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Manitoba History: Review: Three Views of Riel

by Eugene Walz, Diane Payment & Emma Laroque

Manitoba History, Number 1, 1981

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Editors Note:

In April 1979 the CBC broadcast a three-hour television extravaganza on Riel. Advertised as a provocative and spectacular production, the CBC hoped their programme would "chronicle the clash of ideologies and armies and a conflict that involved some of the strongest most wilful personalities in Canada's stirring past". Manitoba History felt this was a production of particular importance to Manitobans and we sought out the views of a film critic, a Franco-Manitoban historian and a Metis historian.

Eugene Walz
Department of English (Film Studies), University of Manitoba

Hollywood's favorite method for making films about historical figures, be they politicians, statesmen, popular entertainers, or athletes from Babe Ruth to Babe Zaharias, is a simple one: one-dimensionalize most of the characters, melodramatize the action, sentimentalize (i.e., simplify and update) the issues, and then give everything the specious importance of expensive "production values" (big-name stars, careful period costuming and sets, ostentatious photography, music, and editing). Thus Paul Muni turned Juarez into a Mexican Abe Lincoln, enlisted in the showy 1939 movie to demonstrate the determination of the Americans against European fascism. And Viva Zapata! in 1952 used another Mexican hero in the U.S. cold war against Communism. The CBC's Riel fits this familiar formula all too snugly. Its strengths and weaknesses derive from its conformity to the Hollywood "bio-pic" tradition.

Sketch of Louis Riel by Octave Henri Julien

Riel develops through a series of programmable conflicts arranged between stereotyped characters and emphasized by a kind of schoolboy symbolism (the carnival framing-device, the arm-wrestling, the model train, the Gatling gun, the bullet-nicked Victorian coin). This makes for a brisk, compelling pace. especially during the first half, and is designed for maximum impact. But it is done at the expense of historical accuracy and credibly complex characterization.

The characters in Riel are boldly drawn, and the acting is unrestrained, exaggerated for the most part to the point of caricature, most notably with Christopher Plummer. His Sir John Macdonald is a posturing and isolated calculator who makes his decisions over billiards, brandy, and a large model train. (Thus his dream of a nation-wide railway is merely a boyish fixation). Riel is an eccentric champion of minorities, Billy Jack with a Quebec accent, whose tell-tale first action is to arm-wrestle an obviously better man next to a burning log and get branded for life. For those who missed it, the symbolism of this scar is referred to later. Subtlety is usually minimized.

Raymond Cloutier as Louis Riel
Source: CBC Television

The secondary conflicts are set up similarly. Riel is pitted against Tom Scott the bully, Mrs. Schultz the harridan, various sanctimonious Roman Catholic prelates more interested in preserving the Church than in right or wrong, and a foolishly aristocratic and rigid, old-school general. This general is in turn pitted against a brash and realistic underling whose insubordination is what actually wins the Battle of Batoche. Thus everything is reduced to clashes between single-faceted characters. There are no character traits that do not contribute to the conflicts and little indication of life beyond these conflicts.

Riel is more attuned to the Hollywood star system and its cult of distinctive personalities than it is to Canadian history. Thus its top-heavy use of big-name stars, from Plummer and Arthur Hill in roles central to the story and its exposition down to William Shattner in a throw-away minor part. An interesting use is made of this, however. Like the old Hollywood Biblical epics in which the evil Romans were almost invariably played by British actors and the sympathetic Jews by Americans, thus setting up a subtle anti-colonialist subtext, Riel fills most of the unsympathetic roles with recognizable Hollywood-Canadian actors.

William Shatner made an appearance
Source: CBC Television

Familiar actors generally draw attention away from the historical figures they play to themselves. Thus Moses is Charleton Heston, not vice-versa, and now, if the CBC succeeds in saturating world theatres and Canada's schools with this movie, Sir John Macdonald will be Plummer.

Another way that Riel denies the pastness of the past is through its anachronistic dialogue, especially phrases like "peace-keeping mission". This is a cheap and irrelevant comparison and an even cheaper joke. Furthermore when Plummer exists by saying. "Let's just hope the future will be spared this destructive spectacle. I do pray that one day we may mature," he might just as well be wearing a digital watch and addressing a sermon to contemporary Canada.

While tactics like these, reinforced by the film's laudable technical proficiency, are initially attractive, they are ultimately self-defeating. Riel is misguided, a fairly shallow and transparent exploitation of both the past and the current separatist furor. A few short years after Pierre Berton's Hollywood's Canada, Riel proves that we don't need Hollywood anymore to systematically misrepresent Canadian people and issues. Canadian filmmakers have learned.

Riel and associates in Red River Settlement 1870 / Sketch by C. W. Jefferys
Source: Western Canada Pictorial Index

Diane Payment
Parks Canada, Winnipeg

Roy Moore who wrote the screenplay Riel cautions us that it is not history but "fiction that employs historic figures. What is real is the spirit of the history". It is from that perspective that this dramatization of the historic figure should be viewed and assessed. One might also want to ask, who is the true Riel? What is myth as opposed to reality? Are not all "visions" of Louis 'David' Riel subject to personal bias based on cultural and ethnic background?

I must admit, personally, that I feel somewhat vindicated by the film. The author has not only depicted Louis as a hero but has even dared to portray the Protestant Anglo Canadians as the badguys. In some strange way, the film atones for Riel's lifelong suffering and persecution.

Whatever omissions and historical inaccuracies we may have observed, the author has captured the essence of Louis, "the mind" and Gabriel, "the heart" of the Metis people. The film also attests to the fact that our Canadian History is both original and exciting. Louis Riel emerges largely true to life: a complex, fascinating, elusive and totally committed individual. His religious fervour which some like to clothe in madness is certainly a recurrent theme in the film. Similarly, Gabriel Dumont's satirical reminiscences are in retrospect a fair representation of the events of 1869-70 and 1885. One might object that the rnentalite, aspirations and crushing defeat of the Metis as a people do not emerge clearly. But then it would have been presumptious for an Eastern Canadian non-Metis playwright to hope to capture the real "spirit" or essence of the Metis. He did manage to invoke, however superficially, the underlying issue of land. Other viewers felt the Anglo-French conflict or ecart was over-stated. But it was and remains an important issue and one which particularly affected the chief protaganist, Louis Riel. Reverberations in the form of oft-repeated expressions such as "rebellion of 1870", "the French" and "les maudits anglais" attest to that.

Roger Blay portrays Gabriel Dumont
Source: CBC Television

Personally, I would have liked a setting more in harmony with reality—in Western Canada. It may have been impossible to recapture the original setting of Fort Garry, but Batoche, on the banks of the South Saskatchewan, would have added substance or credence to the 1885 episode.

Some irate viewers objected to the decidely anti-English bias in the portrayal of Thomas Scott and his banditti. Scott was a minor individual, not a leader among "Canadians," but most will agree a truly despicable character. Admittedly, Mrs. Schultz would never have bestowed her favours upon such a fripon. But Scott's trial appears as a mockery of Metis laws and justice, a misrepresentation which may inadvertently perpetuate the English-Canadian myth that the poor man was shot by some half crazed, half-drunk Metis who threw him moaning into his coffin...

More important though, the minors of our society, women and children, are ignored in the film. Maman Julie, Soeur Sara and perhaps most discreetly, "ma bonne et douce Marguerite" had immeasurable influence on Louis' thoughts and actions. And what about Madeleine Dumont nee Wilkie? She did not hesitate to join Gabriel in exile only to die shortly after of consomption. Women may have played a largely supportive role in the 19th century but why must we persist in depicting them merely as irrational creatures or sexual objects.

On the positive side one would also not forget the unequalled portrayal of the unscrupulous but admirable politician, Sir J. A. and the final tour de force of the film, Louis' last speech at the trial, where he sums up his hopes and despair as Metis leader.

The Battle of Batoche, one of the spectacular battle scenes of Riel
CBC Television

Emma Laroque
Department of Native Studies, University of Manitoba

The CBC/Green River production of Riel is not a historical documentation of Louis Riel; rather, it is drama based on an eventful historical incident and personality. It is not surprising, therefore, that Riel does not adhere strictly to historical sequence and factual data. However, this is not to say that the production is irrelevant to people concerned with history, nor is it to say that it is necessarily a distortion of history, particularly the history of the human spirit.

In the case of the so-called Riel Rebellions of 1870 and 1885, the film highlights the spirit of one man, Louis Riel. It is here that the production reveals both its strength and its weakness. Or perhaps it actually reveals the nature of things during Riel's participation in the Metis uprisings.

The most disturbing aspect of the film is that while it magnifies Riel, it almost entirely neglects the Metis community. Although the film uses Metis dissatisfaction and growing distrust of the new Canadian confederation as a springboard, it very quickly moves on to the personalities of Riel, John A. Macdonald, Bishop Bourget, Scott and Dumont. These personalities and their vested and often conflicting interests took the centre of the stage. The ordinary Metis men, women and children—their close-knit community their various economic pursuits, their dancing, their humour, their religious concerns, their adaptiveness in language and culture—were not portrayed. The only role ascribed to the general populace was to whoop and yelp every now and then. Not only is this a distasteful Hollywood technique, but it also perpetuates the myth that "halfbreeds" were a wild and wooly sort. In fact, most of them were unassuming people conducting their daily life with propriety.

Christopher Plummer playing Sir John A. Macdonald
Source: CBC Television

True to its name, the film concentrates on the man Riel. And it does "catch", often in moving ways, the spiritual/ emotional journey of Riel. He begins his role in Red River with youthful ardor for justice and religious dedication mixed with pragmatism. He trusted in English law: Thomas Scott was executed not for wanton purposes, but under the flag of the Provisional Government which Riel believed was every bit as legal as the Canadian Confederation. Riel also believed in the worth and value of the Metis people. He believed they were as capable and deserving as any people to enjoy their ways, religion and language. To the bitter end he believed the Canadian people would understand and accept this too. But neither Macdonald's nor Bourget's people ever understood or cared much for the Metis. And although Riel tangled most pain-fully with disillusionment and despair during his exile, it seems that his idealism, especially his "Metis-izing" of the Old Testament belief in a particular God fora particular people in a particular land, blinded him from seeing some political realities. Both John A. Macdonald and Bishop Bourget dealt with Riel only in so far as their respective interests were concerned. Macdonald would not allow Riel to unhinge his political power and railway dreams. Bourget wanted Riel to secure a foot-hold for the French Catholics in the West.

In film—and in history—Riel over-shadows his own people and community. If he cared so much for them, why has he loomed so much larger than them? His martyrdom is certainly part of the answer. But perhaps a deeper explanation lies in the fact that Riel was himself overshadowed by the conflicting interests of the English and the French. Indeed, the film deals more with French/ English politics than it does with Metis concerns. The film even betrays contemporary French/English problems when Macdonald is made to ask: "Must every issue, large or small, provincial or federal, become a test of the very identity of this country?"

It is doubtful that Riel realized the full extent to which he had become a pawn in the unceasing political chess game between the English and the French. It is chilling to think that Riel died not primarily because he was a fighter-visionary for the Metis, but because he was caught in the crossfire of English/ French conflicts. The spirit of Riel would be better memorialized if the Metis people would receive recognition quite apart from Anglo/Franco politics.

Monument at Riel's grave in front of St. Boniface Cathedral
Source: Western Canada Pictorial Index

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