There are some hard to find and not-so-well-known films establishing the foundations of Canadian history among fur trappers, whiskey traders, missionaries, soldiers, and government representatives from France and Britain. First Nations people are generally seen only in the background being exploited for furs, plied with liquor and enlisted by one side or the other in the wars for possession of the Northeast colonies. The most notable of these early films is Hudson’s Bay (1941). There is a later film, with a much higher profile, that takes place in Québec at the time of the French and British war, also called the French and Indian War.
Nouvelle France / Battle of the Brave (2004)
Made in Québec, this is an epic tale of love set in 1758-1761, against the backdrop of the collapse of New France and the British take-over of Canada. It runs parallel to The Last of the Mohicans (1992), set in the same time period and with the same framework of colonial politics. Indian involvement is almost entirely ignored in this Canadian saga. In the foreground is the story of a headstrong young woman, named Marie Loup (sounds like Mary Lou) with a lovely young daughter, named France. The mother meets a French minor aristocrat named François, and she bewitches him. That is perhaps a poor choice of words because she is later accused of witchcraft and executed. In the background, the British are advancing on the St. Lawrence River, led by Major General Wolfe. They are now threatening Quebec and Montreal.
François is sent on an urgent mission, first to Switzerland where he confers with Voltaire in Geneva and then to Versailles to plead with Madame Pompadour, the influential mistress of Louis XV. Neither of these luminaries can muster any interest in the problems of Québec and François returns to Canada in defeat. Reuniting with Marie Loup, he finds that she has been deceived by their parish priest (Gérard Depardieu) into thinking she was abandoned and has been forced to marry a man who hates Indians, black slaves, and women. The lovers are briefly reunited and try to survive the devastation brought by the British. The bitter husband tries to kill Françoise and he is badly injured. In hiding, he is nursed back to health by friendly Indians in the forest. New France has fallen to the British, in 1763.
Marie Loup, meanwhile is charged with the murder of her hated husband. After a trial where she is sentenced to hang, she is led through the streets on a tumbrel, encased in iron bands. Her daughter watches from a window. The film is framed by a scene twenty years later where France visits the dying parish priest who confesses that it was his fault that Marie Loup died. France trumps him within an even more startling confession regarding her mother. There are many more complications in this movie than I have reported here. Scenes of French society in Québec, as well as brief glimpses of the courts of Britain and France, are sumptuously produced. It is well acted and well conceived, though somewhat overwhelmed by melodrama. This film cannot have been an altogether happy and affirming experience for the people of Québec. The wounds inflicted by this cultural dislocation have lived on into modern times and the issue of separation from British rule dominated Canadian politics in the 1960s and 70s. See the film, Trudeau, in Post-Paradigm Canada.
This trailer demonstrates that for this film, language is no barrier to appreciation.
Evangeline (1913 / 1919 / 1929)
There was a silent film called Evangeline made in 1913. It is considered “the first feature film of Canadian origin” (Cinemania). A 1919 version is attributed to Raoul Walsh. The 1929 version of the Longfellow poem features Delores Del Rio in the title role. None of these have been easily available. In 2014, I found the 1929 version on Netflix. Del Rio makes a lovely and substantial Evangeline while the supporting characters tend toward caricature. The effort to make the French Acadians seem like carefree and innocent villagers is overly sentimental. They are living at Grand Pre along the shores of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. The tone changes when the British government establishes harsh penalties for their refusal to fight on the British side in the war with the French over control of the colonies. The point is effectively made that the Acadians value the spirit of liberty and are resistant to repressive British rule. The British, on the other hand, see the Acadians as dangerous dissidents.
In 1750, the British decree the expulsion of the Acadians and the forfeit of all their lands and livestock. They are to be disbursed at ports all the way down the East Coast as far as Louisiana. In the confusion of the exodus, Evangeline is separated from her fiancé, Gabriel. Time is telescoped from this point forward as Evangeline searches across the United States – as far as the Mississippi – for her lost lover. Many years later, she finds him in a Philadelphia hospital dying of the plague. She sings to him as he expires. The American poet has favored the French point of view in this narrative.
Two movies that I was not able to find would have done nicely to fill some gaps in this cinematic history of Canada. The first was The World Turned Upside Down (1985), about colonists during the American Revolution who remained loyal to England and had to emigrate to Canada. Like Australia, Canada has remained under the British crown by choice from that day to this. The other movie was The Canadians (1961), about the years immediately following the defeat of Custer at the Little Big Horn. Sioux Indians have fled to Canada to avoid retribution from the US Cavalry. They negotiate with the Royal Northwest Mounted Police to remain on the Canadian PlaIns and permission is granted so long as they obeyed the laws of the country. Trouble arises when the mountaineers must defend the Indians after a group of murderous American ranchers massacre a Sioux village. The commander of the Mounties is played by Robert Ryan.
I continue to search for movies on the history and culture of Canada in more recent times. There are only two in my Archive, both from my ancestral home of Nova Scotia, around the time of World War II.
Shattered City (2003)
In December 1917 the city of Halifax endured the largest pre-atomic explosion in history. This movie laboriously chronicles the lives of people living or working in the city at the time. Among them are two German saboteurs plotting the progress of a ship loaded with TNT. They are losing the war and feel driven to desperate measures. In the end, however, the ship is detonated not by the single-minded efforts of the foreign agents but by the stupidity of the captains of the munitions ship and another vessel who collide in the harbor. The munitions ship catches fire and drifts to a wharf in the harbor. The blast, when it comes, has the look of a nuclear event. The citizens who survive wander the city in a daze. The problem is that there is no story to tell except for the incompetence of the men who rammed their ships (and that appears to be conjecture). All that is left is human-interest vignettes which here are sincere but amateurishly done.
Margaret’s Museum (1995)
Gritty Canadian film about life in a Cape Breton mining town at the northern tip of Nova Scotia. Helena Bonham Carter plays a misfit girl deeply embittered by the deaths of male family members in the mines. She creates a surreal museum in their memory. The uniqueness of the Canadian characters has been noted by critics.I saw this movie when it first appeared, but can’t find much in the usual sources.