Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The NFR Project #68: 'Daughter of Dawn'

The Daughter of Dawn
Dir: Norbert A. Myles
Prod: Richard Banks
Scr: Banks and Myles
Phot: unknown
Premiere: October 1920
80 min.

Romanticizing the exotic comes easily to filmmakers. A Native American story, filmed with Native American participation, replete with Native American authenticity in detail, which tells a rusty old tale of romance, is more fun for anthropologists than moviegoers.

For me, this is an instance in which the film’s backstory is vastly more interesting than the film itself. This film, a unique independent effort that captured vital data about the appearance of late-colonization period Native American tribes, was presented with fanfare to President Wilson in the White House on November 20, 1920. Then it vanished.

In 2005, a private investigator approached Brian Hearn, film curator of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. He had the only copy of the film, payment for a case he worked on. After some negotiation, the five heavily damaged reels were turned over, and a long and painstaking restoration process began. Fortunately, the Oklahoma Historical Society possessed the original script and some film stills to help guide the process. The film was digitized (it was held together in places with masking tape) and given a new score. Finally, in 2013, it screened again.

The result is a pleasant, run-of-the-mill affair, centered on a romantic triangle and including tests of manhood, the kidnapping of women, and combat, all played out against the plains and rocky defiles of Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains. The cast is composed of Native Americans — more than 300 members of the Comanche and Kiowa tribes participated in the filming.

Yet, at the end, it’s unimpressive. The story drags on, and the usual romantic clich├ęs override whatever authentic Native American characters and narratives might have been buried in plain sight. They are used as window dressing, an exotic evocation of the flip side of the pioneer narrative: Indians are evil and must be destroyed/Indians are noble and must be idealized. As yet, few correctives to this binary vision have emerged.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: the Fuentes Family Home Movies Collection.