Death in small doses—Riel, we have hanged you again, on a rope of tedium

William Casselman April 23 1979

Death in small doses—Riel, we have hanged you again, on a rope of tedium

William Casselman April 23 1979

Death in small doses—Riel, we have hanged you again, on a rope of tedium


William Casselman


May some scalawag god of drama spew a great spume of fibs and conceits, of exaggerations and intensities, over the TV dramatist who worships historical accuracy. Riel, we have hanged you again, on a rope of tedium. Though hyped to high heaven, this Riel is not drama—it’s history murmured by teacher-drones. Faced with a burning prophet, a television screen and a sensitive Quebec, our playmakers quail, cautious not to offend, and huddle behind the camera to twitter softly.

Gaze at those old photographs of Louis Riel: he was no prissy little simp in a frock coat. He cleaved us. He magicked us. We rallied to his side. We hollered for his blood. Ask the writer, the director, the producer of this: where is Riel? Up in heaven, dear, they’ll answer, wearing little wings and a white nightie.

Here’s scriptwriter Roy Moore cramped over his history books, journals and memoirs for one long year. But there was no tome of alchemy to tell

him how to bring a man -

back to life. Here’s director George Bloomfield anxious above all to show that “Canada has a West.” Where seldom is heard a dramatic word. No vulgar American shoot-em-up crudities for careful George, but a slow exposition of fact; not cuts and intercuts but paragraphs of film, spools of footnotes. Look, see our Gatling gun—exact replica—1,200 rounds a minute. Producer John Trent vowed this lamb was “the most exciting story in Canadian history.” Bad shepherd he.

Still gutsy, a company of our best Canadian actors once again struggles to make quick a dead script. Christopher Plummer grabs the ghost of Sir John A. Macdonald and, syllable by syllable, squeezes it into life. This year TV lets brandy romp down the prime ministerial gullet, though someone has decided the booze-burst schnozz will not be red.

As working alcoholics go, old John A. was a rip-roarer and no slouch portentwise. He reads a petition from Riel:

“My God, he’s suggesting separation.” To keep his created country together “no price is too great.” The Scot’s burr turns your heart to pemmican. The Scot’s noose cracks your neck like a dry stick.

Montreal’s Jean-Louis Roux plays Bishop Bourget, a reptile in glittering vestments, weighing every allegiance and driven by the same power-lust as Macdonald. First encouraging Riel, Bourget winces becomingly and flings him to the government dogs, when his support might embarrass the church.

Later the good bishop lies dying and it’s time for comfortable recantation, a last pious wheeze: “I once dreamt of a Catholic New France in the West . . . Riel must be saved.” Actor Roux shines.

Roger Blay as Gabriel Dumont takes a well written part and rides with it into our hearts. While Louis Riel dreamed, Dumont rounded up Métis buffalo guns and made sure they were fired. Examined by writer and actor with precision, Dumont here is the man of violence who has politicized every grudge he ever had against life, against himself—“If I’m fat, ugly, poor, of a despised minority, cheated of my right to be, then I shall kill to get back however little I can.”

There are sharp scenes between Riel (Raymond Cloutier) and Dumont. When he journeys to Montana to summon Riel to Batoche after years of exile, Dumont glimpses the growing mystical flame sparking Louis’s eyes. Dumont is startled, digests it, yet reaffirms his loyalty: “You are one crazy son-of-abitch and I may be another.” Dumont,

above all others, revved the dramatist’s engine. Leaving his leader to pray alone on his knees in a stand of white birch trees, Dumont says gently to him: “You and God talk to each other 24 hours a day. Let Him catch His breath.”

Louis Riel was as much trouble for the writer of this teleplay as he proved to be in life for John A. Macdonald. Repercussions from the hanging haunted the old Father of Confederation, indeed drove the Conservatives out of office for years. Along with the author’s conception of the lead, the major failure of this film is the casting of Riel. I simply couldn’t believe Raymond Cloutier when his Riel proclaims, “I am God’s instrument.” Cloutier’s tight, pouty, unlived-in face contains no made prophet, no winning orator, no exiled schoolteacher. Everybody here is frantic not to make Riel a nut. But, to some degree, he was. Show it.

Although he married and fathered two children, Riel has no sex life in this epic. His Marguerite is a cardboard wifelet allowed to pine beside prison bars and no more. Surely the lady had some influence on the man. If it is not in the records, let the writer imagine it.

In good historical plays, like John Osborne’s Luther or Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, we admire not the correct history but that writer’s faculty that embodies the record, then sails past it into magical synthesis, making from old clay a new man, a historical figure that we can know. Good dramatists take chances with their heroes of the past—bitter chances as in Peter Weiss’s The Investigation, even sentimental chances like Dore Schary in Sunrise at Campobello. This play is so obsessed with what happened, it leaves aside why and how and to whom.

But this is not our last Riel.

The next may fly.

The ghost waits.


Directed by George Bloomfield (CBC, April 15 and 17, 8:30 p.m.)