Today would have been Alan Ladd's birthday, and you know I can't resist posting something in his honor every time his birthday rolls around. This year, I'm reviewing Saskatchewan
(1954), a Canada-based western released a year after Shane
I always think Alan Ladd looks especially handsome in buckskin, and this is no exception. He also wears his RCMP uniform with flair. He gets a serious, heroic character to play in this, and I quite like him when he's serious and heroic. Yes, even though I tend to be awfully fond of the roles where he starts out selfish and gradually discovers he could be nice after all. I like both for him -- he wears them well.
Anyway, the movie makes no mystery who's starring in it. Since he's the birthday boy here, I'll include his before-title name card.
YES, I know this wasn't filmed in Saskatchewan. I'll talk about that later, okay?
The story opens with two blood-brothers, Cajou (Jay Silverheels) and Thomas O'Rourke (Alan Ladd) rejoicing that they're done trapping all winter and heading back to civilization.
They behave a little bit like kids, challenging each other to shooting and racing matches.
If you look closely, you'll notice Ladd has a bandage around one finger here. It's the only shot I found where it's obvious. He got an infected finger during filming, I'm not sure how. I assume that's the finger.
O'Rourke wins the race so handily, he takes a little nap waiting for Cajou to catch up. It's a pretty adorable and fun opening, really. Silverheels and Ladd have an easy chemistry and appear to enjoy each others' company. They'd been in Red Mountain
(1951) together too, though I don't recall them sharing much screentime. Still, Ladd is well known for preferring to work with actors he already knew, so I assume he enjoyed working with Silverheels previously. They behave a lot like adult brothers that I know, ribbing each other, cracking each other up with nonsense, and so on.
On their way back to civilization, they come across the smoking ruins of some wagons, plus vague shapes on the ground that are probably the bodies of settlers.
One settler (Shelley Winters) is still alive, hiding in the ruins. She shoots at them, thinking they're the previous attackers come back again.
O'Rourke convinces her they're not marauding natives and insists she travel with them because she can't just stay out in the wilderness alone, with no horses and only a single pistol to protect herself.
She tells them her name is Grace Markey and she's come there from Montana to start a new life. More than that, she's reluctant to say.
Grace is one of the most unusual female characters I've run across lately. She's sharp-tongued, but kind. Bold, but also kind of shy. She's never whiny, but she never hesitates to tell people why she doesn't want to do something. I wish I had time to copy down a whole lot of her dialog, because so many of her lines are such zingers! She has this world-weary attitude, always ready to be disappointed by people, but like she secretly hopes one day she'll meet someone who won't disappoint her. I found her to be a refreshing change from the stock female characters that populate many westerns made in the fifties.
Ladd and Winters had worked together previously as well, in The Great Gatsby
(1949), though their characters don't interact at all in that one. Alan Ladd was reportedly very shy and was most comfortable working opposite people he knew. He liked having friends on set, and character actors like Anthony Caruso and George J. Lewis never had to worry about having jobs as long as Ladd was a star who could ask for bit parts to get filled by his friends.
Anyway, once they reach the fort, surprise! O'Rourke is one of the Mounties! He and Cajou consult a scout named Batoche (J. Carrol Naish) about a tomahawk they found being wielded by some of the American Indians who attacked the people Grace was traveling with. Batoche identifies it as Sioux. They're all very confused about why Sioux would be around way up there in Canada.
Batoche is married to a native woman himself, and they have six children. This movie goes back and forth with the tone of its portrayal of Native Americans, though mostly I think it is very fair. Cajou is a member of the Cree tribe, and O'Rourke was adopted by Cajou's father when he was found by them when he was a small child. He has great love and respect for his adoptive family, and some of the other white characters accuse him of being more sympathetic toward the Cree than the whites. Over all, the Cree are shown to be intelligent, sensible, reasonable people who get along well with their white neighbors and can be trusted to keep their word.
However, Batoche's wife and kids are played for laughs -- she speaks bad English and tells Grace it's easy to tell how long she's been married -- six years, because she has six kids. Still, she and Batoche live beside the fort and are accepted and liked by the Mounties. O'Rourke clearly trusts him and counts him as a friend. (Batoche is supposed to be French-Canadian, I think.)
The events of this movie are loosely inspired by real life, when Sitting Bull led a party of Sioux up into Canada, seeking sanctuary from the US Government in 1877. According to my cursory internet research, best laid out in this article
, they did cause some trouble with local tribes in Saskatchewan, which led the Mounties to pressure the Sioux to return to the US. Nothing I found specifically mentioned the Cree, but at least this is sorta inspired by things that actually happened, which is neat.
Anyway, the Sioux are portrayed as being pretty vicious, only wanting to make war on any white people they run across. Their leader in most of the film is Spotted Eagle (Anthony Caruso), which was the name of a Sioux warrior who did accompany Sitting Bull in the move to Canada.
Overall, the film portrays the American Indians as being... people. Not just targets, or cardboard villains, nameless and faceless, but people. They're capable of being loyal, angry, kind, cruel, sneaky, trustworthy, whatever, depending on the individual
, not depending on what their ethnicity
is. Which I find really refreshing, especially for a movie of this age.
Anyway, back to the story. The Mounties have a new commander, Benton (Robert Douglas), who is one of those ramrod-up-his-coat sorts who insists everyone has to do things his way and has zero tolerance for independent thought or for discussing things with people who have lived in that area all their lives and have just a wee bit more experience dealing with the native peoples than he does. (Can you tell I'm not a Benton fan?)
Benton has confiscated all of the rifles that the government previously gifted to the Cree. The Cree have come to rely on those rifles for hunting and their own protection. Without them, not only will they have trouble hunting for food, but the invading Sioux warriors will pose a serious threat to them.
O'Rourke goes out to visit his adoptive father, Chief Dark Cloud (Antonio Moreno), to see what's going on with the Cree. They're very upset about being robbed of their rifles, so upset that they're pretty seriously considering Sitting Bull's suggestion they join up with him and work together to rid the territory of white people.
O'Rourke is shocked at this. The Cree and the white people have lived so peacefully together so far. He's even more shocked when his blood-brother Cajou renounces him and declares he must be cast out of the tribe forever because he's a spy for the white men.
Meanwhile, back at the fort, US Marshal Carl Smith (Hugh O'Brian) has shown up and announced he's chasing down Grace Markey because she's wanted for murder back in the states. This is a year before O'Brian started playing the title character in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp
, and I'm wondering if he impressed some studio exec with his ability to play a lawman in this and got cast in that.
Anyway, Marshal Smith is a sourpuss and a bully and a lech. I am not a fan of him either.
Benton leads the troop away from the fort because he needs to get all the arms and ammunition to a different fort before the Cree and/or Sioux can capture it and use it all to drive out all the white people, etc. Benton decides the best way to do this is to load everything into wagons and march everyone conspicuously off down the road.
I was kind of impressed by the river crossing scene, where the wagons get pretty realistically stuck and struggle to get across. It didn't look faked, is what I'm saying. Nicely done.
Well, the Sioux attack the troop, and the Mounties sustain quite a few casualties, including this one sweet Irishman named Abbott, who's played by a really young Richard Long. My fellow Big Valley
fans will appreciate this shot, I'm sure.
Marshal Smith starts to wave his bullying flag here. He says we should abandon Abbott because he's going to slow us down, being gut-shot and probably going to die anyway. Benton does rack up a few points here for agreeing with O'Rourke that we do NOT abandon wounded soldiers to die either alone or at the hands of our enemies.
(Spoiler: Abbott doesn't die. Hahahahahaha, joke's on you, Marshal Smith.)
O'Rourke tells Benton they need to abandon the wagons, pack as much of the munitions onto horses as they can, and strike out across the mountains instead of following the roads or they'll never reach the other fort alive. Benton says no, it's my way or the highway. O'Rourke says that's stupid and they're not going to do it. Benton declares this is mutiny and orders Sgt. Lawson (George J. Lewis) to arrest O'Rourke.
I am FINALLY getting to where I know who George J. Lewis is when he shows up in an Alan Ladd movie pretty much right away instead of hearing him speak, stewing for five minutes over why his voice is so terribly familiar, and then finally realizing he played Don Alejandro de la Vega in Disney's Zorro
(1957-61). Only took me what, four years of devouring Alan Ladd movies?
Anyway, Sgt. Lawson says, you know what? O'Rourke makes a lot of sense. And he knows more about Indians than Benton does. And we already know and trust him, whereas you are new to us and have made some dumb decisions already. And so, thank you kindly, but we're not going to arrest anyone today, sir.
So Benton declares that they'll ALL get court-martialed for mutiny when they reach the other fort. Now hurry up and start getting ready to go there.
Did I mention that Marshal Smith and his prisoner, Grace, are along with the troop too? Well, they are. Marshal Smith continues being more and more of a slouchy creep. He tells Grace that if she'll be his "woman," he'll see to it the charges against her are dropped and she won't hang. Of all the disgusting pigs! Trying to convince a woman who clearly doesn't like you to sleep with you by bribing her with her life? Get thee hence, foul villain!
Which is pretty much O'Rourke's stance. He finds Smith trying to force Grace to kiss him and knocks him out with one punch.
O'Rourke hasn't spent a lot of time with Grace since they reached the fort. And before that, they spent most of their time making cutting remarks to each other. But now he softens toward her after having to rescue her from Marshal Smith's clutches. He listens kindly as she pours out the sad story of her life to him one evening while they pretend the coyote howls all around them are made by actual coyotes. Turns out Marshal Smith is very involved in the crime she's accused of, which surprises no one by this point.
And then a bunch of exciting fights and stuff happen. They just about reach the other fort, and that's when O'Rourke decides that, you know, he hasn't gotten beaten up once in this movie, so he'd better take his shirt off, since it's a law that in every really good movie of his, Alan Ladd has to either get beaten up or be shirtless. And sometimes both. Once in a while, both at once. Off the shirt must come.
Actually, no, O'Rourke decides that he needs to go talk to his Cree father, even though he's kind of been thrown out of the tribe. Maybe he can convince the Cree not to join the Sioux. He figures it's worth a shot, so he changes back into his buckskin shirt. Even the day-for-night darkness can't hide the fact that Ladd's still in nice shape at this point.
Grace discovers that she doesn't want him to leave. He says he has nothing to lose, and she thinks that's a pretty mean thing to say about her.
Chief Dark Cloud agrees not to join the Sioux and will even fight against them IF the Cree can have their rifles back from the Mounties. O'Rourke gives his word that this will happen, though he has no authority to do so.
When he returns to the fort, he's placed under arrest and has to give up his weapons.
He's pleased to see Grace has made it there safely, and actually smiles at her, possibly for the first time. She's found a new dress, though it's not much of an improvement on the last one. Woman, don't you care about sunburns? Or how that Mountie guard is staring down your dress? Yeesh.
I mentioned that she has some really cool dialog. This doesn't get said here, but I really like it, so I'm sharing it here anyway.
O'Rourke: You don't break easy, do you.
Grace: Not unless I want to.
Maybe it's just that her lines surprise me with their forthrightness? I don't know. But I really dig her. She's tough, but not brassy, somehow.
O'Rourke reports the deal he made with the Cree. Guess what? The Mountie officers don't jump at the chance to make peace with the Cree and drive out the Sioux with their help. Boneheads.
O'Rourke gets thrown in the guardhouse for his pains, where he's reunited with Batoche and Sgt. Lawson and all the others. And Abbott, who's still Not Dead.
He proceeds to brood. Awwwwwwww. Look at those sad eyes. Poor O'Rourke.
All the Mounties leave to go fight the Sioux. And the Cree, if need be, though the Cree haven't gotten their weapons back, so not sure why they think the Cree pose a threat.
Cajou sneaks into the almost-deserted fort. Grace spots him. They didn't have much use for each other before, but now they work together to free O'Rourke and the others.
O'Rourke is surprised to see Cajou, since the last time they met, Cajou revoked their brotherhood and took back his special matching bear claw best-friends-forever necklace. But O'Rourke doesn't hold grudges. Together, they seize all the weapons and some wagons and head off to fulfill his promise to the Cree.
Guns for everyone!
I love this shot of Mounties and American Indians riding into battle together
, not getting ready to fight each other.
Pretty obvious how this'll end, right? Blood Brothers and Best Friends Forever Again!
And O'Rourke gets tasked with taking Grace back to Montana to protest her innocence in a US court. Oh yeah, Marshal Smith is no longer a threat. He tried to shoot O'Rourke in the back, and you can guess how well that went over with the other Mounties.
I want to take a minute to point out how handsome Jay Silverheels is in this movie. I've loved him as Tonto in the original Lone Ranger
(1949-57) show and movie (1956) since I was probably seven years old, and it's such a treat to see him in an important role in a feature film. He was actually born in Canada on the Six Nation's Reserve, so I bet making this Canadian western was cool for him.
I've recently learned that some people, especially some Canadians, are highly annoyed by the fact that this movie is called Saskatchewan, but is clearly shot mostly in Alberta. This kind of stymies me, as I am extremely used to movies being filmed in places they're not set. I mean, how many westerns have we seen that were shot in Monument Valley but are set in Texas? Monument Valley is NOT in Texas, y'all, it's in Arizona and Utah. Also, my favorite show ever, Combat!,
is supposed to take place in Normandy, but 90% of it is shot in California, and you can totally tell because Eucalyptus trees just don't grow in France. It's just backgrounds, okay? It's not that big a deal to me. I mean, maybe this is a spoiler, but Star Wars movies aren't actually shot in a galaxy far, far away. Movies are pretend. They're not documentaries.
And it's pretty obvious why they wanted to shoot it where they did. Feast your eyes:
Anyway. Minor quibble. They did shoot most of the exteriors on location in Canada
, at least.
You can find the full movie on YouTube right now, if you're inclined to try it! The version that's easiest to find is 2 1/2 hours long, which is a mistake -- the movie is only 2 hours, and for some reason it repeats the first half hour after the movie ends. So don't be fooled by that weird running time.
Is this movie family friendly? Yup. It is. All violence is non-gory. No cussing, no major innuendo aside from that attempt at a forced kiss and Grace's dresses just about falling off her all the time. Nothing truly objectionable, from my point of view.
Happy birthday, my dear Alan Ladd! I'm so glad you recovered from your infected finger and the ankle you broke while playing with your kids toward the end of filming.
|(Alan and David Ladd)|