The 'Country-Retreat Challenge' Storyline |  Setting The Scene In Canada's Wilds
Canada being now the largest country in terms of area [since the USSR breakup], it is not surprising it is a popular setting for stories where protagonists in a backwater area must deal with some challenge, inherent or external. (It may also overlap with the 'castaway-survival' or 'frontiersman-conflict' storylines, depending on the plot.) Setting is also a matter of time-setting as well of place, and below, the works cited are listed under 10 headings representing historical developments.
(Note with the NFB productions listed below, most are viewable online on the NFB's own public-access site, and links are provided here, though you will need a 'Flash-friendly' browser such as Chrome, rather than Firefox.)
The Pre-Contact Era
Earliest in terms of time setting are stories set before the coming of the white man (to use the standard phrase), dealing with aboriginal tribal life. In 1914, the ethnographic photographer Edward S Curtis made a feature-length docudrama among the Kwakiutl [Kwakwaka'wakw] of the Northwest Coast of British Columbia.


Originally titled In The Land Of The Head Hunters, it was renamed In The Land Of The War Canoes when it was restored in the 1970s. The first feature made in British Columbia, and the oldest surviving feature film made in Canada, it was the first feature with an all-native cast. The plot revolves around inter-tribal warfare and the rituals relating to a young man's coming of age - his 'vigil journey' etc. as he hopes to marry.

Curtis spent over a year living among the tribe, which was based in the Queen Charlotte Strait region above Vancouver Island. Their society was very ritualistic but some of the customs depicted were already being lost and many of the canoes, masks and totem poles seen had to be made specially for the production. The film was a commercial failure and was completely lost until 1962, when a 16mm print was found in Chicago's Field Museum, which was then taken back to show the surviving participants. The work was reconstructed with their help. The restored version has authentic chanting and drumming as well as interpretative intertitles. [A version is online here.]

 
Films such as Curtis's are classed as 'salvage ethnography', meaning they document lifestyles that existed before European settlers forced or led then to change. Sometimes these could be filmed because the people continued to live a traditional lifestyle without modern amenities. This was the focus of Nanook Of The North [1922], the 2nd feature made with an all-native cast. Sponsored by a fur company, it became a worldwide hit. ... American filmmaker Robert Flaherty spent a year with an Inuit hunter based NE of Hudson Bay, capturing his 'happy-go-lucky' [sic] nomadic lifestyle on film - building an igloo, harpooning walrus on shore, fishing for seal through an ice-hole etc. Though the events are staged for the camera, the film was classed as the first 'documentary' (which really means a drama using authentic materials and situations). [Film online here.]

Although set in the modern-day [we see Nanook being shown a gramophone], the lifestyle shown is that of the pre-contact era. (The opening titles say Nanook himself died 2 years later, of starvation while trying to hunt deer in the interior.)

The 1994 drama Kabloonak (Inuit for "White Person") written by Sebastian Regnier and director Claude Massot, covers how Flaherty [played by Charles Dance] made Nanook in 1920, recreating some of the scenes illustrated here.

   
Starvation is also the main challenge facing the Ojibwa protagonists in The Silent Enemy (1930) filmed at Temagami Forest Reserve in northern Ontario, as part of a year-long expedition sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History. The 'foreground' story is again a romantic triangle [female lead may have to marry sinister older sorcerer if young brave cannot prove himself], but the story arc is authentic. The tribe must move north of the treeline into the Arctic Barrens to intercept the migrating caribou, which are no longer found in their forests. As Chief Yellow Robe says in his spoken introduction: "This is the story of my people. Now the White Man has come; his civilization has destroyed my people. ... But now this same civilization has preserved our traditions before it was too late; now you will know us as we really are. Everything that you will see here is real; everything as it always has been." The film itself is otherwise a silent, with intertitles and an organ score, the production having been overtaken by the arrival of the talkies. A narrated public-domain version is now also available, here and here.
   
   

The 'First Contacts' Era
The preceding films have all-native casts, while the 'first contact' films portray the arrival of the first white men on the frontier during the 18-19C and the impact it had on the local native people.
 
Valhalla Rising (2009)
It's accepted that the Viking Norse probably were the first white men to encounter the tribes of the coast and rivers of northeastern Canada, one of their settlements (c1000 AD), on the northern tip of Newfoundland, now being a World Heritage Site. The 2nd half of this Scandinavian film, a brutalist tale of culture shock, takes a group of Scots Christian zealots and their Norse companion across the sea to an unknown forested land.
... But, however convincing the landscape might appear onscreen, it's not
Newfoundland but Scotland we're seeing.


Episode 2 of the BBC's 1990 ecological history of North America Land Of The Eagle, 'Confronting The Wilderness', deals with the start of Canadian colonisation in the 17th C., via the St Lawrence seaway.  
 
Paul Kane Goes West [1972]
Irish-born Canadian painter Paul Kane travelled across Canada in the 1840s and created a unique visual record of Canada as it was in the fur-trade era. By the time photography arrived in the 1850s, many of the native peoples whose lifestyles he sketched were gone, or changed forever. He worked his field sketches into oil paintings which are the basis of this 14-min NFB film illustrated below. (Viewable online here.)
Black Robe (1991)
In the autumn of 1634, a young Jesuit priest sets out from the New France post which will become Quebec City at the head of the St Lawrence River estuary accompanied by an Algonquin group paddling 1500 miles into the land of the Hurons, to 'save' them from 'outer darkness' i.e. convert them. Cultural differences over attitudes to sharing and to sex lead to mutual incomprehension. The 'blackrobes' prove to be a self-denying death cult, and for the natives, harbingers of the death of their world. The film, adapted by Brian Moore from his novel, was shot in the Lac St Jean / Saguenay Region of Quebec.
[Various DVD issues as well as BluRay.]
  
   
  The White Dawn (1974)
This US/Cdn coproduction was inspired by a real 1890s incident where a trio of stranded whalers were adopted by an Inuit group on Canada's Baffin Island, but were eventually killed by them when their 'civilised' habits like drinking and gambling proved disruptive. Director Philip Kaufman, actors and crew spent 4 months on Baffin Island filming among the Inuit, who speak their own language, subtitled.
The film’s Canadian co-producer and co-scenarist, the author of the 1971 source novel, James Houston, was a dealer and promoter of Inuit art and heard about the fatal incident of the mittens from one of his contacts in the 1950s. The late date of the story’s setting, 1896, shows how ‘first contact’ events continued among the most remote groups until the 20C. [Issued on R1 DVD as part of Paramount's Widescreen Collection in 2004 - now out of print.]
 

The Fur Trade Era 
The rival French and English 'Fur Empires' of what became Canada were the de facto regimes for centuries. 
Historically, the most interesting figure in Canada's developing fur trade was Pierre Esprit Radisson (1636–1710), who lived among the Iroquois / Mohawks as well as working for both the French and English fur trade companies. He and his historical companion in adventure, his brother-in-law Médard des Groseilliers, helped both countries negotiate their way into the fur country accessed via Hudson's Bay, leading to the founding of the Hudson's Bay Company, which shaped so much of Canada's early history. His life would require an adult screen treatment (he was ritually tortured at one point), and unfortunately has not been well served by either of the two screen dramas based on his career so far. The 1941 Hollywood version, Hudson's Bay [screenshots below left], has him played [by Paul Muni] as a clownish buffoon, while Groseilliers has his name Anglicised as 'Gooseberry''. The only interest here is some location scenes, probably shot in California's eastern montane forests. The 1957-8 CBC TV bilingual serial version, called Radisson [screenshots below right] and retitled Tomahawk for the syndication market was Canadian tv's first attempt at an historical location-shot series, and it became famous only as a national embarrassment. (There was a hope it would be the equivalent of the then-popular Davy Crockett phenomenon, complete with theme song, 'Pee-air, Pee-air Radisson...') [trailer online here]

 
 
The Trap (1966)
Set in BC in the mid-19C, this widescreen British production written by David Osborn, a throwback to the old melodramas, was scenically exterior-filmed in SW BC. At a coastal trading post, a brutish French-Canadian fur trapper is sold a teenage servant girl as a wife to take back upriver to his cabin. She is already mute from the trauma of seeing her family burnt alive by Blackfeet ten years before. The depiction of the Indians as savages is a throwback, and every other menace the old North Woods melodrama can offer is also thrown in - cougar, bear, pack of wolves etc. (The wolves are actually police dogs, trained to attack and maul.) And the title, as well as being a plot metaphor, also refers to a bear trap which proves deadly.
[Only available on DVD in widescreen as a German import, the 2016 Pidax Film Klassiker release, which has an English-language option.]

 
 

The 'French & Indian War'
French-English fur-trade rivalry climaxed in a series of wars in the mid-18C. In their struggle to control eastern North America, both the French and British crowns utilised native tribes as allies. The affected tribes became auxiliary forces when the Seven Years War broke out in the 1750s, a situation familiar from works like Last Of The Mohicans.
Nearly all screen dramas so far have been set on the US side of the border [usually in NY state], though one or two were actually filmed in Canada, such as ITC's 1957 series Hawkeye And The Last of the Mohicans, filmed in Ontario, and the 1994-5 Steven J. Cannell series, created by Kim LeMasters, Hawkeye, filmed north of Vancouver.
One work that has a part-Canadian setting is MGM's Northwest Passage [1940], an early Technicolor film shot on location in Idaho, based on Book I of Kenneth Roberts's bestselling novel. The story takes an early Ranger unit of the British army north from their Vermont base to burn out a French-allied Abenaki village near Montreal. It is mainly factual, and viewers should note that it portrays attitudes of the frontier period rather than modern ones.

Above left and right: Northwest Passage [1940] The company called Rogers's Rangers must travel north into Canada, first by longboats (which at one point they have to haul over a neck of land), then on foot through swamp and forest to a tributary of the St Lawrence River above Montreal.
 
... The Rangers reach St Francis unobserved by forming a human chain to cross the St Francis River, and burn the enemy outpost. However the trek back is even tougher, with the superior French and Abenaki forces pursuing them. (Their actual route north can be seen in S3E2 of Ray Mears' Extreme Survival series, 2002, which includes re-enactment scenes.)
   

The Mounties
The North-West Mounted Police were founded in 1873 and mainly patrolled the central prairie provinces. Their current name, RCMP, was adopted in 1920 as by then they policed most rural parts of Canada, i.e. outside cities that had their own municipal police and provinces like BC, Ontario and Quebec that had provincial forces.
After Custer’s defeat in 1876, some of the Sioux fled north into Canada to avoid reprisals. The NWMP, founded only 3 years before and thin on the ground, let them settle peaceably, and there was no trouble. However that has not stopped writers building 'fact-based' plots around a fear the Sioux would ally with the local Cree and start a war. The first, Pony Soldier / MacDonald Of The Canadian Mounties (1952), is of no interest here as it is mainly set in Montana and shot in Arizona.
Saskatchewan (1954) was shot in Banff National Park. The film was released in the UK and Commonwealth as O'Rourke Of The Royal Mounted due to audiences there being more aware that Saskatchewan is the name of the ‘prairie province’ and nowhere near the Rocky Mountains which here form the backdrop to almost every shot. (The Saskatchewan River does flow east out of the Rockies, and the film’s opening title announces it is set in the ‘Saskatchewan River Country, Spring 1877’. Fort Saskatchewan was real enough but stood on the Prairies.) The story has the garrison abandon their fort [!] to convey a load of confiscated Cree rifles to Fort Walsh – which stood SE on the central Prairies, so they're heading the wrong way. The main appeal of the film is images of a troop of scarlet-coated Mounties against a spectacular background of mountains and glacial lakes.
 
The Canadians (1961) was authentically shot in the Cypress Hills near Fort Walsh, in the Province of Saskatchewan, and was vaguely inspired by the 1873 Cypress Hills Massacre which helped expedite the formation of the NWMP that year. Set in 1876, the fictional story has 3 Mounties trailing a posse of vengeful whites threatening the peace with the newly-arrived Sioux over a herd of stolen horses.
This scenic Cinemascope production is unfortunately not available on DVD and only shown on tv in poor quality, cropped 16mm prints.
The Riel Rising or North-West Rebellion of 1885 had actual historical battles in Saskatchewan, though the first film to use the rebellion as a background was completely fanciful. North West Mounted Police (1940), produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, who also narrates, has the Métis [he pronounces it 'Meatus'] defeated by Gary Cooper as Texas Ranger Dusty Rivers, up there to arrest a wanted man, by lassoing their Gatling Gun. None of it was shot in Canada, the only location work being 2nd-unit scenes filmed in Oregon.
The CBC's 1979 2-part drama Riel depicts the rebellion more authentically, as does CBC's 1974 documentary-drama series The National Dream. Both show how the Mounties were initially outgunned by the Métis (who were buffalo hunters), and then reinforced by redcoats from the military, accompanied by artillery and a Gatling Gun. The NWMP then return for the finale at Regina, where in a politicised trial, Riel is sentenced to hang as a traitor.

Left: Screenshots from CBC's 1979 Riel. Here, NWMP Superintendent Crozier leads his men to the confrontation which would become known as The Battle of Duck Lake. 

 

It was the coming of Technicolor that popularised the Mountie film: those red coats were irresistibly photogenic for the Technicolor camera.
Susannah Of The Mounties
(1939), set in the 1880s when the railway was just arriving, was actually filmed in b&w but is available today in a computer-colourised version, as shown at right.
Though unhistorical [see above panel], the one thing that DeMille's North West Mounted Police (1940) had going for it was its Technicolor filming [mouse over image to view 2nd still].

A real-life late-1890s incident, the 19-month pursuit of Almighty Voice, a young Cree who escaped arrest for slaughtering a cow and killed a pursuing Mountie, inspired the 1974 Canadian feature Alien Thunder / Le Tonnerre Rouge, released in the US as Dan Candy's Law, and other countries as Indian Killer. (Candy is the fictional name of the pursuing Mountie, portrayed by Donald Sutherland as a rather dim character.) The locations, in Saskatchewan, are authentic, and the RCMP cooperated in providing kit and personnel; the troop charge at the end is said to have helped inspire their famous Musical Ride, though historically it was unsuccessful (the 3 Cree runaways, dug in on a wooded bluff, were killed by supporting field artillery). At present, the film is sadly only available in a very poor-quality 16mm version, with its widescreen vistas cropped.  
The NWMP had a considerable presence in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-9. Despite the plot premise of the 1954 Hollywood film The Far Country (where a lone Mountie tells the victimised townspeople of Dawson they need to elect a sheriff until more NWMP arrive), they were not playing catchup, and had a border post at the top of the main pass to ensure nobody entered Canadian territory without a year's worth of supplies. They did hang around a dozen men over the next few years [see screenshots right from Discovery's 2014 Klondike series], but generally speaking they made sure the lawlessness common on the US side of the border (the port of Skagway) stayed on that side. (Film producers like to transfer Skagway lawlessness, including historical characters like Soapy Smith, to the Canadian city of Dawson.)
The real-life 1931 incident of the Mad Trapper Of Rat River, Northwest Territories, gave rise to several films where Mounties are depicted (less nobly, since the man they hunted is romanticised) in an epic manhunt. The only one to show anywhere close to the original area is a 1972 British tv docudrama, The Mad Trapper, shot largely in the Yukon and Alaska, which is also the only one to adhere to the basic facts of the manhunt. (This is not to be confused with 1975 US film variously titled Mad Trapper / Mad Trapper Of The Yukon / Challenge To Be Free.) The 1981 Death Hunt which like the 1975 film romanticises Albert Johnson into an animal-loving uber-hero, turns the original events inside out, to the point it's a ridiculous historical travesty. Highly scenic, it was shot partly in Banff National Park, and partly in New Mexico. It's available on DVD as an import. Several historical-mystery documentaries of the type shown on cable channels, incorporating reenactment scenes, have also been made since 2000.  

Mrs Mike [1949]
This is unlike other Mountie dramas in that there is no gunplay whatever, fights, or chases. 'Sergeant Mike', who narrates the drama, doesn't even wear a gun. The source is a 1947 bestseller, since become a cult YA novel, by Benedict and Nancy Freedman, in turn based loosely on a pioneer memoir by Katherine Flannigan (1889?-1954). She was a Boston teenager, sent to live with her uncle for health reasons, who in 1907 married a RNWMP sergeant, and shared his life at a post some 400 miles NW of Calgary and Edmonton, by dog-sled. After her husband died in 1944, she came south to LA, where she met the Freedmans, who turned her memoir outline into a romantic novel.
Where fact and fiction diverge here is a mystery. The film's time-setting is unspecified but from the source would be 1907-10; in reality till 1950 there were no Mountie posts in NE BC, so the real post must have been in Alberta or the Yukon, changed for legal reasons. Shot in b&w in California’s San Bernardino Mountains, the film omits or tones down the book's more gruesome scenes. The teenage Mrs Mike is also played by an actress twice her age. [DVD out of print.]

 

Right: A rare contemporary depiction of the RCMP operating in Alberta, from the 1941 propaganda film 49th Parallel [titled The Invaders in the US], made by Powell and Pressburger to help the war effort. There, the local Mounties take over the microphone at a ceremonial address during Banff's annual 'Indian Days,' to order the assembly to scrutinise their neighbours in the crowd for the presence of Nazi infiltrators on the run over various crimes committed as they headed west after their U-Boat is sunk in Hudson's Bay and the bush plane they hijacked crashes in Manitoba [see under Bush Pilots section below]. It was shot on location and the Mounties are probably real ones.

 

 
The most famous screen image, parodied in Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song skit, is that of the singing Mountie, popularised by the film adaptations of the 1924 Broadway musical Rose Marie. The main location work for the 1936 version was done in California, though the story seems set in Quebec. The 1954 colour widescreen version [below], set at an RNWMP post somewhere near Peace River, has exteriors shot in the Canadian Rockies, in Jasper National Park. [Both on DVD; 1954 trailer here.]
 

The Coming Of The Trans-Canada Railroad

Left: Canadian Pacific [1949] - The one authentic aspect of this colour 'northwestern' starring Randolph Scott as a CPR troubleshooter is the location filming in the Rockies on the BC-Alberta border, in Banff National Park [Alberta] and Yoho National Park [BC]. [On DVD.]

The Great Barrier / Silent Barriers (1937)
Based on a 1935 Canadian novel, this Gaumont-British production was the first to dramatise the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway through the mountains of BC, and was almost all shot on location around Revelstoke. The last act deals with the finding of Rogers Pass through the Selkirk Mountains by surveyor Major AB Rogers. This is presented as a last-minute solution to resolve a CPR financial impasse, with the unpaid, stranded railhead crews about to mutiny and burn the town.
This compresses the time frame and exaggerates events into a stock melodrama (the young hero, out to impress the boss’s daughter, saves the day), but it is inspired by actual events. (We even see CPR/Government board meetings.) Note that although the film originally ran only 83 minutes,the US release version titled Silent Barriers is shorter by around 20 mins. [No DVDs, apparently.]
The National Dream: Building The Impossible Railway [1974]
The real history of the CPR, 1871-85, would not appear on screen until this 8-hr CBC docudrama series, presented by author and broadcaster Pierre Berton from his books. 
... Note that there are many scenes set in Parliament; the main outdoors or wilderness scenes are found in Episode 1: The Great Lone Land and Episode 6: The Sea Of Mountains. (No DVD set yet available to the general public, only to schools.)
   
The Grey Fox [1982]
In 1901, Southern-born stagecoach robber Bill Miner, the "gentleman bandit" credited with inventing the phrase "Hands Up!", was released after 33 years in jail only to find the railroad has replaced the stagecoach. He relocated over the border to BC, where his decision to rob the CPR made him a folk hero. They were unpopular due to their high freight rates ("He only robs the CPR and the CPR robs us every day"). Written by John Hunter, director Philip Boursos’s quiet, leisurely realist drama, a labour-of-love project, was filmed on location in all weathers and using only natural light around Southern BC. It used extant frontier-era buildings at Tulameen, Coalmont, Ashcroft, Douglas Lake, Fort Steele (portraying 1900s Kamloops), and surviving steam-train lines like the BCR near Lillooet.
After a botched 1906 train holdup, a large-scale manhunt was mounted and he was caught on foot by a a posse of Mounties on Douglas Lake Ranch, where he was revealed to be popular ranch hand ‘George Edwards’. He soon vanished again, to widespread belief (questions in Parliament) the CPR arranged his prison escape, in the hope he would lead them to his buried CPR loot. [Issued on DVD, but now out of print.]
The Railrodder [National Film Board of Canada 1965]
Written and directed by Gerald Potterton, this is a 24 min. surreal, comedic travelogue starring Buster Keaton in his final silent film. A newspaper ad to 'See Canada' prompts him to swim the Atlantic, from where he steals a 'speeder' [rail maintenance vehicle] and heads for the Pacific, 4000 miles away. The film shows the CPR, CNR and other adjoining lines. The film is viewable online here.
 
   

The Klondike Gold Rush
The 1897-99 Gold Rush to the Klondike district of Canada's Yukon Territory excited the imagination of millions for its prospect of adventure at a time when the traditional Western frontier had closed. Fewer than a hundred thousand men actually reached the gold fields, and almost none got rich, but millions were soon able to enjoy vicarious adventure through the works of writers such as Jack London, Rex Beach, and Robert Service.
City Of Gold (NFB 1957)
The Klondike took its name from a tributary of the Yukon River near Dawson City. Dawson became a boom town as the main jumping-off point for treks to the gold fields, and the Yukon Territory's capital 1898. This docu was made by the National Film Board Of Canada, headed by John Grierson (the Scotsman who basically coined the word documentary). The NFB would win more awards than any other such body. Nearly all its films were shorts, running under half an hour.
... This example was written and narrated by broadcaster, columnist, and popular historian Pierre Berton (1920-2004), author of the nonfiction book Klondike, who was born in the Yukon and grew up in Dawson after the Gold Rush had passed by. By then, the town had become a backwater, with the capital moved to Whitehorse when the railway arrived. Made long before Ken Burns established the use of old photos as the basis of documentary films, it's effective for its authentic, reflective personal approach. City Of Gold is available online here.
Although there are many Klondike dramas, the earlier ones concentrate on the physical challenge of the newcomers' gruelling trip upcountry from Dawson City on the Yukon River, and their struggle to survive there while they dig or pan for gold on their claim, often in freezing conditions. Later, when the gold rush was over, the Klondike and Yukon were valued for the rugged independent lifestyle they offered - if you could survive there.

American author Jack London lived in the Dawson area 1897-8. Note that the 1980 Klondike Fever, filmed in BC [mostly around Barkerville], which purports to dramatise London's own experience visiting the gold fields, is fictional. Based on stories he heard there about the often grim fates of chechaquos [newcomers in Chinook Jargon], he wrote a around two dozen short stories, collected as Klondike Tales, some of which were later filmed for tv. The most famous, To Build A Fire, was filmed by the BBC in 1969, and the director's followup series of 6 tales filmed in Ontario, again narrated by Orson Welles, was produced by CBC-TV in 1981, as Jack London's Tales Of The Klondike.

Jack London also wrote two famous Klondike-set novels about dogs - The Call Of The Wild [1903] and White Fang [1906], both of which have been filmed umpteen times. In the first, a sled dog eventually goes feral, going off to live with a female wolf. In the second, a wolf-dog (a wolf-malamute cross) eventually returns to the human who helped raise him.
With White Fang, it's difficult to find a single version shot in Canada. With The Call Of The Wild, earlier productions like the 1935 version were shot in the US, while the 1972 one was shot in Finland; the 1993 tv-movie version however was shot in BC [see screenshots right], mainly in the Quesnel area, and an upcoming 2019 version is also listed as having exteriors shot in BC.
Below left and right, screenshots from the best-known screen versions of the two canine-adventure novels. [1] The Call Of The Wild (1935), with Clark Gable as Buck's onetime owner, and [2] White Fang (1991), with Ethan Hawke as the human who treats him kindly. Though not filmed here, both stories are mainly set in the Canadian Yukon. 



 
Besides the Jack London tv series mentioned above, there have been several Klondike tv series set on the Canadian side of the border. (Most US productions are set on the lawless US side, in Skagway.) The 3-part 1982 CBC miniseries I Married The Klondike was based on a 1961 book by Laura Beatrice Berton, mother of Pierre Berton [see his City Of Gold, above], who lived in Dawson 1907-32. This largely consists of town scenes with the 'wilderness' scenes shot in Ontario. However, the most recent, Discovery's 6-hr 2014 Klondike [see screenshots right], the nature channel's first scripted drama series, was shot here. Based on Charlotte Gray’s novel Gold Diggers, it was filmed in the foothills of the Rockies around Kananaskis Country park system, where a town set representing 1897-8 Dawson was built on a ranch west of Calgary.  

The "North Woods" Melodrama
This was a 20th-C genre, portraying the North Woods as a modern-day adventure playground where dangers, adventures and romances awaited. It was largely pioneered by the Michigan-based writer James Oliver Curwood, who made trips into the Canadian 'bush' from 1909.
 His stories, often featuring animal characters, made him the world's richest author. Wikipedia lists 18 film adaptations, the most popular being Back To God's Country (1919). Curwood's own story was called Wapi The Walrus, but Canadian star Nell Shipman, who was also a writer, had the film retitled to exploit her previous Curwood adaptation, God's Country And The Woman (1915). The 1919 production, shot partly around Lesser Slave Lake in NW Alberta, qualified as Canada's first feature film; it became the most successful silent film in Canadian history. This was largely because its producer, Ernest Shipman, promoted the fact his leading lady [and wife] appeared discreetly nude in a river-bathing scene. Nell then divorced Ernie and set up her own production company, making The Girl From God’s Country (1921), which she produced, wrote, co-directed and starred in before her new independent company went bankrupt over difficulties on its next production. Lost for nearly 60 years, till a pair of prints surfaced, Back To God's Country was restored in the mid-80s, and since made available online.
Below: Screenshots of Back To God's Country's famous 'nude' scene. Note that one of the two men spying on her is a Mountie.
   

Curwood’s novel Nomads Of The North was adapted in 1961 by the Disney studio as Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North. The story has French-Canadian trapper characters but it was filmed in the Rockies around Kananaskis. The title character is a young female part wolf/malemute cross, who is tethered to an orphaned black-bear cub by a trapper. When his canoe overturns, the pair must negotiate their own way through the wilds.
[DVD currently out of print.]
The most recent Curwood adaptation of note is a version of his 1916 The Grizzly King, which French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud and writer Gérard Brach adapted as L’Ours / The Bear [1988]. The film version is set in BC in the 1880s, but was filmed in the Italian and Austrian Dolomites.
The scene where the grizzly corners the hunter but does not kill him is said to have been based on a key incident in Curwood's own life while hunting in BC, which changed him from a typical trophy hunter of the time into more of a live-and-let live conservation-minded type. The end-credits quote, from Curwood's novel, says "The greatest thrill is not to kill but to let live."
 

The Bush Pilot Era
The advent of commercial services using planes equipped with pontoon-floats [in summer] and ski-skids [in winter]
opened up nearly the entire North. Destinations that would have taken weeks or even months could now be reached in a day. The bush pilot became a genre figure, with the first feature shot entirely in Western Canada being a hit drama, Wings Of Chance (1961), about a downed pilot, filmed in Jasper National Park. Crashes would become the plot mainstay of the bush-pilot drama. Crashes were and are a real hazard, and the one in the 1982 film Mother Lode [screenshots below left], where a DHC2 Beaver floatplane flips over landing on a BC lake was unplanned, and shows how misjudging height over water can be disastrous. The 'bird strike' and immediate crash-dive into a lake in the 1997 film The Edge, shot in the Canadian Rockies [screenshots below right] is more a plot contrivance to set up a castaway-survival scenario.
WW2 was when bush pilot flights first appeared onscreen, in films like the 1941 US production, filmed in eastern Canada, about bush pilots joining the RCAF, Captains Of The Clouds, the first feature length Hollywood production filmed entirely in Canada.
The same year came the 1941 Powell-Pressburger British production, shot on location across Canada, 49th Parallel [US title: The Invaders]. There, a surviving shore party from a U-boat raider sunk at Cape Wolstenholme [Quebec] at the mouth of Hudson's Bay by RCAF bombers hijacks an HBC Fairchild floatplane to escape to the then-neutral US. It runs out of fuel and crashes in a Manitoba lake, in a scene that nearly drowned one of the actors.


The reality of bush pilot life is the subject of two NFB documentaries, both available to view online.
Bush Pilot: Reflections On A Canadian Myth [1980] is a 22-minute documentary shot in northern Manitoba, which “explores the myth of the bush pilot as a heroic and iconic figure in the Canada's north.”
Bush Pilot - Into The Wild Blue Yonder [2000] is a 48-minute documentary following the bush pilots of northern Quebec.
Hey I'm Alive (1975)
This is a fact-based tv movie filmed in the Yukon where the 1961 crash happened, the director having covered the news story for Life magazine. The pilot and female passenger had to survive over 7 weeks in the bush as he had gone off course from Whitehorse and the official search was in the wrong place.

Never Cry Wolf (1983)
This is a free adaptation of Farley Mowat's fact-based 1963 novel about a government researcher dropped off in the bush to study wolves as predators. The cynical bush-pilot character is his only point of contact with so-called civilisation - which he eventually rebels against. Filmed in NW BC, the Yukon and Alaska (the actual story setting is - no doubt deliberately - ambiguous).

Above, and below, left and right - Never Cry Wolf.

The Snow Walker (2003)
The protagonist of this award-winning film is a bush pilot in the Northwest Territories who revises his limited worldview after being stranded on the Arctic tundra with a native Inuit woman. It’s based on 'Walk Well, My Brother', a short story by Farley Mowat, plus motifs from some of his other stories. After the success of the film of Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf, Mowat invited its star Charles Martin Smith to choose any of his stories to adapt and direct. The landscape we see here is a mix of Rankin Inlet [Nunavut] and Churchill [Manitoba] for the tundra scenes, plus the Thompson plateau in the BC Interior for the caribou hunt scenes [using a captive local herd].
[Issued on DVD, but out of print.]
 

The ‘Back To The Land’ Movement
As modern urbanisation prevailed, the focus shifted from 'conquering' the wilderness to valuing and protecting it. The Canadian wilderness became where you went to 'get in touch with yourself' (as PM Pierre Trudeau put it in the 1970s when he would go off alone canoeing). Canoeing has become something of national wilderness recreation, as exemplified in the NFB films of Bill Mason, such as his last, Waterwalker, filmed on Lake Superior, and online here.
   
Above - Morning On The Lièvre: One of Canada's ‘Confederation Poets’, Archibald Lampman became one of the first to depict the wilderness not as the menacing 'North Woods' but a place of tranquility, ideal for canoe trips. He died in 1899 age 37, 'Morning On The Lièvre' remaining his most famous work [‘Softly as a cloud we go, Sky above and sky below, Down the river’]. This 13-minute 1961 NFB short illustrates a canoe trip down a Quebec river, originally taken c1890 by Lampman with a fellow poet. [Online here.]  
Painting also had an impact on public appreciation of Canada's wilderness for its aesthetics, rather than for its commercial value. A pioneering movement here was the Group Of 7 alias the Algonquin School, of whom Tom Thomson (1877–1917) was a founding member - though he drowned while canoeing before the Group was officially formed. He is the basis for the character 'Tom McLeod' in the 1976 independent Canadian feature The Far Shore, by Joyce Wieland, herself a painter. There, he is the ahead-of-his-time environmentally aware figure opposing logging in northern Ontario. (Some have even suggested Thomson himself was hit over the head and left to drown because he annoyed the wrong people.) The plot has the protagonist, unhappy wife of a Toronto engineer, run off with the painter only for the husband to have him hunted down.
The NFB, whose mandate is 'to interpret Canada to Canadians and to other nations', made other films celebrating a back-to-the-land mythos.

The documentary Nahanni [online here] follows an oldtime prospector's annual summer trek up the Nahanni River to a legendary gold diggings he has never been able to find, and which has had fatal consequences for over a dozen others.
Below left, and right: Nahanni [1962], scripted by novelist William Weintraub with music by Eldon Rathburn.

NFB films also celebrated or documented 'bushcraft' and other outdoor skills.
Below:[1] Corral (1954) is a lyrical look (no narration, only a guitar score) at a cowboy taming a mustang and taking it for a gallop in the foothills of the Rockies. [2] Cattle Ranch [1961], filmed south of Kamloops BC, shows the life of the modern cowboy.

Drylanders [1962]
This tale of the first generation of Canadian prairie wheat farmers, prompted to head west in the 1900s by the Dominion Government's offer of 160 acres for $10, became at 70 mins the NFB’s first feature film, shot around Swift Current, Sask. and set 1907-39. [viewable online here]



Below: The hour-long 1974 docu Cree Hunters Of Mistassini [online here] follows 3 families as they set up winter hunting camps in an area threatened by the James Bay hydroelectric project, and shows their traditional bushcraft in detail.


'Grey Owl' was an Englishman, Archie Belaney (1888-1938), who emigrated to Canada in 1906 and reinvented himself as a half Indian figure promoting conservationist values. In the 1930s, he wrote articles and books starting with Men of the Last Frontier [which he originally titled The Vanishing Frontier], and went on international lecture tours, where he would describe the northern wilderness as "a land of shadows and hidden trails, lost rivers and unknown lakes. And there is silence... intense, absolute and all-embracing".
The 1999 biopic Grey Owl, scripted by William Nicholson, covers mainly 1934-6, with earlier scenes in the mid-20s of him becoming involved with his partner Anahareo, who convinced him trapping was cruel and to raise a pair of orphaned beaver kits. (Grey Owl has been credited with making the beaver the national symbol of Canada.) Scenes of him hunting and trapping and living among the Ojibwa were filmed in Quebec, and the scenes of his gov't post at a national park in Saskatchewan, where officials filmed him at his cabin caring for tame beaver, were shot in the original locale.
[A very respectful biopic which glosses over his bigamy and drunkenness, the film was adjudged too low-key a drama for a US theatrical release, but is available on R1 and R2 DVD.]

Campbell's Kingdom [GB 1957]
Adapted by Hammond Innes and Robin Estridge from Innes's novel, this is about Britisher Bruce Campbell, who is told he has an incurable disease and has only 6 months to live and so heads off to spend his remaining time supervising a property with oil prospects, which he inherited from his grandfather, in the Canadian Rockies. He needs to find oil there before a nearby dam is completed, which will flood the area. However all is not what it seems here: those are not the Canadian Rockies but the Italian Dolomites you're seeing.

[Available on DVD and Bluray.]
The Best Damn Fiddler From Calabogie To Kaladar [1968]
This drama about a family subsisting in the Ottawa River Valley [the place names in the title are real] was another of the NFB's excursions into 'feature' filmmaking, this time for tv. (Its 49 minute length is to fit a one-hour commercial tv slot - though CBC refused to show it until after it had won multiple awards.) The father is a bush worker in a logging community who refuses to take up more regular employment, causing family difficulties. [Film online here.]
Lost In The Barrens (1990)
This made-for-tv family feature is loosely based on a popular 1956 children's novel by Farley Mowat aka Two Against The North. It is set in northern Manitoba near the treeline where the sub-arctic Barren Lands begin. In 1935, a spoiled city boy is sent to live with his fur-trapper uncle and is stranded with a Cree youth while on an autumn hunting trip northward. When their canoe is wrecked, they must wait for the winter freezeup to cross the Barrens muskeg on foot.
Note that the geography is compressed: Lake Winnipeg, where the uncle’s cabin stands ten miles from the railroad, is nowhere near the Barrens, and another out-of-place anomaly is a Viking tomb that is the subject of the novel’s also-filmed sequel, Curse Of The Viking Grave. [Available on DVD.]
The Last Trapper / Le Dernier Trappeur [2004]
Written and directed by Nicolas Vanier, this is an ‘old-school’ documentary which enacts or re-enacts events for the camera to portray a year in the life of trapper Norman Winther and his wife living in a remote cabin in the Yukon.
[Available on DVD and Bluray.]  
 
Temples Of Time
The NFB, ahead of its time again, even did a narration-less music video version of an ecological documentary in 1973, with a 26-min montage of wildlife and seasonal shots, filmed in the Rockies and in Garibaldi Park in southern BC, all set to muzak-y instrumentals; the wildlife imagery eventually gives way to images of nature under threat from Man. It's online here.
 
   
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  [c] Storylines In Review 2019