Arts

This is the earliest known Canadian film written by a woman

1919's "Back to God's Country" is the most successful Canadian silent film ever — even though its creator has never gotten her deserved place in the history books.

Made in 1919, 'Back to God's Country' is also the most successful Canadian silent film ever

Nell Shipman in 'Back to God's Country.' (TIFF)

Made in 1919, Back to God's Country is a notable "first" in many ways for Canadian cinema. It's the earliest homegrown feature film to have survived time, thanks to a miraculous rare find of a print in the 1980s. It's also the most successful Canadian silent film ever, grossing 1.5 million dollars on a $67,000 budget. And it's the earliest Canadian movie to feature a nude scene. But perhaps what's most remarkable about Back to God's Country is that it's the earliest known Canadian film written by a woman: its star Nell Shipman was a female Canadian cinema pioneer who directed and produced her own films. Unfortunately, Shipman's contributions to Canadian cinema have been so undervalued by historians that the filmmaking work of her husband, Ernest Shipman, have taken centre stage instead.

In Back to God's Country, Nell Shipman stars as Dolores, a young woman ensnared by an outlaw, Rydal (Wellington A. Playter), who kills her father and traps Dolores and her husband Peter (Wheeler Oakman) on a ship. Rydal intends to murder Peter so he can have Dolores all to himself. But instead of playing the damsel in distress, Dolores ends up saving the day through a series of cunning ploys and a little help from her friends.

Those friends happen to be animals — yes, really. The film was an example of the wilderness-adventure story popular during that time, which typically depicted the Great White North as an exotic, lush landscape teeming with wildlife. Dolores' rural home lives up to the image, as all kinds of wild pets run amok, including — among a number of others — "Cubby," an adorable, mischievous bear cub who sticks his snout right into the humans' breakfast.

The title card for 'Back To God's Country.' (YouTube)

During her entrapment with Rydal, Dolores wins the trust of Wapi, a ferocious Great Dane whom she saves from his cruel owner. Wapi comes from a long line of resentful dogs whose Asian owner was killed by the white man. But the foaming-at-the-mouth dog immediately softens with the touch of a woman's hand, and he helps rescue Dolores during a dogsledding-chase scene.

While the film connects nature with femininity through the heroine's "womanly intuition" and her maternal talents in taming animals, it's important to note that the film isn't intent on stereotyping Dolores. The film establishes her wilderness acumen and physical strength in surviving the elements more than once — like when she swims against currents to rescue her drowning father, or her urgent dogsledding through a harsh blizzard to get medical help for her husband. Dolores also embraces nature in the nude: Shipman stripped down for Back to God's Country because of her aesthetic determination to make a better-looking film. Originally, she was to wear a skin tone-matching cover-up — but unsatisfied with the way it looked on camera, Shipman instead changed the scene's mise-en-scene entirely to a waterfall which would discreetly obscure her body au naturel.

Nell Shipman in 'Back to God's Country.' (TIFF)

The real-life Shipman was not so different from the fictional heroine she brought into being. Shipman loved animals and helped tame them. Wapi, for example, was played by twin dogs. One was so savage he had to be muzzled, but his brother was the obedient one used as Dolores' sidekick. In the dog-saving scene, the crew was planning a fast cut to replace the vicious dog with the calm brother. But during the shoot Shipman told the crew to keep filming and, to their horror, she audaciously embraced the vicious canine. Remarkably, the dog calmed down with Shipman's soothing touch...!

Shipman's career was defined by bravery and autonomy. Having grown up acting in vaudeville, she combined entrepreneurial savvy with showbiz knowledge to develop a contract with writer James Oliver Curwood to exclusively adapt his stories for the screen (so long as she also starred in them). For Back to God's Country, Curwood was supposedly unhappy with the heroine-centric changes Shipman made to his short story. No matter what the history books say, the surviving print of the film is testament to the fact that Shipman was able to get her way — a rarity for a female filmmaker even today. Back to God's Country, then, is an imaginative meta take on Shipman's own career as a brave, female, filmmaking multihyphenate who helped bring the Canadian film industry into existence.

TIFF Bell Lightbox is screening Back to God's Country for free on Tuesday, Feb. 21, featuring a live score performance by Canadian composer Gabriel Thibaudeau.

For more information on Nell Shipman's contributions to film, check out film scholar Kay Armatage's The Girl from God's Country: Nell Shipman and the Silent Cinema, available from University of Toronto Press.

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