Saturday 16 September 2017

Movie Review: Saskatchewan (1954)

A fairly routine Western, Saskatchewan (also clumsily known as O'Rourke Of The Canadian Mounted) examines tensions with native tribes from the Canadian perspective.

The setting is Western Canada in the 1870s. Thomas O'Rourke (Alan Ladd) was orphaned as a child and raised by the peaceful Cree tribe. Now a member of the Mounted Police, he is a soul brother of Cajou (Jay Silverheels). Together they stumble across Grace Markey (Shelley Winters), the only survivor of an attack on a wagon convoy by the aggressive American Sioux tribe. Empowered by their recent stunning victory over General Custer, the Sioux are planning to expand their influence northwards.

O'Rourke clashes with his new stuffy commander Benton (Robert Douglas), whose hard-nosed approach to the Cree creates an opening for the Sioux to bait the Cree into a warmongering alliance. Meanwhile US Marshall Carl Smith (Hugh O'Brian) arrives to arrest Grace, who is accused of killing her lover, who happened to be Smith's brother. With help from good natured scout Batouche (J. Carrol Naish), O'Rourke has to figure out a way to avoid a bloodbath and broker peace when all around him are agitating for a fight.

Filmed in rich, gorgeous colour in Banff National Park, Alberta, and directed with galloping efficiency by Raoul Walsh, Saskatchewan is proficient and also rather uninspired. Unlike the scenery, the characters are for the most part monochromatic, and the stock dialogue is delivered in clipped, read-the-damned-lines mode. Shelley Winters serves up flagrant sex appeal in low cut tops, her sub-plot stuck in neutral as O'Rourke bashes Marshall Smith at regular intervals to demonstrate turf supremacy.

Walsh does better staging the larger action scenes, finding enough extras for impressive legions of Mounted Police in resplendent but not-safe-for-battle redcoats and native tribes to stalk each other and occasionally charge. Despite a couple of impressive explosions the bloodshed is kept to respectable levels, the film's premise hinging on highlighting the relatively better relationships built with the natives in Canada compared to the United States.

In addition to the various levels of enmity between the white man and the natives, there is also enough within the main plot to tease out rivalries between different tribes as well as tensions inside the RCMP as clueless by-the-book commanders ignore the wisdom of trail-smart troops. Walsh rides his story to a climax somewhere between rousing and clunky, but the real highlight comes earlier in a most Canadian wrinkle for a standard western: a canoe chase.

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