Historic moment lost

Redneck redcoat's tale turns tragic

Published: Jul 24 2014, 01:01:am

ALIEN THUNDER (Le tonnerre rouge). Written by George Malko. Based on a screenplay by W.O. Mitchell. Music by Georges Delerue. Photographed and directed by Claude Fournier. Running time: 93 minutes. Mature entertainment.
March 5, 1974.
PRAIRIE PREMIERE — Alien Thunder, Claude Fournier's ambitious retelling of a particularly inglorious moment in the history of the R.C.M.P., has finally surfaced.
    The film, shot in Saskatchewan in late 1972, was originally scheduled to premiere in Montreal last fall [1973]. On the way to the gala. however, there were problems.
    Donald Sutherland, the movie's star, asked for some changes. The scriptwriter, W.O. Mitchell, apparently did not agree with Sutherland's changes and asked that his name be removed from the final product.
    The R.C.M.P., who had co-operated fully during the making of the film — to the point of providing the man (and horse) power for a cavalry charge — eventually decided that the film did not present the force in a favourable light. In effect, it asked to have its name removed from the film as well.
    Reportedly, the R.C.M.P. asked that the film not be released during its centennial year [1973] as planned, and that all reference to the force be removed from its advertising.
    Made at a cost of $1.5 million, Alien Thunder is the story of North West Mounted Police Sgt. Dan Candy (Sutherland) and his 1895-1897 pursuit of an escaped prisoner, a Cree Indian called Almighty Voice (Gordon Tootoosis).  Among Sutherland's co-stars is Vancouver's Chief Dan George.
    Alien Thunder is notable for having been made without the financial assistance of the federal government's Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC).
    The film had a simultaneous premiere (and has now completed its first week's run) in Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw and South Battleford. It's due to open in Vancouver later this month.

March 16, 1974.
THIS IS THE FILM THAT would have been, should have been, and could have been the first great Canadian Western.
    It isn't.
    Alien Thunder, one of the most costly movies ever made in this country, was a project of epic potential and lofty ambition. That the final result falls short of the mark can't help but be a disappointment.
    Making director Claude Fournier's shortfall all the more unhappy are the sparkles of depth and brilliance that do occur, sparkles suggesting that within the film he's offered us is a really great picture struggling to get out.
    Alien Thunder is based on a true story, referred to in R.C.M.P. files as "The Almighty Voice Incident." It began in 1885, when a Cree brave named Almighty Voice unlawfully killed a cow.
    Sentenced to 30 days, he broke out of jail and killed the North West Mounted Policeman sent to recapture him. For 19 months, he eluded his pursuers, during which time he became a hero to his dispirited clansmen. Finally, though, he and two companions were trapped in a thicket near Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, where they were killed in a shoot-out.
    As originally announced, the film had everything going for it. Overseeing the project was an experienced and commercially-minded Quebec director, Claude Fournier. Commissioned to write his script was the respected prairie author W.O. Mitchell.
     Cast to star in the picture was expatriate Canadian actor Donald Sutherland. To be featured in the film with him, as Sounding Sky, the father of Almighty Voice, was Vancouver-born Chief Dan George.
    To insure period authenticity, the film's art director, Anne Pritchard, actually had the town of Duck Lake rebuilt, a recreation that later was sold to the province as an historic site.
     To give it added spit and polish, the R.C.M.P. pledged its complete cooperation, opening archives and even going so far as to provide the men of the Musical Ride to play in the fllm.
    It went before the cameras in the fall of 1972, with a release date set to coincide with last year's R.C.M.P. centennial [1973].
     I like Westerns, and was waiting for this one with the eagerness of a small boy on Christmas Eve.
    The intervening months have been filled with tales of disaffection, dissatisfaction, disenchantment, disapproval and disavowal. The film that opened here Friday bears no on-screen credit for either Mitchell or the  R.C.M.P., both by their own request.
    The story line on the screen is significantly different from the one described in the movie's official press kit.
    Among the missing pieces is an opening sequence that would have established the characters of two particular Mounties: Malcolm Grant (Kevin McCarthy), the officer who is killed by Almighty Voice (Gordon Tootoosis), and Dan Candy (Donald Sutherland), the officer who pursues him.
    It also would have established the character of the paramilitary force they serve, providing balance and giving weight to the events that follow.
    The film that remains is a tantalizing, frustrating fragment. The movie seems to debunk one of our most cherished national icons, but does so in a strangely unsteady way.
    In the film, both as presented and intended, Grant and Candy are polar opposites.  Grant, new to the West, is quite consciously the embodiment of the legendary Mounted Police ideal. Straight, unbending and scrupulously fair, he is the kind of Mountie played by Alan Ladd in 1954's Saskatchewan, Tyrone Power in Pony Soldier (1952), or Dick Powell in Mrs. Mike (1949).
    Candy, by contrast, is a born Westerner, a lad who grew up in the land patrolled by the force. Rough hewn and earthy, he was not a member of the legendary 300, and does not share their glorious dedication to Queen and country.
    In essence he is a redneck redcoat, a rural cop just doing a job. Even in its present form, it is possible to see the original, solidly dramatic intent of both the original author and the filmmaker.
    Candy, enamoured of Grant's young wife Emilie (Francine Racette), is deeply affected by his death, and suffers a double guilt. Both he and the audience know that it was Candy who put the fear in Almighty Voice that sets off the chain of tragedies that follow from the Cree's flight. In  the film, Candy progresses from fun seeker to vengeance seeker and, finally, justice seeker.
    Director Fournier shares with Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell the strengths and weaknesses inherent in being his own cinematographer. On the plus side, Alien Thunder is a breathtakingly visual conception, full of implied meanings and careful visual metaphors.
     On the debit side, he appears to have lost control of his actors, especially Sutherland, who responds best to strong directors. Unfortunately, he does go off on his own when not held in check and, although his grasp of the Candy character is instinctive, his playing is excessive, ranging from mumble-mouthed to screaming.
    His style is quite at odds with the other performers, who turn in more conventional performances. It's also suggested that he had much to do with the present shape of the film.      If true, he has little to be proud of. Alien Thunder is cream turned sour.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1974. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: At an age when most men are thinking about retirement, the 60-year-old Tsleil-Waututh Nation band Chief Dan George took up acting. From 1960 until his death in 1981, he forged a second career as a television, stage and movie performer, always careful to project positive images of First Nations characters he portrayed. He was already an established film presence when he joined the cast of Claude Fournier's Alien Thunder, as was its star Donald Sutherland.
     In the above review, I noted that Sutherland, fresh from his own Hollywood success, requested script changes that screenwriter (and Canadian literary icon) W.O. Mitchell did not agree with. As a result, Mitchell demanded that his name be removed from the film. Twenty years later, screenwriter Joss Whedon had a similar experience with Sutherland, during the making of the 1992 feature, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. "Sutherland, whom Whedon came to despise (and still despises), was Buffy's big problem . . ." David Lavery writes in his 2014 book Joss Whedon, A Creative Portrait . The actor "rewrote Whedon's dialogue and exhibited a constantly nasty attitude, full-of-himself, 'incredibly rude' to (director Fran Rubel) Kazui and 'everyone around him'." In the case of Alien Thunder, Sutherland's attitude to at least one of his fellow players was anything but nasty. During the 1972 filming, he met Quebec-born actress Francine Racette, who became his third wife. They are celebrating their 42nd wedding anniversary this year (2014).
     The story of Almighty Voice continues to exert its power on Canadian artists. In 1991, First Nations playwright Daniel David Moses drew upon the historic incident to create Almighty Voice and His Wife, a postmodernist take on the tale that was seen in Vancouver in early 2012.