The Hollywood Mountie always gets his man
There were slightly fewer Hollywood ‘Canadian’ American Westerns, though, than ‘Mexican’ ones. That will make this article shorter, you will be relieved to hear.
Coop in Canada
A classic example will do to start us off: Paramount’s turgid North West Mounted Police, a 1940 Cecil B DeMille-directed picture starring Gary Cooper.This was notionally a story about the so-called North-West Rebellion of 1885, led by Louis Riel (Francis McDonald in this movie). Louis David Riel (1844 – 1885) was a Canadian politician, founder of the province of Manitoba, and a leader of the Métis people of the Canadian prairies. Riel sought to preserve Métis rights and culture as their homelands in the Northwest came progressively under the Canadian sphere of influence. He led two resistance movements against the Canadian government. The first was the Red River Rebellion of 1869 – 1870; during this Riel was forced into exile in the United States (Montana). But he returned in 1885 and renewed his opposition to the Canadian establishment, and this was known as the North-West Rebellion of 1885, in which he urged the Indians to rise in revolt. (In the movie the Indians are all ‘Ug’ stereotypes, as DeMille’s Indians usually were). It ended in Riel’s arrest, trial, and execution on a charge of high treason.
Now, when revolutions and rebellions occurred south of the border, Hollywood was usually more or less on the side of the revolutionaries. Juárez v. Maximilian? Warners’ Juarez was very pro- Juárez. Pancho Villa v. President Huerta? In all those movies Pancho was the good guy (or at any rate the one in the right). Fox’s Viva Zapata had quite a left-wing slant, directed as it was by Elia Kazan and written by John Steinbeck (MGM had been going to make it but studio execs reckoned that Zapata was “a goddamn Commie revolutionary” and sold the project to Fox).
However, Cecil B DeMille was not exactly Kazan and his writers Alan Le May and Jesse Lasky Jr were no Steinbecks. DeMille shot the picture as a straight ‘Redcoats v Redskins’ drama in which Riel and his supporters are unmitigated evils. There is no hint that they might actually have had some right on their side. Well, you couldn’t be against sweet little Queen Victoria, could you? That dear old widow in Windsor. Of course Hollywood studios weren’t exactly paragons of liberal politics and they were happy to toe the pro-government line, and Cecil B DeMille wasn’t the most assiduous presenter of historical fact. In fact his films are historical bunkum. Laughably, he cultivated a reputation for doing detailed research.
Gary Cooper played the ‘gringo’ figure. Just as he would later cross the Rio Grande to fight in the likes of Garden of Evil and Vera Cruz (in real life he was there for tax avoidance purposes) so now he would be a Texas Ranger gone north to bring back a criminal (George Bancroft). Hollywood was generally happier with a true American hero in these alien contexts.
Being DeMille, huge swathes of the movie were shot on those enormous studio sound-stages that he liked (he hated going on location) and the outside shots that he had to do were filmed in California. No one actually went to Canada.
Tyrone in Canada
This choice of locations reached its reductio ad absurdam in Fox’s Pony Soldier in 1952, in which the sunny sandstone of Arizona did duty for Canada. It is actually very attractive terrain, shot by Harry Jackson, Oscar nominee for another picture, but it’s hardly Canada. Never mind. This one starred Tyrone Power, who, unlike Coop, didn’t really do Westerns as a rule. He was Jesse James in 1939 and he was also very good in Fox’s smaller but very good (and underrated) Rawhide in 1951, but he only did six cowboy films in total and apart from Jesse
James and Rawhide, two were Canadian Mountie pictures, one was a Brigham Young biopic and in the other he was Zorro; they hardly count as Westerns at all.
Pony Soldier is supposedly based on a true story (but we all know how that goes in Hollywood) about a young, inexperienced Mountie named Constable Duncan MacDonald. It’s 1876. The RCMP has only being going for three years and no one has yet told Duncan that the Mountie always gets his man. As a result, he returns to base having let the fugitive he was pursuing escape. After this faux pas he is assigned to bringing the whole Cree tribe back into Her Majesty’s domains – it has fled its “reserve” over into the US – as well as rescuing two captives that the Cree have taken. To achieve this mission he only has one helper, the comic-relief fat half-breed sidekick Natayo Smith, played, with gusto, by Thomas Gomez. New Yorker Gomez is one of the highlights of the movie, in fact. He brings life to what otherwise risks being a rather plodding ‘Western’.
The other Mountie movie Tyrone appeared in? It was a tiny (uncredited) part in a forgettable small-studio picture, Northern Frontier, in 1935. This was a low-budget Poverty Row effort starring Kermit Maynard as a Mountie who gets his man. It was shot round Big Bear Lake, California, that being Canadian enough for the producers.
Of course Coop and Tyrone weren’t the first to don the scarlet tunic. William S Hart had done it right back in 1921 in O’Malley of the Mounted, and there were other silent Mounties too.
Alberta puts the West in Western
It was perhaps ironic, given that these ‘Canadian’ stories were filmed in the US, how many later ‘true’ Westerns, i.e. stories set in the United States and Territories, would later be shot up in Canada. The Snake, Bow and Maligne Rivers were the ones Robert Mitchum rafted down with Marilyn Monroe (when they weren’t being filmed back at the Fox studios with a back-projection screen) in River of No Return.
Last of the Dogmen, Mustang Country, Brokeback Mountain, Unforgiven, Open Range, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, all set in the US, and even some scenes of The Searchers were filmed up in Alberta, and this list is certainly not exhaustive (nor will it be continued now).
Alan Ladd in Canada
One thing about Raoul Walsh’s Canadian Western, though, two years after Pony Soldier, was that it was actually shot in Canada. Saskatchewan, aka O’Rourke of the Royal Mounted, was filmed in the Banff National Park, and stunningly beautiful it is too, shot in Technicolor by John F Seitz, a seven-time Oscar nominee, no less, who, however, never actually won one.
It is 1877, in Saskatchewan. Alan Ladd (Whispering Smith in red) has been brought up by the Cree and become a policeman. He does everything to prevent the Cree allying with post-Little Big Horn Sioux, who have come north into Her Majesty’s domains, wanting to wipe out as many redcoats as they had bluecoats. Ladd has his own Tonto in the shape of Jay Silverheels, his blood brother, but Jay is a bit cross at being disarmed by a mule-headed and insensitive British RCMP officer (Robert Benton) and so he sides with Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.
In a Bountyesque episode, Ladd mutinies against Benton and leads the party bravely to safety. In the group is Shelley Winters, a large saloon gal, who is distinctly out of place. She is accompanied by an Earpish US marshal (in fact it’s Hugh O’Brian so no wonder he looks Earpish) who is taking Shelley back to Montana to stand trial for murder, though really he is in love with her. So once again we had a Canadian version of the gringo.
There is loads of action as the Sioux attack a lot. Well, it was Raoul Walsh picture. There’s a high-speed canoe chase, obviously the prototype for Bullitt or The French Connection (not). It’s really a straightforward cavalry Western that just happens to be set in Canada and the soldiers have red uniforms instead of blue. Ladd isn’t very good (he never was as a Western action man) and the part cried out for Errol Flynn but I suppose the female fans were happy either way.
Robert Ryan in Canada
Talking of the Sioux, in 1961 Fox produced The Canadians in which the Sioux, led by Michael Pate (obviously – he was the specialist at Indian chiefs) come to Canada after Little Bighorn, and Mountie Inspector Robert Ryan permits them to stay if they live by Her Majesty’s laws.
However, Montana rancher John Dehner and his gun-thugs kill all inhabitants of one of their villages. The question is, as per usual, will the Mountie get his men? It was Burt Kennedy’s directorial debut and is supposed to be based on a true story. Unfortunately, it was dull and plodding as a film, and the great Ryan was wasted.
Randy in Canada
Another Hollywood Western hero who went to Canada, Randolph Scott, went there quite a lot. In 1939 he allowed himself to be upstaged by eleven-year-old Shirley Temple (already a wizened old hand at the movie business) in Susannah of the Mounties. This not quite unwatchable picture (though there are moments when you have to turn away) had Randy as an inspector (a sort of colonel, I think) in the Mounties. He looks rather daft in his ‘British’ mustache and red uniform with silly bell hop’s cap. And I didn’t know Her Majesty’s officers rode mustangs with Texas saddles or spoke with Virginia accents. A couple of his brother officers were actually English anyway, so at least central casting got that right.
The Indians (it’s an Indians-against-the railroad plot) are even more “Ug, me big chief” than was usual for this time and the script is very weak despite (or because of) the fact that no fewer than nine writers contributed to the screenplay from a Muriel Denison novel. There were even two directors. The Indians also wear their feathered war bonnets and paint all the time, rather like you and me wearing our tuxedos or long dresses to wash the car. I say Randy went to Canada: the whole farrago was filmed within LA County limits.
Randy was theoretically back north of the border in 1949 for Fox’s Canadian Pacific. Canadian Pacific is certainly not one of Randolph Scott’s better Westerns. In fact it is one of his weakest. In his very good book The Films of Randolph Scott (McFarland & Company, 2004) Robert Nott is particularly down on it and goes so far as to call it “abysmal”. Nott says, “It may not be Scott’s overall worst film, but I rate it as his overall worst Western.” He adds, “Randolph Scott or no Randolph Scott, it stinks.” Myself, I think that’s going a bit far. It does have action, color, and Victor Jory as villain, after all. But I do admit, it’s pretty weak generally.
It’s just the generic American railroad Western transposed to Canada, one of those Union Pacificky nation-building stories. Scott would something similar in Santa Fe (1951) and yet again in Carson City (1952). It starts with politicians afraid that if no railroad is built over the Canadian Rockies, British Columbia might secede, obviously a fate worse than death. But never fear, Canadian Pacific boss Cornelius Van Horne (Robert Barrat, rather good) assures the parliamentary committee that his man Tom Andrews (Scott) is on the job, and if anyone can find a pass over the mountain range, Tom can. And, then, as expected, the film goes all fuzzy and we morph to the (Canadian) Western frontier and there’s surveyor Randy, in Stetson and six-guns, duly gazing at majestic peaks and mapping a route.
It was at least shot in Canada and is very attractive visually. It was photographed by Fred Jackman Jr (201 silent, talkie and TV Westerns including six Randolph Scott oaters) up in the Banff National Park again and round Lake Louise in Alberta, even if a lot of scenes are shot on sound stages.
Scott obviously got the taste for the Canadian lifestyle (there definitely is one) because in 1950 he was back, on The Cariboo Trail, again directed by the solid but uninspired Edwin L Marin and again with Victor Jory as the bad guy. This time it’s not railroads but gold and cattle, in British Columbia. Canadian Pacific had suffered from poor writing (Jack De Witt and Kenneth Gamet) but Cariboo was written by Frank Gruber, a pulp writer but experienced Western hand, (this was his fifth oater) who went on to do some excellent little pictures like Denver and Rio Grande and a few more Randolph Scott movies. Gruber could do pace but also managed some (limited) character development. The story was provided by Scott’s friend John Rhodes Sturdy (splendid British Empire name) who had worked as technical advisor on Canadian Pacific. It’s about gold discovered in British Columbia and how Randy and his partners drive cattle up there from Montana to settle in the Chilcotin country, “a cattleman’s paradise”. In fact, though, it could have been set anywhere and is a pretty generic Western, with standard elements such as a town owned by the bad guy, rustlers stampeding the herd and the like.
Jimmy Stewart went there too
Borden Chase’s story and screenplay for The Far Country (1955), the fourth of the Westerns James Stewart made with Anthony Mann, has adventurer Jeff Webster (Stewart) locking horns with crooked Judge Gannon (a splendid John McIntire) on both sides of the Canadian border.
It’s a gripping tale shot in the rugged scenery Mann loved to use in spectacular Athabasca Glacier and other Jasper National Park locations. It is definitely Hollywood’s idea of 1896 Canada, with the townsfolk of a very Wild West Dawson electing a marshal with a tin star. But it’s a great movie.
Bob Steele, James Craig, and so on. They were all Mounties.
Loads of other Western stars made ‘Canadian’ Westerns, often about as Canadian as I am (i.e. not at all). Try Bob Steele, for example, in Northwest Trail (1945). It’s a contemporary Western (another reason purists will discard it) from a Poverty Row studio in which Mountie Bob, on a fancy Palomino, comes across an annoying and rude woman (Joan Woodbury, who took roles as an ‘exotic’ woman in various Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy and Johnny Mack Brown oaters) in her stranded convertible, which he politely repairs notwithstanding her facetious and irritating remarks. Then he finds that he is ordered by his superiors to escort the tiresome dame up to a remote camp. The car is soon left behind, though, and it becomes a straight Western from there on in, with horses, guns and a gang of bad guys illegally mining gold.
Or try Fort Vengeance (1953). It’s set in 1876. We know this because a line of the dialogue tells us that Custer has been killed at Little Bighorn “a few weeks ago.” In this version of ‘history’ Sitting Bull (Michael Granger) raced for the Canadian border with his braves right after the battle, where he immediately started stirring up trouble, trying to persuade the peaceable Blackfoot under sage Chief Morris Ankrum that the redcoats are just as perfidious as the bluecoats and the warpath is the only answer. James Craig will save the day though. The Mountie Inspector is frightfully, frightfully English, played by Reginald Denny, from Surrey, who would be the dastardly Sir Harry in Cat Ballou. It’s all in a quite nice Cinecolor, in Corrigan Ranch, California locations. Good old Lesley Selander was at the helm. He was good at action so there’s a fair bit of gallopin’ and shootin’. There’s a villainous French-Canadian, Luboc (Peter Camlin), who takes Carey in on his scam, which causes all the trouble. French-Canadians were often the bad guys. There’s a last-reel brotherly showdown, enabling Chief Ankrum to announce sonorously that “There will be peace!” Phew.
All those Yukon/Klondike pictures
The gold strike in the 1890s was manna from heaven for Hollywood. Of course a lot of the activity was on the Alaska side of the border and since the Tsar’s basement sale, when Mr Seward picked up the territory for 2 cents an acre, Alaska was American. We can’t count those movies as Canada Westerns. All those different versions of The Spoilers, for example. Or John Wayne going North to Alaska in 1960. Mae West was Klondike Annie for Raoul Walsh in 1936 and there were many Klondike movies set in Alaska.
But the Yukon itself, the Canadian province hived off from the Northwest Territories in 1898, that was a magnet for Hollywood too. There was Sergeant Preston of the Yukon on TV but big-screen Westerns or semi-Westerns were abundant. Charles Starrett went North of the Yukon in 1939. Monogram put out several Yukon pictures starring Kirby Grant, like Trail of the Yukon (1949), Yukon Gold (1952) and Yukon Vengeance (1954). The studio also had Queen of the Yukon in 1940, and in 1944 RKO gave us Belle of the Yukon, Randolph Scott’s worst Western. And so it went on.
Then there were all those White Fang movies. Jack London’s mutt first came to the screen in a 1926 silent but he has been back often since. Decidedly, there has been a call of the wild going on as far as the Yukon is concerned.
Of course Canadians have made Westerns too, not just Hollywood oaters pretending to be there. Dan Candy’s Law (1974) aka for some odd reason Alien Thunder was an all-Canadian affair. It had Donald Sutherland, 39, post-MASH, pre-Day of the Locust, as Constable Dan Candy, determined to hunt down a Cree, Almighty Voice (Gordon Tootoosis, whose first film this was) who had shot down Candy’s pardner, Kevin McCarthy. Sutherland, in his first ever Western, is at full steam. And Chief Dan George is in it, as Almighty Voice’s leader, Sounding Sky. This was after Little Big Man and he hasn’t aged a bit. He looks well under 100. He was a Canadian, of course. We have Québécois Jean Duceppe as the Mountie Inspector, or Inspecteur, wiz a vary Franche accsont. His boss, the Brit General, is a complete idiot. The direction, by another Quebecker, Claude Fournier, is, however, very leisurely, not to say plain slow. Pursuit movies are hard to pace and this one often moves slower than a walking horse. Really, Dan Candy’s Law is a Canadian attempt at a real Western. We are in the West of North America at some time in the 1890s and it is a straight revenge/chase plot in which a loner hunts an Indian. But as the subject of this article is the American Western north of the border, we had better not dwell on it.
Or the likes of The Grey Fox (1982), based on the true story of Bill Miner, who staged Canada’s first train robbery in 1904. This is actually a first-class film, starring an excellent Richard Farnsworth as Ezra Allen Miner, known as Bill Miner and by a number of aliases, born in Michigan about 1847, who became a stagecoach hold-up man in California called The Gentleman Bandit, served many years in prison, but after release from San Quentin in 1901, moved north and, known now as The Grey Fox (Canadian spelling of the color – I mean colour), started robbing Canadian Pacific trains in British Columbia. It was directed by Phillip Borsos, a member of the ‘Vancouver School’, written by Canadian John Hunter and produced by Canadian Peter O’Brian with the cooperation of the Canadian Film Development Corporation.
Or take the comedy Gunless (2010) in which American gunfighter the Montana Kid arrives in Canada where the code of the West is not quite understood, or The Mountie (2011), a sort of Canadian spaghetti, if that’s not too implausible, or Six Reasons Why (2007), another spaghetti or post-spaghetti, or indeed several others. They are beyond my current remit.
Mexico was sometimes used as a refuge for outlaws and such, and it was also a place where the classic Western idea of the “little piece of land” could be found, that new frontier where you could settle down and run a ranch unmolested. That wasn’t quite the case with Canada. Yes, sometimes badmen did cross the northern border, or head for it, in an attempt to escape the law but I have never seen a Western in which the hero and heroine set off for Her Maj’s domains to start anew. They got close – you know, Montana and such – but cowboys don’t really go any further.
Well, that’s all I have to say about Westerns north of the border. Thanks for reading, if you got this far.