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The Silent Enemy

Year: 1930
Language: English
Format: 35mm Black & White
Runtime: 84 min
Director: H Carver
Producer: W Burden, William Chanler
Writer: Richard Carver
Cinematographer: Marcel le Picard
Music: Massard Zhene
Cast: Buffalo Child Long Lance, Yellow Robe, Chief Akawanush, Spotted Elk
Production Company: Burden-Chanler Productions

In the early fifteenth century, a small band of Ojibwa face famine – the silent enemy – after six years of plenty. Baluk (Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance), the “mighty hunter,” urges their chief, Chetoga (Chief Yellow Robe), to move the band north in search of the migrating caribou. He is opposed by medicine man Dagwan (Chief Akawanush), who is also Baluk’s rival for the affections of Chetoga’s daughter, Neewa (Spotted Elk). After Chetoga agrees with Baluk, the cold and hungry people travel north through forests and snow. No animals are found and Baluk is preparing to sacrifice himself when the caribou finally appear. Food is plentiful again and Dagwan is banished to the wilderness.

This story of a people’s continuing struggle for survival features incidents that were based on the writings of Jesuit missionaries who lived among the Ojibwa in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The casting of the Native characters was equally authentic: Chief Yellow Robe, a Sioux, was a nephew of Sitting Bull, and Buffalo Child Long Lance was a highly decorated soldier in the Canadian Army in World War I (he died under shady circumstances in Hollywood several years after the film’s release).

The Silent Enemy contains many striking scenes that are riveting in the authenticity of their staging – particularly a fight between a cougar and a bear over a dead deer. Canadian only in theme and location (it was shot in the Temagami Forest Reserve in northern Ontario), it was produced by the wealthy American explorer Douglas Burden and New York lawyer William Chanler at a cost of about $200,000. The film – released widely by Paramount – was an immediate critical success but a box-office failure; it was shortened and adapted for educational use following a brief theatrical run.

In 1973 it was restored by film historian Kevin Brownlow and film preservationist David Shepard and screened to an enthusiastic reception at the American Film Institute in Washington, DC. It has since been released on DVD as part of Image Entertainment’s Milestone Collection

By: Andrew McIntosh