Films can often be a glimpse of the past. Directors rarely shy away from providing their own stylized depictions of history. The audience is aware of the artistic license utilized in these pieces, but we rarely care when watching the likes of Scorcese, Kubrick or Polanski.
It’s interesting, then, to watch a film made in America nearly a century ago. Daughter of Dawn is one such film, produced in the year 1920. After it resurfaced, the Oklahoma Historical Society put great efforts into restoring the film as closely as possible to its original condition.
The film centers on the Kiowa, a tribe of Native Americans whose small village is threatened by a band of Comanche warriors “out on one of their periodical raids.” Among the main cast of characters, a love triangle emerges between Black Wolf, a menacing wealthy Brave, Gold Eagle, a kind-hearted and modest scout, and the titular daughter of the tribe’s chief. The drama here is poorly executed, leaving the familiarity of the premise more charming than dramatically effective.
The film is silent, a detail I often associate with the famed comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. This quickly became an ironic factor of my film-watching experience, as the more serious notes in “Daughter of Dawn” were often indiscernible from the comical.
Unintentional humor abounded. A ‘dead’ man squeezes the blade of a dagger between his arm and his ribs, feigning his death in a child-like manner. The would-be lover of Black Wolf, named Red Wing, earned her own solemn piano theme to accompany her every appearance. Her appearances featured, without exception, her outstretched hand reaching after Wolf and drooping her head in sorrow. In my theater, even the most reverent of watchers often chuckled at such a detail.
When “Daughter of Dawn” isn’t comical, it’s often boring or even cringe-inducing. Despite the film’s opening with a disclaimer to reassure the audience that the filmmakers had consulted a Native American expert, it’s hard to believe the representation of their culture was fair and accurate.
There are moments in the film when the genuinely Native American actors seem uncomfortable or even offended by the camera. A supposedly-celebratory dance is instead performed by crowded, awkward actors, who stare down at their shuffling, dragging feet rather than watch the camera. Later a ‘war dance’ is performed by a group of Braves, but the group seems almost ashamed of the act, each one seemingly trying to hide behind another.
Add to these the seemingly random Native American vocabulary tossed into the dialogue and the directors’ notion that tribes war are about little more than young women and you can’t help but feel that the culture’s representation is less than perfectly accurate.
It may seem inappropriate to criticize such a dated film for its failings, or such inexperienced actors for their poor performances. It’s worth noting that I was sincerely interested in “Daughter of Dawn.” I tried to put myself in the context of the film’s release, in a time when viewers would be less educated regarding Native American culture. I thought about the people that might have seen it in cinemas 95 years ago and what their lives might have been like. How the scenes and characters I found so humorous might have genuinely moved some of them. “Daughter of Dawn” is probably the oldest film I’ve ever seen, and quite possibly the oldest I ever will see. For that reason alone I consider it worth seeing, if for nothing more than gained perspective.