Last Updated: 9/22/16


1930 American Indian documentary The Silent Enemy

at American Philosophical Society

Wednesday, October 19, 2016
7:00 pm (Museum open 6:00 pm)
Admission: FREE

American Philosophical Society
Franklin Hall
427 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia
(215) 440-3442

On Wednesday, October 19, 2016, the Secret Cinema will return to the American Philosophical Society to present The Silent Enemy. An independently made, mostly silent film (with spoken introduction and musical soundtrack), its producers attempted to document the original lifestyle of the Ojibway tribe of Native Americans, in the Canadian Far North -- and their perpetual fight against the silent enemy of hunger. The result is a fascinating, exciting and beautiful film, which critic Leonard Maltin called a "remarkable blend of documentary footage and a fictional story…(the) climactic caribou run is one of the most astonishing sights you'll ever witness."

The Silent Enemy has been most often seen (when seen at all) in an edited version, made for the educational market. Our screening will be a rare showing of the film's original version, as rescued by film preservationist David Shepard.

The screening celebrates the exhibition, Gathering Voices: Thomas Jefferson and Native America, which will be on display at the APS Museum through December 30.

This Secret Cinema event will feature a chance to explore the exhibition, free refreshments and snacks, and the screening of a rarely shown documentary (as always with Secret Cinema, using real film projected on a giant screen). Best of all, admission is free.

On the screening day, the museum doors will open at 6:00 pm, allowing time to explore the exhibition. The film screening starts at 7:00 pm. Seating is limited.

Please note that there is no longer free meter parking offered in Center City on Wednesday evenings! The Philadelphia Parking Authority announced that this long-standing program would end starting in October, and that all posted regulations will now be enforced as on other days.

A full description of the feature follows.

The Silent Enemy (1930, Dir: H.P. Carver)
The desire to make a film that would authentically record Native American life before the arrival of Columbus is very much the idea at the heart of W. Douglas Burden's production. As Burden told Kevin Brownlow, "it was all too obvious that the Indians were dying off so rapidly from the white man's diseases that if the story of their endless struggle for survival against starvation was ever to be captured on film, we had no time to lose."

It is hard to say whether The Silent Enemy achieves its goal of ethnographic accuracy, but it is easy to see that it achieves its cinematic goal of being a beautiful and exciting film. While the story is fictional, Burden based it on a 73-volume account of missionary work entitled Jesuit Relations, and he claimed that "not one episode was invented by us, with the exception of the bear on a cliff." Indeed, by striving for anthropological precision, Burden and his co-producer William Chanler took on a larger challenge than the already formidable task of making a feature film in the harsh environment of Northern Canada.

Seeking to correct the spurious and demeaning image of Native Americans in mainstream films, Burden and Chanler attempted to film only aboriginal people, their tools and their activities, in their actual habitat. Some of their achievements in this regard are staggering. Filming into the harsh Canadian winter, the cast and crew lived exclusively in teepees. Burden himself shared a teepee with Chief Yellow Robe. All the hunting implements and crafts shown in the film were made on the set by local Ojibway Indians. In a further tragic twist, some of the Ojibway who appeared in The Silent Enemy died soon after of tuberculosis, flu or pneumonia contracted from the white filmmakers.

Ultimately, we should be cautious in responding to the film as an authentic anthropological document. However, we should equally be eager to view it as the immensely impressive and exciting film it is. The filmmakers, cast and crew were unequivocal in their intention and commitment to honor the heritage of a noble and disappearing people, and to overcome the enormous challenges associated with making it. - David Shepard

About Gathering Voices: Thomas Jefferson and Native America:
The last of three exhibitions at the American Philosophical Society on Jefferson, Gathering Voices tells the story of Jefferson's effort to collect Native American languages and its legacy at the Society. Jefferson had an abiding interest in Native American culture and language, while at the same time supporting policies that ultimately threatened the survival of indigenous peoples. As president of the APS from 1797 to 1814, Jefferson charged the Society with collecting vocabularies and artifacts from Native American nations. Over the next two hundred years, the APS would become a major repository for linguistic, ethnographic, and anthropological research on Native American cultures. Gathering Voices traces the Native American language collection at the APS from Jefferson's vocabularies to the current language revitalization projects at the Society's Center for Native American and Indigenous Research (CNAIR).

About the APS: When Benjamin Franklin and friends decided, in 1743, to establish the American Philosophical Society (APS), they studied nature and called themselves natural philosophers. Now we'd call them scientists. But the word "philosophical" stuck. Over the years, the APS has counted among its members individuals as varied as George Washington, Charles Darwin, and Yo-Yo Ma. The APS has gathered and preserved a rich collection that traces American history and science from the Founding Fathers to the computer age. It includes scientific specimens and instruments, and more than ten million manuscripts. The APS combines sophisticated exhibitions of its collections with provocative works by contemporary artists. Museum visitors will find challenging new perspectives on history, science, and art. The galleries are at Philosophical Hall, 104 S. Fifth Street, Philadelphia, right next to Independence Hall. Admission and all programs are free.


  • Friday, November 11 @ The Maas Building: TBA
  • Saturday, November 26 @ The Rotunda: TBA
  • Wednesday, November 30 @ The Academy of Natural Sciences: Special screening for the American Entomological Society

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