This post is part of the O’Canada Blogathon hosted by Kristina of Speakeasy and Ruth of Silver Screenings. Be sure to check out the other entries here!
In the far northwoods, in a small cabin there lived Dolores LeBeau (Nell Shipman) and her father (Roy Laidlaw). They are quite happy there living the simple life, alongside the many and varied types of wildlife that Dolores has tamed and made friends of. Into this idyllic life comes a naturalist, one Peter Burke (Wheeler Oakman, who is part author part government inspector. He is traveling the woods looking for inspiration for his next book and soon becomes the houseguest of Dolores and her father. During his time there he and Dolores fall in love and their days are spent blissfully together.
After some time Burke decides to take his leave and continue on his journey toward Ottawa. In order to make sure that her love will return to her, Dolores steals his manuscript out of his pack before he departs. At that moment a dangerous criminal is making his way through the underbrush. Rydal (Wellington Playter) is the master of a trading vessel wanted for murder and he is traveling with his accomplice (Charles B. Murphy). While Rydal sits by the fire he is confronted by a Canadian Mountie who places him under arrest. But as they are heading back to the post, Rydal’s accomplice ambushes them and kills the mountie. The two head off with Rydal now dressed as a mountie. They soon happen upon Dolores who is taking a bath in the nearby pool along with her friend bear.
Rydal is taken with the young beauty and decides that he wants to see more of her. Much more. So he pretends to be a wounded mountie and seeks shelter with Dolores and her father. While Dolores is hesitant, her father welcomes the two men with open arms and they spend the night. The next morning, emboldened by his dreams overnight, Rydal decides to make his move while her father is away gathering wood. With his accomplice blocking the door, Rydal attacks Dolores and soon her screams bring her father rushing back. In the ensuing struggle Rydal’s accomplice is killed by Dolores’ father and Rydal, playing the part of the mountie, arrests him declaring that he will take him back to the post for trial. Meanwhile, Burke has realized that his manuscript has gone missing and is returning to Dolores’ home in order to retrieve it. He arrives to find a dead man in the doorway and the house empty. Following the path he sees Dolores, who watches in horror as Rydal throws her father over a cliff. She dives in after him and Burke dives in after her. The two of them pull Dolores’ father’s lifeless body from the water as Rydal makes his escape.
One year later, Burke and Dolores are married and now living in an apartment in the city. Burke is working on his writing and Dolores is pining for the fjords, or at least her little cabin in the woods with her animal friends. A telegram arrives from the Department of the Interior telling Burke that arrangements have been made for them both to sail to Halifax on the Flying Moon, a trading vessel that will take them up towards Baffin Island and into the Arctic. After several days onboard Dolores and Burke are curious as they have not yet seen their captain. When they do see him, Dolores wishes that they hadn’t. The captain is none other than Rydal and he has not forgotten Dolores or his designs on her.
With an estimated budget of $67,000 BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY became one of Canda’s first major motion pictures and it was the most successful silent Canadian film. The film was directed by David Hartford and produced by Nell Shipman and her husband, Ernest Shipman. Nell Shipman had created Shipman Curwood Producing Company in 1918 in order to make BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY, which would end up being the only film the company produced. The screenplay was based on a story written by James Oliver Curwood entitled Wapi, The Walrus, and was adapted by Nell Shipman herself. This adaptation caused some issues with Curwood, who took exception to the fact that Nell took facets of Wapi and molded them into the character of Dolores. She created a heroine who took on men and won, saved her love, and generally kicked bottom. Curwood was mad because this character was portrayed by a dog in his story.
Well, sorry to Mr. Curwood but if BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY was about a dog then I don’t think I would have enjoyed it half so much. In fact the main reason this film is so successful is Nell Shipman and her portrayal of Dolores. The men try but they come up pretty one dimensional. Burke is pretty vanilla as far as romantic heroes go and Rydal is a slightly over the top melodramatic baddie. But Dolores is fantastic! Nell Shipman is lovely but not in a traditionally beautiful way and her body is real and natural. She is a fit and athtletic woman and it shows. She also loved nature and animals which is something that really comes through with her animal co-stars. Nell Shipman does a fantastic job of bringing an empowered and intelligent heroine of her own making to life.
This is by no means a perfect film. Along with the previously mentioned less than impressive male characters, there are also some instances of “brown-face” and some less than sensitive ethnic portrayals. But Nell Shipman is fantastic and the Canadian wilderness is on grand display here making BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY an example of early Canadian cinema well worth seeing. So if you are intrigued here is the film, restored beautifully by Library and Archives Canada. Of note there is no musical score accompanying this film but it is gorgeous version with lovely color tinting.