North West Mounted Police (1940) [1940 Week]

Because it was impossible to find any songs from 1940 to write about and because I can’t think of another topic, I will post two movies in a row for the end of the week, although they will be connected in both themes and even title. Let’s go north!

North West Mounted Police is a bad movie in many ways. It is a Cecil B. DeMille spectacle, which is what he was determined to do, but in this case the very concept of a spectacle for this story seems misguided. Using a rebellion of a minority group against the American government as a background is not a good idea, especially if it turns the rebels into caricatures and uses it to paint the North West Mounted Police, a group of horse-riding Canadian policemen, as heroes. Add in some intercultural romance, betrayal, honor and many stereotypes about natives and women and you get an overlong piece of pseudo-propaganda with overly bright colors and strange acting. It is a movie that has very problematic ethical standards and is not well-made. This is not a movie that needs to be remembered.

The movie is the story of the Métis, a group of settlers around the Canadian borders, who in the 1880s want independence because, as is it explained, they feel the U.S. takes more care about the Native Americans than about them (oh, well). While the movie somewhat does justice to them having a good cause for a rebellion, it constantly portrays them as greedy, stupid, silly, wrong-headed and cruel, with some minor exceptions. You’re not supposed to hate them, but they are like little annoying children who don’t know what they’re doing and who need some authority (the North West Mounted Police, with their uniforms and horses and codes) to bring them under control. When two riders (Robert Preston and Preston Foster, playing brothers Ronnie and Jim) come into a Métis town and are quickly attacked by them, showing the “half-breeds” as impulsive and violent. The fight only breaks up because one of them, called Shorty (Lon Chaney Jr.), in a lame attempt of comic relief, has a baby born at that moment, deciding that fighting the Canadian horseman is not so important after all. They bear all the stereotypes of Gypsies and the movie doesn’t really care about them at all.

When the actual rebellion breaks out and the Police has to fight the Métis, each of their deaths is shown as tragic and unfair, while rebels are clearly cruel and cold-hearted. The natives are savages, who enjoy killing others for their cause, while the whites are simply unlucky and helpless because no one cares about their honorable traditions.

The Native Americans in the movie are not treated better, if not even worse. It is made clear that whoever gains the Indians’ trust has the upper hand in the rebellion, so the tribe used, the Cree, is always shown as naïve and obedient, simply following whoever seems stronger or more imposing. They do not seem to have a will of their own. A Cree woman, helping the white nurse and heroine April (Madeleine Carroll), is either nodding wisely or speaking in broken English. In an awful scene that decides who the Cree will follow the leader of the Métis, Jacques Corbeau (George Bancroft), essentially the villain, or the Canadians, represented by Ronnie and Dusty Rivers (Gary Cooper). Corbeau brought a machine gun, showing his willingness for violence and his evil motives. The Canadians are supposed to look reasonable and good-willing, but they are simply patronizing. But of course the stupid Indians don’t listen to the arguments of the white people, but instead are in awe of the power of the machine gun and at the first demonstration run away like scared kids, grimacing and hiding like retards.

When the fight is over, there is a big showdown between the police and the rebels, with the Cree in-between. What they do is to follow whoever shows more authority, simply pawns with no individual mind. First they celebrate the supposed victory over the “red jackets” with the Métis, but when the police arrives, everyone becomes silent and amazed by their presence. But it is only after Ronnie threatens the Cree with extinction that they decide to follow them instead. And we get a painful shot of the Cree chief (Walter Hampden) kneeling before Ronnie, accepting his fate as the inferior race.

But let’s not forget the love story! Jim, Ronnie’s brother, is in love with Louvette (Paulette Goddard, so good in The Great Dictator, terrible here), a “half-breed”, which inherently makes their relationship problematic. Everyone tells him that she is trouble (“Don’t ever trust a blue-eyed squaw!”) and the movie proves everyone’s point by making her deceiving and dishonest. At one point she is spanked publicly (what is it with spanking in 1940?! maybe Fifty Shades should have been made back then) and we see her eating with her hands, which of course is totally disgusting and proves that she is a savage. She defends herself against being called “savage”, but we are not supposed to trust her anyway. To save her lover Jim, she betrays everyone, causing many deaths and putting him in a position that makes everyone believe he is a traitor, which makes him call her “sweet poison” and “dirty squaw.” It is absolutely clear: she is a woman and a half-breed, so what can you expect? Especially in comparison to the angel-like April. And what happens to Jim, the lover of such an immoral person? Well, he is killed of course in the end, the only fate possible for him (by one of the Cree, on top of it). That is what you get for getting in bed with a squaw.

Tomorrow: more fun with killing Indians in movies starting with the word North.