Burt Kennedy’s directorial debut is quite the curiosity, to say the least. The Canadians, a 1961 western that seems loosely based on the history of the Northwest Mounted Police. The ragtag Canadian police force eventually became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and it’s up to Kennedy to wrangle the yarn into something resembling cinematic magic.
Hollywood had an early interest in Canada, with movies like Lucien Hubbard’s Rose-Marie (and its subsequent adaptations) set in America’s hat. David Hartford’s 1919 film Back to God’s Country was remade by Joseph Pevney in 1953, with Rock Hudson as the star. But The Canadians represents a sort of honourable vision of the nation’s law and order, especially when it comes to holding off the Americans.
After blessing the audience with an odd overture called “This is Canada,” The Canadians plunges into its exposition and reveals that the Sioux nation has crossed the line into Canada after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Inspector William Gannon (Robert Ryan) of the Northwest Mounted Police is sent to intercept the Sioux with the mission of informing then that they can remain under the protection of the Queen.
The Sioux must obey the laws of the land and they’ll be protected by the Canadians, but any trouble will undo the arrangement and the tribe will have to cross back down to the United States. US rancher Frank Boone (John Dehner) rolls into Canada to hunt down the Sioux he believes stole his horses. The Canadians and Americans clash, with a white squaw (Teresa Stratas) in the balance.
The historical accuracy of The Canadians makes for an interesting muddle because it’s not based on any one particular event. Gannon is probably based on James Morrow Walsh, who was one of the original officers of the Northwest Mounted Police. Walsh set up a post in what would become Saskatchewan and developed a friendship with Sitting Bull.
In The Canadians, Gannon isn’t quite a giant of history but he is given a unique task. He takes Master Sergeant McGregor (Torin Thatcher) and Corporal Springer (Burt Metcalfe) with him and the hope is that the Sioux will be receptive to their offer. They meet Chief Four Horns (Michael Pate) and things are tense, at least at first, but an apprehensive peace is brokered.
Kennedy’s motion picture doesn’t play this as a major historical moment as it happens, but the framing of his picture is curious and rather amusing. It opens with the aforementioned “This is Canada” and plays a string of modern footage that introduces the viewer to Canada. There are shots of the parliament buildings and the opera star really belts it out.
Stratas gets a chance to sing again in The Canadians, with one aria belted out to her child. She plays an interesting character as a young woman “kidnapped” by the Sioux. She tells Gannon she hated them at first, but eventually grew to find her place with the tribe. She had a child, found a companion, formed a life. When the Americans come to rescue her, she’s not exactly receptive.
The Americans are the villains of Kennedy’s picture and there is a sense that their marauding violence is seen as uncivilized by the Canadians. When Corporal Springer discusses the contrasts between the US and Canada with one of the cowboys, there is talk of guns and the dialogue seems particularly prescient.
It’s hard to argue that The Canadians is a top-tier western, but it does have a few highlights. The cinematography of Arthur Ibbetson makes good use of the Saskatchewan location shooting and the movie’s narrator insists on informing the audience that things are at least geographically authentic.
But the performances are relatively rigid in an almost classical fashion, even with Ryan’s mustering of last-day courage, and the action sequences are mediocre. The song is hysterical and Kennedy’s presentation is well-meaning but almost defiantly daft. Even as The Canadians undermines the valiant American taming of the West, it falters as a cinematic experience.