Of the tens of thousands of films produced during the silent era, at least 70 percent are now unavailable, either because they were carelessly lost due to improper storage, the highly flammable silver nitrate stock melted down or they were simply misplaced. Those that survive form less of a complete highlight reel of what was considered worth preserving than a random selection of things that were somehow lucky enough to survive the dangerous early days before preservation was accepted as an essential. Such randomness is again proven by the inexplicable survival of an odd bird like 1920’s Daughter of Dawn, a low-budget production notable now only for its anthropological value. The sole surviving copy of this rarely-screened film, believed lost until 2005, was recovered after decades in the storage unit of a North Carolina private investigator. The man had long ago received it in lieu of payment on a completed case, and finally realizing its worth, sold it to the Oklahoma Historical Society, who had it digitally restored and screened for the first time in 93 years in 2013. Now, as the temporary culmination of this long, strange journey, the film finds a new home on Netflix, languishing on the fringes of a video catalog that spans countless features but somehow only six total silents.

The film’s misbegotten legacy is on par with America’s own rough, careless handling of its native cultures, paralleling their history of survival despite neglect, disinterest and abuse. Shot in the wilds of rural Oklahoma, this was a movie made by amateurs and seen by no one. Partially a showpiece presentation of the broad outlines of local Indian culture, it’s also surprisingly respectful and deferential to it, with the Kiowas and Comanches depicted here played by a cast of actual Kiowas and Comanches, no effacement or whitewashing involved. The result is somewhere halfway between a project like King Vidor’s Hallelujah – an experiment intended to both appeal to black viewers and convince white ones of their inherent humanity – and the niche films of Oscar Micheaux, produced solely with a specific minority audience in mind.

Daughter of Dawn is even more niche, which makes it less than shocking that it never got a chance to find an audience. Apparently screened once, in Los Angeles, it was never distributed. The only feature directed by one Norbert A. Myles, a name of prototypical silent-era stock if there ever was one, it’s not hard to see why it was shelved. Relentlessly amateurish, aside from a high quality of stunt riding and coordination and the sterling quality of the now-restored print, the film runs through a rote Romeo and Juliet-esque scenario that mostly serves as a distraction from the fascinating period anthropology on display. One positive of the story, centered around the love triangle feud for a chief’s daughter erupting into a battle between two rival tribes, is that it at least plays out entirely free from the interference of whites, without resorting to exotic presentations of native showmanship or suggestions of noble savagery. It’s no-fuss naturalism is impressive, but it’s also about the only thing this simply-constructed film has going for it.

Although it’s not quite true that the things which make the film sensible also make it boring, it is the case that in scrapping the usual easy action beats of period drama, Myles finds himself without any other stylistic or aesthetic fallbacks with which to replace them. If anything, Daughter of Dawn serves as a reminder that many late-period American silents, despite the innovations of filmmakers like Griffith and the aforementioned Vidor, occupied an ill-defined creative space that is today most often filled by documentaries. As with proto-non-fiction works like Flaherty’s Nanook of the North and Moana, they served a specific function, keeping viewers informed of the size and shape of certain subjects, while peppering in requisite hints of drama to keep them compelled. Unlike Flaherty’s films, these semi-actualities generally offer little to chew on in the way of memorable filmmaking. The setups here are mostly the same repeated ad nauseam, with the action playing out within the space covered by a stationary, centered camera, shuffling in a few close-ups here and there to add flavor. This lack of imagination or ingenuity ensures that, whileDaughter of Dawn is far more culturally magnanimous than the era’s usual fare, it’s also not nearly rich enough to provide a very rewarding watch.

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