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Manitoba History: Hollywood Belatedly Recognises Manitoba: Northern Pursuit (1943) as a Relic of Second World War Screen Propaganda

by James M. Skinner
Victoria, British Columbia

Number 72, Spring-Summer 2013

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The Keystone Province has not fared well as a location of choice for American movie-makers. Other parts of the nation have done much better. Jasper and Banff national parks in Alberta featured more often in outdoor adventures over the decades, as did the Yukon, while Marilyn Monroe gave an added boost to the appeal of a segment of southwestern Ontario when she tottered about in high heels and an array of tight skirts and blouses in Niagara. Saskatchewan, a western filmed in its namesake province, starred heartthrob Alan Ladd as a cowboy working with the RCMP. Indeed, it took a 1941 British thriller, 49th Parallel, to establish the very existence, at least in non-travelogues, of Winnipeg. It was cast as a stopping off place for a group of fugitive German POWs en route from “the frozen North” to what was then neutral USA. However, Hollywood made amends of a sort in 1943 when Warner Brothers produced Northern Pursuit, a ninety-four minute, action movie with propaganda elements, set entirely in Manitoba, mostly the north and centre. The same studio’s Casablanca had been an enormous popular and critical success and had whetted the public’s appetite for more war pictures in which the enemy, be they Japanese, German or Italian, could be vilified and overcome, with a commensurate boost to morale on the home front.

Geography is not Northern Pursuit’s strong suit. It begins with a map of the entire north of Canada where Hudson Bay is prominently displayed, but no ports or landfalls are indicated. Somewhere in the vicinity of Churchill—we must assume—a German U-boat breaks through thick ice to deposit a quintet of Nazi airmen on shore, each attired in a fur parka and carrying nothing except a rifle, back-pack and a pair of skis. Their leader is Major Hugo von Keller (Helmut Dantine), an ace Luftwaffe bomber pilot who, as we soon discover, is a quintessential representative of the Master Race, at once calculating, humourless and ruthless. We are not yet privy to their assignment but it involves trekking southwards to meet up with a local band of First Nation Canadians who will guide them to their final destination. The scenic landscape they traverse is magnificent. Mountains soar to ten thousand feet or more and trees over one hundred feet tall dot the landscape. This would come as no surprise to those privy to Warner Brothers production notes that indicate all exterior photography was done in and around Sun Valley, Idaho, whose topography is markedly different from Manitoba’s. Once the party encounters a mythical Bear Mountain, two of the Indian guides refuse to proceed over its pass, citing a distinct avalanche danger. Von Keller now reveals his true colours by casually ordering them shot in the back for insubordination. But their premonition of disaster proves only too true when the entire company, with the exception of the Major, is buried alive by a massive cascade of rock and snow from one of those lofty peaks. Left on his own, he struggles through the snow before collapsing.

“Breathless adventure.” An advertising poster for the 1943 Hollywood movie Northern Pursuit, set in a fictionalized Manitoba, featured heartthrob Errol Flynn in the role of a Mountie of German ancestry who served in the mythical RCMP detachment at Bear Lake. Flynn succeeded in thwarting a Nazi sabotage plot.

Two Mounties, on routine patrol from the town of Bear Lake, save him from death by exposure. The one, Corporal Steve Wagner (Errol Flynn) reveals that he is of German parentage and his apparent lack of commitment to the war effort is a signal to the audience that he could be a potential traitor. He seems impressed when, momentarily left alone with the Nazi colonel, he listens intently to a “… list of the achievements of the Third Reich …”, the conquests of Czechoslovakia, Austria, Poland, France and the Low Countries. By the time Flynn arrives at the Mounties’ headquarters in Bear Lake with his prisoner in tow, the geniality between captive and escort arouses considerable hostility from his superiors. The town itself is quite impressive and includes a general store, barbershop, hotel and a sizable RCMP detachment. The question of the corporal’s loyalty further deepens when he asks to be discharged from the force. Meanwhile, von Keller is imprisoned nearby in yet another invention of the scriptwriters—the Canadian Department of National Defense Internment Camp (readers will note the Americanized spelling of “Defence” that would not have been used in 1941). With amazing ease, he quickly executes a breakout of selected prisoners that seems to involve nothing more than the disarming of a single guard by yet another native-born turncoat posing as a soldier. Back in Bear Lake, Wagner is accused of being an accomplice to the escape plan and is sentenced to be court-martialled in Winnipeg. At this point, the one authentic shot in the picture appears—an aerial view of the city, possibly from atop the Legislative Building, and presumably abstracted from a pre-war travelogue. Out on bail and returning to his room in the sumptuous Royal George Hotel on Portage Avenue, Steve is approached by his benefactor, a portly American citizen and Nazi sympathizer by the name of Ernest Willis. The plan is for the two of them to make a train journey to just south of The Pas (pronounced “Paz” throughout) and there meet up with the escapees. Yet another Indian band will lead them to their final destination, which, like Wagner’s apparent indifference to the war effort, remains a mystery. However, the goal is revealed as the journey concludes at a padlocked mine door. Long before the war, von Keller explains, airplane parts and bombs had been smuggled into Manitoba under the guise of heavy equipment and stored in the mineshaft somewhere north of Flin Flon. These will now be assembled into a plane whose mission is to destroy, according to von Keller, “…one of the most vital waterways connecting the United States and Canada, a main artery of all transatlantic war supplies. Eight bombs, placed with precision, will destroy the canal and locks and stop shipping for months. I will drop those bombs with precision.” In the interim, the native band leader who had opined “No freedom for Indians until the Germans come!” realizes the awful consequence of his treachery and attempts to escape only to be shot dead after a spectacular ski pursuit through yet another set of valleys and mountains.

Gradually the audience comes to understand that Steve has been playing double agent and that his allegiance is very much to the country of his birth. Somehow, he must prevent the plane from ever reaching its destination. Von Keller suspects as much and forces him, on pain of death, to participate in what would seem a mind-boggling undertaking for a half dozen individuals—that of assembling the plane from the contents of a stack of crates. Nevertheless, things proceed smoothly and when the Nazi crew is ready to board, orders are given to kill the now redundant Wagner. However, he dispatches his would-be murderer, dons his clothes and boards the plane unnoticed. Once airborne, a fight ensues. Steve succeeds in killing or disabling the entire crew including the Major who, badly injured and immobilized in the cockpit, watches in terror as the aircraft goes into a death spiral. Our hero is able to don a fortuitously located parachute at the last second and floats to earth moments after the fiery crash occurs. A postlude in Bear Lake sees Steve marry his sweetheart, the daughter of yet another screen caricature, a tight-fisted Scots store owner, Angus McBain, who faints after realizing he had rashly invited the wedding guests to eat and drink as much as they desired at his expense. The final sequence is a wink and a nudge to the contemporary audience with the now heroic Mountie assuring his bride that she is the only woman he has ever loved. Looking straight at the camera he gives a knowing grin. “What am I saying?”

It is ironic that immediately before filming began, Errol Flynn had been acquitted of the charge of rape for having sex with a minor, one of a number of similar incidents that would dog his career.

As wartime movie propaganda, Northern Pursuit was as inaccurate and far-fetched as most of its stablemates. The events portrayed in the film occur over a period of two months and several close-ups of newspaper headlines reveal these to be August and September when constant blizzards and the presence of snow on the ground to a depth of six inches or so would seem highly improbable. The few Aboriginal characters in the narrative, with their expressed hostility to the government, conform to the long-held Hollywood stereotype of ‘Injuns’ as ungrateful and untrustworthy, ever ready to be subverted by an alien force. The Nazis’ trek from Hudson Bay to the Flin Flon–The Pas area is, geographically speaking; convoluted and illogical, assuming their journey took them within a few miles of the real Bear Lake. That a German-owned mine in Manitoba would remain locked and undisturbed four years after the outbreak of war stretches credulity. Equally absurd is the concept that half a dozen men could assemble a ready-to-fly airplane in a matter of weeks. By way of a footnote, the plane that emerges from the mine is a Lockheed Hudson whose fabrication plant was located near Warner Brothers studios in California. The ultimate target remains vague although it is probably meant to be somewhere in the southern Great Lakes region or, perhaps, the St. Lawrence. Of course, little if any of this would perplex an audience that, for the most part, was totally unfamiliar with Manitoba, its climate, its geography and much else.

Still, the film is noteworthy for illuminating the reluctance of the industry to malign the image of the Third Reich’s population too severely. While Hollywood portrayed Japan and its people as a barbaric nation deserving complete annihilation, the Germans seen here, and elsewhere in American propaganda pictures of this time, were more cultured and recognizable as worthy foes. While Major von Keller displays a callous brutality towards all who stand in his way, his subordinates, in contrast, chat and go about their tasks as unobtrusively as would their opposite numbers on the Allied side. Flynn’s appearance, as the offspring of a German couple, reinforces the concept that the invaders on Manitoba soil were not essentially different from their pursuers. Nor should it be forgotten that there was a sizable element in the population of the province, as elsewhere on the continent, whose ancestry was German and whose culture, religion and social networking were conventional and accepted as such. Ruefully, one must conclude that Northern Pursuit amounts to little more than a feud to the death between a loyal, Manitoba-born Canadian and a scheming Nazi, with the outcome never in doubt.

“As big as the great Northwest!” Northern Pursuit featured Errol Flynn with a Nazi plotter played by Austrian-born actor Helmut Dantine.

Page revised: 7 January 2018

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