By Kay Armatage
From the earliest days of cinema and throughout the thirties, forties and fifties, the Canadian wilderness was seen as an exotic paradise – “God’s country.” As opposed to the mean streets of New York or Chicago, the western frontier or Death Valley, Canada was represented as a land of forests and lakes, sunshine and snow. The phrase “the great white north” was used in an intertitle in Back to God’s Country, and has remained a popular signifier of the Canadian landscape to this day.
Before coming back to her native Canada to make Back to God’s Country in 1919, Nell Shipman had already starred in adaptations of novels by James Oliver Curwood, a minor author of wilderness adventure stories. God’s Country and the Woman (d. Rollin S. Sturges; Vitagraph; 1916; lost) established Shipman as the “girl from God’s country,” snowshoeing and dogsledding across the frozen North in mukluks and parkas. In addition to the location settings of the films, montages and tableaux exhibiting wild animals were Shipman’s trademark as star. Such moments of inter-species harmony are central to Shipman’s work, like the dance numbers in Fred Astaire musicals. In her autobiographical novel, Abandoned Trails (1932), she notes that “a picture lacking Brownie [the bear] in a leading part would invite failure.”
Back to God’s Country (d. David M. Hartford, Canadian Photoplays Production, 1919) was based on Curwood’s short story “Wapi the Walrus,” a study of a Great Dane dog and how he responded to the needs of the woman he loved. Shipman’s screenplay shifted the main character from the dog to the woman and emphasized her rapport with animals of all kinds. The film includes the most excessive of all Shipman’s displays of human/animal communication. In an early scene, Dolores (played by Shipman) lolls about in erotic play with Brownie the bear, nuzzling his snout and tweaking his ears, as skunks, squirrels, raccoons and baby foxes cavort about her.
Shipman’s casual, playful relations with animals attest simultaneously to her essentialist femininity and to her heroism. It is in Dolores’ relation with the dog that the connection between patriarchal definitions of femininity are aligned most transparently with bravery and heroism. In one of the most affecting scenes in the film, Dolores’ femininity and her courage are marked by her actions and underscored by the intertitles. Seeking help for her wounded husband at the Trading Post, Dolores meets Wapi (played by brother mastiffs Tresore and Rex) for the first time. Just as she arrives, the dog’s owner Blake takes a whip to Wapi for fighting viciously with other dogs. Without hesitation, Dolores flings herself between the whip and the abused dog. The daring rescue is underlined by Blake’s warning “Look out! That dog is a devil…” (intertitle). But as he speaks, the killer dog miraculously quietens, as the intertitle – equivalent to Shipman’s voice as writer/enunciator – comments “A new miracle of understanding, roused by the touch of a woman’s hand.”
Is the Nude Rude?
The representation of the woman protagonist emphasizes not only her intuitive communication with animals and nature, but includes a sensual pleasure in her own body. As character and star, Shipman doffs the fetters of decorum to cavort not only in nature, but au naturel. In the famous nude scene, Dolores is bathing in a mountain pool as the villains leer at her through the bushes and hatch their dastardly plan. In the first take, Shipman wore a modest flesh-coloured wool bathing suit. However, when she saw the wet thick wool wrinkle around her body, she shed the suit and directed the cinematographer so that the mise en scène would invite no prurience while still making her unadorned body amply evident.
The movie was advertised with posters featuring a drawing of Shipman pulling a shawl across her evidently naked body as she stood knee-deep in water. In the trade papers, the promotion was even more explicit, featuring a sketch of a naked female body arching lyrically on tip-toe, with this advice to exhibitors: “Don’t Book ‘Back to God’s Country’ unless You want to prove that the Nude is NOT Rude.”[i] The interpenetration of the film with the promotion and advertising strategies invites not only a provocative challenge to contemporary mores about the display of women’s bodies, but also ascribes a forthrightness, fearlessness, and creative control to Shipman herself as screenwriter and star.
Race and Difference
From a contemporary perspective, Back to God’s Country is marred by the everyday racism of her era. Terms such as “esquimaux”, “half-breed” and “Yellow Man” (for a Chinese immigrant) rankle shockingly. Yet this was common parlance of the period, as we see also in D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919).
The long prologue setting out Wapi’s genealogy is crucial in this regard. A Chinese immigrant wanders into a frontier bar with his companion, the magnificent mastiff Tao. In a scene of racist brutality, the “Yellow Man” is murdered by white frontiersmen and Tao is captured and abused. Wapi, the killer dog, is Tao’s psychically deformed descendant several dog generations later.
Shipman distances herself firmly from the murderers at the outset of the film, and the marks of that difference are not only gender but also attitudes towards race. Though we may criticize the Orientalism of the treatment of the Chinese man – the feminization of him as ultra-sensitive and vulnerable – nevertheless through the high moral tone of the prologue and intertitles, Shipman aligns herself as screenwriter and character with a progressive anti-racism that sets her apart from the low-life ruffians.
Relations with the Indigenous inhabitants of the terrain are also relevant to this issue. In the only scene in the film in which Dolores connects with another woman, the sailors on the ship docked at the Post have brought some “eskimaux guests” on board. The ironic quotation marks of the intertitle underscore the sailors’ racism and sexism.
Ideological discrepancies abound in this scene. For one thing, the Indigenous women are played for comedy as they marvel at the modern invention, the phonograph, and chomp on bars of Fels Naptha soap. However, Dolores lashes out in protest and attempts to rescue an Inuk woman from the rapacious louts. She struggles valiantly, but sisterhood is not powerful enough and both women are overcome. Although she is ineffectual in her attempt to save the Inuit women, it is in these scenes that Shipman’s patriarchally defined femininity slips from the bonds of mere historical curiosity and conveys an anti-racist and proto-feminist heroism that reaches out of the past into current feminist discussions.
Hysteria at the Climax
The climax of the film depends upon a two-step relay of hysterical and heroic forms of femininity. Dolores is mushing across the arctic landscape with her injured husband laid out in the sled while the villain pursues them with his own dog team. During the chase, for no earthly reason, Dolores drops her revolver and leaves it behind. At that moment, the audience always groans. That groan signals a recognition of the melodramatic pressures upon the woman protagonist to be vulnerable, even incompetent. And we groan again only a few seconds later when the invalid husband briefly rouses himself to say “Dolores, give me the gun” (intertitle). In close-up, Dolores hangs her head in shame.
As the chase continues, an intertitle indicates that Wapi’s “hour of destiny is at hand.” Close-ups of Wapi are intercut with shots of Dolores worrying and the villain approaching in this low-speed chase by dog-sled – a scene rivaled in its quintessential Canadianess only by the canoe chase in Joyce Wieland’s The Far Shore (1975). As Wapi runs off to attack the villain’s sled dogs, an intertitle intones: “Fighting at last the greatest of all his fights – for a Woman.” While the conventions of an action climax demand the woman’s vulnerability, it is due to her intrinsic qualities as a woman – including her helplessness – that she can command the obedience of this heretofore-untamable beast.
Leaving God’s Country
The film grossed 300% over production costs, although Shipman saw precious little of that money. By the end of production, all partnerships were off. Nell’s marriage to Ernest Shipman ended and her exclusive contract with Curwood to adapt and star in his vehicles dissolved. We can only guess that Shipman and Curwood, both in their forties in relation to Nell’s luscious twenty-seven, were devastated by her flagrant affair with the dashing production manager, with whom she began the next episode of her life. She retained control of the zoo of wild animals, including the mastiffs and Brownie the bear, and continued to make movies until she went bankrupt in 1924.
Back to God’s Country emerges from a moment in cinema history that was characterized by technical innovation, the germination of genres, and maverick entrepreneurship. It comes also from the period of progressive optimism just after the First World War, in which the shift to industrial capitalism and an urban consumer economy brought new progressive social values including jobs and votes for women. Shipman’s proto-feminism, consciously articulated anti-racism, animal-rights activism and Canadian chauvinism are complex and contradictory, revealing a struggle to come to terms with the values of this new world.
[i] The Moving Picture World, July 24, 1920, 42.