The Big Snows: Canadian Stereotypes in Hollywood
David Trenholm March 20th, 2007 HIST 2483 X2 Professor James Snowdon
It comes as no surprise that Canadians, in general, enjoy their movies. The near century-old tradition of sitting in a large, dark room while staring placidly at an enormous, animated screen has captivated generation after generation of Canadians. When talking to Canadians of all generations, one might hear of an obvious frustration— a frustration that many films shown in this country rarely involve Canada, and for the most part are central to her southern cousin, the United States. Indeed, the U.S. has always dominated the film experience in Canada; the movie-making behemoth that is Hollywood continually floods Canada with their creative work and Canadians are always eager to consume that American-controlled export. Most American-made films rarely mention Canada, and all too often they hold the United States as central, whether it be part of the setting or the storyline. There are simply no modern-day Hollywood films dramatizing significant Canadian moments such as Confederation, the War of 1812, Canadian involvement in either World War, or Canada’s contribution to the world-stage. In an article published in a 1987 issue of Film Quarterly, Maurice Yacowar suggests that in film, Canadians are largely an ethnic minority1, and this is something that is becoming more and more evident. Hollywood’s treatment of Canada had not always been this way, though—while Canadians are largely ignored or subverted in the Americanized film industry today, the act of including elements of Canada was once considered an exotic treat; a treat enjoyed during Hollywood’s golden era of film. Hollywood, in its enthusiastic and misguided fascination with Canada, had created nearly six hundred films about the country2, a shocking number for any Canadian. In the first half of the twentieth century, the American population received Canadian-themed films quite admirably, and
Maurice Yacowar. “The Canadian as Ethnic Minority” Film Quarterly 40, no. 2 (1986-87) 14. Pierre Berton, Hollywood’s Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image. (Toronto: McClelland and Steward Limited, 1975). 16.
although considered by film critics as generally sub-par as far as quality movies went, directors and producers knew that Canadian-themed movies were bound to be a success at the “box-office”. There is an element of similarity here, though, with the way Canada is treated today, as it was several decades ago. The term “Canadian-themed movies” is quite a significant one, as Hollywood and the term “Canada” or “Canadian” have never enjoyed a comfortable relationship. There is certainly no doubt that any film advocate, when sitting down to a screening of Rose-Marie, Saskatchewan or Susannah of the Mounties, would know that the film was about Canada, or probably about Canada. Hollywood, though, would rarely directly indicate, in words, the inspiration for the film: Canada3. In some cases, a genuine Canadian story that starred Canadians, took place in Canada, and involved Canadian themes, would end up rigorously edited, adapted and convoluted to erase any mention of Canada; the result being an American story that starred Americans, took place in the United States, and involved American themes.4 Canada, according to golden-aged Hollywood, was an exotic treasure to be enjoyed, a treasure to be captured on film and produced as a motion picture for the entertainment of the masses—but it was a treasure that was not to be spoken of, and in some cases, to be misrepresented as wholly American. Hollywood’s depictions of Canada were also famous for their limited settings and scenery. Generally speaking, there was very little choice in the way of scenery for Canadian-themed films. Wild, unkempt rugged forests filled with conifers; Rocky, snow-blown mountains and vast stretches of arctic plains, pummelled with wind, sleet and snow was the general extent of it. Most of these scenes were shot in the United States, too, and when a snow-clad arctic was required, Hollywood made use of
Pierre Berton, Hollywood’s Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image. (Toronto: McClelland and Steward Limited, 1975). 19. 4 Berton, 19.
gypsum and marble dust. It is no surprise, then, when most Americans would associate Canada with vast wilderness covered with a perpetual layer of snow, dotted with Mounties, warring Indians and French-speaking lumberjacks. These various roles also grossly misrepresent Canada, and many Canadians today would find them offensive and embarrassing. Canadian-themed films frequently included happy-go-lucky Métis troublemakers, idealistic red-coated Mounties, Hudson Bay prospectors, or war-like Canadian Indians—usually bent on the destruction of the white man (and in most cases, the idealistic red-coated Mountie). The North West Mounted Police (N.W.M.P.), and their other known incarnations—the Royal North West Mounted Police (R.N.W.M.P.) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (R.C.M.P.)—were a particular favourite in Hollywood— a large amount of Canadian-themed films either featured or somehow included the illustrious scarlet-clad lawmen. These types of films pictured Mounties as bastions of law, duty and service; continuously shown as the stalwart mounted (always mounted) policeman who always got his man. Canada’s national “image”, then, is hardly Canadian manufactured—they are instead propagated and reinforced stereotypes as distributed by Hollywood in the so-called golden age of film. Pierre Berton, in his book Hollywood’s Canada, makes a humourous reference to a common Canadian stereotype; how tourists are often baffled when they learn—having loaded themselves up with furs and skis—that Canada is not a frigid, winter-wasteland, and indeed can be quite sweltering in the summer.5 Berton offers up another one on Canadians and urbanization, and how Canada is not made up of a few dozen rural settlements, but that many Canadians live in large, expansive cities.6 This is a popular
Pierre Berton, Hollywood’s Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image. (Toronto: McClelland and Steward Limited, 1975). 12. 6 Pierre Berton, Hollywood’s Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image. (Toronto: McClelland and Steward Limited, 1975). 19.
stereotype and image that is widely circulated in Hollywood film, the idea that across the 49th parallel, the world is transformed into a rugged, wild and snowy wasteland. The idea that Canada is an endless wilderness sprawling across North America, a seemingly impenetrable forest of pine perpetually covered in a thick blanket of snow. As always, the majestic Rocky Mountains serve as a backdrop for everything, regardless of the location. For example, a film set in the prairie province of Saskatchewan that might highlight her beautiful and haunting ice floes will most assuredly feature, in their proud and noble prominence, the white-capped peaks of the Rockies—in spite of those mountains being hundreds of miles away and far out of sight. For Hollywood, though, prairies and endless fields of grain was boring and to be summarily avoided—even at the risk of proposing something so preposterous as a Saskatchewan ice floe! As a result, many of Hollywood’s films on Canada adopted a misguided method on portraying Canadian wilderness, subsequently applying it to the titles of their films. Hollywood uses words like “North”, “Snow”, “Woods”, “Northwoods”, and so forth.7 Pierre Berton raises an interesting point, that because Hollywood grimaced at the idea of mentioning Canada in their films, they simply employed these “code” words instead. Berton does some counting, and he finds that in over one hundred and seventy films that use these “code” words, only eight of them actually refer to Canada in the title8. True classics like The Heart of the North, Jan of the Big Snows and Colleen of the Pines9 illustrate Berton’s point quite nicely. It certainly comes as no surprise, then, when many Americans believe that Canada is one giant wilderness; with terms like the “Great Woods,” or the “Big Snows,” Canada has effectively been immortalized in Hollywood as what many people have come to perceive
Berton, 12. Berton, 19. 9 Berton, 23, 24 and 49.
it as today: one giant, snow-clad wilderness. Many of Hollywood’s Canadian-themed films had a distinct formula, a step-bystep process any prospective director or producer would take if they wanted to assure their success upon the unveiling of their film. This is when Hollywood’s stereotyping of Canada takes another step further, introducing incredibly inaccurate roles, characters and situations that are just simply inaccurate and stereotypical. Canadian-themed films often included many French-Canadians, usually as rogues and cutthroats adorned with a toque and sash, but Berton categorizes their appearances in film into two groups: In the early pictures there were two distinct French-Canadian stereotypes. On the one hand there was the Diabolical French-Canada, a fiendish and often lecherous killer and thief. On the other there was the Happy-Go-Lucky French-Canadian, so cheerful, so humane, so fond of his fellow man that he was too good to be true. In the silent days, the devils outnumbered the saints by about two to one.10 Berton also suggests that the French Canadian was the American version of the Mexican —an adaptable, versatile cast member that could either play “hero or heavy”11, a contention adding to his argument that Canadian-themed films are merely classical American Westerns in a clever, “Canadian” disguise, and are really not Canadian at all. First Nations, or Indians, as with any great American Western, makes quite a few appearances as well. As with the French-Canadian Métis, the various aboriginal bands of Canada were poorly represented. Hollywood quickly became obsessed with the Blackfoot Indians of Canada, and they used them at every opportunity; usually portraying them as
Pierre Berton, Hollywood’s Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image. (Toronto: McClelland and Steward Limited, 1975). 82. 11 Berton, 81.
bloodthirsty savages responsible for a score of murders and massacres12. This often concluded in the stalwart and courageous North West Mounted Police investigating and bringing the Indian savages to justice. This is a truly ridiculous and shameful misrepresentation of the Blackfoot, as history remembers their tribe as one of the most peaceful of the prairie natives; prairie natives who were among the first to sign the historic Dominion treaties as negotiated by their so-called adversaries, the North West Mounted Police.13 Hollywood also completely misrepresents the Sioux under Sitting Bull, the same tribe that decimated General Custer’s troop at the Battle of Little Bighorn. According to Hollywood, Sitting Bull and his Indian braves crossed over the 49th parallel to bring war against the redcoats, and even their own kind.14 Nothing of the sort happened, as Sitting Bull retreated from the United States into Canada in peace, and for the many years he spent there he had caused no trouble for the Canadian authorities. James Walsh, a Major in the North West Mounted Police, had reached a peaceful understanding with Sitting Bull, and no violence came of it.15 Indians were not the only character role in Hollywood’s Canada that was terribly represented; the continual butchering of the image of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police aggravated Ottawa and Regina alike, but unfortunately Mounties, in general, were very well received by Hollywood’s audience. A director knew full well that success was guaranteed if he included an honour-bound, dutiful and gun-toting Mountie into his film. Sensitive, strong, and determined to “get his man”, any well-played yet generally poor-costumed Mountie was bound to attract a large audience.
Pierre Berton, Hollywood’s Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image. (Toronto: McClelland and Steward Limited, 1975). 82 13 Tony Hollihand, The Mounted March West (Edmonton: Folk Lore Publishing, 2004). 217. 14 Berton, 107. 15 Hollihand, 228.
Pierre Berton, once again with his immaculate counting, determines that of the five hundred and seventy five films on Canada, as produced by Hollywood, over two hundred and fifty feature Mounties; they were even so popular that film critics were expressing disgust at their continual use.16 Hollywood never seemed to get the Mounties straight, though, either in reference to their name or the representation of their uniform and image. Whether by accident or neglect, Hollywood would often refer to the Mounties as “The Royal Mounted” or the “Canadian Mounted Police” or even the uncomfortably bulky “The Royal Canadian North West Mounted Police.”17 In spite of their apparent and obvious fascination with the R.C.M.P., they could never quite capture their image on film in such a way it did the Force, and their history, justice. Their name and title is not the only aspect of the R.C.M.P. that Hollywood just could not, or would not get right; the organization’s uniform never seemed quite uniform at all, and in some cases rarely resembled the scarlet-clad policemen north of the border. Berton offers a critical eye on the varying appearances of the so-called Mounties in Hollywood, and from their wavy and curled Stetsons and mismatched red tunics to their functionally incorrect Sam Browne leathers and Strathcona boots, Hollywood could never seem to get the proud uniform of the R.C.M.P. correct18. Even with the invention of the automobile and snowmobile, Hollywood’s Mounted Police still favoured the horse, and in film, a Hollywood Mountie was nearly inseparable from his horse19. Perhaps more of an irritant for the real R.C.M.P., however, was the Hollywood Mountie’s reckless and careless use of his firearm. “Movie Mounties always shot first and asked questions later,” says Berton,
Pierre Berton, Hollywood’s Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image. (Toronto: McClelland and Steward Limited, 1975). 111. 17 Berton, 111. 18 Berton, 130. 19 Berton, 121.
whether it be taking a shot at movement out of the corner of his eye, or putting a few holes in a closet door that might be hiding a fugitive; the Hollywood Mountie really just seemed to be an American gunslinger in disguise. 20 The real Mounties however, have been known for their absolute reluctance to use a drawn weapon in the course of his or her duties, and history does show that the North West Mounted Police rarely employed the use of firearms in enforcing the law—a custom that is clearly enforced in the Constable’s Manual, the Criminal Code, and from officers in the Force. This form of pacification involving non-violence continues with the Force today, in the modern form of their highly regarded problem-solving model, C.A.P.R.A.21 The Mounties, though, are a large part of Hollywood’s Canada, and an extremely popular and successful part as well. They owe their fame, if only in part, to the inclusion of their image into Hollywood filmmaking. It is because of this unique obsession with the Canadian Mountie that it has become one of Canada’s greatest symbols, not to mention a world-recognized symbol alongside Coca-Cola and Mickey Mouse.22 With the onset of the motion picture, America’s film-producing industry dominated the western world, forcing England and the rest of Europe to develop their own films. Until that time, however, America’s far-fetched and grand representation of the Mounties would spread across the Atlantic and into Europe, immortalizing their version of the courageous, duty-bound redcoats into cinematic history and public opinion. Hollywood’s past fascination with Canada is clearly evident—they manufactured close to six hundred films on the country. It is interesting that interest in producing
Pierre Berton, Hollywood’s Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image. (Toronto: McClelland and Steward Limited, 1975). 123. 21 Royal Canadian Mounted Police, “RCMP CAPRA Problem Solving Model,” rcmp.gc.ca, http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/ccaps/capra_e.htm (accessed March 14th, 2007) 22 Rob Cameron, “About Us,” CanadianMountie.org, http://www.canadianmountie.com/aboutus.html (accessed March 14th, 2007)
Canadian-themed films has waned, but for most Canadians this is a stark improvement to the existing content that had been flooding continental theatres. It is a strange wonder, then, that Hollywood had been so hesitant to name Canada directly—it is nearly impossible to determine why such naming conventions were undertaken to avoid the term “Canada” or “Canadian”; few titles ever bore either name. Instead, code words were used to imply Canadian-content in a film, words like “North”, “Northwest”, “Big Snows”, or “Wilderness”. This is a trend that persevered, until finally as a nation, Canada simply ceased to exist in Hollywood’s world. Hollywood and American adaptations, although perhaps genuine, were also terribly misguided. It is a shame that such productions have contributed to false stereotypes about Canada, and that many people around the globe will accept these stereotypes as truth. Some Europeans are shocked to find that Canada is not a winter wonderland, that the intrepid scarlet-clad Canadian Mountie does not patrol endlessly about the wilderness, and that the entirety of Canada is not an enormous forest bordering an arctic ice floe, blanketed serenely with a thick layer of freshly fallen snow; accented, of course, with the magnificent, ever-present Rocky Mountains. The often racist, inaccurate and defamatory characters in these films also add to the famous Canadian stereotypes. Characters like the wicked, roguish and “happy-go-lucky” FrenchCanadian Métis, adorned in a colourful sash and toque. Or perhaps the savage, barbaric Canadian Indian, bent on the destruction of the white man in Canada and the subversion of their native-kin. Even the Mountie, the symbol Hollywood had been so engrossed with, had been twisted and convoluted to fit into the accepted and well-established mold of the American Western; the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later Mountie, the terribly uniformed Mountie, the Mountie who must, at all costs, get his man, and even the
Mountie out to stop the war-like, savage Indians who are so intent on their destruction. These stereotypes exist for a reason, as they have been mistakenly propagated and reinforced by Hollywood’s six hundred films on Canada. Any Canadian will be familiar with these labels—they are now a part of our national image and what has defined, and presently defines Canada and Canadians abroad. Canadians will continue to be frustrated with Hollywood’s lack of Canadian content, and that is something the country, as a whole, has little control over. Until the fledgling Canadian film industry can match the behemoth that is Hollywood, the images and stereotypes propagated by the Los Angeles suburb will continue to dominate Canadian media and culture. And while the country has made strides in defining itself as a nation of peacekeepers, democrats and immigrants, they still struggle with the ever-present big snows, the untamed pine-filled wildernesses, and the gun-slinging get-his-man Mounties. David Trenholm
Bibliography Berton, Pierre, Hollywood’s Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1975. Hollihand, Tony, The Mounties March West. Edmonton: Folk Lore Publishing, 2004. Lotz, Jim, The Mounties. Greenwich: Bison Books, 1984. Rob Cameron, “About Us,” CanadianMountie.org, http://www.canadianmountie.com/aboutus.html. Royal Canadian Mounted Police, “RCMP CAPRA Problem Solving Model,” rcmp.gc.ca, http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/ccaps/capra_e.htm. Thompson, John Herd and Stephen J. Randall, Canada and the United States: Ambivalent Allies. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002. Yacowar, Maurice. “The Canadian as Ethnic Minority”. Film Quarterly 40, no. 2. (198687) 13-19.