Filmed in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma, this silent tale of Native American life has an all-Kiowa and Comanche cast, and is credited as accurately recreating cultural details and costumes. Thought lost for the better part of a century, it was rediscovered just a few years ago.
The Daughter of Dawn
The Milestone Cinematheque
1920 / B&W (tinted) / 1:33 Silent Ap / 80 min. / Street Date July 19, 2016 / vailable through MVD Entertainment / 27.96
Starring Esther LeBarre, White Parker, Belo Cozad, Hunting Horse, Wanada Parker.
Produced by Richard Banks
New Music Score David Yeagley
Written by Richard Banks, Norbert Myles
Produced by Richard Banks
Directed by Norbert Myles
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
“Constancy, thy name is Red Wing!”
Ethnographer alert! As one of the go-to destinations for unusual or difficult cinema discoveries, Milestone Films’ Dennis Doros and Amy Heller has turned out exceptionally good theatrical and home video restorations of important films like The Exiles, Killer of Sheep, The Connection and On the Bowery. The company’s In the Land of the Head Hunters is an early silent film about American Indians, that recreates authentic tribal customs.
In the same vein but even more interesting is the 1920 silent film The Daughter of Dawn, which until recently was presumed to be lost. Filmed with a cast of authentic Comanches and Kiowas, it’s a polished show with a consistent dramatic tension. In Milestone’s extras we hear from a couple of individuals who claim to have worked on the film, or are related to the ‘stars.’ Two of the actors were children of the famed Quannah Parker.
The story is a simplified drama of Native American life before the white man came. The Chief (Chief Chain-To) of the peaceful Kiowa tribe is unaware that a band of interloping Comanches has been stealing their ponies. Having few women, the Comanches are intent on stealing those of their neighbor tribe. The Kiowas are distracted by a romantic triangle (identified as such in the inter-titles!) between two braves and the Chief’s daughter, “Daughter of the Dawn.” (Esther LeBarre) The wealthy but underhanded Black Wolf (Jack Sankadota) wants Dawn’s hand in marriage, but she sets her cap for the more noble and worthy White Eagle (White Parker). Terribly hurt by all this is Red Wing (Wanada Parker), whose love for Black Wolf is unrequited. The chief knows that whoever marries Dawn will become a chief of the tribe. He is pleased when White Eagle says that a test should be required to choose Dawn’s mate, and chief declares a tough test indeed: both suitors will have to jump off a high cliff — and the winner survivor will take all.
The Daughter of Dawn has none of the rough edges and cinematic klunkiness we expect to see in filmmaking from outside the fledgling industry. Scenes are nicely paced, and camera angles well chosen. Black wolf does a lot of unwelcome stalking of Dawn, as if she were a deer he was hunting. Those scenes are often filmed in depth, with a good sense of spatial relationships. The camera stays stock still at all times, and the lenses used are of relatively long focal length. Yet the angles and compositions are well thought-out; we never confuse the Comanche camp with that of the Kiowas. The opening scenes cover the discovery of a buffalo herd, and a major scene later on shows the Kiowas giving chase. It’s not Dances with Wolves, but for 1920 it’s pretty good, both accurate and well staged… all in wide shots.
The actors perform in a sort of respectful pageant style as if determined to portray their culture with the utmost dignity. Their actions are measured; nobody does any wild gesticulating. The chief summons one of his braves, and stands still while the brave makes his way through camp to the chief’s tent. Black Wolf is rather expressionless, and the director allows his cowardly actions to fill in his character. White Parker has a nice smile as White Eagle. A friend always accompanies Daughter of Dawn as she walks about the campsite in her spotless deerskin princess costume. This companion quietly exits whenever a suitor shows up. Dawn and White Eagle’s big romantic encounter, in which White declares himself, takes place while the two of them sit politely on a fallen tree (see cover illustration). A pair of women make knowing looks at the hopeful Dawn and the lovelorn Red Wing.
The story builds some highly dramatic developments. One brave becomes a traitor to the Kiowas, and when the Comanches raid the camp, Dawn becomes a kidnap victim. We’re told that writer Richard E. Banks spent 25 years living with various tribes. It might be true — the movie doesn’t have the tone of hype and fakery of comparable Hollywood fantasies, then or now. According to the IMDB, at least, director Norbert A. Myles appears to have gone forward with a a makeup career in Hollywood, including a credit on The Wizard of Oz. He’s done a creditable job.
The key to The Daughter of Dawn is its respect for its authentic details. The Native Americans in the cast look as if they stepped out of a museum display. The impressive costumes are said to be authentic. All the characters’ hair is braided; the women wear elaborate dresses of leather and jewelry. The chief is likewise decked out, while the braves traipse around in loincloths. In addition to the buffalo hunt, we see a communal dance. The Indian actors are fine horsemen, and ride with only a blanket on the horse’s back.
Director Myles’ dignified approach plays well. One is reminded of the Indian Princess played by part-Cherokee Elizabeth Threatt in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sky, made 32 years later. Threatt is obviously an Anglo beauty in heavy makeup, yet by her regal manner she generates viewer respect for the Indian culture.
The show was registered with the Library of Congress, but we’re told that it saw very few screenings. Both a script and some film stills were in existence but no known print was thought to have survived. Then, about ten years ago, a private detective from North Carolina contacted the Oklahoma Historical Society, saying that he had taken ownership of a film print in lieu of a fee. It turned out to be an intact nitrate copy of the film. Several years of negotiation followed before the film was returned to Oklahoma. Milestone was recommended for the job of restoration.
The silent film’s inter-titles not written in the florid style popular in the 1920s. There is little effort to imitate the poetics of, say, ‘The Song of Hiawatha.’ But one terrific exception near the end sticks in the memory. After an impressive show of romantic loyalty, an extra inter-title is slotted in: “Constancy, thy name is Red Wing!”
The Milestone Cinematheque’s Blu-ray of The Daughter of Dawn is a handsome encoding of this ultra-rare one-of-a-kind show. The original color tinting is retainedThe print recovered has some scratches but none are serious. Although the film is intact, there is minor nitrate deterioration visible, and other slight imperfections. The show often uses ‘vignette effects’ that employ slight masks to alter the shape of the frame. The intent may be to isolate characters for dramatic effect, in place of a closer angle. The lenses used are of excellent quality but they don’t quite cover the field of the silent-aperture frame, so most shots have a cylinder-shaped masking in the corners as well. It’s almost like looking at scenes through a gun barrel.
Milestone and the Historical Society have given the film a lush new orchestral score, which is quite effective and even seeks to imitate some Native American instruments.
The disc extras are a series of short featurettes. A retired member of the Historical Society recounts part of the acquisition story for the print of the ‘lost’ movie, and Native American contributors talk about the actors in the show, how they were hired, etc. One expert presents evidence supporting the idea that large numbers of tribe members were recruited for the cast. In an old Indian Agency document, a woman supervisor complains that they aren’t getting any work done while filming. Another Native American tells us that the extras were paid 75 cents a day.
Several more short featurettes discuss the film score, which was produced and recorded by the Oklahoma City University Orchestra. The student musicians are seen performing quite professionally, as a spokesperson tells us how much experience they’re getting. It sound like Hollywood values are beginning to reach the Midwest — even the original filmmakers paid their talent a daily rate!
The Daughter of Dawn is also available on DVD.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Daughter of Dawn Blu-ray
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Featurettes on the film’s recovery, Native American Heritage, the production of the music score.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Inter-titles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 2, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson