In 1933, when Hollywood studios were releasing such attractive sound films as George’s Cukor’s Dinner At Eight with Jean Harlow, Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina with Greta Garbo, Lowell Sherman’s She Done Him Wrong with Mae West, Merriam Cooper’s and Ernest Schoesdack’s King Kong, and Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup with the Marx brothers, to name a few, a Canadian firm invested a whopping $500,000 in a black and white, silent film, Carry On Sergeant with a cast of unknowns — who stayed that way. Marketing errors are always costly, and the history of Canadian film-making is comprised almost entirely of ill-timed flops.
Thus it is, 40-odd years later, when the hot-topic, hot-ticket films are Last Tango In Paris, The Exorcist, American Graffiti, among others, the Canadian film industry comes up with a $1.5 million production Alien Thunder (starring Don Sutherland and Chief Dan George) which practically begs for defeat. What Canadian producers, directors and screenplay writers seem to suffer from is an astonishing lack of imagination. They seem singularly incapable of dreaming up a 2001: A Space Odyssey, a Satyricon, an Exorcist; something bold, breathtaking, controversial. Something with guts. Something to turn filmgoers on.
The director of Alien Thunder, Claude Fournier, does know how to make money. His 1970 film Deux Femmes En Or, one of Quebec’s raciest skinflicks, made an unprecedented $2.5 million in that province alone. It’s been estimated that one in six Quebeckers saw the film. After seeing Alien Thunder most filmgoers
are likely to wish that Fournier had stayed in bed.
The original story and screenplay by W. O. Mitchell (whose name by request has been removed from the credits) was further adapted by George Malko. It is reportedly a true story, filmed where it happened at Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, about 40 miles from Saskatoon, which depicts the last act of the Cree Indian rebellion, before their spirit as an entire people was crushed for nearly a cenury.
A young Indian, Almighty Voice, is arrested by the RCMP for killing one of the “Queen’s cattle” during a long winter, for food for his family. While he awaits trial in the stockade, one of the officers drunkenly jokes about hanging him in the morning. Almighty Voice escapes and, when pursued, kills one of the officers. A minor incident thus escalates into a major crisis. After a prolonged manhunt, lasting some 19 months, the film ends with an entire regiment of Mounties, using sevenand ninepound cannons, blasting away at Almighty Voice and two companions, and leveling the thicket they were hiding in.
The film overkills us with a lecture on overkill, for the event is scored to stirring martial music, and edited to show smug smiles of satisfaction on the faces of the RCMP officers, while the friends and families of the three doomed fugitives (who die a most “artistic” death, using stopped frames and slowed motion) look sad-eyed and depressed. There isn’t much of a movie here, but there's a helluva moral, and presumably that’s why the people who made this film think they’ve done something important.
There are lots of true stories about the RCMP and Indians, even stories about close and tender friendships. But those stories wouldn’t do, they wouldn’t fit the form of certain currently fashionable ideas and moods. The film’s intention to impugn the motives and behavior of the crude, red-whiskered, white man with his British accent and imperialistic technology, and to commiserate with the Cree Indians with their lovely, simple life, leaves one with an unsophisticated dichotomy of no intellectual value. Alien Thunder does not ask any original questions, and coming after Soldier Blue, Little Big Man and others, it has nothing new to say. It has some merits, including fine cinematography by the director, and a fairly good period look (although at one point when Don Sutherland says, “What are you, a goddamned pyromaniae ” it didn’t sound like dialogue
from the 19th century) but the world is unlikely to beat a path to this film’s clichés.
A considerably gamier new Canadian film is Milad Bessada’s A Quiet Day In Belfast, starring Barry Foster (the carrot-haired killer in Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy) and Vancouver actress Margot Kidder. It was shot in Dublin and Toronto, with the kind of desperate inventiveness and skill that makes its $500,000 budget yield a movie looking as if it cost at least twice that figure. Bessada is not an exception to the rule: there is something foolish at the heart of this movie, something trite and trimorous, but at least he knows enough to keep the show moving, and he elicits strong performances from many in the cast.
Here’s a Canadian film that for an applaudable change has serious (but not obscure or pretentious) ideas, and is interested in social and political issues. But unlike Costa-Gavras’ State Of Siege which, much to its credit, took a binocular view of leftand right-wing groups, and increased one’s understanding of both sides, A Quiet Day In Belfast is essentially a superficial study. Lurking beneath its view (it takes a pox-on-both-yourhouses approach to the militant Catholics and “Prods” in strife-torn Belfast) and its condemnation of violence (which the film depicts in graphic vividness. Violence sells tickets) is the notion that the Irish are, underneath it all, a quaint, lovable people, with charming folkways, and wouldn’t it be better if they gave up plastic explosives and went back to getting bombed on whiskey and stout in the pubs instead? Where the hottest issue is tomorrow’s dog races?
If wars made as little sense as many film-makers apparently believe, they wouldn’t occur. They occur for deeper, darker reasons than either Alien Thunder or A Quiet Day In Belfast knows anything about, and thus their protests are just another murmur lost in the wind.
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