North West Mounted Police—Gary Cooper, Robert Preston, Madeleine Carroll, Paulette Goddard, Preston Foster, Lynne Overman, George Bancroft, Montagu Love, Akim Tamiroff, Robert Ryan, Lon Chaney, Jr., Wallace Reid, Jr. (1940; Dir: Cecil B. DeMille)
This is a typical Cecil DeMille production for its time, with a large cast and shot in Technicolor at a time (1940) when that was still rare for westerns. Gary Cooper stars in the second of his three DeMille westerns. The first was The Plainsman (1936), and the third would be Unconquered (1947), set in colonial times. Cooper was a big star, and, although he initially made much of his reputation in westerns, he only made a handful of them in the 1940s. (See The Westerner, 1940, and the western comedy Along Came Jones, 1945.)
It is 1885, and the Second Riel Rebellion is brewing among the mixed-ancestry Metís (pronounced “meet-us” in this movie) people of Saskatchewan in Canada. Louis Riel (Francis McDonald) is retrieved from Montana, where he has been teaching school, by Dan Duroc (Akim Tamiroff) and Jacques Corbeau (George Bancroft, who had played the good-hearted sheriff in Stagecoach the previous year). Riel has reservations about any association with the rough Corbeau, who has a history of running liquor and guns to the Indians, but Duroc persuades him to go along because Corbeau has a gatling gun which will equalize things with the Queen’s forces.
Two red-coated Mounties, Sgt. Jim Brett (Preston Foster) and Ronnie Logan (Robert Preston) discover in Batoche, the Metís capital, that the rebellion has reached dangerous proportions, with Big Bear’s Crees on the verge of joining the Metís. Romantic interests are established for both of them, Logan with Metís maiden Louvette Corbeau (daughter of Jacques Corbeau, played by Paulette Goddard as kind of a dark-skinned, blue-eyed Gypsy) and Brett with Logan’s sister April Logan (Madeleine Carroll), a selfless nurse among the Metís in Batoche. She doesn’t seem convinced that Brett’s for her.
Into this cauldron of brewing rebellion and budding romance rides a Texas Ranger, Dusty Rivers (Gary Cooper), who is looking to arrest Corbeau for a murder in Texas. He is received dubiously at Fort Carlton, especially by Sgt. Brett, when he develops an immediate attraction to April Logan. Brett goes off to persuade Big Bear to remain allied to the Queen, but when Corbeau promises to bring him red coats covered with blood, Big Bear gives him three days to do that before he will join the rebellion.
Ronnie Logan and another Mountie are sent off to remote guard duty at Duck Lake. When April hears of the seriousness of the rebellion, she sends Louvette Corbeau to warn Ronnie. Instead of warning him, she lures him into a situation where she can take him prisoner. In his absence, a column of Mounties are mostly massacred at Duck Lake, including the commander (played by Montagu Love). His dying command to Brett is that he get Ronnie and make him pay for his desertion.
While Sgt. Brett takes command of the few surviving Mounties left at Fort Carlton, heading on an apparent suicide mission to Big Bear, Rivers helps April flee the burning fort and heads for Batoche, where he distracts the defenders by cutting their canoes loose and destroying the gatling gun. He helps Ronnie escape the clutches of Louvette, only to see him cut down by an Indian assassin hired by Louvette to get Rivers.
Rivers liberates Ronnie Logan from his scheming captor Louvette; River woos nurse April Logan (Madeleine Carroll).
At Big Bear’s camp, Brett is improbably successful at retrieving the Crees’ loyalty and the rebellion seems to be over, with Duroc dead and Riel and Corbeau captured. A Mountie tribunal is on the verge of convicting Ronnie of desertion, until Rivers comes in and attributes to Ronnie his own efforts in destroying the gatling gun at Batoche, saving Ronnie’s reputation. At the end, he abducts Corbeau to take him back to Texas, but as he leaves with his prisoner, Brett and April find him and announce that April is marrying Brett. But Brett allows Rivers to take Corbeau and leaves Rivers’ version of Ronnie’s heroism to stand even though he suspects otherwise.
Joel McCrea had starred for DeMille in Union Pacific in 1939 and was the first choice to play Rivers. But he dropped out to do Alfred Hitcock’s Foreign Correspondent and was about to be cast in two Preston Sturges films (all included in the best work of his career), so the role went to Gary Cooper. English actress Madeleine Carroll had made her reputation working with Alfred Hitchcock as the first of his cool blondes (The 39 Steps, Secret Agent) and in costume dramas (Prisoner of Zenda, Lloyd’s of London). By 1938 she was said to be the highest-paid actress in Hollywood. After her sister Marguerite was killed in a London bombing raid, she spent the rest of the war as a field nurse and in other war efforts. She became a U.S. citizen in 1943, but her career never revived after the war. At this stage of his career, Robert Preston often played the friend or brother who went bad (Union Pacific, Blood on the Moon, Whispering Smith), and his character usually died because of that. Several young actors, including Robert Ryan, Lon Chaney, Jr., Regis Toomey, Rod Cameron and Wallace Reid, Jr. (son of a silent star who died of drug addiction) play young Mounties or Indians.
One of the screenwriters here is Alan LeMay, author of the novel The Searchers was based on. But the dialogue is clunky, and Cooper’s, in particular, is excessively of the aw-shucks homespun variety. Between that and his character’s too-precious name, it’s not one of his more successful performances. He could play frontier characters naturally and was doing so convincingly at this time in his career (playing western in The Westerner the same year, and playing Appalachian backwoods in Sergeant York, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar the following year), but it doesn’t work well here. Neither the abrupt end of the rebellion nor the abrupt change of heart by April Logan are entirely convincing, either. After the opening scene, Riel largely disappears, and we never discover why he’s essential to the rebellion. He certainly has little charisma as depicted here.
This is one of the fifty movies listed in The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and How They Got That Way) by Harry Medved and Randy Lowell (1978). It’s not that epically bad, but is it worth watching? It is if you are interested in either Cooper or DeMille, not to mention the beautiful Carroll. For another (and better) story of an American gone north, see Gunless (2010). For another story of Mounties and Indians, see Raoul Walsh’s Saskatchewan with Alan Ladd (1954). If you’re interested in the background of Canada’s Second Riel Rebellion, see Strange Empire by Joseph Kinsey Howard (first published in 1952).
In color, at 126 minutes. Shot principally around Big Bear Lake in California, San Bernardino National Forest. The movie won an Oscar for Best Editing.