The Silent Enemy (1930) is both a cultural curiosity and a deeply entertaining film. Made on location in the Canadian Northwest by director H.P. Carver, and starring a troop of naturally gifted indigenous actors, it gives a glimpse of how fascinating a truly diverse movie industry could have been throughout the years.
I recently enjoyed the film on its debut Blu-ray release from Flicker Alley. The liner notes for the disc, excerpted from film historian Kevin Brownlow’s The War, The West and The Wilderness are essential to understanding this film that evokes the documentary feel of Nanook of the North (1922). The historian was instrumental in the revival and restoration of the film after producer W. Douglas Burden brought it to his attention, essentially saving it from obscurity.
While Paramount had granted the contract for the film and studio personnel like Jesse Lasky felt it was well made, it was also a silent when talkies were taking over the industry and thrown into block booking packages instead of given much-needed special exhibition. Thus it never got the attention it deserved, which makes this release welcome and a bit of a miracle.
It’s the story of the Ojibway tribe in the years before settlers arrived. For this group of hunters and gatherers, hunger is a constant threat. Various factions in the group battle for dominance as they are threatened by famine. There’s plenty of drama among these tribe members, but egos and desires ultimately take a backseat to the ever pressing need to ensure their survival.
While the intertitles in silent films don’t usually stand out to me except for the odd entertaining line, I was impressed with the powerful and poetic prose here. Prefacing scenes with phrases about “dogs savage with hunger” and a wildcat that is “the killer of the forest, nine feet from tip to tip” gave the story an extra edge and sense of tension.
I also loved the striking simplicity of the way the ceremonial scenes were filmed. The actors are situated in the center of the frame, which gives them an added sense of power and grounding in their most spiritual moments. The focus is on the people in the pageantry, while the edges of the frame fade into darkness.
Having recently seen Prey (2022) I was fascinated by the commonalities between the two films. Both stories are entertaining and suspenseful in the way they feature indigenous actors demonstrating their survival skills. While they are dramatically different stories, they share a lot in spirit because of the charisma, drive and ability of their performers, not to mention their great chemistry. It made me think about the decades between the films, how many different kinds of stories could have been told of these people and how that could have dramatically altered our perspective of each other.
For that reason The Silent Enemy can be forgiven for its magical native framing and the other ways it misses fully appreciating and understanding its subjects. Overall it succeeds, finding the humanity, interest, and excitement in telling the stories of the people who first lived in territories which challenged them, but in which they ultimately succeeded.
There are two soundtrack accompaniments on the disc: I found both to be enjoyable, but the score was especially impactful, with a bold, timeless composed by Siegfried Friedrich feel that suited the story well. Other special features include an image gallery with pictures from promotional materials and the production and a fascinating audio interview with the film’s producer W. Douglas Burden, conducted by film historian Kevin Brownlow, in which he shares what an adventure it was making The Silent Enemy.
Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of the disc for review.