“Everything you see is as it always has been.”
The success of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack’s Chang — a 1927 film telling the story of a family’s struggle for survival in Siam (now Thailand) in the face of wild animals and natural disasters — led American naturalist Douglas Burden to consider the possibility of a similar picture focusing on the North American Indian. As a child, Burden had been introduced to the north woods of Ontario and Quebec and its native inhabitants by his parents. By the late 1920s, he had a vast store of experience in dealing with the land and its people, and he recognized that increased contact between native and white man was having a devastating effect on the natives’ health and well-being. Burden felt that a film would be one way of documenting the native way of life and its hardships and rewards, and so preserve our understanding of it for the future. With his partner William Chanler, Burden was able to interest Paramount’s Jesse Lasky in their project and with a distribution contract in hand, began raising money. Shooting then proceeded — entirely on location and mainly in the Temagami Forest Reserve of northern Ontario.
The completed picture, entitled The Silent Enemy, was released by Paramount in 1930, but proved to be a box-office failure. A film of this nature required special treatment, but it did not receive it. Ironically, the distribution agreement with Paramount worked against it, as the practice of block-booking then in existence meant that The Silent Enemy got treated as just another Paramount picture of the time.
In the early 1970s, the title came to British film historian Kevin Brownlow’s attention and through his and David Shepard’s efforts, a complete version of The Silent Enemy was resurrected and played to an enthusiastic audience at an AFI showing in 1973 in Washington. The film has now been released on DVD by Image under arrangement with The Milestone Collection.
Chetoga, head of a small band of natives, must decide how best to deal with a lack of food. Mighty hunter Baluk proposes that the solution is to travel northwards in order to intercept the annual caribou migration and hunt the herd for the band’s needs. Medicine man Dagwan instead suggests that the band stay put and that the Great Spirit will provide. Chetoga finally decides to follow Baluk’s advice. The band’s progress is slow due to harsh weather conditions and one casualty of the trek is Chetoga. Finally, the band reaches the appointed place, but there is no sign of the caribou and it looks as though the band may decide to sacrifice Baluk as a means of changing its fortunes.
The Silent Enemy is not a documentary, but a dramatized narrative film that focuses on the role of hunger (the silent enemy of the title) in the lives of a small band of Ojibway natives, and how a conflict between two band members over the manner in which to obtain food is finally resolved. The cast is entirely composed of natives and the band’s manner of living is authentically portrayed, with the incidents in the story being based on the writings of Jesuit missionaries who lived amongst the Ojibways during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Seventy-one years after it first appeared, The Silent Enemy continues to fascinate. Do not be turned off by the thought that this is just some wilderness documentary. This is a remarkable time capsule showing a way of living that, as the film’s producers rightly anticipated, has largely disappeared. The routines of everyday living are well contrasted against the forces of nature that have to be dealt with — snowstorms, scavengers (such as wolverines) who steal game from traps, and wild predatory animals. The filming of the latter, particularly a fight between a mountain lion and bear over a dead deer, and towards the end of the film, the caribou migration and hunt, are beautifully caught on film.
Producer Douglas Burden realized that he was unlikely to find exactly the people he needed to play the various parts within the Ojibway tribe itself, so he searched elsewhere as well. His most inspired casting was Chief Yellow Robe as Chetoga. Yellow Robe was the hereditary chief of the Sioux and a nephew of Sitting Bull. He was an educated, aristocratic man who was very enthusiastic about the film. He delivers an eloquent spoken introduction to the otherwise silent film that he wrote himself. To play Baluk, Buffalo Child Long Lance who was a highly decorated Canadian Army World War I veteran was selected. Sadly, both would be dead within several years after The Silent Enemy was released, Yellow Robe from pneumonia and Long Lance under shady circumstances in Hollywood.
Image’s DVD presentation is a marvel. It preserves the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and the image has been window-boxed. For a film of this vintage, the image is in very good shape. Oh, there are plenty of scratches and speckles and even a short sequence where decomposition of the original negative has obviously occurred, but overall, the image is sharp and pleasing. Colour tinting was used to a fair degree and has been nicely rendered on the DVD. The audio is Dolby Digital 1.0 mono and it does an acceptable job of delivering the original organ music background score. The music was written by Massard Kur Zhene based on Ojibway melodies that he adapted into a modern score. Overall, the music is quite effective and appropriate to what’s on the screen, although I thought it could have been a little more forceful during the climactic caribou hunt.
Contrary to its usual practice, Image has delivered some nice supplements for this disc. The main one is a feature length, though not screen-specific, audio commentary. It takes the form of an interview that Kevin Brownlow conducts with Douglas Burden. The commentary provides a wealth of information about the making of the film and is extremely interesting. At first, I thought that Burden was in quite good voice for a man who must be near 100 years old now. However, I discovered after the fact that much of what Burden says can be found quoted word for word in Brownlow’s 1979 book “The War, the West, and the Wilderness.” Presumably, the Burden interview was actually taped in the 1970s and has simply been reproduced now on the DVD. Whatever, it’s very good material. The disc also includes a number of informative notes that cover production details, cast and crew biographies, and suggestions for background reading.
The Silent Enemy is a fascinating dramatization that gives us unique insights into a way of life that is to all intents and purposes gone. This is no dry documentary, but a captivating journey whose 84-minute duration soon passes. Image has done a very fine job on the DVD release with an outstanding audio commentary to supplement a fine quality transfer for a film of this vintage. Recommended.