Cecil B DeMille junk, saved by Coop
In 1940 Gary Cooper made a great film, The Westerner, with an outstanding Walter Brennan as Judge Roy Bean. But the same year Coop also did a much trashier picture, North West Mounted Police.
'Westerns' set in Canada and telling tales of how the Mounties got their man are not, in the view of many, really Westerns at all. But this one has a Texas Ranger named Dusty Rivers coming up to arrest a fugitive so we’ll make an exception and include it. It’s a two-hour Cecil B De Mille Technicolor farrago (Coop’s first color film) and has one of the most amazingly complex plots ever seen.
It’s set in the context of the so-called North-West Rebellion of 1885. This was led by Louis Riel (Francis McDonald). Louis David Riel (1844 – 1885) was a Canadian politician, founder of the province of Manitoba, and a leader of the Métis people of the Canadian prairies. Riel sought to preserve Métis rights and culture as their homelands in the Northwest came progressively under the Canadian sphere of influence. He led two resistance movements against the Canadian government. The first was the Red River Rebellion of 1869 - 1870; during this Riel was forced into exile in the United States (Montana). But he returned in 1885 and renewed his opposition to the Canadian government, and this was known as the North-West Rebellion of 1885, in which he urged the Indians to rise in revolt. (In the movie the Indians are all ‘Ug’ stereotypes, as DeMille's Indians usually were). It ended in Riel's arrest, trial, and execution on a charge of high treason.
DeMille shot the picture as a straight ‘Redcoats v Redskins’ drama in which Riel and his supporters are unmitigated evils. There is no hint that they might actually have had some right on their side. Of course Hollywood studios weren’t exactly paragons of liberal politics and were happy to toe the pro-government line, and Cecil B DeMille wasn’t exactly the most assiduous presenter of historical fact. In fact his films are historical bunkum. Laughably, he cultivated a reputation for doing detailed research.
Dusty chases his man, the renegade Corbeau (George Bancroft) and on the side routs the rebellion and saves the British Empire. He falls for a posh dame (Madeleine Carroll) - which he usually did, in Westerns and non-Westerns alike - and is the rival of a Mountie for her hand. Will Dusty or the Mountie get his person?
Dusty falls for posh dame
Being a Texan, Dusty of course has two guns; when a Mountie asks him why he says it’s because one don’t shoot far enough. But there are some good lines: when asked if he is married, Dusty says he has always agreed with the idea that a bachelor is a man who never made the same mistake once.
Paulette Goddard is in it as Corbeau's daughter but even in those proto-feminist days her agent might have eschewed the part for her for she not only has a secondary role but also plays a silly slut. She is spanked by a stage ‘Scotsman’. Feminists would really do better to avoid this movie. DeMille was of course a famous MCP. He insisted that Godard wear high heels, a trifle odd for a Métis maid.
I also can’t forgive DeMille for killing nine horses “to achieve verisimilitude” in one scene.
Robert Preston is lively as ever, this time as Ronnie Logan, dashing wooer. Lon Chaney is Shorty and a young Robert Ryan and Rod Cameron both play corporals (Canadian Cameron had always wanted to be a Mountie; he finally got his wish). You can spot Chief Thundercloud, Monte Blue, Chief Yowlachie and Anthony Caruso as Indians – the usual suspects you might say. Franklyn Farnum is a townsman. It is actually a huge cast.
Robert Preston does his thing
Far too much is filmed on those vast DeMille studio sets (he hated the outdoors). Otherwise, California locations stand in for Canada.
The Victor Young music is rather grand. Anne Bauchens won an Oscar for editing the flick. For once the French title was better and translates as ‘The Scarlet Tunics’, rather more dashing than the staid original one.
Coop is great and is helped by being able to portray a freebooting Texan against a backdrop of staid uniformed Brits. He said he came at them “like a bat out of Helena.” Pretty well everyone else overacts and the actors use those old-fashioned gestures that were already well out of date in the 1930s, except maybe in opera.
Actually, Cecil B DeMille couldn’t have directed traffic.
In the early 40s, Cooper made one of the greatest of all war films (Sergeant York), visited the troops, made friends with Hemingway and starred in For Whom the Bell Tolls but sad to say he didn’t do any more Westerns till the war was over. We had to wait till Along Came Jones in 1945.