, and to overcoming the considerable challenges associated with making it.
Presented at SFSFF 2008 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra