Cinema is action, action, action, but it must always be in the same direction – Raoul Walsh.
That maxim from the veteran director could be applied to many of the movies he made, and Saskatchewan (1954) genuinely lives up to it from beginning to end. In a lot of respects this is a routine film with no special message to sell. However, as with most of Walsh’s work, it remains enjoyable for it’s total lack of pretension and the pacy shooting style.
The plot concerns O’Rourke (Alan Ladd), a Mountie with close connections to the Cree due to his being adopted by them as an orphan. This affinity for the natives is made clear right from the start when O’Rourke and his Cree half-brother, Cajou (Jay Silverheels) are seen hunting together. Their sport is interrupted though when they stumble upon the site of an ambush by Sioux fleeing north after routing Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn. There is only one survivor, an American woman called Grace (Shelley Winters), who escaped death by hiding herself at the onset of the attack. She proves reluctant to return to the fort at Saskatchewan with her rescuers, the reason being she’s wanted across the border in Montana for murder. With the threat of the Sioux forging an alliance with the Cree and fomenting trouble in Canada growing all the time, the Mounties are ordered to proceed south and link up their colleagues in an effort to drive the newcomers back to the US. That trek is beset with difficulties in the shape of constant Sioux harrying, a volatile and intolerant marshal bent on returning Grace to Montana, and a fresh off the boat commander with a firm grasp of regulations but woeful ignorance of the local conditions. As the possibility of the total annihilation of the command looms ever larger, O’Rourke has little choice but to stage a mutiny and try to get as many people as possible back to safety. All the while the Sioux and Cree are inching their way towards a pact that would surely guarantee war with the Canadians. There’s plenty of bad history in here, not least the fact that those Sioux who did run north had no intention of starting an uprising in Canada, but the sheer pace of the movie and the relentless action make it easy to ignore this and simply wallow in some of the stunning images on view.
Raoul Walsh had a real talent for making watchable and entertaining films from thin, and sometimes pretty trite, material. He was always at his best when filming on location and staging actions set pieces, and Saskatchewan offered ample opportunity for indulging in both. The Canadian scenery provided a breathtaking backdrop and the director’s sure touch meant that events rattle along, peppered with well staged battle scenes. I always find it odd that Alan Ladd’s greatest and most iconic role also signalled his decline. His post-Shane roles were a mixed bag ranging from mundane to reasonably interesting, with Saskatchewan falling somewhere in the middle. The part of O’Rourke doesn’t call for him to dig especially deep or stretch himself, despite the fact that the opening set-up suggests that there will be some inner conflict to deal with. The pull of conflicting loyalties is explicit enough in the script, but there’s never any real sense of the turmoil this must necessarily evoke in O’Rourke. Ladd’s performance is by no means bad, it’s just not particularly involving. The only female of note in the movie is Shelley Winters as the fugitive O’Rourke grows increasingly attached to. I’ve never been a fan of Winters – even when she got to play fairly independent characters such as Grace there was still that slightly whiny and self-pitying quality about her that turns me right off. As the marshal determined to extradite Winters back to the US, Hugh O’Brian makes a satisfying villain. He’s clearly burdened by some dark secret, and is suitably mean when shooting Indians in the back and slugging Winters. For me, the most enjoyable role in the movie was the one handed to J Carrol Naish. His buckskin-clad Frenchman has a good line in quick fire wit and it’s hard not to smile at his self-confessed ambition to start his own tribe, already producing six children in the first six years of marriage to a Cree squaw. Naish was one of those unsung character actors who turned up in countless movies and rarely disappointed.
There are DVD releases of Saskatchewan in Germany, France (although this is almost sure to have burnt-in subs) and Australia. I have the German edition from Koch Media and the transfer is a very pleasing one. The film is presented 1.33:1 and is generally clean with colours that really pop. There are no forced subs on the English track and extras consist of the trailer, a gallery and a booklet (in German of course). I’d describe the film as entertaining without being anything special. Both acting and direction are competent and professional and it’s a lovely movie to look at. This is a lower tier western that sets out primarily to offer pacy and colourful diversion – taken as such it delivers successfully.