By Jeremy Carr.
Apparently supporting the film’s well-intentioned attempt at accuracy, Chief Chauncey Yellow Robe, in a sound prologue to this otherwise silent 1930 film, thus urges viewers to not see those performing in the film as actors, but to consider that what is shown ‘is as it always has been.’”
Flicker Alley, which has released The Silent Enemy as part of its “Flicker Fusion” series, wants to make one thing very clear: this 1930 film is not meant to be seen as a straightforward documentary. A disclaimer before the film, on the back of the packaging, and in the promotional material states that while The Silent Enemy is “progressive in many ways (including its early use of Indigenous actors),” it 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.” Fair enough, and certainly an understandable qualification to add in these more culturally conscious times. But forgiving any imprecisions or indelicacies, this essentially benevolent hybrid of the ostensibly accurate and the demonstrably dramatized should not be dismissed. Aside from being a primary motivating factor in the film’s genesis, it is a key facet of the picture itself, and among its more interesting dichotomies.
Directed by H.P. Carver, The Silent Enemy, an otherwise silent film, begins with a sound prologue in which Chief Chauncey Yellow Robe, a notable Sioux, addresses the camera/audience and speaks of the soon-to-be-depicted privations. He also thanks “the White man” for making the film, as now the subject matter – a tenuous livelihood in its waning days of existence – can live on forever. Apparently supporting the film’s well-intentioned attempt at accuracy, the chief thus urges viewers to not see those performing in the film as actors, but to consider that what is shown “is as it always has been.” But with that encouragement of legitimacy, there is also, as the disclaimer points out, a fictional narrative to be observed. This focuses on the chief of the tribe, Chetoga (Chauncey Yellow Robe), the tribe’s principal hunter, Baluk (Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance), and Dagwan (Chief Awakanush), the tribe’s medicine man. There is also the chief’s daughter, Neewa (Molly Spotted Elk), and his younger son, Cheeka (played by himself). Two central conflicts entwine all involved, the first and foremost of which is the silent enemy, the risk of starvation during an oncoming winter – a historically legitimate cause for concern and one amplified here by the canny filmmakers. These conditions force the tribe to travel north in the brutal, relentless cold. It is a strained march, under dire circumstances and purified by an effectively docudramatic technique, and the entire Native contingent is prone to an assortment of dangers, with famine, again, being the most demoralizing.
Also plaguing the tribe, and where the more fabricated tension of the film arises (though one can assume similar issues did occur in reality), are the internal conflicts, mainly the mounting animosity between Baluk and Dagwan, both of whom covet a position of leadership, in the event of the chief’s eventual demise, and the securement of Neewa as a spouse. W. Douglas Burden, producer of The Silent Enemy, had wanted to hire members of a specifically local tribe but settled for those from outlying areas, a casting process he says was sometimes greeted as rather “dubious.” In any event, those ultimately enlisted to perform in the picture do a laudable job not only enacting the more naturalistic routines of Native life, but in heightening the causes and results of the embellished competition and conspiring. It may be a stretch to describe these interactions as “suspenseful,” assuming that is at least in part what the provision before the film refers to, but it is worth bearing in mind these are not highly-trained professionals and, ultimately, despite the commendable efforts of the cast, the fictionalized narrative of the film isn’t likely to be its principal takeaway.
That, by comparison, would be the film’s all-purpose depiction of an Indian world before the White man. The glistening cinematography of Marcel Le Picard, tranquil at times, effusive at others, admirably captures the expressive scenic splendor of the region and the associated elements that source the daunting trek through a formidable milieu. Equally fascinating are the domestic details of the film, moments of casual behavior that suggest a surface simplicity in the day-to-day dramas of the tribe, as well as the demonstrated hunting techniques, which submit the care and skill applied to such endeavors. Carver’s treatment of the nature and necessities of life is also filled with scenes of mortal desperation – the real suspense of the picture – including an intense river journey, a tremendous caribou stampede later in the film, and, of course, the pervasive, underlying anxiety of staving off hunger. Wild animals abound, from bear cubs who suffer particularly physical treatment (a disclaimer could also have prepared viewers for this) to a battle between an adult bear and a mountain lion. And through it all, Carver and his team emphasize a dominant symbiosis between the wildlife, the environment, and the Natives, a spiritual connectivity illustrated, for example, in the cross-cutting of a falling tree as the chief collapses and dies.
Flicker Alley offers three audio options for viewing The Silent Enemy, including an original orchestral score composed by Siegfried Friedrich and a new orchestral score compiled and performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. A third choice, the most instructive, is a feature-length audio interview, an edited series of conversations between Burden and author and film historian Kevin Brownlow. Inspired by Merian C. Cooper’s Chang (1927), Burden, a wealthy adventurer familiar with the Canadian wilderness and its inhabitants, recalls his desire to make The Silent Enemy and eagerly relates anecdotes about the film’s rough and rugged production. He testifies to the cast and crew’s respectful desire for validity while making the film, as well as the extensive research that went into this comparatively unorthodox enterprise; sensing the end was in sight for the Native way of life, Burden affirms his deference for subsequently presenting a faithful drama. He praises Hollywood producer Jesse Lasky, an enthusiastic supporter of The Silent Enemy, for offering to secure fruitful distribution for the picture (the film was a box office failure according to Brownlow), and he talks of the trials and tribulations that occurred while making the film in a rustic region of Ontario.
Brownlow asks if Burden ever considered writing a book about the film’s creation. Having been consumed by the requirements of production, Burden says it never occurred to him at the time, which is unfortunate because the complete making of The Silent Enemy would surely have been a tale worth telling. As affirmed in just this relatively brief conversation, the film was (and is) an altruistic testament to a specific way of life, and an undertaking fraught with its own ordeals and obstacles. Burden’s revelations go a long way, but a full recounting would further magnify a broader appreciation for the film, which, however cliched or even inaccurate it may be, is nevertheless an earnest account and a valuable filmic document, if not an outright documentary.
Jeremy Carr is a Contributing Editor at Film International and teaches film studies at Arizona State University. He writes for the publications Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. He is the author of Repulsion (1965) from Auteur Publishing and a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (December 2021).