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.

18 thoughts on “Saskatchewan

  1. Hey Colin … Another film I haven’t had the privilege of seeing.
    Looks like Saskatchewan was filmed in Alberta though. Partially, at least. Because that mountain scene is the Valley of the Ten Peaks at Moraine Lake, in Banff National Park, Alberta. Not really a criticism, but …
    There IS some nice country in Saskatchewan, but much of the province is as flat a pancake. Prairie.


    • Well that’s your part of the world and I guess the shift in location (or maybe we should say the disguised locations) would have really jumped out at you. Nevertheless, those locations are beautifully shot and constitute one of the major attractions of the film.

      Anyway, it’s another film you can add to your list of those to keep an eye out for. Since I first wrote that piece the film has become a lot easier for US and Canadian residents to acquire, having been released as part of the Horizons West set.


  2. I collect Mountie stuff, films, serials, swag, etc., and this is one of the best of the higher profile Mountie pictures, for sure. The only problem for me is Shelley Winters; a more horrifying woman never blighted the screen, in my view, at least. Certainly not cast as a sexy gal, in any case. The actions is top notch, too. Walsh seems to have gone on a short Mountie run, with Errol Flynn in NORTHERN PURSUIT. He had access to top talent, certainly.


    • Yes, I had similar reservations about Winters. I remember hearing some things some time ago though which suggested that the, frequently irritating, screen persona she projected wasn’t really one she chose herself. It made me think about her in a slightly different light.

      There aren’t that many Mountie pictures altogether – or it seems that way – but Pony Soldier with Tyrone Power is another one.


  3. That’s a great one, for sure! After my KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES review for next week’s Power Mad blogathon, I’m doing that; can’t have too much Power.

    Actually, there are a great many Mountie films. More than one could watch if one tried. The main problem is that many are not released by the majors DVD producers. I have a ton, and you can find several dozen on Youtube. I’m on the lookout for a list of more obscure ones. If you care to check it out, I did a writeup of my current Mountie wishlist this week:


    • Thanks for the link – I hadn’t realized there were so many. Of course, there’s also Cooper in North West Mounted Police.

      I’ll keep my eyes peeled for that post on King of the Khyber Rifles, another Power movie I need to catch up with.


  4. Hi Colin. I’ve read when this movie screened in Western Canada in 1954, the audience howled with laughter at it. Chiefly I think because it showed mountains in Saskatchewan. e.g. Fort Walsh as depicted in the movie is an actual NWMP post in southwest Saskatchewan founded in the 1870s, and exists now as a national historic site.

    You could laugh at this too, or shake your head looking back at the liberties taken with the script… but the NWMP fought no gun battles with the Sioux. The movie does a serious disservice to the Mounties who very skillfully dealt with the Sioux when they fled to Canada after massacring the Seventh Cavalry. The Mounties made sure the Sioux foray into Canada was peaceful. A disservice to the Sioux as well I suppose who didn’t kill anyone north of the border as far as I know after they fled to Canada.


    • Yes, the geographical and topographical details are way out of kilter, but it’s not something that concerns me too much as the images captured by Walsh are genuinely breathtaking.
      And yes, the film does bend historical fact to its own internal will. People differ in their response to such matters of course but, once again, this isn’t something I get too worked up about personally. I guess it comes down to how one regards the medium of the cinema. For me, it’s a form of artistic expression first and foremost, and also a means of entertainment. These are the criteria I look to see fulfilled primarily and, where applicable such as in a western or historical piece, the factual aspects come down near the bottom of the list. I suppose what I mean here is that I don’t look for documentary realism in a cinema feature – if it’s artistic expression, then realism is not all that relevant. Of course, that’s just my take on it all.


  5. When I first saw this as a kid my father pointed out all stuff wrong with the film. Us kids did not care, it was a western and we loved it. When I caught it again about 10 years ago I realized I only lived 65-70 miles from where it was filmed. Needless to say this is nowhere close to ” Saskatchewan”. It is on the other side of Alberta in fact. The running joke here is that in ” Saskatchewan” you can watch your dog run away for days, the place is so flat. Having said all that, I must admit I enjoyed the film this time as well. I really like Ladd. Nice work, Colin.



    • Even though I now know how off the mark the title is in geographic terms, I still like the movie overall. Walsh and Ladd did better things but it’s entertaining, and the Hollywood inconsistency is something I’ve come to accept.


    • Visually, it’s a beautiful looking film. I don’t set all that much store by realism in cinema anyway (it’s primarily an artistic medium as far as I’m concerned) so I’m willing to overlook a lot of factual errors. Opinions may vary of course, as always.


  6. Early western star Hoot Gibson made several films here in the mid 20’s one of which was called CALGARY STAMPEDE. Western stars who served as Stampede Parade Marshall’s include, Dennis Weaver, Roy Rogers. Sam Elliot, Jack Palance, Dale Evans, Hoot Gibson and several others I forget.


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