Disclosure #1: As we write this post, in which we intended to rant about old Hollywood portraying Canada as a vast sheet of snow and ice, we realized that outside our window is, for now, a vast sheet of snow and ice. So, er…never mind.
Disclosure #2: Our favourite Canadian historian is Pierre Berton (1920-2004). Berton was an outspoken, witty and passionate advocate for Canada and Canadian history, and author of over 50 books. We have two personally-autographed volumes and an almost cult-like admiration for his work.
The one book we wished Mr Berton had autographed for us is Hollywood’s Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image. This volume examines Classic Hollywood’s portrayal of Canada, and we regret not having it with us when we met him.
In Hollywood’s Canada, Berton has a lot of fun describing our perceived national image. “In the eyes of the movie-going public,” he writes, “Canada seemed to be covered by a kind of perpetual blanket of white – an unbelievably vast [snow] drift that began almost at the border and through which the Big Snow People plodded about…”¹
Berton further adds, “Hollywood divided…primitive Canadians into two species: the wild, passionate lawless kind and the simple, unworldly picturesque kind…”²
He also details Hollywood’s avoidance of the word “Canada” in film titles; instead, Hollywood used a coded language, e.g. “North” or “Great Woods” or “Big Snows”.
But Berton as film critic can be blunt. “[M]ost of the movies made about Canada have been pretty awful,” he writes. “There is a sameness to them – a monotony of background, of character, and of style, unrelieved by comedy or commitment.”³
The irony here? Canadian history is much more fascinating than classic Hollywood’s portrayals.
Berton also rails about Hollywood inaccuracies when it comes to Canada’s geography. The movie Saskatchewan, for example, became a national joke when it was released in Canada. (See photo comparison, above.)
He playfully describes Hollywood’s odd (read: imagined) geographic view of Canada, while he himself describes the Canadian landscape in vivid, poetic language. His descriptions of the real Canada is infinitely more beautiful than advertised in old Hollywood films.
But other inaccuracies are more serious. Hollywood, says Berton, tried to portray Canada using the American Wild West Trope. “Hollywood mounties were never Canadians,” writes Berton, “they were simply hard-riding, hard-shooting cowboys from the American wild west, thinly disguised in scarlet and gold.”4
When an RCMP technical advisor raised objections about portrayal of the mounted police in a film, he was told, “What the hell do we care whether Canada or the Police like it or not, we don’t get much money out of your country, anyway!”5
Now, you could argue Hollywood distorted the histories of many countries, including its own. Canada should not have expected anything different.
But one might hope for something different. After all, in a 50-year period, nearly 600 films about Canada were produced.
Hollywood’s Canada is a rather caustic look at Hollywood from a critical outsider. Berton’s research included newspaper and industry magazine articles, telegrams, interviews, and hours of watching film.
Indeed, this book almost serves as a dual history of Canada and Hollywood filmmaking.
He also has his own Tinseltown stories. Berton, who grew up in the Yukon, was approached by American filmmakers to be an advisor on a series about the Klondike. Berton recounts the conversation:
Berton: “Uh. I guess you’re going to have some kind of central character to kind of tie the story together, eh?”
Filmmaker: “Oh, yes; we’ve figured that out.”
Berton: “I thought maybe a dog driver…”
Filmmaker: “No; we’ve got it worked out. He’s going to be a US marshal.”
Berton: “A US marshal?”
Filmmaker: “Yes. He brings the law to Dawson City.”
Berton: “But Dawson City is in Canada.”
Filmmaker: “It is? Really?”
But, as Berton points out, Hollywood can be blamed for only so much.
Even though classic Hollywood sold us these tropes, they got away with it because we Canadians half believed them. “Did we really fall for this hokum?” he asks. “You bet we did. We all did. We loved it and the box-office figures prove it.”7