Back to God's Country
1919, Starring Nell Shipman, Charles Arling, Wheeler Oakman, Peter Burke and Wellington A. Playter. Directed by Ernest Shipman.
Some films reviewed on this site are quite obviously B-movies, while others have a slightly less obvious connection to Canuxploitation. While critically lauded on release, the early silent movie Back to God's Country is such am effort that had a significant impact on the seedier side of Canadian film.
Although a recognizable feature film industry in Canada was relatively unformed until the 1960s, there were several silent features made in Canada after the turn of the century. Many are lost forever, but a print of Back to God's Country was recently found in Europe, restored and re-released. Probably the earliest Canadian movie anyone today will ever see, this popular film was re-made twice by Hollywood. Canadian critics were excited by the discovery of a lost cultural treasure, and much praise has been heaped upon Nell Shipman, the star of the film. Hailed as a true renaissance woman, Nell wrote a couple of books and went on to star in several silent pictures at a time when women weren't commonly seen in films. Those are not reasons that this melodramatic potboiler grossed three times it's original cost.
Back to God's Country is all about lurid promises of nudity. That's right, this "cultural treasure" set a Canadian box office record by briefly showing Nell (apparently) naked in one scene. Of course Nell does an excellent job of covering herself (and was supposedly wearing some kind of bathing suit anyway), but that makes this film a classical exploitation film: it deals with a taboo, and it was made outside of Hollywood. Although forbidden subjects such as nudity, drugs, and venereal disease were banned under self-imposed regulations in Hollywood film, this niche was quickly filled by the exploitation film directors who showed the objectionable scenes and then justified them with a "square up." This was a scene at the end of a film which either condemned the behaviour depicted or claimed the film makers were only acting in the interest of educating their audience.
Nudity in film was not as rare as you might think in the movie houses of 1919, but it was definitely not common. Note the original advertising at right which achieves a double purpose--to reassure theatre owners that the nudity presented in Back to God's Country is tasteful, while also exploiting audience expectations of illicit flesh.
The long, winding plot of Back to God's Country begins when an explorer named Peter Burke happens upon a man and his daughter living in a small hut in the woods of Northern Canada. Peter arranges for a few days lodging, but soon falls in love with Dolores, the man's daughter. Dolores truly loves nature and frolics with the animals all day, including a porcupine in her bed and Cubby, her pet bear(!). It isn't long before the two announce their marriage, to take place just after Peter returns from a trip to Ottawa. Or so he thinks.
Nearby, the evil, murderous Snidely Whiplash is camping. Okay, his name is actually Rydal and he doesn't have the pencil-thin curly mustache, but he may as well have. Rydal's partner is only referred to in this film as a "half breed." When the pair are approached by a Mountie, the unassuming lawman is shot down by Rydal's partner. Realizing that it may help him escape the law a little longer, Rydal puts on the dead Mountie's uniform. They soon happen upon Dolores, about to take a refreshing skinny dip at a lake near her house. She is just about to drop her towel when she sees Rydal through the trees, and quickly jumps in the water and swims away, resulting in the infamous nude scene as she hides behind a waterfall.
Rydal is scared away from his lusty pursuits by a bear, and runs away until he finds Dolores' father's cabin. Pretending to be a hurt Mountie, he gains her father's trust. When Dolores returns, Rydal attempts to rape Dolores and the "half breed" is killed as her father tries to stop it. On seeing his dead partner, "Mountie" Rydal arrests Dolores' father, and pushes him off a cliff to his death in the water below. Dolores jumps in after him, and Rydal curses his luck when Peter arrives on the scene to save her.
One year after these terrible events, Dolores and Peter live in a beautiful house in Montreal. Peter gets a telegram inviting them to Halifax to take a boat trip, and they decide to go. Since Dolores is forever dreaming of Canada's beautiful countryside, they make plans to return to her old cabin afterwards. Unfortunately, the boat excursion is a trap masterminded by the ship's Captain--Rydal! Peter is hurt badly when a mast is dropped on his head off the coast of Halifax, and Dolores is taken to a nearby port where Rydal's crony, "Sealskin" Blake, runs a bar. On arriving they hold a great party on the ship and trick an Eskimo woman into eating a bar of soap(!).
That's where Wapi the Wonderdog fits in. A vicious canine left at the bar by a "Chinaman," Wapi is unmercifully whipped by Blake. When Dolores stops him one day, a title card informs us that with this simple action, Wapi learns the true meaning of love! She appeals to Blake to help her take Peter to a doctor, and he offers her the use of two dogsleds. Later, Dolores overhears Blake explaining his double-cross to Rydal--it's all a trick designed to do away with Peter and bring Dolores back to Rydal's arms. As she is about to leave on the sleds, Dolores pulls a gun on Blake and shoots him in the shoulder, warning him that she knows of his evil plan. Dolores and Peter speed away, and Rydal borrows a sled and takes after them. Oh, and here comes Wapi, bringing up the rear. After an extremely lengthy and tedious chase, one of Dolores' dogs collapses. She is about to give up when she sees Wapi running towards her. With no options left, she realizes that Wapi may be her last chance to get back... to God's country.
Back to God's Country is based on a story called Wapi, The Walrus. I don't know how things got switched around, but it's funny to imagine the dog in this movie being replaced by a bloodthirsty walrus tamed by the gentle love of a woman.
Besides the nudity, Back to God's Country has similarities to another type of exploitation film-- the "educational" travelogue picture designed to give an audience a peak at another culture. Besides Wapi the dog and Cubby the bear, there are many other lingering shots of animals in this film, including goats and raccoons. This was a frequent technique employed by the North Woods Dramas, and it's kind of similar to those shorts on woodchucks the NFB made in the '70s.
Back to God's Country is a fairly typical silent-era melodrama, with lots of murders and precarious situations. Even if you don't like silent films, this one is fairly quick paced, with the exception of the badly filmed and ill-conceived dogsled chase (it's all white!). Because this is the earliest Canadian film you will probably ever have the chance to see, and since it features quite a bit of Canadian content, I recommend catching Back to God's Country on Bravo, which frequently screens the film with a live piano accompaniment. It's a turning point in realizing that Canadian film has an interesting yet also sordid history.