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Hollywood's not-so-True North

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

I love watching the silver screen and feeling that jolt of recognition from my travels. When Harrison Ford and Sean Connery galloped through a towering cleft between ochre cliffs at the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it hit me: “That's the Siq,” I thought to myself, “the entrance to the ancient city of Petra in Jordan.”

In fact, I've reached the stage where I'll actually go to see a movie because of its setting. I liked City of Ghosts, actor Matt Dillon's directorial debut, because it conjured up so well the grotty, torpid atmosphere of Phnom Penh.

But confusion can arise when watching many of the Canadian-themed pictures that Hollywood cranked out over the first half of the 20th century. For the most part, it was quantity, not accuracy, that reigned supreme. Film buffs may remember a catchy 1954 sequence of a scarlet-coated Alan Ladd leading a troop of Mounties across the seminal Rockies postcard of Moraine Lake. The movie's title: Saskatchewan.

Admittedly, Alberta might have proved a less exotic title south of the border, but Hollywood would probably have got it wrong in any event. In his vastly entertaining and scholarly Hollywood's Canada, the late Pierre Berton noted that the Americans had turned out close to 600 features set in Canada from 1907 to 1951. On good days, they got the spelling right.

Moviegoers of the late 1940s and 1950s might have caught Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum up the creek on the River of No Return; Back to God's Country with Rock Hudson; James Stewart far from home in The Far Country; and Randolph Scott slinging his guns in The Cariboo Trail and Canadian Pacific. But the characters — lean men with fast guns, chesty saloon girls, snarling villains in flowered vests, bloodthirsty Indians, rampaging gold miners — were familiar American figures played by Americans. In fact, most of our “Northerns” are tellingly included in novelist Brian Garfield's guide Western Films.

The classic may be The Wild North, an enjoyable 1951 potboiler set somewhere in the Yukon. Enthralling scenery and manly heroics came festooned with credible Canadian elements: ferocious blizzards and roaring rivers, dogsled team and howling wolf pack, the Mountie and the fur trapper.

Although the Mountie played by Wendell Corey in The Wild North was second lead, Mounties have always been Hollywood's favourite Canadians. Nelson Eddy and Howard Keel were singing Mounties in black-and-white and Technicolor versions of Rose Marie. Over the years, Randolph Scott, Robert Preston, Dick Powell, Tyrone Power, Robert Ryan, Donald Sutherland, Lee Marvin and even Peter O'Toole donned the scarlet coat as movie Mounties. The death of the genre was The Canadians in 1961, a flop that consigned Canadians in general to Hollywood's back burners.

Since then, Canada, no longer considered a source of box-office appeal, would be left to home-grown filmmakers, from Don Shebib and Claude Jutra to Denys Arcand and Atom Egoyan. The Canada they offer up, is, for the most part, bleak even in its grandeur, its human landscape tempered with doubt, disappointment and melancholy. This year's Toronto International Film Festival is presenting a contingent of Canadian-themed films, from Julia Kwan's Eve & The Fire Horse to Michel Brault's Entré La Mère et l'eau douce.

Despite the inaccuracies, Hollywood's Canada was undeniably fun — the movie posters especially so. Usually more entertaining than the movies themselves, the posters conjure up a certain nostalgia for simpler times. If all things are cyclical, Hollywood is due to revisit Canada soon, only the Mounties will probably be doing the Musical Ride in the nude. Suggested title: The Full Mountie.

Here, then, are some of Hollywood's greatest achievements from the golden era of Canadian misrepresentation: Saskatchewan (1954)

“The saga of the conquest of the Saskatchewan Territory!” howls the poster copy, “. . .where the Royal Northwest Mounted Police stood alone against the fury of the Custer-massacring Sioux and the savage Cree Nation!” In reality, following the annihilation of Custer's cavalry at the Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull and the Sioux crossed into Canada without incident and settled down peacefully for several years. Not so in this lamely directed — by Raoul Walsh, who should have known better — western, in which more than the title is ludicrous: Mountie Alan Ladd prevents a bloodbath and rescues Shelley Winters, who was as at home on the trail as a moose on a mountain of poutine. American audiences flocked to it in great numbers, then got a real shock when they vacationed in Saskatchewan.

The Wild North (1952)

The Wild North boils over with action and scenery, and so what if it was shot in Idaho? The stew includes (a) a French-Canadian fur trapper falsely accused of murder; (b) a relentless Mountie in pursuit; (c) a gorgeous aboriginal maiden played by leggy Cyd Charisse; (d) a convincingly vicious pack of wolves; and (e) enough snow to give you a migraine. Swashbuckler Stewart Granger, trading his sword for buckskins and a toque, plays the trapper with flamboyance and a French-Canadian accent — “eh, babeeee!” — that might cause a riot in Quebec City today. The story was based on the real-life “Mad Trapper” case, which would be twisted out of shape again in 1981's Death Hunt, with tough guys Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin chewing up the Great White North.

Canadian Pacific (1949)

A predictable wheeze, this time with Randolph Scott as the railway surveyor blasting the Rockies, baddies and bloodthirsty Indians. Railway giant William Van Horne turns up as a minor character and any similarity to the nation-building epic of the Canadian Pacific Railway is purely coincidental. In this case, the truth would have been far more exciting than fiction, and to make matters worse, this nonsense was ballyhooed and accepted as history south of the border.

Back to God's Country (1953)

“Roaring out of the gale-lashed north. . .the saga of a mighty conquest!” Rock Hudson climbs into the dogsled for a snowbound stinkaroo in which the hero, fleeing frozen wastes and villains, is returning to God's Country, namely the United States. One of the co-stars is billed as Wapi, “that sensational wonder dog star!”

Quebec (1950)

History goes through Hollywood's meat grinder again as Quebec's 1837 Papineau rebellion is turned to pap. Gallic siren Corrine Calvet is the unlikely heroine “whose fire inflamed an army of frontiersmen to storm the continent's mightiest fortress.” The male lead was John Drew Barrymore, also known as John Barrymore Jr., whose sole contribution to the movies may be Drew Barrymore.

River of No Return (1954)

“Monroe meets Mitchum in the most savage wilderness of all the Americas!” Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe bring charisma to a tale of a widower and saloon singer on the run from outlaws and murderous redskins in the only western ever shot by director Otto Preminger. The script is cheesy, but the scenery, filmed on location in Alberta, holds its own against the curves and swells of Monroe. At one point, the star stayed at Jasper Park Lodge and was escorted from its restaurant for “inappropriate attire” — that is, cleavage to rival the Great Divide.

The Cariboo Trail (1950)

Randy Scott is again the fiery American who blasts his way through lawless British Columbia amid the gold fever of the 1860s. As Pierre Berton rightly insisted, this hogwash couldn't have happened in Canada because Gold Rush B.C. was, in reality, a surprisingly peaceable sort of place where a gun was rarely drawn. On the other hand, it's hard to dislike any movie where the venerable Gabby Hayes gets to say: “This is the Cariboo Trail, mister: a broken heart for every rock, a dead man for every tree.” Now that's dialogue.

Niagara (1953)

“Marilyn Monroe. . .a raging torrent of emotion that even nature can't control!” Adultery and murder in the honeymoon capital, shot on location by veteran director Henry Hathaway. Monroe is a scheming bimbo done in by deranged husband Joseph Cotten, who pays the price by going over the falls minus the barrel. The poster, with Monroe draped curvaceously around the Horseshoe Falls, almost succeeds in transforming Niagara into Viagra.

Pierre of the Plains (1942)

Forget the “plains.” Complete with the song Saskatchewan, a toque, an inebriated Indian sidekick named Crying Loon and an atrocious accent, French-Canadian guide Pierre, played by John Carroll, rides into the Rockey Mountain town of Moose Hill, Sask., to win the love of a saloon keeper named Daisy. Oddly enough, it was adapted from a stage play by Edgar Selywyn, who earlier on had fused his surname with that of his partner, Samuel Goldfish, to create Goldwyn Pictures, with Goldfish emerging as Samuel Goldwyn, all of which is more interesting than anything in this cheval opera.

Mrs. Mike (1940)

Loosely based on a true story of a Boston woman who married a Mountie and became “Mrs. Mike,” this likeable movie avoids the clichés and focuses on the hard life in the Great White North. A solid performance is turned in by pretty-boy-crooner-turned-tough-guy Dick Powel, who went on to distinguish himself as a director, producer and TV mogul. His credibility as a compassionate redcoat is anything but a snow job.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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