The Canadians (1961): No Singing Please

Article excerpt

There was a time when Hollywood and some American filmmakers were infatuated with images of Canada and The Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Of course, for many cinephiles, Hunt Stromberg's 1935 wilderness operetta Rose Marie is the most recognizable--but there were many more. The genealogy of the cinematic Mountie can be traced, via literary antecedents, to Hollywood's production of 575 films set in Canada between 1907 and 1956, most of which portrayed Canada in a stereotypical fashion (Gittings 1998). In these films, Canada was basically about moose, Mounties, snow and muskeg. Hollywood director Burt Kennedy's first feature film might be considered as an extension of that sub-genre.

The Canadians (1961) is a film that seems at first glance to lack the usual Hollywood glitter. The opening sequence of Canadian landscapes and towns might suggest, to some, a National Film Board documentary. A low budget movie that loosely uses the background of the Cypress Hills massacre as its narrative foundation, Burt Kennedy's first feature length film (he wrote the story as well) is relatively short (under two hours), and with the exception of an aging Robert Ryan, has few name stars. What sets it apart from the usual Mountie fare is its effort at geographical authenticity and a link to an historical event that prompted the Canadian Government to provide a police mandate for the Mounties in the Canadian West. It suffers, as did other Mountie subgenre films, from a somewhat pedestrian script and an inability to divorce itself completely from the stereotypical American Western. The Canadians did, however, get the geography right--the film's introduction notes that it was shot in the Cypress Hills of Southern Saskatchewan. Although the hats were questionable (the fur hats look as if they had been rented from the Paramount Costume Department--shades of Northwest Mounted Police, 1940), the low keyed deportment of the police force towards the indigenous North American tribes provided some historical validity not seen in the other films. In spite of these attempts to provide historical accuracy for the film, The Canadians is, in the end, a seriously flawed representation of the history of the Canadian West.

Because some of the film was being shot in Saskatchewan (which cost $400,000), there was pressure from the federal and provincial governments to have the RCMP give it their tacit approval (Berton 185). Deputy Commissioner George McClellan, who was made a senior technical advisor on the film, later recalled that although the film was supposedly based on the Hills massacre "Twentieth Century Fox weren't satisfied with that alone. They had to get Sitting Bull into Canada with his several thousand warriors ... Actually Sitting Bull didn't arrive until 1879 but for the purposes of this turkey of a picture, Twentieth Century-Fox made them contemporary for each other. The result was an absolute mishmash of history" (Berton 185). McClellan seems to be mistaken about the date of Sitting Bull's arrival, as both Robet Utley (1993) and Ian Anderson (2000) have the Sioux chief on Canadian soil in 1877.

To compensate for the questionable history shown in the film, Kennedy must have felt compelled to connect with his Canadian audiences. The musical introduction to the film, called "This is Canada", might go down in the annals of film scores as the most preposterous piece of music ever foisted on film audiences. Dated film footage of the Canadian parliament buildings and other regional landscapes provided a visual curtain for Canadian opera star Teresa Stratus as she sings the rather bland "This is Canada." The film's story was questionable enough without this seemingly out-of-place musical sequence, but in retrospect, the lyrical introduction was more akin to a dirge than a film score. Stratus, who had a role in the film as a captured white woman living with the Sioux, blesses audiences with a "prairie aria" later in the film. It would be hard to imagine, with such melodic interludes during the film, that the Canadian West would ever be the same again. …