October 20, 2000 -- With high definition video equipment just about anyone can make a film nowadays. It was like that 80 years ago, too. Movies were cheap to make. For one thing, you didn't have to worry about sound. Movies were silent. "Back to God's Country" was one of those movies. The 1919 Canadian film has recently been restored and released on video. The VHS tape also has another film on it, “Something New.” For a review of that film, click here.
The movie stars Nell Shipman, a woman way ahead of her time in playing strong roles in action films. She was also a movie writer, director and producer of early Canadian films. She appeared in 15 films between 1916 and 1927. She died in 1970 at the age of 77. The cinematographer in this film was Joseph B. Walker. It was his first film. Walker went on to shoot over 140 films, including "His Girl Friday," "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" and "It's A Wonderful Life."
Iron Eyes Cody appears as an unbilled extra in the film. He went on to roles in numerous films, including, "A Man Called Horse." He also starred in a memorable television commercial in which he wept over littering and pollution. Shipman is very active in this action movie, diving into a river to rescue her father and driving a dog sled to save her husband. She also shows she knows how to handle a gun. That's pretty assertive, even for a modern woman.
Shipman stars as Dolores LeBeau, a woman living with her father in a remote cabin in Canada. There are more animals around the cabin than in a zoo. All the animals, including the bears and porcupines, are living in harmony with LeBeau and her father. This is like an early environmental ethos: an attempt to re-enter the Garden of Eden and an overly-romantized view of nature. Animals are a big part of the film, especially a large, heroic dog named Wapi. The dog acts as well as some of the humans in the film. Most actors don't like to be on screen with animals because they are easily upstaged by them. A good case in point is a funny scene in which a bear cub is trying to get some honey out of a jar. No actor can compete with that.
A murderous fugitive named Rydal (Wellington A. Playter) arrives on the scene and decides to ravage Nell after his partner kills a Mountie. Rydal disappears until later in the movie when he appears again by coincidence. Even though it is later in the movie, Rydal still has the same idea and he causes a lot more trouble, leading to a desperate chase across the frozen north, somewhere near Baffin Island.
The plot is somewhat disjointed, and at times, baffling. There is some interesting camerawork though, including a picture-in-picture shot with two different scenes together. The editing is pretty good. There is some damage to the film in the first reel due to age. It takes the form of patches of light on the left side of the screen. The acting is over the top, which is common in some silent films. Playter drips with evil and lust to the point where he is funny. Wheeler Oakman, who plays Peter Burke, Dolores' husband, does a pretty good job. He went on to have a very long film career, appearing in close to 200 movies. This film rates a C.
This film was digitally mastered from the original 35mm material and is being released by Milestone Films in VHS format. Another Nell Shipman film included on the same cassette is "Something New." Click here for links to places to buy this movie or other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.