BACK TO GOD'S COUNTRY (David Hartford, 1919, Canada, 73m, BW)
Directed by David Hartford
Produced by James Oliver Curwood
Ernest Shipman (uncredited)
Written by James Oliver Curwood (short story: Wapi, the Walrus)
Starring Nell Shipman
Wellington A. Playter
Cinematography Dal Clawson
Edited by Cyril Gardner
Canadian Photoplays Ltd.
Distributed by First National Exhibitor's Circuit (later to become First National Pictures)
October 27, 1919
Language Silent (English intertitles)
Back to God's Country is a 1919 Canadian drama film directed by David Hartford. It is one of the earliest Canadian feature films. The film starred and was co-written by Canadian actress Nell Shipman. With an estimated budget of over $67,000, it was the most successful silent film in Canadian history.
The film is noteworthy as it starred Nell Shipman and was produced by her husband, Ernest Shipman. Shipman was one of the first women to do a nude scene on screen in the movie. In 1918, they created a production company, Shipman-Curwood Producing Company, to produce Back to God’s Country. The film was the only film the company would produce, and was based on a short story, Whapi, the Walrus, written by James Oliver Curwood.
Curwood's story was adapted to the screen by Nell herself. She changed the protagonist of the film from a great dane to the female lead, Dolores. Shipman also shaped her character into a heroine, who saves her husband. Curwood was infuriated with Shipman, but commercially the film was extremely successful, posting a 300 percent profit and grossing a million-and-a-half dollars.
The film tells the story of Dolores LeBeau (Nell Shipman) who lives in the Canadian woods with her father and who has a rapport with the wild animals of the forest. She falls in love with Peter (Wheeler Oakman), a Canadian government official and writer, and marries him after escaping from Rydal (Wellington Playter), the villain who, disguised as a Mountie, tries to rape her and then kills her father. Later Dolores and Peter travel to the Arctic on a whaling schooner whose captain turns out to be Rydal, still intent on "possessing" her. She manages to foil him until the ship becomes frozen in, then escapes on a dog-sled with her husband. Rydal and his partner pursue her but the dog Wapi, ill-treated by Rydal's partner and befriended by Dolores, assists her by attacking and crippling the dogs of Rydal's sled. Rydal dies in a ice-hole while Dolores and Peter return to "God's Country" and her animal friends.
Back to God's Country (1919) opens on an idyllic note at the peaceful Canadian mountain home where the innocent child-of-nature Dolores LeBeau (Nell Shipman) lives with her doting father Baptiste LeBeau (Roy Laidlaw) and a legion of animal friends. When a handsome naturalist Peter Burke (Wheeler Oakman) stops in at their mountain paradise he is charmed by Dolores and the pair are soon announcing their engagement to Baptiste.
But the always changeable mood of Back to God's Country suddenly shifts from a bucolic love story to a genuine nightmare. A murderous criminal Rydal (Wellington A. Playter) hiding out in the mountains and traveling with his half-breed sidekick, spies Dolores skinny-dipping in a brook and vows to "have" her. Nell Shipman later noted that although an unknown actress named Hedy Lamarr got all the notoriety for her nude swim in the 1932 film Ecstasy, it was actually her lead character in Back to God's Country who provided the screen's first nude swim scene. After a string of horrific events and her father's death, Dolores and Peter begin a new life in the city. But Dolores finds she can't escape Rydal. The rest of the film is a battle of wills between the gentle Dolores and the destructive Rydal and culminates in a deadly confrontation between the two in a remote, northern Canadian port. It is ultimately a dog, "Wapi the Walrus," who comes to Dolores' aid.
Back to God's Country was based on a typically sensational James Oliver Curwood short story "Wapi, the Walrus." Curwood was known for a bizarre fiction formula in which decent women were threatened with rape, only to be rescued from a fate worse than death by a protective dog. Curwood agreed to give Shipman exclusive rights to all of his stories, including God's Country and the Woman (1916) and Baree, Son of Kazan (1918), provided she agreed to star in the films.
Shipman and Curwood were both fascinated with certain aspects of the wilderness and the animals that lived there, but they encountered numerous obstacles while adapting Curwood's story to film. Though they eventually saw beyond their differences of opinion on matters of storytelling, Curwood's first response to Shipman's scripting of his story was hardly subtle. "Rotten! Not my story! Crazy! Bunk!" were the comments Shipman remembered scribbled in the script's margins. Curwood's prototypical woman-beast storyline was also used in Back to God's Country, with Dolores finding an abused, vicious black dog Wapi, her only companion and helpmate in the barren winter landscape where she and Peter are trapped. Dolores and Wapi form a bond that transforms this fascinating, strange story yet again, from a tale of human evil, to an oddly touching story of the loving relationship between a woman and a dog.
This is an entertaining old-fashioned melodrama starring Nell Shipman, a good adventure heroine who can do a lot of different things. Here, she is a nature-loving young woman whose husband's work takes her away from the wildlife she loves, but while she is longing to get "Back to God's Country", she must first try to save herself and her husband from some dastardly villains.
There's quite a bit to the story. The drawbacks are that it is a little slow early on while it sets everything up, and then once the action gets going there are some rather implausible developments. But the plot keeps your attention, and Shipman has plenty of energy and is a nice change-of-pace from more conventional heroines. The story takes place in the frozen north of Canada, and the setting is interesting and works well. There are also several good shots of wild animals, a couple of them very funny. "Back to God's Country" combines some of the usual features of silent melodrama with Shipman's distinctive approach. Most of it works pretty well, and it's worth a look for those who like silents.
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