Nell Shipman, one of the creative powerhouses of the silent era, stars in this rugged tale of the frozen north. She plays a nice wilderness gal with a rather disturbing stalker. With her husband out of commission, she has to take on the baddie herself. Girl power!
By which, of course, we mean Canada…
Movies are like food: Every country has its own flavor and favorite ingredients. Silent film is no exception. The Americans liked glamour, romance and stars. The Germans were famous for their moody lighting and dark subject matter. The French charmed with their elaborate sets, whimsical special effects and delicate tints.
And the Canadian films? They were famous for… Canada. More specifically, the beautiful Canadian wilderness. From the very beginning, the Canadian film industry made so-called “scenics.” Scenics were relatively unstructured short films meant to showcase natural wonders, what we today might call a travelogue or a video diary.
Back to God’s Country was an attempt to meld celebration of nature with a blockbuster-ready storyline. The people behind the scenes were producer Ernest Shipman, actress Nell Shipman and author James Oliver Curwood. The Shipmans had honed their skills in Hollywood before setting out to make a movie that would celebrate the wilderness in general and the Canadian wilderness in particular.
Curwood was enormously popular at the time and his large body of work would provide the kind of popular tales that would make paying customers flock to the box office. Ernest Shipman worked behind the scenes as producer and screenwriter while Nell Shipman’s onscreen charisma (and an infamous bathing scene) would provide further box office insurance.
Let’s see if this trio succeeded.
The story opens with the murder of a Chinese man in Canada. The dead man’s dog is a magnificent Great Dane whose great-great-great-great grandpup is Wapi, a big mean dog with an enormous amount of racial memory. So there’s that.
Now that we are thoroughly confused, we are introduced to Dolores (Nell Shipman), a wilderness beauty who lives with her father (Roy Laidlaw, only 9 years older than his movie daughter) in the Canadian backwoods. They have a visitor from civilization, the bookish Peter Burke (the wonderfully-named Wheeler Oakman). Peter and Dolores fall in love and become engaged but he has to return to the city on business.
While Peter is away, we meet the villain of the piece. Rydal (the equally wonderfully-named Wellington Playter) is a fugitive who has disguised himself with the uniform of a murdered Mountie. (Boo! Hiss!) Just don’t ask about that bullet hole in the back of the coat…
Rydal spots Dolores paddling about in the altogether and decides he must have her. Dolores thinks otherwise and so Rydal throws her father off a cliff and into a roaring river to teach her a lesson. She dives in after her dad but he was killed by the fall. Peter finds her with the body. Rydal has skulked away.
Peter and Dolores marry and move to the city. They are planning to move back to the woods once Peter finishes his business. What with one thing and another, they end up travelling by ship. And guess who the captain is…
Rydal is still after Dolores. He has Peter thwacked with a sail and plans to make his move once the injured man dies. By this time, the ship is iced in and the only settlement nearby is a trading post owned by Rydal’s partner in crime. The doctor is 200 miles away and the snowy terrain can only be crossed at great risk by dogsled.
The settlement is also home to Wapi, the granddog of the Great Dane at the beginning. Dolores befriends him and begins to plan her escape.
Can Dolores save her husband? How does Wapi figure into all this? And doesn’t Rydal have anything better to do? Find out in Back to God’s Country!
Nell Shipman is delightful in her role. Not conventionally beautiful, she has charisma to spare and a wryly humorous manner that is very appealing. She also embraces the outdoorsy nature of her role; this lady does not shy away from leaping into rushing rivers, playing with porcupines or absconding with a dogsled. And keep in mind that she had just recovered from the Spanish Influenza! It’s a pity that her career as a lead actress did not last longer.
These wild child roles are extremely difficult to pull off, by the way. The actress must be athletic, charismatic and she has to be able to rejoice in nature without looking like a hopeless loon. (For an example of this part done badly, look under Dempster, Carol.) Of course, Nell Shipman’s love of animals made her cavorting with nature much more believable and she was fit as a fiddle.
Shipman was more than just an actress, however. She was responsible for expanding Dolores’ heroics in the plot and her skill with animals was an enormous asset to the film. She later set up her own production company and enjoyed success as a screenwriter. (Her son, Barry, followed in her footsteps.)
Ronald Byram was the original leading man but he contracted pneumonia during the harsh winter scenes and died suddenly. He was replaced by Wheeler Oakman, a versatile performer who could play heroes and villains with equal skill. In this case, though, Wheeler is thoroughly out-acted by Nell and her menagerie. His Peter comes off as an amiable dweeb but certainly no help in dealing with nefarious ship captains.
Wellington Playter does what he can as Rydal but there is only so much that can be accomplished with such a shallow character. Which brings me to some bad news…
The single biggest flaw of the film is the melodramatic villainy. I place most of the blame for this squarely on the author of the source material.
James Oliver Curwood and I have a very antagonistic relationship. I have never been able to get through one of his books. Maybe it’s residual irritation at being forced to stay late in the second grade because the teacher insisted that we just had to see The Bear. (I was coming down with a cold and thus not very receptive.) Maybe I just can’t get into grown-up novels purported to be told through the point of view of a bear or a wolf or a dog. In any case, I always let out a groan when the Curwood name flashes across the screen.
Curwood took exception to the focus on Nell Shipman’s heroics. Didn’t she know that the hero was supposed to be the dog? With all due respect to Mr. Curwood (and that is hard to muster), and keeping in mind my love of dogs, Nell Shipman is the single best thing about this picture. Her natural enthusiasm and appeal put over the thin premise.
I have never been a particular fan of either Jack London or his imitators. The whole Manly Men and Manlier Dogs sub-genre is also quite difficult to film without falling into rampant silliness. For an example of what I mean, I give you Nomads of the North, also based on a Curwood novel. See? Cutting back on Wapi was a good call and they actually could have cut the prologue as well and ended up with a much stronger film. (For the record, I am very fond of Teddy and Rin Tin Tin. Those dogs could act!)
The bad guys in Back to God’s Country are as cartoonish as they come. They cackle and plot to do evil things (evilly!) in a manner best suited to a Victorian melodrama. Rydal’s pursuit of Dolores is a stretch for even the most credulous viewer. I mean, surely there are other women in Canada. I can understand a wicked man pursuing a seemingly vulnerable girl but racing across the blizzardy tundra after an armed and desperate woman with nothing to lose? There is a point when even the nastiest villain will cut his losses. (I really could have done without the dog fight scenes, by the way. I hate that kind of stuff.)
And the motivation for all the baddies? They’re evil! Evil! (Curwood did so love his man-beast characters. Yes, he called them that.)
Back to God’s Country is definitely worth the view for the performance of Nell Shipman, the gorgeous scenery (a combination of Canada and California) and the exciting race across the frozen landscape (minus that dog fight). While it definitely has its flaws, it is an impressive example of an independent film made under difficult circumstances.
Before we get to the gallery, I thought a little Q&A session was in order. There are two misconceptions about this film that I would like to put to bed.
I heard that Back to God’s Country was the first movie made in Canada, is this true?
No, nor is it the first narrative film made in Canada. It also is not the first feature film made in Canada. The first films made by Canadian concerns (as opposed to visiting French or American production companies) are generally agreed to be the work of James Freer, who emigrated from his native England. Freer obtained equipment in 1897 and set about showcasing the wonders of Canada. His films had a political motive: many Canadians were concerned that the large number of American immigrants would dilute their connection to the British Empire and Freer meant to make Canada an attractive destination for loyal Englishmen.
The first Canadian narrative film was the 1903 short film Hiawatha: The Messiah of Ojibway. Based on the famous 1855 Longfellow poem, the film is now considered lost and only a few stills remain.
The first Canadian feature-length drama was the 1913 film Evangeline, also based on a Longfellow poem. Like Hiawatha, Evangeline is considered to be a lost film. Sadly, due to the limited distribution that the film received, there is little chance of it showing up in an attic or an Eastern European archive.
Wow, Nell Shipman sure seems empowered, not like the other damsels-in-distress in the silent era.
Another common misconception. We are used the idea of independent women in movies basically following the trajectory of the growth of women’s rights. That is, women only got the vote halfway through the silent era. Ergo, there must not have been many empowered women in silent movies.
In fact, there were many, many strong, independent women in silent film. For example, Mary Pickford regularly saved the day. So did Bebe Daniels. So did Leatrice Joy. So did Blanche Sweet. There was also a whole cycle of serial queens (who enthusiastically took on the boys) a few years before Back to God’s Country was made.
Actually, most viewers are surprised at how many fascinating ladies populate silent and pre-Code cinema. It was the enforcement of the Code that forced women back into more traditional and subservient roles. However, it is worth noting that there were still strong women in the more buttoned-down Breen era.
Before we smugly pat ourselves on the back, rejoicing at how advanced and sophisticated we are, it is worth remembering that, according to a 2011 study of Hollywood films, only 11% of all identified protagonists are female. And the ratio of female to male characters (just general speaking roles, not just protagonists) in modern films stands at 30% female to 70% male.
In the silent era, powerful women like Nell Shipman were not a rare anomaly. She was a remarkable woman in many ways but her film character was very much in keeping with the tastes of her audience. Were there some damsels in the silent era? Yes. But, in general, the silent era has modern films beat with the sheer number of complex, independent and interesting female characters.
I mean, look, it’s cool that women can own their own businesses and don’t need their husband’s permission to get a credit card but how’s about some chicks in the movies just to seal the deal?
It’s worth noting that for the 1953 remake of Back to God’s Country chose to focus its attention on the heroic exploits of the husband, played by Rock Hudson. For women in film, it’s one step forward, two steps back… Also, no glorious Canadian wilderness. It had been replaced by Californian paper mache and plywood. (Kay Armatage has a fantastic breakdown of the differences between the original and the Hollywood remake in her book The Girl From God’s Country: Nell Shipman and the Silent Cinema.)
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
Back to God’s Country is available on DVD paired with the 1920 Nell Shipman vehicle Something New. The film has an excellent piano score by Philip Carli. The film was also released on DVD and Bluray as part of the Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers set. The Rock Hudson remake is also available on DVD.