The harsh conditions of a frosty windswept Canadian wilderness are more than just a setting in Raoul Walsh’s Northern Pursuit (1943). Instead, this landscape that serves to be a point made between Europe and North America for all the wrong reasons is a thoughtfully constructed representation of a world supposedly exempt from the tragedies and horror of World War II. However, it is also a terrain that is intended to be an unwillingly exploited country, tainted by corrupt men who serve the Third Reich, eager to manipulate and debase the majesty of Canada and her good people. The forestry and mountain ranges presented in the film also come to reflect the personal quests, anxieties, aspirations and desires of the characters that populate the story – both those with pure intentions and those with perverse ideologies. A prologue about Italian navigator John Cabot, who reached the shores of Canada, opens the film with a firm statement about the righteous versus the morally bankrupt, and through this news reel style curtain raiser, it is established that Cabot’s heroism (albeit questionable in the grand scheme of things) is in direct opposition to the coming of German officers (with mention of the year 1941, cementing a period forever linked to the atrocities of Nazism) who are ready to threaten the wholesome and serene Canadian people, who – as the narrator explains – have found a “way of life”.
The emerging submarine crashing through the sheets of ice near the beginning of the film indicates an invasion that is both secretive and corrupt, and when the first image of a Nazi calling card is depicted, it is a confronting visage of sheer terror, where the ruthlessness of these men are on display. “Cold country, Canada”, is a mantra uttered a few times, and as much as it is a code for Nazi affiliates to understand the next step in their dealing with bridging the gap between the Americas and Europe and eventually the sinister plan to bomb the canal that binds Canada and England, it is also a highly acute subversive testament to a country that can be “cold” to those who have no right in being there. The isolative state of the northern mountain ranges of Canada will eventually prove to be far too powerful to be invaded by Nazis and their malevolent attempts at exploitation. Nature and the natural order are just as equally a pivotal player as the dynamic cast in Raoul Walsh’s suspense-fuelled epic, as screenwriters Frank Gruber and Alvah Bessie (adapting an original source story by Leslie T. White) utilise the essence of the Canadian wilderness as best they can throughout the course of the narrative. In the opening moments of the film, the unforgiving natural world takes care of the Nazi team by unleashing an avalanche that kills all but one member of the heinous group, rendering the surviving right wing affiliate vulnerable to the clutches of mother nature – as well as the film’s hero, Canadian Mountie Steve Wagner (Errol Flynn).
Errol Flynn, who had made a career out of playing varied men in a multitude of ethnicities, takes a shot at playing a Canadian mountain policeman with German heritage. He is completely connected to the land and has a penchant for sniffing out outsiders with no real business being in the woodlands of frosty Canada (“He’s no travelling woodsman”). However, Flynn packs the character of Wagner with a sturdy dose of compassion and care, and although he spends the entire film questioning the motives of varied players (a trait that would become a physical response in Flynn’s performance style which the actor mastered so perfectly in many of his pictures) he still resolves situations at hand with the honest knowledge that sometimes people are just people, and their horrendous actions are coming from a place of fear. How he nurses the surviving Nazi back to health is an interesting take on a character that somehow could be read as morally ambiguous, but this is something that director Raoul Walsh is thoroughly invested in and interested in, as far as delving into the complexities of human behaviour and relationships. “A German officer up here in the north country…I don’t get it…” – there is a bizarre misplacement factor going on, and then Wagner rationalises with “Just because he’s an enemy soldier, doesn’t mean he’s not human.” The film also then brings into conversation the issue of Wagner’s German descent, to which it is firmly established that pure Germans despise the Nazi regime, as it is an abusive insult of their heritage. However, having Flynn’s Wagner be German complicates matters at hand and throws the film into a realm of insecurities about one’s own lineage and personal obligations to a cause that would normally be deemed too horrific to even ponder.
Northern Pursuit also discusses the unlikely strained relationship shared between the Nazis and a group of Canadian indigenous people who are promised the exile of British colonialists in favour of a country free from enslavement from Anglo Saxon oppression. However, of course, this union is not a wholesome one and also built from a foundation of deception and political lies. Also, via terrifying realisation, the indigenous Canadians of the piece come to understand that once their work for the invading Nazis is done, they too will be killed off – much like the Jews and other unfortunates back in Europe. There is also something to be said about pioneer white women (here represented by the leading lady of the piece, Julie Bishop) and their friendship with the indigenous people of the land. There is an unspoken mutual understanding of both groups being vulnerable to the hand of colonial men, and this clear intuitive respect and honor is expressed in films such as Northern Pursuit. It is something that pops up in various Westerns throughout the years – in Hondo (1953), Geraldine Page instantly tells a bigoted John Wayne that she and her “people” have made peace with the Apache, and in the Errol Flynn Western Santa Fe Trail (1940), this is also the case where Olivia de Havilland has a lovely connection with an elder Native American Indian woman, who, via her spiritual connection to the land, predicts the decline in the friendships shared between various characters including Flynn and Ronald Reagan who will eventually turn on one another (as history dictated) – something presented in the exquisite They Died With Their Boots On (1941) – once again co-starring de Havilland.
Flynn’s onscreen relationship with Julie Bishop in Northern Pursuit is not as heated as those shared by the likes of Olivia de Havilland or Alexis Smith, nor does it share the same desperate desire to flourish in a world so hardened by alienation and brute savagery as seen in his last Western Rocky Mountain (1950) where he would co-star alongside “real-life” future bride Patrice Wymore, however the Flynn/Bishop playfulness is what paints a much needed sense of joy in what truly is a bleak and heavy piece. Bishop’s back and forths with her Scottish immigrant father is also a wonder to behold, as the old curmudgeon continually insists that his spirited and headstrong daughter is a “liar” and someone who has “made herself up”. This is an interesting factor coming into play here, in what is a light hearted subplot in a film dedicated to a German/Canadian heroine taking on the Nazi infiltration of North America. What is being scrutinised here is the concept of self-fabrication and also the heightened invention of a nation – the fact that Canada is a country built off the immigrant experience (outside of the nation’s indigenous peoples) lends itself to be a place of the self-made pioneer, who is free to recreate personal history. The brilliance of Raoul Walsh is that he examines that and plots that within the constructs of a rural thriller, starring one of cinema’s most engaging leading men, who is not only star power personified, but a man who appealed to audiences for various reasons, with one major contributing factor being his ability to be “for the people”. Errol Flynn strides through the film with distinguished quiet confidence. His sexual prowess is a human vitrine of pure masculine exuberance and effortless peacocking – the man sizzles with appeal simply from the manner in which he carries himself. His smirk baring teeth, the raise of an eyebrow always questioning his surroundings or the way he takes his leading lady into his arms in a single glide; this is all part and parcel of a man steadily confident in his red-blooded maleness. Something else that boasts Flynn’s masterful handle on machismo that oozes sensual delight is in his matter of expressing himself through onscreen violence – Flynn would establish himself as a swashbuckling hero in the early days of his career, however his shift into Westerns and other tough-guy fare would extend beyond that, shifting him from glamorous almost other-worldly lyrical flamboyant maverick to an earthy, soil-stained “real man”; a hero for the working classes and a down and dirty athlete. Complimenting his swagger is the stark cinematography – the use of shadow and light and the perpetually engaging composition that brings forth the majesty of the Canadian wilderness and marries it with crisp depictions of work stations and onsite bases combating forces of right wing evil doing, does wonders for Flynn’s dynamic performance. Sid Hickox’s cinematography not only magnifies the majesty of the Canadian mountain ranges and Flynn’s mightiness, but it also highlights the eeriness and otherworldliness that promotes an isolative feeling of building tension shared between characters who see themselves as either outsiders or integrated long stayers, dedicated to whatever cause they serve.
Nature in Northern Pursuit is something that director Walsh presents as an extension of the wilderness of a man’s heart – much like the Clark Gable vehicle Call Of The Wild (1935) and then later, films such as Cornel Wilde’s Storm Fear (1955) which would use the harsh conditions of a Winter-enslaved forest as a counterpoint to the cold, unforgiving landscape that exists within the household of the piece, where a young woman’s home is invaded by her ailing husband’s crooked brother and his gang of thieves in what would be one of the most remarkable home invasion movies to precede what would become a subgenre of primarily horror decades later. Of course, Wilde’s film in which he also starred as the aforementioned estranged brother paints a picture of a world in turmoil and haunted by a shady past, and this is something that inhabits the world of Northern Pursuit as well. Flynn in this piece is established as an ambiguous character, someone not entirely on the side of what would be considered the righteous – and this is highlighted by his ability to understand the German language, which links him to the rise of the Nazi party. However, as the film progresses, we most certainly are in safe territory and we have Flynn once again as a stable and heroic do-gooder; someone completely dedicated to fighting off the sinister Nazis. But it is not to say that the legend of Flynn as continually heroic can’t be questioned or even doubted.
Much like Call of the Wild, dogs are work animals here in Northern Pursuit, eager to please their master and lead the pack via a robust “Mush!” It is also noted that the dogs are looked after by the Native Americans, and this sense of a wolf heritage and tie to the native land is integrated within the subtext of the film, which ties nicely to what Walsh explores with themes of lineage and legacy. The most terrifying aspect that counters this is the denial of the natural order – the way the dogs, Indians, women and those on the righteous path are looked upon is a systematic degree of manipulation and sacrifice. The early scene where Nazis try to seduce Flynn’s character with their power by talk of what they have accomplished in Poland and France is a scary insight into the corruption that can unfold when one is not heavily guarded or made vulnerable. If vulnerability is the world of those to be used and manipulated, then this film suggests it with an iron fist.
In Walsh’s film, Canada is a place of beauty and decency, but it is also a place where bad men can transform the image of the almost ethereal purity of white snow into something that could come to reflect or represent something that will mask unspeakable horrors to unfold. Northern Pursuit unravels itself with a sturdy and steady edginess that taps into societal anxieties about race and heritage, and complicates the role of integrity and goodness – and masters such as Raoul Walsh, as well as his director of photography and cast, lead by the enigmatic and perpetually endearing Errol Flynn, deliver such multidimensional aspects of confusion with a powerful blow to the senses, forcing us to question the motives of not only the characters we see on screen, but the fragile balancing act of righteousness and comfortability we juggle with as human beings.