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Back to God's Country

Back to God's Country

Year: 1919
Language: Silent with English intertitles
Format: 35mm Black & White
Runtime: 73 min
Director: David Hartford
Producer: Ernest Shipman
Writer: James Curwood, Nell Shipman
Cinematographer: Joseph Walker, Dal Clawson
Editor: Cyril Gardner
Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: Wellington Plater, Wheeler Oakman, Charles Arling, Ralph Laidlaw, Nell Shipman
Production Company: Curwood-Carver Productions Inc., Canadian Photoplays Ltd., Shipman Curwood Productions Inc.

Dolores LeBeau (Nell Shipman) lives with her father (Ralph Laidlaw) in the Canadian wilderness, where she meets and falls in love with Peter (Wheeler Oak­man), a writer and government official. When Rydal (Wellington Playter), a criminal disguised as a Mountie, tries to rape Dolores, her father intervenes but Rydal kills him de­spite Dolores’s attempts to save him.

After getting married, Dolores and Peter travel to the Arctic on a whaling schooner. In a dark twist, the schooner’s captain turns out to be Rydal, who disables Peter and tries again to violate Dolores. When the ship gets frozen in the ice, she escapes with Peter on a dogsled but is pursued across the snow-covered landscape by Rydal and his partner. Dolores and Peter are rescued when a dog befriended by Dolores attacks Rydal’s sled dogs. Rydal dies alone in an icehole, while Dolores and Peter return to “God's Country” and her animal friends.

Known for her natural beauty, wilderness acumen and skills with wild animals, Nell Shipman achieved enduring fame as the “girl from God’s country” after starring in Vitagraph’s God’s Country and the Woman in 1916. Three years later, Back to God’s Country reprised the successful formula with an adventure melodrama set in the Far North. The film was shot on location near Lesser Slave Lake, Alberta, under conditions so extreme the male lead had to be replaced.

Although Shipman is not credited as director, it is clear she wielded immense creative control. She reworked James Oliver Curwood’s short story to emphasize the female character as a robust heroine who brings the villains to justice through her rapport with animals, wilderness skills, bravery and fortitude. A key early Canadian film, Back to God’s Country is notable for several reasons: its romantic naturalism, activist her­oine, scenes of Shipman interacting with a bear in its natural habitat and, of course, the first nude scenes in Canadian cinema.

Canada’s most successful silent feature film, Back to God’s Country was a box-office hit both in Canada and internationally, reaping profits of three hundred per cent. Recently, interest in the film has been revived because of its unusually strong female lead and the significant role played by Ship­man in the film’s script and production. Several of Shipman’s films, including Back to God’s Country, were featured in a Canadian Retrospective programme at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival.

By: Kay Armatage, Peter Morris

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