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SILENT ENEMY, THE (director/writer: H.P. Carver; screenwriters: story by W. Douglas Burden/ Julian Johnson/Chief Yellow Robe; cinematographer: Marcel Le Picard; editor: ; music: Massard Kur Zhene; cast: Chief Yellow Robe (Chetoga, tribe leader), Chief Long Lance (Baluk, mighty hunter), Chief Akawanush (Dagwan, medicine man), Spotted Elk (Neewa, Chetoga’s daughter), Cheeka (Cheeka, Chetoga’s son); Runtime: 83; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: W. Douglas Burden/William C. Chanler; Milestone; 1930-silent)
Entertaining, engrossing and informative docudrama on the life of the Ojibway Indians in North America.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This entertaining, engrossing and informative docudrama on the life of the Ojibway Indians in North America before Columbus, can be viewed as a companion piece to Robert Flaherty’s ground-breaking docudrama Nanook of the North (1922). The Ojibways lived in Quebec and northern Ontario before the whites settled, and lived a primitive life as hunters (the film was shot in the wilds of Northern Ontario). Director H. P. Carver keeps the simple tale about the silent enemy–hunger–filled with melodramatics, realistic hunting sequences with bows and arrows (the film’s hero actually kills a bull moose), the spearing of fish, wolverines on the prowl, the fight between a mountain lion and a bear, wigwams and buckskin outfitted Indians. It’s produced by Harvard grads William Douglas Burden and William C. Chanler. Burden (a hunter, adventurer and wealthy Vanderbilt heir) wrote the story, which was drawn from the Ojibway legends chronicled by 17th century Jesuits.

Though filmed as a silent, it opens with a sound prologue delivered by the eloquent English-speaking Ojibway chief Yellow Robe, who tells us this film acts as a reminder of the old customs and traditions of his people that were preserved from a time before the white man came to America. The chief assures us that everything seen in the film depicts authentic Indian life.

As winter approaches a famine has come upon the sacred hunting grounds of the Ojibways and their chief hunter Baluk (Chief Long Lance) tells the chief, Chetoga (Yellow Robe), it’s time to move further south to get the caribou. The Medicine Man, Dagwan (Chief Akawanush), a rival of the hunter for the chief’s pretty daughter Neewa (Spotted Elk) and to be the next chief, rejects that suggestion, but the chief follows Baluk’s plan. When there’s still no caribou, the chief goes into a ritualized fast and vigil to appease the Great Spirit and has a vision of caribou in the north and therefore agrees with Baluk’s new suggestion to go north. But during a storm, the chief dies and names Baluk the new chief. The jealous Dagwan, who Baluk accuses of false power, does a medicine dance and says there are signs the Great Spirit recognizes his supernatural power and he tells the tribe that the Great Spirit requires the sacrifice of Baluk. Because his people are starving, the stoical Baluk chooses to be self-sacrificed by fire in a funeral pyre. While preparing to die, suddenly the ground shakes for the next six days with stampeding caribou passing their camp. With their starvation over, the sinister Dagwan is sent away by the chief to die alone a slow death without food, water, or weapons for practicing false medicine, and Baluk takes Neewa for his wife.

The lost film, once a six-hour epic, has been cut to under 90 minutes. This rarely seen film is worth seeing even in its truncated version and its outdated means of execution, as it gives one an idea of the authentic ways of the Indians like few other films do from that time period.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”