film

THE ROCKET

CHARLES FORAN December 5 2005
film

THE ROCKET

CHARLES FORAN December 5 2005

THE ROCKET

film

THE BACK PAGES

IN THE FIRST BIOPIC OF MAURICE RICHARD, HE IS CAST AS A MAN DRIVEN, EVEN ON THE ICE, BY RESENTMENT OF LES MAUDITS ANGLAIS

CHARLES FORAN

BY CHARLES FORAN Maurice Richard, the first cinematic biopic of the hockey player, opens in darkness. Sounds of disorder accompany the slow lighting of the screen, along with the appearance of a title: “Montreal, 1955” Canadians over a certain age probably won’t require further sign-posting to guess that the film is about to frame Richard’s life with a re-enactment of the violence that followed his suspension near the end of the 195455 season. The Richard Riot, after all, is now credited with sounding an early warning for the Quiet Revolution to come in Quebec.

Some knowledge of the incident is almost obligatory to make sense of the vague montage that unfolds, much of it in slow motion. Men in overcoats and fedoras gesticulate in corridors; a letter is sealed and delivered with the solemnity of an offer of surrender from an army. Cheers greet the reading of the letter behind a closed door. Faces outside the chamber

wear expressions of bitter defeat.

Without further illu mination, the scene d~1

suddenly shifts to "Montreal 1937-The Great Darkness."

A 16-year-old Maurice Richard toils as a factory machinist. His head is bowed and his cheeks are covered in grime. When a fellow worker mutters insurrection into his ear, he listens in grave silence. Moments later an English patron bellows at Richard in that language, demanding he rat on his fellow French Canadian. The boss is chubby and malevolent and blows smoke rings with his cigar.

Shortly afterward we are in an outdoor hockey rink in a city park. Richard, arriving directly from the factory, barely has a chance to lace his skates before he and his squad are being roughed up by their opponents. With time running out, his coach delivers the variety of sports-movie speech that inspires the teen to score two quick goals, both of which display his soon-to-be-trademark assaults on the net. His girlfriend, eventually to become his wife, radiates her affection from the boards.

At a cost of $8 million, Maurice Richard is

the most expensive film ever produced in Quebec. It is also an often engrossing and visually splendid two hours of hagiography, boasting many of the same populist impulses and clichés of its American counterparts, including the Ray Charles biography, Ray, and the recent take on Johnny Cash, Walk the Line. Pleasing local audiences is something the vibrant Quebec movie industry does well. Maurice Richard, which opened last week across the province, is a likely Christmas hit. The film, starring the talented Quebec icon Roy Dupuis, arrives in English Canada, in a subtitled version called The Rocket, on March 10.

But as the first 10 minutes of screen time suggest, director Charles Binamé’s ambitions actually go be yond the hagiographie.

He and scriptwriter Ken Scott are building a case for Richard as a hero of a particular sort. Not content with Maurice (The Rocket) Richard’s present status as an exemplar of both private courage and French-Canadian pride during the 1940s and ’50s, the film aspires to recast him, in effect, as a romantic hero, a figure of necessary solitude and enigmatic character.

He is, moreover, a romantic hero assigned the task of building a nation—or boosting the spirit of a nation-in-embryo, perhaps—through his brilliant goal-scoring and righteous anger alike. As presented in Maurice Richard, the fiery on-ice skill and off-ice outrage at the injustices suffered by the French in both the NHL and within their own society are equally intrinsic to Richard’s self-definition as a Quebecer, and a man. He is rarely shown struggling with personal limitations or demons or even simply trying to do right for his family; always, the battle is between the hero, acting on behalf of his people, and the world.

Thus, when Richard glances out a train window en route to a 1945 game in Boston to confront a notorious Bruins thug, he observes battleships churning in the seas—a metaphor for his ongoing war. Likewise, a game-day

move to a larger apartment in Montreal, where he hauls furniture up an outdoor staircase during a snowstorm, is transformed by Binamé into a struggle akin to a solo ascent of Mount Everest. This, despite the anecdote’s conclusion: though he confesses to his coach, Dick Irvin, that he is exhausted from the work, Richard scores five goals that night.

“It’s important that French Canadians win once in a while,” his barber and confidant tells him on the eve of another confrontation. As always, the hero sits

alone in the shop, listening quietly to the views and complaints of one of his loyal subjects. Children glance through the window in respectful awe.

His modest physical stature notwithstanding—he stood just five-foot-ten and weighed 170 lb.—Maurice Richard, who died at age 78 in 2000, is of sufficient historical stature to play the part the film assigns him. A few distortions aside, and a few too many Anglos shouting epithets about “Pea Soupers” and “damn French Canadians,” Maurice Richard offers a credible, if slanted, rendering of his career.

THE RIOT IS NOW CREDITED ASAN EARLY WARNING OF QUEBEC'S QUIET REVOLUTION

More the issue is whether the romantic hero is as interesting as the other available takes on this great and singular athlete. Missing from the film is the role of character in illuminating how Maurice Richard conducted himself, for both good and ill. There is the real lost opportunity, for within the discipline and wildness, courtesy and rectitude, gendeness and violence of his personality can be found important homegrown truths about not only one Québécois man but about men in general—and about the Quebec in particular—of his era.

RICHARD was born on Aug. 4,1921, in the Montreal neighbourhood of Bordeaux. The oldest of eight children (his brother Henri, the “Pocket Rocket,” who played 20 seasons in the NHL, was 6 when Maurice left the house), he quit school to take a job in a CPR machine shop to help his family through the Depression. Though a star with the Verdun Juniors, a string of injuries, including two broken ankles and a fractured wrist, earned him the rap of being too brittle for the pros. Re. jected for the same reason by the Canadian Army, he continued as a machinist while honing his hockey skills. No Sidney Crosby or Wayne Gretzky, Richard was 22 before finally catching on with the Canadiens. Just one year later, during the 1944-45 season, he scored 50 goals in 50 games.

By then, Richard was married to his teenage sweetheart, Lucille Norchet, and was the father of two babies. A touching scene in Maurice Richard shows Lucille in a hospital bed after the birth of their first child. She is offering her husband stern hockey advice; he is holding his daughter and weeping with joy. The Richards, both devout Catholics, raised seven children and were parted only by Lucille’s death in 1994, after almost 52 years of marriage. Richard adored his family

and remained close to them, and to the church, all his life.

Like many of his generation, Richard was raised to value duty and honour, as well as to defer to various authorities without complaint or even much self-reflection. His own path went from being the unilingual, almost pathologically shy young man who, beginning with his remarkable 1944-45 outburst of scoring,

THE QUEBEC MOVIE INDUSTRY IS GOOD AT CROWD PLEASING

defined the Canadiens, to the outspoken and increasingly galvanized representative of all French Canada in the NHL a decade later. This arc, which Binamé charts forcefully in the film, is indeed a striking one.

But it remains the route taken by a man operating from a belief system born of his own experiences and nature. Just as, less gloriously, Richard’s feckless post-hockey career, which included spells selling fishing tackle and shilling for a hair treatment product, was consistent with his character. Men of his time were unaware that they could or even should reinvent themselves in mid-life. They were who they were, and thought little on the matter.

The film, though, pushes these character complications aside in order to uphold Richard as the timeless solitary hero. After a sweet onscreen courtship, his wife, played byjulie Le Breton, is reduced to minimal dialogue and maximum doe-eyed concern over the trials her warrior husband must undergo. His children are scarcely glimpsed, and his parents and siblings are all but unseen. As for Richard’s

Catholicism, it is swept into a corner as wellbelonging, apparently, to the dark ages of those nasty patrons and the eternal reign of Premier Maurice Duplessis.

A superior recent Québécois film, C.RA.Z.Y, does greater justice to the dynamics of midcentury Quebec. But it concerns the evolution of an ordinary family starting in the ’60s, by which time the Catholic Church was already losing its authority in most lives.

Missing, too, from Maurice Richard are the Rocket’s teammates and opponents. The hockey sequences are vivid, and in a few instances are recreations of goals never captured before—occurring, as they did, before television. But Richard bests mosdy anonymous enemies wearing odd uniforms. (The movie had to alter team insignias for legal reasons.) Even his epic rivalry with his nemesis and foil, Gordie Howe, is ignored.

DUPUIS UNDERSTANDS THE ROCKETS INTENSITY AND THE FIRE THAT LIT HIS EYES DURING GAMES

But then, his own Habs fare only a little better. Richard didn’t win eight Stanley Cups on his own. Still, his legendary teammates, including Hector (Toe) Blake, Elmer Lach and

THE VIOLENCE THAT GOT HIM SUSPENDED WAS SHOCKING

Jean Béliveau, though portrayed in the film by real-life NHL stars, including Vincent Lecavalier as the young Béliveau, remain mostly mute and incidental.

Roy Dupuis’s performance does what it can to deny this narrowing of man into myth. The actor, who also incarnated Richard in a 1999 TV miniseries, understands his character’s taciturn nature. He is similarly perceptive about the Rocket’s intensity, especially the fire that lit his eyes during games, and how that passion could spill over occasionally into derangement.

The Richard Riot was one such instance. Well known is the fact that the riots in and around

the Montreal Forum on March 17,1955, were triggered by league commissioner Clarence Campbell’s decision to suspend Richard for the remainder of the season and the playoffs. Less remembered is the reason for the severity of the punishment. Four nights earlier, in Boston, Richard reacted to a vicious slash across the left side of his skull by pounding the offender, a defenceman named Hal Laycoe,

over the head and shoulders with his stick. When a linesman insisted on restraining the star, Richard attacked him, too, bruising his face and giving him a black eye. He had previously assaulted other referees and linesmen both on the ice and off.

While Richard was emotionally exhausted at the time of the incident in Boston, his outburst of violence was still shocking. (Today, he would probably be tried for assault.) He admitted as much on radio after the riots, and his confession, and plea for calm, is the only actual scene from those tumultuous few days shown in Maurice Richard. A spectator the night of March 17 at the Forum, he could only watch as Campbell was assaulted by irate fans. With the game suspended, Campbell’s letter forfeiting the match to the Detroit Red Wings— shown in the film’s early montage—set off the night’s mayhem.

According to the Sept. 17,1955, issue of Maclean’s, Richard’s actions, and the reactions of the league, set off the “the most destructive and frenzied riot in the history of Canadian sport.” Binamé’s decision not to dramatize the riot—the film’s natural climax, suggested by its own opening—is surprising. It may be that the director wasn’t interested in showing the street mayhem. It may also be that the moral complexity of the event doesn’t suit the movie’s inspirational trajectory.

Do young Quebecers really require such a broad-strokes lesson to help them distinguish the Rocket from Boom Boom, or even the Great Darkness from the Quiet Revolution? If so, Maurice Richard may well provide a stylish slice of history-lite to help those civics classes. But while myths may be inspired by heroes, history is forever being shaped by individuals through the force of their characters. The story of how the character of Maurice Richard changed Quebec and Canada remains to be properly told. M

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KATIE HOLMES and TOM CRUISE’S UNBORN BABY

Holmes emerged shaken, literally, from a California cinema last week: she'd been holding a vibrator to her belly to comfort the baby. The vibrator’s noise annoyed other patrons, and she was asked to leave. Meanwhile, Cruise splurged on a sonogram machine so Holmes can track the baby's development with ultrasound. Such machines cost anywhere from US$15,000 to $200,000.