Two-fisted Mountie Rance Raine’s brother has been murdered and this means that the culprit must pay. He has a very specific set of skills, a smart dog called Rex and a horse named Starlight. Those flannel-clad baddies are going to wish they were never born.
More than one way to skin a cat.
Nowadays, these young whippersnappers watching action movies can’t seem to get enough of the “they killed his wife and kidnapped his daughter and now they’re gonna pay!” plot but what about good, old-fashioned dead brothers? Dead brothers are fantastic motivation for a square-jawed hero to track down the baddies. (I am morbid today!)
The You Killed My Brother plot (YKMB for short) can be found in almost every genre in silent and classic film and this time we are going to be heading north for a Mountie flick that leads YKMB to one of the more gruesome conclusions of the silent era.
I have always had a weakness for Mountie pictures—maybe it’s because of my childhood love of both Dudley Do-Right and Due South—and the silent era was jam-packed with the genre. They made for a nice change of pace from westerns and gave cowboy stars an excuse to wear becoming Mountie uniforms, along with fur hats and flannel jackets. Everyone from Lon Chaney to William S. Hart took a stab at the genre.
One of the most prolific movie Mounties of the silent era was Jack Perrin, who played tough Canadian heroes primarily for low-budget studios. Where the North Holds Sway was very much par for the Perrin course.
Rance Raine (Jack Perrin) of the Northwest Mounted Police has received word that his younger brother has completed medical school and means to set up a practice in the obscure Californian Canadian wilderness. Raine is so excited by the news that he converts a cabin into a medical office, complete with sign. He is watched closely by the police outpost’s mascot, a kid named Red (Buzz Barton), and by his dog named Rex and his horse named Starlight. Yes, I am afraid this is one of those kid/dog/horse sidekick films. Sorry about that.
Anyway, there is a town nearby called Caribou Junction because of course. Jules Landeau (Lew Meehan) arrives in town with “his girl-wife” from America (Pauline Curley). The character is never given a name so I will just refer to her as Pauline. Jules wants to stay at the hotel/saloon/dance hall but hasn’t a bean so he offers the proprietor… his wife. (Seriously, Canada? Is slavery a thing up that-a-way? I mean, first we have The Soul of the Beast and now this.)
Pauline is a bit annoyed. I mean, one minute you’re some fellow’s girl-wife and now this? She told Jules to invest in a camper but would he listen? Oh no.
Little brother Dr. Harvey Raine (Hal Walters) arrives in town, hears Pauline crying and investigates. She tells him her troubles but then Jules bursts in. Instead of excusing himself and making a surreptitious call to Rance on the public telephone downstairs, Harvey reads Jules the riot act. Jules responds by pumping him full of lead. Well, that showed him.
A little while later, the R.N.W.M.P. outpost receives a telephone call (told you they had one) informing them of the murder. Rance is stunned but then jumps on his horse and rides to the scene of the crime. On the way, he meets Jules and Pauline, who made their escape in a buggy. They seem like a nice couple so Rance gives them directions to North Fork and rides on.
Caribou Junction is positively awash in clues but clues are for sissies. Interviewing witnesses? Oh sure, if you want to do it the easy way.
As you can see, things are somewhat hampered by the fact that Rance has a bit too much yardage between the goalposts, if you know what I mean. He’s not too bright, is my point. Let’s see, he races to the scene of his brother’s murder, there are scads of witnesses including a friend of the family and no one tells him that the killers were a man and woman who escaped in a buggy? They even left their luggage behind in their hasty flight! And then Rance would say, “Golly, I gave directions to North Fork to a couple in a buggy not one hour ago. After them!”
But no. Instead, Rance burns down the office he built for his brother (are property values that low?) and resigns his commission. He leaves Red and Rex behind and goes riding off on Starlight looking for the killers without a single clue to his name. He doesn’t even know how many killers he’s looking for! I’ll tell you, this Rance fellow is knitting with only one needle. I wonder how he got to be a Mountie anyway? Were they that low on applicants? Oh well, the YKMB plot won’t wait and we have killers to track down.
During the manhunt, we soon realize that Starlight the horse is the real brains of the outfit. Rance has been wandering around with little success when Starlight gets spooked by a wildcat of some sort and throws our hero from his saddle. Realizing that his master is injured, Starlight goes to a nearby cabin and knocks on the door. (Told you it was that kind of movie.) And who do you think lives there? Why, Jules and Pauline, of course!
And you know what’s even better? Jules loudly confesses to the murder while Rance is just on the other side of the door. That’s right, Rance quite literally has to stumble and fall his way into discovering the killer! I mean, I’m sure the police would love it if all murderers were to conveniently confess their specific crimes within earshot of an officer but it’s pretty rare.
If Starlight had not thrown him, Rance would probably still be wandering all over Canada looking for his brother’s murderer. This does not give us enormous confidence in the crime-stopping skills of the Mounties. Oh well, at this point in the film, everyone seems to forget they are making a Mountie flick and are looking and acting like any western picture. Except for the flannel. Lots and lots of flannel.
The film goes from “We always get our man” to “Fill your hand, you naughty, naughty man” in just one scene. Rance isn’t out for justice, you see, he is out for blood. This seems like highly inappropriate behavior for a former Mountie with a white horse named Starlight but there it is. I would tell you more but that would be cheating.
(Spoiler for this paragraph) But what about this gruesome ending we were promised? Okay, I’ll spill. Through trickery and impracticality, Rance finally manages to lure Jules back to the hotel room where the murder was committed. And then he starts whittling and Jules starts getting nervous. Rance talks about skinning cows and how he has done it numerous times. You know where this is going, right? Yup, Rance reveals his identity as the brother of the murdered man and drags Jules off. And then he reaches back and grabs his skinning knife. Everything else is suggested with shadows but it’s pretty effective. Needless to say, a bit jarring in a film with a genius horse. (Influenced by Behind the Door, perhaps?)
So, how does this picture measure up? The acting, sets and scenery are exactly what you would expect from a B movie of this period. It’s not a masterpiece but basically well made. I found myself surprisingly not annoyed by the boy/dog/horse combination, possibly because this is a silent film and I didn’t have to hear “golly, gee whiz!” dialogue.
Jack Perrin does well enough, though I do wish a little more thought had been put into his character. His basic failure to follow even the simplest investigative procedure makes him come off as dim and sloppy, not desirable traits in a law officer. The script throws up some token obstacles but most of the character’s difficulties are just plain unbelievable. Why does he quit the force? Wouldn’t his mission have been easier with the full resources of the government behind him? Why is no one else trying to find the killers? Surely the murder of a young physician would warrant some investigation. See what I mean? Sloppy. It feels like several key scenes were either cut or never written.
Where the North Holds Sway is not exactly the best Mountie flick of the silent era and its jarring shift in tone do not do it any favors but it’s still worth seeing if you are a fan of the genre. The kids and animals are far less irritating than usual and the hardcore ending is certainly a surprise. But could some Canadians kindly fill me in about the labor practices up north because these silent movies have me worried.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★
Where can I see it?
Where the North Holds Sway was released on DVD by Grapevine. Alpha also has a version out but they have a habit of snipping out random scenes and intertitles.