There is no greater international Canadian image than that of the Mountie.
Sure, you've got the moose and the beaver but really, when it comes to one thing that is distinct and iconic to Canadian, it's gotta be The Mounties. Let's face it, those guys with the red coats, yellow striped cavalry pants and the really cool Stetson's nobly sitting upon a trusted steed in front of Rocky Mountain landscape just plain say, "Canada" to the rest of the world.
The odd thing is that the Mountie image is not originally of our doing. We have ran with the image (or some might say stereotype) for sure. Witness the mini-skirted tap dancing Mounties at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic closing ceremonies. However, as with many things Canadian, we followed of the Americans' lead when it came to mythologizing our good officers of The Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
American popular culture has always had a fascination for the Mounties that is well fascinating. The American fixation on the Mounties is kind of ironic when you consider that the Northwest Mounted Police (as it was first known) was found in the 1870's to, among other things, to deal with American whiskey traders and the problems they were creating with the aboriginal population in the Canadian West. These problems precipitated the infamous Cypress Hill Massacre. In fact, the formation of a paramilitary militia-like police force was rushed into being in order to rapidly establish a Canadian presence in the area then known as the Northwest Territories (and is now mainly Alberta and Manitoba). The original name, The Northwest Mounted Rifles was rejected by Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald for fear of the diplomatic repercussions of so militaristic sounding a name. Semantics aside, one thing was clear, The Mounties first came into existence in order to "keep dem yanks oot, eh!".
|"He's a lumberjack and he's okay!"|
The Mounties first raised to prominence in the American and later global consciousness during the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon during the last few years of the 19th century. The potential for lawless anarchy at the time was very high. The discovery of gold in the Yukon brought miners from not just the U.S. but also from Britain, Australia and even South Africa. That influx could have meant one helluva lot of drinking, gambling, prostitution and customs/tax fraud. The boys in red did a surprisingly good job of maintaining law and order during a time when the Dawson City could easily have become Dodge City. The image of the true, honest and brave Mountie responsibly maintaining peace and order no doubt emerged from this historical era. To be fair, though, The Northwest Mounted chose their battles during the Gold Rush. For instance, they turned a blind eye on gambling and prostitution in order to focus their resources on more violent crimes, mining regulations and collecting customs duties.
The Mounties hit it big in early cinema almost immediately. By 1914, there had already been 100 films or so shot in or about Canada but made by Americans. They were outproducing the fledgling Canadian film industry big time. Largely know as the "North Woods Drama" ,the heroes of the genre were almost always the valorous Mounties.
Into the 30's, 40's and 50's there were many movies, comics and radio shows all about the those heroic idealistic mounted cops that always "got their man".The Mounties figured in adventure movies, romantic comedies and even in musicals featuring singing Mounties. They all featured some larger than life-squared jawed RCMP Sergeant or other who was courageous, honorable and oddly American sounding.
Movie serials, for my non-movie geek readers (seriously, what are you doing reading my blog, man?), were kinda like TV shows that ran in movie theatres each week. Each chapter (as they were called) would run about 15-30 minutes. The serials were continuing stories that ran each week for about 12-15 chapters. Each episode would end with a cliff-hanger. The term "cliff hanger", in fact, was coined in reference to movie serials. The cliff hanger endings, of course, were way to bring the eager kid audiences back into the theatre each and every week. Often times the resolution to the cliff hangers was an all out cheat. The hero, for instance, would be seen in a car as it careens off a cliff at the end of one chapter. Then at the beginning of the next week's chapter, there is suddenly this shot of the hero jumping out of the car at the last minute that was not there the week before. Even seven year-olds in the 30's were not fooled by so obvious a trick.
It's what the serials are famous for.
The emphasis of the serials was on fights, chases, shoot-outs, small amounts oft repeated exposition and a little bit of intrigue thrown in for good measure. Pretty much like 99.9% of all action movies today, in other words. The title of legendary serial director William Whitney's book titled "In a Door, into a Fight, Out a Door, into a Chase" captured the whole essence of the serial The movie serials crossed every genre from Sci-fi to cops and robbers to westerns to mild horror to mystery to jungle adventure to superheroes and, yes, even to the Mounties.
Here then is my round-up of the seven Mountie serials. And, oh yeah, if you ever want to check these serials out for yourself, please be advised that my round-up is full of SPOILER ALERTS.
Mystery Trooper (1931)
Later reissued as Trail of the Royal Mounted, this the only Mountie serial that I have not seen and that I do not yet own.
Time will fix that.
The story involves a hidden Indian gold mine and something about bad guys wanting it and a mysterious heroic Mountie stopping them...or something along those lines is a pretty safe bet.
Now on to the Mountie serials that I have seen and are currently part of my collection.
King of the Royal Mounted (1940)
Back in the day, the newspaper Sunday coloured comics were what comic books would later become in the 40's through to the present day. Newspapers often built their circulation around the appeal of their Sunday comics line-up. The comic strip syndicates that distributed the strips to newspapers would often lure big names into the comics. Case in point, American Western author Zane Grey. Grey was paid a nice amount of money to merely create a premise and characters for a comic strip and have his name attached to it without doing any actual writing. The strip he came up with was King of the Royal Mounted, which followed the exploits of Dave King, Sgt. in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the name officially changed in 1920).
Republic Pictures, considered by many to be the finest producers of movie serials, adapted King of the Royal Mounted into a 12 chapter serial in 1940. Directed by the legendary Whitney, King of the Royal Mounted was one of those subtle Hollywood nudges encouraging U.S. involvement in the war in Europe. "Hey America were gonna have to get involved with this World War II thing sooner or later", was the basic message. The plot involves Sgt. King attempting to foil a plot of "foreign" agents. Canada, as any good Canuck knows, was already well into the war by 1940.
The unnamed yet cryptically German sounding foreigners have discovered Compound X, a magnetic substance capable of blowing up sea vessels on contact. Coincidentally, the same substance is used to cure infant paralysis. Did I mention that these serials never muck around with subtlety?
Also coincidentally, the compound can found in a mine in the presumably fictional Caribou, Canada. This just happens to the be the beat of Sergeant Dave King of of the Royal Mounted. The foreign agents, with the help of evil Canadian traitors, attempt to get their hands on Compound X. The leader of the two-faced Canucks is -I kid you not- named Harper (which is, coincidentally, the name a Canada's current Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper).
A series of fights, deathtraps, forest fires, boat chases, shoot-outs, mine collapses and, yes, cliffhangers ensue over the next 12 chapters. King of the Royal Mounted is one of the best of the Mountie serials. Despite the fact that, this being 1940, and cars and trucks can be seen everywhere, The Mounties still ride on horseback. Horses are seemingly the police force's only mode of transportation. It's like the RCMP is legally mandated by their name to travel only on horseback. That does, though, make the horse-vehicle chase a staple in King of the Royal Mounted.
Watching these serials as a Canadian always add an extra level of unintended irony and humor. Lines like "But how will we get Compound X out of Canada?" and "Notify Canadian Military Intelligence" are always good for an insider Canuck chuckle or two.
It's also fun to try and figure out the geography of Caribou, Canada. The place kinda looks kinda like British Columbia yet they never seem to be more than a few hours away from Ottawa (non-Canadians need only look at a map to see the absurdity there). There is also a French Canadian fur trapper character who (as is often the case in these things) is naturally a traitor working with the bad guys. To be fair though, I'm pretty sure the guy is not "pur laine" (as they say in Quebec): his accent sounds like he is part that rare group of French-Mexican Canadians.
The Mounties in this serial are hardcore when dealing with the, let's face it, Germans. Just take a look at how Sgt. King's young sidekick, Corporal Tom Merritt Jr., handles the situation when they are on-board one of their subs:
No wonder Canada won the war....
Perils of the Royal Mounted (1942)
The "prequel" to King of the Royal Mounted, as I like to call it. King of the mounties was such a huge hit that rival Columbia studios serials stole one of its stars, Robert Kellard. He is billed as Robert Stevens in this serial which I guess is a way hiding the fact that the actor jumped ship from Republic Pictures to Columbia pictures.
Kellard plays Sgt. Mack MacLane (gottta love those names) of the RCMP, who is assigned to investigate an Indian attack in Sitkawan, Canada (do you mean "Saskatchewan"?). I say prequel because this serial takes place seemingly in the 1880's. Corporal Tom Merritt Jr. from King of the Royal Mounted could easily be a descendant of Sgt. MacLane's.
Tensions between the settlers and the aboriginal peoples of Canada mount after the alleged "massacre". It's up to one single Mountie to keep the entire situation from getting out of hand. We soon learn it's really the bad guys who are manufacturing and manipulating the conflict with the aboriginal peoples to their own ends.
Just check out, the clever culturally sensitive means they use to do so:
This serial is really just a classic wild west serial in different clothing. Substitute a sheriff in the lawless American frontier for a Mountie in the slightly more lawful Canadian frontier and that's pretty much the whole genre in a nutshell.
King of the Mounties (1942)
The long awaited sequel to the phenomenally successful King of the Royal Mounted is my personal all time fave serial ever, Mountie or otherwise.
Alan Lane returns as Sgt. Dave King of the Royal Mounted Police. Canadian history is significantly rewritten in King of the Mounties. As this serial opens, we see spinning headlines telling us that Canada is being bombed. Including a headline from The Montreal Post (what old time Montrealer doesn't remember that classic newspaper?), that Montreal has been bombed, along with Toronto, Winnipeg and other Canadian cities. Both of my parents lived through WWII and they spoke of the war often.Yet somehow the bombings of Canadian civilians during the war never came up. I'm guessing that the incident was so traumatic that those who lived through it still do not speak of it to this day.
Turns out the Japanese have a mystery plane, known as "The Falcon", that is able to take off, bomb Canada and then land at a secret base somewhere in the country without being detected. In what seems to be northern B.C., there lurks an Axis spy ring led by Japanese Admiral Yamata along with the German Marshal Von Horst and the Italian Count Baroni. The three villains have set up a headquarter in a volcano. Yes. In a volcano. The evil Axis organization had such a good idea for the location of their secret headquarters that it inspired Ernst Stavro Blofeld, James Bond's arch enemy, to do set up a similar volcano HQ some 25 years later in Japan.
The Axis trio's mission is simple: bomb Canada as much as possible and obtain as much intelligence as possible. Why? To make way for an Axis invasion of Canada naturally. Such an invasion would, of course, give the axis a much needed foothold in North America in order to launch and invasion of the U.S. Personally, I'm not sure about the wisdom of such a plan. If the Axis can manage to sneak an entire invasion fleet all the way up the Western American Coast, why not just go and invade the U.S. from there? What do you need Canada for? Trying to invade Canada from B.C. would put the Axis force between two enemies: the Americans and Canadians one side and the Russians on the other. I guess you'd have to be a two dimensional evil Axis commander hanging out in a volcano on northern B.C. to really get it.
The U.S. sends it's northern ally help in the form of American Scientist Professor Brent. Brent has invented a plane detecting device that will help Sgt. King and the Royal Mounted route out the evil axis scum and put an end to their insidious, albeit questionable, schemes. Brent also brings his daughter, Carol, along as a nominal love interest for the good RCMP sergeant.
In addition to tracking down the mysterious plane and protecting Canadian military secrets (hey, suppress that chuckle), King must also contend with Canuck Fifth Columnists attempting to aid and abet our nation's enemies in a time of war. Once again, one of the quislings is one of those darn French-Mexican Canadians. I'm guessing it's the the fact that the Canadian Conscription Crisis originated largely in Quebec that gave American propagandists the idea that French Canadians must be in league with the Axis. It's also because of the Conscription Crisis, BTW, that you would never on your life see a Canadian or British production at the time that would depict French Canadians in anywhere near as negative a light.
King of the Mounties has got even more great set action set pieces than King of the Royal Mounted. Like all great sequels, it follows the bigger and better formula. There's a lot of planes crashing into boats, galloping horses, some really great old school model work, explosions, chases across the tops of speeding trains and truly classic action adventure ending.
Sgt. King finally tracks the axis bad guys down to their volcano hideout. There he takes them on in one-on-one combat as the volcano HQ begins to erupt. Things get worse when the lava hits the bombs stored inside the volcano. Classic rookie evil villain HQ in a volcano mistake that; explosives must always be stored out of the way of any potential lava paths.
Sgt. King and Professor's Brent's daughter manage to escape just in time thanks to The Falcon, the mysterious Japanese plane, . The volcano erupts as they fly away, leaving the evil axis villains to fry to death in molten lava. I think I can hear all those eight year-olds screaming in theatres throughout North America across almost 70 years.
As I mentioned earlier the whole ending is a page right out of the classic James Bond movies, specifically You Only Live Twice. It makes me wonder if Roald Dahl, famed children's author and the screenwriter of You Only Live Twice, ever saw King of the Mounties. Dahl would have been living in Washington DC in 1942, working with British military intelligence. Part of his job at that time involved writing propaganda. He also worked with Bond creator Ian Fleming around that time.
The only existing print of King of the Mounties, sadly, is missing sound and picture in many parts throughout the serial. The above chapter is part of a restoration mounted by the good people at www.serialsquadron.com. They did an excellent job of adding subtitles, music and sound effects to the damaged parts of King of the Mounties. You can buy the restoration DVD off on their site. If you are at all interested in serials, visit serialsquadron.com or their Facebook page. I managed to purchase or track down all of the serials in this blog thanks to their excellent serial fan site.
The Royal Mounted Rides Again (1945)
The Royal Mounted Rides Again marks Universal Studios lone entry into the Mountie serial genre. It is one of the less common 13 chapters serial (12 or 15 is usually de riguer).
The Royal Mounted Rides Again is also the only serial of the genre takes place during the Mounties celebrated heyday of The Klondike Gold Rush.
Bill Kennedy play Corporal Wayne Decker of the Northwest Mounted Police. The DVD biographical notes state that Kennedy was "never a good or even competence actor". Whoa, guys, easy on the hype there.
George Dolenz, father of The Monkees Mickey Dolenz, plays Decker's sidekick, Frenchie. Well, at least this time around the French Canadian falls into the benevolent racial stereotype mode, even if he does sounds like a Parisian Spaniard.
The weakest of all the Mountie serials I've seen, the plot this time around involves something or other about a mine and people who want the gold in it. I think,anyway: it's not one of the most compelling plots, even by movie serial standards. Though there are few interesting stunts,one of the involving Corporal Decker dodging a log while trying to climb up a logging toboggan.
Dangers of the Canadian Mounted (1947)
Republic Pictures narrowly misses out on the opportunity to become the first movie serial trilogy since Flash Gordon. In this 1947 serial, Sgt.King of the Mounties becomes Sgt. Chris Royal or the Mounties (again, the names, man, the names). I'm not sure why Dangers of the Canadian Mounted is not another adventure in the life of the stalwart Sgt.King. Perhaps Alan Lane was not available. Perhaps it was because of the more likely scenario that Republic Pictures lost the licensing deal for the King of the Royal Mounted comic strip.
Dangers of the Canadian Mounted takes place in two small border towns, one in the Yukon and one in Alaska. This serial reflects the postwar push toward Canadian American friendship. It's hard to believe today but such a friendship was kinda new idea at the time. Since The War of 1812, Canadians always had an unsettling fear of a potential American invasion. Britain keep The Dominion well supplied with troops and arms for many years for exactly that reason. Now that mother country had been knocked down a peg by the expense of waging World War II and now that Canada had witnessed a successful war time alliance with its more powerful neighbour to the south, relations finally began to cool off a bit. The looming threat of the Cold War and the proximity of the evil Russkies just across the arctic wilderness probably helped push things along as well. In the years to come, American popular culture via television signals that manage to transcend border security and trade tariffs would pretty much seal the deal. Though Canada would always maintain a bit of a cautious distance from the red, white and blue.
So in the late 40's, there was no better cause to bring Canadians and Americans together than the race to discover the lost treasure of Genghis Khan. I know. I know, that should just go without saying.
For some reason, the infamous Mongol hoard leader's gold is buried somewhere along the Yukon-Alaska border. The bad guys of this serial will stop at nothing to prevent the topically themed Alcan highway from being built and thus drawing way too much attention to the area.
Dangers of the Canadian Royal Mounted is a fun little serial. Once again, even by 1947, the Mounties preferred means of transport was the horse. There is a little too much reusing of stunts from Republic's previous Mountie serials. Hey, in a long shot, all those guys in read coats look alike, right? So why not save some production costs when you can? There was a constant turn-over of the serial target audience of kids anyway. The reused footage is really only an issue if you, like me, have seen and know the other two Republic Mountie serials really well..
There are some very good new stunts in the serial, not all of them involving the great horse-car chases that are the earmark of a Republic Mountie serial. There ought to be some great stunts; the serial was co-directed by Yakima Canutt, the legendary Hollywood stunt man. Canutt did many incredible stunts for both serials and A list Hollywood movies in a career that spanned from 1915 to 1975. Canutt is the guy that did this famous stunt that appeared in John Ford's Stagecoach and then in the serial Zorro's Fighting Legion.
Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders (1953)
The title is more promising than the serial.
As one may guess, this is the Cold War's answer to King of the Mounties. The reds take on the red coats as the Mounties square off against the evil global commie conspiracy. Yet again, agents from an unnamed foreign power are poking around somewhere in the "north country". The protocol in these serials,oddly, was to never come out and name these "foreign powers" that are plotting against the U.S. in any given situation. The only exception being in a time of war. If that's the case, it's open season on the Germans, Japanese and Italians. I'm not sure if this policy was prompted by politics or by a fear of losing the kids with references to countries they may never have heard of.
Whatever the case, the unnamed foreign baddies are attempting to set up a missile base way up in "the north country". They will be able to launch the missiles at U.S. targets much more easily that way. It was this sinister plot that was no doubt what prompted the American and Canadian governments to set up the North American Aerospace Defense or NORAD. NORAD came into being just three years after the events depicted in Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders.
Acting on secret tip regarding the nefarious goings on, Sgt. Don Roberts (no King again, huh?) is sent to investigate. Robert's journey up north leads to some of the best cinematic dog sled chases ever. I'm pretty sure, though, that they are lifted from some other serial or movie. Indeed, footage from Republic's other Mountie serials is reused in almost every episode.
Republic really needed to costs at that time. By the early 50's, TV was beginning to take a bite out of theatre attendance in general and the movie serials in particular. It was kind of similar to the situation we see today where Netflix and Zip.ca are slowly but surely putting the video rental store out of business. Many of the chapters in Canadian Mounties vs.Atomic Invaders are really short by the standards of the serial's heyday ten years earlier. Some run as short as 12 minutes. In the 30's and 40's, some serial chapters ran as long as 20-30 minutes.
Still Canadian Mounties vs Atomic Invaders is fascinating historical curiosity. It is a very late serial and also one that takes us right into the Cold War. The Cold War was not a conflict that was as extensively explored in the serials as World War II was.
The movie serial would see its final demise in 1956.
The serial format would continue to live in TV shows like the campy 1960's Batman and the controversial action show, 24. In film, the movie serials were a major influence on both Star Wars and the Indiana Jones movies and thus pretty much all action movies since the 80's.
The Mounties too would continue their American pop culture ride in movies, TV , with shows like Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, memorable Monty Python songs and in the Saturday Morning cartoon and subsequent live action movie , Dudley Doo Right (a character no doubt inspired by the silent "North Woods Drama").
Canada itself would pick up the torch of the Mountie mythos. The 1960's Canadian adventure TV series, The Forest Rangers, featured the great Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent as a Mountie who always wore his dress reds. Later, the very successful Canadian TV series, Due South, would parody the classic Mountie image endlessly.
|The Mountie, issued only in Canada in the 60's, is the most highly valued 12 inch GI Joe collectible ever.|
How quintessentially Canadian is it that one of the country's greatest international symbols was only embraced by Canadians after The Americans helped make that symbol famous around the world?
In that case, what better way to mark Canada Day then by celebrating another country's vision of Canada?
Happy Canada Day everyone!