Thursday, December 01, 2011


Movie Poster

One of the "joys" of being a Canadian is taking pleasure in how ignorant Americans are of Canada and of course at the same time being annoyed at the ignorance.

But then loving and hating the good old USA as been a Canadian pass time that long predates the existence of either Canada or the United States. It in fact goes back to New France and the English colonies. At that time Canada was French, (Of Course!), semi-Feudal, Catholic and of course controlled by England's great enemy France.1

The old antagonism that goes back to the Reformation when England became Protestant and the Counter Reformation that ensured that France would remain Catholic and of course the preexisting antagonism that goes back to the Hundred Years War and before then right back to the Conquest of England in 1066 C.E.2

In Canada we had the Catholic French followed by the settlement after the American Revolution of those who rejected the revolution, the Loyalists. The War of 1812, the Fenian raids etc.3

Canada was born out of fear of being absorbed by the United States, a nation Canadians in general both admire and loathe. The resulting schizoid attitude in Canada is both very funny and compulsively annoying. Of course with the exception of French Canadians Canadians are by and large not that different from Americans, but telling a Canadian that can get you into a fight. Canada is generally defined by what it is not and one thing it is most definitely not is the USA.4

Occasionally the USA dines to acknowledge it's larger sparsely populated Northern neighbour and sometimes that comes to the form of movies.

So in 1975 Pierre Berton, then English Canada's resident popular historian wrote a hilarious book called Hollywood's Canada.5 The book was a look at how Hollywood conceived of Canada and has you would expect Hollywood made a complete hash of it.

Let us list a few examples from the book.

One of the most amusing examples is the "Snow" picture. Now in the early years of film making air conditioning was shall we say very rare. People on hot summer days longed to be cool. So if they could not be actually cool they could pretend to be cool.

So they sat in a dark theatre and watched an adventure in ice and snow to cool off. So was born the "Snow" picture which existed for the sole purpose of helping people feel cool on hot days by providing lots of video of cold, ice and snow. Most of the time of course it was fake and filled with actors in thick hot clothing on hot sound stages covered in fake ice and snow, but the audience could still delightfully shiver feeling in their minds all that cold.

Of course Canada being considered the land of ice and snow and blinding bitter cold was the location of many of those "Snow" pictures. Which helped to cement many Americans views of Canada as a land of cold. No doubt helping to give rise to that old Canadian staple of the American arriving in July with skis.6

Aside from the "Snow" picture Canada in film after film was portrayed with cliche after cliche and a heaping helping of stereotypes.

Thus we get the happy go lucky French Canadian. In film after film we got the eternally cheerful, usually a little dim and full of passion French Canadian. Most commonly he would be a trapper / woodsman but almost always cheerful. And he would mangle English with an exaggerated accent and usage. The female of the species was less common but no less passionate and HAPPY. Frequently he would be a comic sidekick. Of course virtually any reference to actual present day French Canada would be rigorously excluded. Perhaps the most absurd rendition of this stereotype is the portrayal of Olivia Dionne, father of the Dionne Quintuplets has a simple-minded airhead who didn't know were babies came from in the movie The Country Doctor.7

We also get Hollywood Indians, including such gems as Blackfoot Indians burning people at the stake, which they never did, Woodland Cree, living in Plains Indian Teepee's. Of course the Indians are always threatening to go on the war path which in reality they hardly ever did.8

But of course the height of sublime idiocy is the Mountie movie. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have been the victim of more than just Dudley Do Right, which had at least the merit of being funny. Instead we get the Mounties has gun blazing men who motto is "We always get our man", except that was never the Mounties motto and the use of guns was traditionally frowned upon. Mounties preferred to talk opposition away and use straight dealing.

In fact the Mountie motto is Maintiens le Droit, (Yes it is in French.), which means uphold the right / Law. And of course we got acres of Mountie movies with them running about in their red coats, while chasing down their bad guys. Well Hollywood those red coats are DRESS uniforms. We also got Mounties dressed in red uniforms with fur hats in July.9

And of course one cannot forget about the infamous film Rose Marie, with its blond blue eyed Indian princesses and some of the most saccharine love duets ever. "When I'm calling Yoooooooooouuuuuuuuu", UGH!!10

And then we get the American western transferred to Canada. We get movies that take place during the Klondike gold rush that have gun belts, stetsons, draw gun fights and other stuff that never occurred in Dawson during the gold rush.

Sam Steele, (Yes that's a real name of a real person.), ran Dawson like a police state. Murders were few, swearing was proscribed, the brothels strictly regulated, and all taverns closed from midnight on Saturday night to midnight on Sunday night in keeping with the Sabbath. Sam and his crew of Mounties kept the peace with hardly ever using a gun. Sam himself hated the things. Drunks were thrown in jail to cool off, loudmouths and swearers jailed, disputes almost never got violent, because the Mounties and the constabulary were there to make damn sure it didn't.

Sam Steele doesn't make it into any Hollywood film about the Klondike.11

As the above indicates Hollywood as per usual mangles history. Of course one particularly absurd piece of nonsense is North-West Mounted Police by Cecil B. DeMille, (1940). The movie is an absurd confection with a certain Jacques Corbeau masterminding the entire North-West Rebellion of 1885 in order to sell more whisky to the Indians.

Aside from the use of another dull stereotype,  the half-breed villain, which in this film is Jacques Corbeau; the history is thoroughly mangled. Among other falsehoods the movie has Jacques who never existed in it and no-one played anything like his role in the rebellion. Then it has Jacques firing a Gatling gun on the Mounties, when in reality the gun was fired by Canadian forces on the rebels. It turns Louis Riel into a weak puppet, which is totally wrong. Oh and the movie has the North-West Mounted Police, (Original name of the Mounties.), crush the rebellion by themselves. Uh no! It was several thousand troops sent west from central Canada that crushed the revolt.12

During all of this Cecil B. DeMille was talking about how historically accurate his movie was. Hollywood can lie, can't it!

"Well its been fun Hollywood but frankly my Dear I like it better when you don't give a damn!"

1. See Costain, Thomas B, The White and the Gold, Doubleday Canada Ltd, Toronto, 1970.

2. See Howarth, David, 1066, Penguin Books, London, 1977, Wood, Michael, In Search of England, University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 1999, pp. 3-22, Dickens, A.G, The English Reformation, Fontana, London, 1964.

3. See Lipset, Seymour Martin, Revolution and Counter-Revolution, Revised Edition, Anchor Books, New York, 1970, pp. 37-76, & Continential Divide, Routledge, New York, 1990, Bothwell, Robert, The Penguin History of Canada, Penguin Books, London, 2006, pp. 91-148.

4. IBID, Lipset & Adams, Michael, Fire and Ice, Penguin Books, London, 2003.

5. Pierre Berton died in 2004. Berton, Pierre, Hollywood's Canada, McClelland and Stewart Ltd, Toronto, 1975.

6. IBID, pp. 47-56.

7. IBID, pp. 79-85, 203. The best book about the Dionne quintuplets is Berton, Pierre, The Dionne Years, McClelland and Stewart, 1978.

8. Berton, 1975, pp. 101-108. See Wilson, Garrett, Frontier Farewell, University of Regina, Regina, 2007.

9. Berton, 1975, pp. 109-166.

10. IBID, pp. 127-128, 137-139.

11. IBID, pp. 46, 82-83, 113, 211-216. The best book about the Klondike gold rush is again, Berton, Pierre, Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, NcClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1958.

12. Berton, 1975, pp. 146-166. Two books on what actually happened during the North-West rebellion are Beal, Bob, & Mcleod, Rod, Prairie Fire, Second Edition, Mclelland and Stewart, 1994, Morton, Desmond, The Last War Drum, Hakkert, Toronto, 1972.

Pierre Cloutier

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