It’s been over three years since the last entry of my Hollywood’s Canada series, reviews inspired by Pierre Berton’s immortal tome of the same name. One particular challenge was that many of the titles he cites were obscure B-pictures that were rather difficult to track down, even on YouTube. However, the ever-expanding library of the ad-supported Tubi streaming service has come to the rescue and furnished one of the more satisfying titles, Twentieth Century Fox’s 1949 production of Canadian Pacific.
The film gets the history down pat right out of the gate, relating the fact that a transcontinental railway was absolutely vital in knitting Canada together as a country, with British Columbia particularly insistent on that ribbon of steel. The section between Alberta and the west coast was a particularly challenging section with all those inconvenient mountains in the way. While blasting certainly helped, it was vital to find a suitable route that was actually feasible for railway construction. Enter surveyor and protagonist Tom Andrews (Randolph Scott).
Tom has just returned from his latest surveying trip having discovered the best route for the last leg of the Transcontinental railway. His plans to retire to a small Métis (mis-pronounced by the characters as “Met-iss”) fur-trapping community and marry his sweetheart Cecille (Nancy Olsen) are thwarted by CPR general manager Cornelius Van Horne (Robert Barrat) who insists he stay on to help see the railway through to completion.
There’s trouble nearby as the men in Cecile’s community are riled up by trading post owner Dirk Rourke (Victor Jory) who fears his business will be decimated by the civilization the CPR will bring. From blowing up sections of completed track to inspiring revolt among the local First Nations, Rourke will stop at nothing to see the railroad stopped in its tracks (yes, pun intended. Fight me). Tom has his work cut out for him as he not only has to thwart Rourke’s increasingly violent tactics, but overcome the objections of a pacifist doctor (Jane Wyatt) who thinks she’s just the medicine this rugged man of the mountains needs. Oh yes, and there’s Tom’s buddy “Dynamite Dawson (J. Carrol Naish at his mugg-iest) who probably shouldn’t be trusted with matches, let alone explosives.
If you’re wondering how the Northwest Mounted Police fit into all this, the short answer is that they don’t. Even when all hell breaks loose in the final act, it’s a Canadian Pacific Railway militia that comes to the rescue, essentially reducing the Mounties to only a casual mention in the dialogue. Majestic Banff mountainscapes and authentic CPR rolling stock aside, this is essentially a Hollywood western with a God’s Country setting.
I’ve never particularly been a fan of Randolph Scott as his stoicism covering for stiffness has failed to grow on me. He comports himself well enough in what is essentially an A-minus western and capably supported by Hollywood’s golden age of character players, although why any red blooded man of the mountains would even consider choosing Jane Wyatt over a young Nancy Olsen is a mystery even CBC’s Murdoch couldn’t crack.
One notable feather in the film’s cap is the luscious location photography rendered in Cinecolour (discount Technicolor of its day). The film makes ample use of its Alberta forest locations and scenic backdrops which elevates the final film to a level its formulaic script can’t quite manage.
Canadian Pacific serves up a solid American western transposed onto Canadian soil. For what it lacks in historical verisimilitude, it gains in entertainment value and exquisite location photography. Still, the story of the Canadian Pacific Railway, warts and all, deserves superior cinematic depiction to this and it’s Canada’s shame that no filmmaker or studio has had the way nor the will to mount one.
Canadian Pacific can be streamed for free on Tubi