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Reviewed by:
  • The Exiles
  • Josh Glick (bio)
The Exiles (1961); DVD distributed by Milestone Films, 2009

Shot between 1958 and 1961, just before urban renewal initiatives razed much of Los Angeles’s downtown core, The Exiles offers stirring views of a now nonexistent Bunker Hill neighborhood and a complex portrait of a small group of Native Americans struggling to negotiate their identities within the city. Milestone Films’s two-disc Premiere Edition DVD contains a meticulous restoration of director Kent Mackenzie’s 1961 release and a wealth of supplementary materials that provide insight into its production and the broader historical context in which it was conceived.

After playing on the international festival circuit and then receiving limited nontheatrical distribution through Pathé Contemporary in 1964, The Exiles resurfaced in 2003 when Thom Andersen featured some of its scenes in his epic compilation documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself. The evocative sampling (included on the DVD) piqued the interests of Milestone’s Cindi Rowell, who located the only existing 35mm print of The Exiles at the University of Southern California’s (USC’s) Cinema Archive. Rowell and USC archivist Valarie Schwan took the negative to UCLA Film & Television Archive preservationist Ross Lipman, who, with the help of original crew member John Morrill and such companies as Fotokem, Audio Mechanics, and NT Audio, performed the restoration. The resulting viewing experience attests to their labor. Sharp black-and-white tonal contrasts register the graceful night photography of cinematographers Erik Daarstad, Robert Kaufman, Morrill, and Mackenzie. Voice-over monologues, intertwined with the blistering rock and roll music of the Revels, give the overall sound design an intimate and visceral quality.

Selections from the supplementary materials ground the origins of Mackenzie’s filmmaking in his student years at USC. It was there that he completed Bunker Hill–1956, a short documentary about a community of pensioners in Los Angeles and the municipal construction plans that threatened to displace them. Additionally, the inclusion of the four drafts of the script for Bunker Hill–1956 reveals the project’s development, from the initial treatment that describes the atmosphere of the locale to the final release script that focuses on the residents expressing their commitment to the homes they have made for themselves and their anxieties over having to move.

Mackenzie began working on The Exiles following graduation. Among the items on the DVD that directly relate to the film is his master’s thesis, submitted to USC in 1964. The document does much to elucidate the film’s path to production. After reading an article in Harper’s Magazine about the difficulties of contemporary Native Americans in the United States, Mackenzie envisioned making an educational film about the move of an Apache family from Arizona to Los Angeles through the controversial Relocation Program. The document “The Exiles Funding Proposal,” also on the DVD, details Mackenzie’s initial research into the venture. The practicalities of making the film, combined with his own desire to steer clear of a didactic model of documentary, led him to embark on a cinematic project that explored the nightly social activities of a group of Native Americans in and around Bunker Hill and Main Street.

The thesis also provides a better understanding of how Mackenzie and his crew, drawing [End Page 166] from an eclectic group of directors such as Robert Flaherty, Sidney Meyers, and Vittorio De Sica, pursued an innovative mode of stylized realism. Their production method involved location shooting and the use of nonactors (who had a large amount of input into their own lines), while at the same time planning scenes and editing to ensure thematic unity for the overall film. The six drafts and the final script provide a more nuanced sense of the later stages of the film’s evolution and reveal the various permutations of the title, from The Trail of the Thunderbird to The Exiles.

The multivocal audio commentaries on the DVD feature crew members such as Daarstad, filmmakers such as Charles Burnett, writer– director Sherman Alexie, and Milestone cofounder Dennis Doros. They reinforce the notion that Mackenzie was deeply invested in all aspects of production, while also emphasizing the film’s highly collaborative aspects. Both the crew...


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pp. 166-168
Launched on MUSE
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