Wednesday, 21 June 2017

THE DAUGHTER OF DAWN - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Milestone restores important lost film.

Any day is a great day to watch and rejoice in this important "lost" piece of cinema history, but Canada's NATIONAL ABORIGINAL DAY is a pretty good reason to celebrate the gorgeous Milestone Cinematheque's Blu-Ray of The Daughter of Dawn, an independent 1920 silent picture that stars over 300 members of Oklahoma's Comanche and Kiowa nations.
When it comes to film restoration and preservation,
it doesn't get better than Milestone Film and Video.
The Daughter of Dawn (1920)
Dir. Norbert A. Myles
Starring: Esther LaBarre, Hunting Horse,
White Parker, Jack Sankeydoty, Wanada Parker

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Mysteries abound from the period we know as the dawn of cinema and they almost always centre upon the multitude of films which existed ever-so-fleetingly, then disappeared from the face of the earth due to the vagaries of distribution and exhibition - not to mention the highly combustible nature of nitrate film stock (eventually eschewed after cinema's first fifty-or-so years in favour of more stable stocks). The bottom line is that most major studios considered films as "disposable" product and far too many pictures simply disappeared, going the way of the majestic Dodo Bird - forever.

One of the biggest mysteries is the production of The Daughter of Dawn, which was manufactured by The Texas Film Company in 1920. Shot on location in a wildlife refuge near Lawton, Oklahoma and starring over 300 members of the Kiowa and Comanche Nations, it probably makes even more sense that it became lost to the sands of time given that it was a genuinely independent film, bereft of the usual barnstorming entrepreneurial showmanship oft-applied during those early days.

In fairness to producer Richard Banks, he had enough vision to secure actor/director Norbert A. Myles to write a script based on a Comanche legend and then mount a spectacular production in a tough location, using local Native Americans, not only as actors, but as the primary artisans of the costumes, sets and props. The film's existence was never in question, nor were the obviously prodigious efforts to make it, but given the popularity of similar works of the period (such as the films of Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, Robert Flaherty, Edward S. Curtis, et al), why it didn't follow similar footsteps is a major head-scratcher.

As far as we know, The Daughter of Dawn had one public screening at a sneak preview in Los Angeles, followed one year later with a screening in Topeka, Kansas and then, completely falling off the map. Its spotty distribution/exhibition history might be one of the greatest mysteries of all. When one compares its aesthetic attributes to the vast number of ethnographic documentaries, docudramas and straight-up dramas shot on location during this period, with real people in front of the cameras, The Daughter of Dawn easily holds its own against seminal works like Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, Grass: A Nation's Battle For Life and In the Land of the Head Hunters.

The picture is a rip-snorter of the highest order. It's a classic love triangle set against the backdrop of war. Dawn (Esther La Barre) is the daughter of a powerful Kiowa Chief (Hunting Horse) and she's madly in love with the handsome White Eagle (White Parker). Alas, the sly, lumpy, bumbling Black Wolf (Jack Sankeydoty) is in love with Dawn and because he's imbued with considerable wealth (he owns a whole whack of ponies), the Chief is torn over bestowing his daughter to an ideal match. Will it be love that wins out over wealth or vice versa? Neither. The Chief decides that bravery is the greatest attribute, so he sets a challenge to both men to prove their worth.

Simple, yes? Well, there are spanners in the works. Red Wing (Wanada Parker), a not-so-fetching "catch", is madly in love with dopey Black Wolf and her jealousy knows no bounds. Worse yet, some neighbouring Comanches are fixing to go to war with the Kiowa Nation and plan to make a raid in order to steal women and goods. When Black Wolf proves to be no match for the brave White Eagle in the competition, he grabs his "lesser" paramour Red Wing and hightails it over to the Comanche side to turncoat his way into an act of ultimate revenge.

There will be war.

The Daughter of Dawn proves to be a supremely entertaining western adventure. Director Myles trains his camera upon the action with a first-rate eye for staging and detail. We not only get a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the Native Americans (thanks mostly to their cultural/artistic contributions), we're treated to nice dollops of romance and some truly spectacular action scenes (including a buffalo hunt, no less).

How and why this movie fell through the cracks is beyond me. Is it possible that neither the film industry nor audiences were ready for a movie about Native Americans taking centre stage? (A cool bit of historical trivia is that actors White Parker and Wanada Parker were the children of leading Comanche leader Quanah Parker.) Well, whatever kept this film from finding its true place at the time, the point is now moot, because now is the time.

Extraordinarily, though the film was long lost, an Oklahoma private detective was paid for his services with a few cans of nitrate film stock which, as it turned out, was the only extant print of The Daughter of Dawn. It eventually found its was into the hands of the Oklahoma Historical Society who commissioned an all-new original musical score by noted Comanche composer David Yeagley and eventually, for all of us who love movies, it was happily placed in the hands of the visionary Milestone Film and Video who have made it available to the world - ninety years after it was first made.


The Daughter of Dawn is available on a sumptuous Blu-Ray/DVD via Milestone Film and Video on their Milestone Cinematheque label. It looks gorgeous, of course, thanks to a beautiful 35mm restoration and 2K transfer and the home entertainment package is replete with an informative introduction by Dr. Bob Blackburn, the featurette "Finding the Film: with Bill Moore of Oklahoma Historical Society", interviews with Comanche Darren Twohatchet, Kiowa Dorothy Whitehorse, William D. Welge of The Oklahoma Historical Society and featurettes on the musical score.