The Redcoat and the Ranger: Screening Bilateral Friendship in Cecil B. DeMille's North West Mounted Police (1940)

Article excerpt

On October 21, 1940, the world premiere of North West Mounted Police (JWMP) took place in Regina, Saskatchewan, with much fanfare. This epic western, which was producer/director Cecil B. DeMille's first foray into shooting entirely in Technicolor, stars Gary Cooper as Dusty Rivers, a Texas Ranger who crosses the 49th parallel in pursuit of Jacques Corbeau (George Bancroft), a ruthless "half-breed" whiskey smuggler and gunrunner wanted for murder in Texas. (1) In the process, Dusty helps the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) suppress an uprising led by Corbeau. The story was inspired by the 1885 North-West Rebellion: the unsuccessful campaign on the part of the Metis community--mixed-race descendents of French (and some Scottish) male fur traders and Native (largely Cree, Chippewa, and Ojibwa) women--to defend the diminishing buffalo hunting lands from Euro-Canadian encroachment into present-day Saskatchewan. However, DeMille intended the picture to illustrate the theme of friendship between the United States and Canada through, in DeMille's words, "the uniting of the two men on the border." (2)

This essay argues that from NWMP's pre-production stages through its publicity campaign, DeMille used a distorted vision of the North-West Rebellion to frame the importance of bilateral amity in the context of the World War II period. Although the United States remained ostensibly neutral in 1940, DeMille hoped that his film would reinforce the notion that Canada was a strong and valuable nation--this, at a time when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his administration had endeavored to shore up the continental defense system by strengthening hemispheric relationships. To that end, the FDR administration designed the Good Neighbor Policy to fortify the bonds between the United States and Latin American republics, particularly Mexico. Likewise, FDR regarded healthy cultural, political, and socioeconomic relations with Canada as vital to U.S. national security. The very public and politically expedient friendship between FDR and Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King personified the strengthening ties between Canada and the United States. Moreover, in the summer of 1940, FDR and King agreed to a formal Canadian-American military alliance. (3)

However, prior to Pearl Harbor, explicit war-related themes in U.S. motion pictures were uncommon due to that country's Production Code Administration (PCA), the film industry's self-regulatory agency. Established in 1934, the PCA enforced the Production Code, a set of moral standards governing film content based on what constituted appropriate entertainment for an undifferentiated mass audience. According to the Code, motion pictures were pure entertainment and not vehicles of social criticism. The Code thus included a "Fair Treatment Clause" that required films to portray impartially all foreign nations and their citizens. (4) Therefore, the studios were leery of outwardly naming a country as hostile to the United States, fearing that the PCA would withhold its seal of approval and thus prevent the film's exhibition. Nevertheless, as the global crisis intensified, Hollywood increasingly released films with pro-interventionist, anti-fascist, or war-preparedness themes. (5)

In NWMP, the friendship between the redcoat, as officers of the North West Mounted Police were known, and the ranger indirectly reveals DeMille's pro-ally sympathies and his fondness for Britain and its Dominions, especially Canada. Though a political supporter of the Republican Party, DeMille backed the FDR administration's efforts to guide the United States away from isolationism and toward preparedness. DeMille later wrote in his autobiography,

  I never had any doubt, from the outbreak of World War II, where
  America must and eventually would take her stand. In domestic
  policies, I felt that the New Deal had done a certain amount of good
  and a great amount of harm; but in foreign policy, when Franklin D. …