Burt Kennedy (1922 – 2001) about who we were talking yesterday (click the link for that), was certainly a major figure in our beloved genre. He was involved in one way or another (writer, director, producer) in 50 Westerns, 28 of them feature films, and the rest TV episodes of different shows or TV movies. Ernest Borgnine said he was “the best damn Western director going”. Kirk Douglas called him “a very talented director”. Jack Elam said, “Burt is Numero Uno.” Harry Morgan: “Burt does what others try to do.” Walter Brennan: “I like working with this kid – he’s sharp!” Plaudits, indeed.
But Kennedy had high points and lows – some very highs (one thinks especially of those wonderful late-50s Westerns he wrote for Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher) and, unfortunately some pretty low lows (and here we think of the perfectly dreadful and unfunny 1970 Frank Sinatra ‘comedy’ Dirty Dingus Magee). And I’m afraid The Canadians falls into the low department.
In fact The Canadians is so bad –dreary, tired and plodding – that if you didn’t know it was written and directed by Burt Kennedy you would never have guessed. It is poorly written and directed, both. It was Kennedy’s first picture as director and he had a lot to learn.
Even its stars, the great Robert Ryan as the tough good guy and the fine John Dehner as the tough bad guy, come across as frankly bored.
In his guide Western Films, Brian Garfield calls it “a soporific plodder”, and he’s right.
Kennedy himself knew it. In his 1997 memoir Hollywood Trail Boss (a very entertaining read, by the way) he dismisses the picture in two sentences:
“Next, I started to direct, and I did a picture up in Canada, The Canadians, which was a disaster. After that I went back to doing television.”
In a later interview he said, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I remember the first shot had like 400 horses in it, and I got the shot and the cameraman said, ‘What do we do now?’ And I thought, ‘You mean I gotta do more?’ So that’s the reason I went into television [after The Canadians] to find out how you shoot pictures.”
The picture was billed as an “Anglo–Canadian” production. Perhaps it was, as far as the production companies went. But as the stars and director were all American and it’s about the Sioux after Custer, you do kind of wonder. It starts ultra-Canadian, with cheesy scenes of modern Canada (productive prairies, industry, and so on) and This is Canada sung, very loudly, in a female operatic voice that may best be described as piercing. This voice belonged to Teresa Stratas, Toronto-born of Greek heritage, a successful opera singer. But she is cast as ‘The White Squaw’, the woman who accompanies the three protagonists on their mission, most unconvincingly.
We soon meet Ryan as a RCMP Inspector (the picture was originally titled Royal Canadian Mounted). There was quite a trend of American Western actors being redcoats instead of bluecoats. They never convinced. Tyrone Power in Pony Soldier (1952), Alan Ladd in Saskatchewan (1954), and so on. In fact there is something iffy about the whole notion of Westerns set in Canada. They were often shot in Arizona or somewhere, like Pony Soldier, or on huge fake sound stages in Hollywood, with the occasional scene in the San Bernadino National Forest, like Cecil B DeMille’s turgid North West Mounted Police (1940). At least this one (and Saskatchewan, to be fair) was actually filmed in Canada – in Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan locations, as the intro text proudly announces.
And in fact visually, the picture isn’t at all bad. Shot by Englishman Arthur Ibbetson (Where Eagles Dare, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, etc) in Color DeLuxe and CinemaScope, it looks nice. That is probably the picture’s only virtue.
Anyway, back to Ryan. He is on the brink of retirement (and looks ready for it) when he is charged with the task of going to visit the Sioux who have crossed the border into Her Majesty’s domains after their pyrrhic victory at Little Big Horn, and make sure they behave themselves. That’s basically the plot.
He recruits a crusty Scots-Canadian sergeant and a green young trooper for slight comic relief (but not really) and sets off. These two are played by Torin Thatcher and Burt Metcalfe, respectively, Mr Thatcher a veteran British character actor “associated with gritty, flashy film villainy”, according to the IMDb bio, and Mr Metcalfe a Canadian who would become a producer of M*A*S*H.
Ryan is under strict orders to be nice to the Sioux, and not slaughter them or anything, but we soon meet bad guy John Dehner, who has other ideas. He has come north from Montana (with henchmen, obviously) to recover his horses, stolen by the Sioux, and will go to any lengths, inc. slaughter, to get them back. The great John Dehner looks as much on autopilot as Ryan. The screenplay and/or direction require him often to stare off into the distance pensively, but this is hard to pull off without looking bored to death.
We also meet the chief of the Sioux, Four Horns, who is played by Michael Pate, obviously. I say “obviously” because Pate specialized in Native Americans, his white Australian background notwithstanding, and was Vittorio in Hondo, Watanka in Sergeants 3, Chato in Cheyenne, Puma in McLintock!, Thin Elk in Advance to the Rear, Sierra Charriba in Major Dundee, and Sitting Bull in The Great Sioux Massacre, to name but a few.
There’s a great deal of talking and not enough action, which is not good for a Western. Teresa gets to do two other songs, unfortunately.
The wikipedia article on the movie says there was “some discussion about American gun culture and violence” but I missed that. It may have been when I nodded off.
Kennedy said, “[Robert Ryan looked] like he didn’t know what he was doing. It wasn’t his fault. He was so grim in it. And the picture was so grim.”