Native American Images on Film: The Exiles (1961)

TCM’s month-long series, RACE & HOLLYWOOD: NATIVE AMERICAN IMAGES ON FILM, begins tonight with a trio of John Ford Westerns (Stagecoach, The Searchers, and Cheyenne Autumn). We’ll be following the program back here at Movie Morlocks with a week-long group of posts related to the topic. Suzi Doll kicked things off yesterday with an inquiry into Anthony Mann’s DEVIL’S DOORWAY, and now I’ll be looking at Kent Mackenzie’s recently rediscovered The Exiles, which screens on Thursday May 27th at 9:30PM (it shows again on June 23rd at 1:15AM).

The Exiles follows a Native American husband and wife, Homer (the Hualapi Homer Nish) and Yvonne (the Apache Yvonne Williams), as they separately navigate an aimless night in the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles. Having left the reservation for the city, they are slowly adapting to their new surroundings. Homer opts for the easy camaraderie of the Native American immigrant community, rolling from bar to bar with a group of debauched loners, led by the highly strung Tommy (Tommy Reynolds). Yvonne, visibly pregnant and left to her own devices, goes to the cinema to see The Iron Sheriff, and then wanders down the main drag, daydreaming about her uncertain future.

All three actors are non-professionals playing versions of themselves. In 1957, Mackenzie was hanging out in the bars in Bunker Hill, and befriended the three actors. He had already completed a short documentary about the neighborhood entitled Bunker Hill-1956 (about the working class community soon to be displaced by re-development), while a student at USC. Now he was planning another doc based on the re-location of Native Americans to urban areas, inspired by an article in Harper’s Magazine by Dorothy Van de Mark about government attempts to take over Indian land. As the project developed, and he heard Homer, Yvonne, and Tommy’s concerns about the image of Native Americans on film, he invited them to help write the script, do their own narration, and be partners in the production (shooting started in 1958, but due to budget shortages and other delays, was not completed until 1961). His original conception of a straight observational documentary shifted to include the slender narrative of The Exiles, similar to the re-creations of Nanook building an igloo that Robert Flaherty staged in Nanook of the North.  Mackenzie was heavily influenced by Flaherty and the WWII docs of Humphrey Jennings, closely observed, anthropologically minded films that used artifice to heighten reality. Mackenzie and his cinematographers, Erik Daarstad and John Morill, considered it a documentary in that tradition, although today a direct line can be drawn to the films of Lisandro Alonso, who also makes films made in concert with the laborers he constructs slight narratives around.

Filmed in high-contrast black and white, with a layered soundtrack completed entirely in post-production (there are some rough sync issues when it comes to dialogue), it has a dreamlike quality, enhanced by the affect-less tone of the voice-overs.  They are stream-of-consciousness reveries, run-on sentences of modest hopes and stolid resignation. Homer compares the unspooling of time outside of jail to inside, and can’t find much difference. The images that run underneath are distractingly beautiful, tableaux of a cop twirling his nightstick in front of a late night haunt, a cigarette sparking as a Tommy joyrides down a tunnel, and the blazing marquee with Sterling Hayden flashing his six-gun. The actions, however, are banal. Mackenzie, along with his actors and crew, are attempting to capture the imperceptible rhythms of a night on the town. It is clear that the characters are disconnected and adrift, but what drives the movie are the little moments, like Tommy’s assertive flirtatious patter, the slow-burn before a bar fight, and the surprisingly tender manner in which Homer hands one Tommy’s castoffs her coat. Yvonne ends her night with an understanding neighbor, offering comfort and a bed for the introspective, oft-abandoned wife.

I believe Kent Mackenzie is able to sidestep the problematic position of another white filmmaker speaking for Native Americans (and one who  presents characters who could be perceived as stereotypical “drunken Indians” – which Amy Taubin hammers the film for this in her Artforum review) . In closely collaborating with the actors on the final product, it forefronts their voices along with Mackenzie’s, and, as Native author (and one of the film’s presenters) Sherman Alexie argued in the NY Times, “The filmmakers ended up in the position of witness as much as creator.”

It had rarely been seen since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 1961, despite good reviews, having only been picked up for the educational market by Pathe Distribution in 1964. A few 16mm prints were struck, and by the 1970s it was only being shown in a few classrooms, all but forgotten. Kent Mackenzie died in 1980, having produced one more feature, Saturday Morning, which filmed a group of 20 American students as they debated topics of “self and sex”, as the skeptical NY Times review described it.

The UCLA Film & Television Archive and Milestone Films rescued it from obscurity, with an assist from Thom Anderson, whose magisterial film essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, which charts the hidden (and misrepresented) history of the city on celluloid, devoted a portion of its running time to The Exiles and it’s realistic portrayal of the old Bunker Hill neighborhood.  With this minor bit of notoriety, Milestone helped to fund UCLA’s work, and the results are stunning. Jonathan Rosenbaum, in Cinema Scope, says it is “the most gorgeous restoration of an American independent film I’ve ever seen”, and I don’t disagree.

2 Responses Native American Images on Film: The Exiles (1961)
Posted By Tony G. : May 7, 2010 9:14 am

I agree that the film is “distractingly beautiful” as you say and still manages to fascinate and hold the attention despite the fact that all of the main characters are aimless, drifting and passive in the sense that they allow life to happen to them instead of the other way around.

Posted By Tony G. : May 7, 2010 9:14 am

I agree that the film is “distractingly beautiful” as you say and still manages to fascinate and hold the attention despite the fact that all of the main characters are aimless, drifting and passive in the sense that they allow life to happen to them instead of the other way around.

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