Canuck Movies: Mounties, Nell Shipman & the Canadian Spirit


Canuck Movies: Mounties, Nell Shipman & the Canadian Spirit — A Patriot’s Rant



Nell Shipman & Brownie in BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY

“The leading man wasn’t a very good swimmer and when we got into that wild, white water, he forgot what little he knew.  I was lucky enough to reach him and we made that big rock out there in the middle…  Well, I’ve never been doubled — yet!  But, Gosh!  It sure makes me sore to sit in a picture theatre, watching myself pull some crazy stunt, and hear people say, ‘She didn’t really do that!  It’s a trick!  They do it with a camera!'” – Nell Shipman

“Canada gave her all in this war and I think that our understanding of what it means to be Canadian was actually forged in the crucible of the Western Front.  And yet, mysteriously, our cinematic record is all but silent on this subject.” Paul Gross


cameron-royal-mounted-movieIn 1921, Canadian independent film producer Ernest Shipman released a rousing silver screen version of Ralph Connor’s best selling novel CORPORAL CAMERON OF THE NORTH-WEST MOUNTED POLICE.

Retitled Cameron of the Royal Mounted, it quickly became one of the top moneymaking movies of that year worldwide, drawing long line-ups of excited film-goers in every town and city throughout the Dominion — and beyond.

Books, magazine stories and movies about Canada’s Mounties were immensely popular with the public and Cameron of the Royal Mounted was the latest product of that success.

The huge popularity of Shipman’s earlier Canadian-set movies, like Baree, Son Of Kazan and The Black Wolf and Back To God’s Country (all of which starred his wife Nell Shipman), coupled with the rise of nationalistic fervour that burst out like a bonfire during the emotion-charged “Free Trade” Election of 1911 and our patriotic entry into the Great War of 1914, fueled the demand for popular Canadian-made movies based on our own Canadian stories.

When Liberal Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier had signed the Free Trade deal with President William Taft of the U. S. in 1911, Canadians remembered Sir John A MacDonald’s vehement “Free Trade is Treason!” and had voted Laurier out in a landslide victory for Nova Scotia-born Conservative Robert Borden, killing the “Taft Deal.” [1]


Canadians at that time passionately believed in cultural independence and an abiding love of the Mother Country, England.

And we stormed the recruiting stations to join the battle in Europe to defend the Empire.

Patriotism ruled the True North Strong and Free.

We wanted stories that reflected this.

And our own movie makers rose to the challenge, producing exciting works of romance, adventure and stirring drama.

The year 1913 saw The Battle Of The Long Sault — a realistic re-enactment of the Châteauguay battle with the Iroquois, jointly made with the Kanehnawaga First Nations.

Followed by popular films such as The War Pigeon (1914), The Pine’s Revenge (1915), Self Defence (1916), The Black Wolf (1917), The Scorching Flame (1918), The Great Shadow (1919), God’s Crucible (1920), The Girl from God’s Country (1921), Cameron of the Royal Mounted (1921), The Rapids (1922), Nanook of the North (1922), The Man From Glengarry (1922), The Grub-Stake (1923), The Trail of the North Wind (1924), Carry On Sergeant! (1928, a drama of the Battle of Ypres) and The Beaver People (1928, first of several popular documentaries starring wilderness guide and writer Grey Owl).


Nell-Shipman-Back-To-Gods-CountryErnest Shipman’s 1919 production of Back To God’s Country (his wife Nell wrote the screenplay based on a James Oliver Curwood short story and starred as the heroine, including a scene where she swam naked in a waterfall-fed northern river [2]) eclipsed all other made-in-Canada productions in box-office ticket numbers and popularity, before or since, becoming our biggest motion picture success of all time — and that’s well-nigh a hundred years ago!  

By the mid 1920’s, the Hollywood Movie Moguls had begun their ruthless destruction of competing independent movie makers and theatre owners throughout North America.  The U.S. government — spurred on by what Ernest Shipman called “New York financial interests” — imposed a “special tariff on the importation of Canadian films” into the States.

The federal Liberal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King, supported by the Progressive Party, refused to respond to Ernest Shipman’s impassioned public plea for a “retaliatory tariff” against the importation of Hollywood films.

Thus the pertinacious extermination of Canada’s vibrant nationalistic film industry was a done deal.  The new Canadian Spirit that had been born during the fiery 1911 election — and in Flanders Fields and the bloody battles of Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge — was crushed by a closer enemy.  Ernest Shipman was among the first of our cultural casualties.  No major Canadian motion picture producers survived.

Although Nell Shipman bravely carried on by herself for a brief but brilliant time, writing, acting in and producing her own independent wilderness films…

Known today as “an early pioneer of Hollywood film-making,” the British Columbian actress Nell Shipman achieved overnight success as the star of the 1916 silent movie God’s Country and the Woman.

Hailed as “the new Mary Pickford,” Nell turned down an offered seven year contract from an ambitious motion picture producer from Poland named Szmuel Gelbfisz (who was in the process of changing his name to Samuel Goldwyn).  Instead, Nell choose to make a series of popular independent Canadian movies, first with her husband, then on her own.

A passionate believer in animal rights, she created a sanctuary of over a hundred animals, who often starred in her movies as friends who would save her from “men of prey more heartless than the beasts of the forest.”

Nell’s silent movies became a passionate visualization of her love of the free creatures of the wilderness, the Canadian Spirit — and the first ecofeminist art.

Over two decades later, a much older and wiser William Lyon Mackenzie King, again elected Prime Minister, had the opportunity to restore nationalistic movie enterprise in Canada.

In the years just after World War II, nations around the world were pouring scarce resources into building their own national film industries.

England, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Australia, Japan and so many more were all rebuilding movie production companies that would soon thrive.  And represent their unique cultures.  (Is there anything more British than the Carry On films?)

With that in mind, Prime Minister King established the National Film Board — and then allowed it to be gutted by his own Minister of Trade, American-born C D Howe, in favour of continued foreign control.  (See “Canadian  Co-operation, Hollywood Style,” Part Four of Pierre Berton’s essential HOLLYWOOD’S CANADA, in which Pierre describes what has to be one of Canada’s worst acts of cultural treason.)


Today, nothing has changed, eh?

3-Passchendaele-Canadian-movie-paul-grossDue South‘s Paul Gross has written, starred in, directed and produced two major Canadian films — Passchendaele, about the WWI bloody battle in Flanders, where Canadian soldiers took huge losses but fought to victory over the Germans — and Hyena Road, a true story of a Canadian military unit in Afghanistan.

Neither movie was given much distribution in our foreign-controlled theatre system.

Passchendaele still won three Gemini Awards, including Best Picture of 2009, The Golden Reel Award and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role to Paul Gross.

And Afghan veterans still continue to call Hyena Road the most realistic and authentic depiction of what they really went through, including young vets I’ve talked with.

“My experience with Hyena Road and the many, many, many soldiers I came to know quite well in the course of making that film, they did talk to me,” Paul said in a recent interview with Jim Day of The Guardian. [3]

“And I suppose one of the greatest things I ever heard about the film was a veteran from the conflict came up to me and was quite moved and he was crying and he shook my hand and he said  ‘I thank you a lot and now I can show this to my family because I’ve never been able to tell them what it was like.’  And I think that is a struggle with a lot of the soldiers.”

There’s a genuine Canadian sentiment and reality to both movies, especially Hyena Road, that foreign reviewers didn’t get — which is my whole point.







==>> To Read More About the Life and Art of Nell Shipman, See Women Pioneers of Animal Rights

==>> To learn more about the essential place our Mounties once had in Canadian Culture, go to  “The GREATEST WRITERS OF NORTH-WEST MOUNTED POLICE FICTION”

==>> A WILD WOLF, A HALF-WILD HUSKY, A WILY OLD TRAPPER!   If you want to read my free story in the Jack London & James Oliver Curwood Tradition, Click Here to Read My Popular Online Northwestern WOLFBLOOD! 


[1] Perhaps the fatal shot came to the Taft Deal for Canadian voters when Democratic House Leader Champ Clark gave a speech in the United States House of Representatives supporting Free Trade and concluded with his much-quoted: “I look forward to the time when the American flag will fly over every square foot of British North America up to the North Pole!” — revealing the real forces behind Free Trade.



[2] Back To God’s Country.  Nell later admitted that she was surprised that the nude scene wasn’t cut when shown in America.

Taking advantage of the moral outrage from some groups who wanted the film banned, the Shipmans bombarded the American motion picture theatre owners with full page ads in Moving Picture World that announced: DON’T BOOK “BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY” — Unless You Want To Prove That The Nude is NOT Rude.

Because her tame bruin cub Brownie was also with her in the river during that shot, she later joked that she wanted to title that scene “In A Dark Pool With A Bear Behind” but knew that those words would get the film banned for sure.  Hey, it WAS 1920.

Click on “Is The Nude Rude?” Image above to see the complete controversial Moving Picture World ad — as well as the more sensational Vancouver World ad.

[3] “Actor and director Paul Gross says Canadians should honour soldiers”


– Brian Alan Burhoe



Canuck Movies: Mounties, Nell Shipman & the Canadian Spirit

Keywords: Brian Alan Burhoe, canadian spirit, canuck movies, first ecofeminist art, Hyena Road, jack london, james oliver curwood, Mary Pickford, mounties, nell shipman, north-west mounted police, nude scene, patriots rant, Paul Gross, Paul Gross quotes, Pierre Berton, Vimy Ridge



About Brian Alan Burhoe

A Graduate of the Holland College Culinary Course, Brian Alan Burhoe has cooked in Atlantic Coast restaurants and institutional kitchens for over 30 years. He is a member of the Canadian Culinary Federation. Brian's articles reflect his interests in food service, Canadian history, imaginative literature, wildlife writing, animal rights, wilderness preservation and our best friends -- our dogs. See his CIVILIZED BEARS!
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