Back to God's Country
Cast & Crew
David M. Hartford
Forty years ago, in the Canadian wilderness where rough men are searching for gold, "Chinaman" Shan Tung travels through a blizzard with his Great Dane, Tao. At the Telegraph Trail Bar, where they stop to rest, a bully cuts off Shan Tung's queue to amuse the crowd. Reacting to the most serious insult in his culture, Shan Tung pulls out a knife and the bully shoots him dead. Several years later, Tao's descendant, a fierce beast known as "Wapi, the Killer," lives in the north at the shore of the Arctic Sea, owned and abused by "Sealskin" Blake, who runs the fur trading post. Meanwhile, far to the south, Dolores LeBeau lives with her father Baptiste and the many wild creatures she has befriended. When Peter Burke, a writer and naturalist employed by the government, comes to their cabin, he is welcomed, and soon he and Dolores are in love. When Peter must make a short business trip to Ottawa, Dolores helps him pack. Intrigued by the manuscript he has been writing, she sneaks it out of his bundle and he leaves without it. Nearby, a Canadian mounted policeman pursues Capt. Rydal, the master of a trading vessel who is fleeing murder charges. When the Mountie catches and tries to arrest Rydal, the villain's cohort, who is concealed in the woods, shoots him. Rydal switches clothes with the dead lawman and the men proceed deeper into the woods, to where Dolores is swimming naked in the water with her pet bear Cubby. Seeing Rydal's lecherous glances, she hides under a waterfall, while Cubby scares Rydal away. Wanting "to see more of the girl," Rydal finds the LeBeau's cabin and, pretending to be an injured Mountie, is taken in by the kindly Baptiste. Dolores is alarmed to find Rydal and his henchman there, but takes refuge in her room to read Peter's manuscript. Later, when Baptiste leaves the cabin to chop wood, Rydal grabs Dolores, who struggles until she is unconscious. Hearing the sounds, Baptiste tries to rescue her, but the henchman fights him. Baptiste inadvertently kills the henchman, then fights Rydal, but is knocked out. When he regains consciousness, Rydal pretends to arrest Baptiste for the murder of his accomplice, but takes the bound man to a cliff above a river and pushes him over. Dolores, who has followed, jumps in and tries to save her father from the currents, but cannot. Returning for his manuscript, Peter finds Dolores pulling her father's corpse from the water, while Rydal disappears. A year later, Dolores, now married to Peter and living in the city, yearns for the forest and its creatures. Although he must first carry out a government assignment that will take them to the Arctic Sea, Peter promises they will return afterward to the cabin. Onboard the trade ship Flying Moon , Peter works diligently in their sleeping room. When the captain, who claims to be ill and has not been seen by Peter or Dolores, finally sends for Dolores, she recognizes him as Rydal and realizes that she and Peter are at his mercy. Dolores decides not to reveal Rydal's identity to Peter, fearing that Rydal will kill him, but Rydal soon renders Peter helpless by having his crewmen drop a sail on him. When the ship anchors near Blake's trading post, Dolores tries to get help for the dying Peter, but Blake, who is another of Rydal's cohorts, tells her there are no other ships in the area and that the nearest doctor is at Fort Confidence, two hundred miles across the Barren Lands. Rydal then announces that the ship will dock all winter, and Eskimo women are brought onboard for the sailors. As the days pass, Dolores manages to evade Rydal's lecherous advances, sometimes by playing along until he passes out drunk. After deciding to appeal to Blake for help, Dolores walks through the snow to the bar. Seeing Blake whipping Wapi, she stands in front of the animal and protests the abuse. Her kindness, the first Wapi has ever known, inspires the animal to respond with gentleness toward Dolores. After Dolores again asks for Blake's help, he pretends to agree to provide her with two dogsled teams to transport her across the Barrens, but warns that attempting the trip in sixty below zero temperature is "almost certain death." Secretly, Blake promises Rydal to return Dolores to him, but the eavesdropping Dolores overhears him. While she prepares Peter and herself for the journey, Wapi bites through his ropes and frees himself. When Blake presents Dolores with two dog teams, she pulls out a gun and tells him that she knows of his plans. After boarding Peter's sled, she orders the Eskimo team master to leave, and when Blake tries to stop her, shoots him in the shoulder. Wapi, after which Rydal, upon learning of her escape, takes the second dog team in pursuit. Threatening the Eskimo with death if Rydal catches up, Dolores manages to keep her sled ahead, but then loses the gun, when it slips from her hands, and Rydal gets dangerously close. As her last hope, Dolores sends Wapi to attack Rydal and escapes with Peter to the fort. Wapi obediently attacks Rydal's team, but is wounded in the battle. The Mounties at the fort search for Rydal, who is killed while fighting them. Dolores is nursing the recuperating Peter, when a limping Wapi shows up. Relieved that he has survived, Dolores promises to take the heroic animal home with her. Months later, in the woodland cabin, Wapi lives contentedly with Peter, Dolores and their baby, and the friendly, native creatures.
David M. Hartford
Back to God's Country
But the always changeable mood of Back to God's Country suddenly shifts from a bucolic love story to a genuine nightmare. A murderous criminal Rydal (Wellington A. Playter) hiding out in the mountains and traveling with his half-breed sidekick, spies Dolores skinny-dipping in a brook and vows to "have" her. Nell Shipman later noted that although an unknown actress named Hedy Lamarr got all the notoriety for her nude swim in the 1932 film Ecstasy, it was actually her lead character in Back to God's Country who provided the screen's first nude swim scene. After a string of horrific events and her father's death, Dolores and Peter begin a new life in the city. But Dolores finds she can't escape Rydal. The rest of the film is a battle of wills between the gentle Dolores and the destructive Rydal and culminates in a deadly confrontation between the two in a remote, northern Canadian port. It is ultimately a dog, "Wapi the Walrus," who comes to Dolores' aid.
Back to God's Country was based on a typically sensational James Oliver Curwood short story "Wapi, the Walrus." Curwood was known for a bizarre fiction formula in which decent women were threatened with rape, only to be rescued from a fate worse than death by a protective dog. Curwood agreed to give Shipman exclusive rights to all of his stories, including God's Country and the Woman (1916) and Baree, Son of Kazan (1918), provided she agreed to star in the films.
Shipman and Curwood were both fascinated with certain aspects of the wilderness and the animals that lived there, but they encountered numerous obstacles while adapting Curwood's story to film. Though they eventually saw beyond their differences of opinion on matters of storytelling, Curwood's first response to Shipman's scripting of his story was hardly subtle. "Rotten! Not my story! Crazy! Bunk!" were the comments Shipman remembered scribbled in the script's margins.
Curwood's prototypical woman-beast storyline was also used in Back to God's Country, with Dolores finding an abused, vicious black dog Wapi, her only companion and helpmate in the barren winter landscape where she and Peter are trapped. Dolores and Wapi form a bond that transforms this fascinating, strange story yet again, from a tale of human evil, to an oddly touching story of the loving relationship between a woman and a dog.
Wapi was played by a temperamental 150-lb. Great Dane named Tresore, who intensely disliked all people other than his trainer Doc Graff and Shipman. The ferocious Tresore was used in scenes without people, but it was his gentler brother Rex who served as his double in all scenes with actors.
Though David Hartford is credited as the director of Back to God's Country, the real talent behind the film was Nell Shipman, a remarkably accomplished woman who often directed, starred in, produced and also scripted her films.
Born in Canada, Shipman arrived in Hollywood at the tender age of 14. She rose from an actress to become a writer and then one of silent film's first female directors. In 1920 Shipman also established her own production company and became known for the adventure films she created which often centered on a cast of some 200 animals -- skunks, wolves, bears -- the actress used in many of her films. Shipman was an innovator in many other regards too. In an age when films were generally studio-bound, she insisted on shooting dramas like Back to God's Country on location in the remote wilds of Idaho and Canada. And unlike the usual dictatorial, hierarchical nature of filmmaking, Shipman practiced a different philosophy in her work, and saw film as a collaborative art form. Shipman was also an early advocate for animal rights and conveyed her love and respect for animals in both her films and her private life. That stance caused even more friction with Back to God's Country author Curwood, who was known as a big game hunter. Shipman noted with disgust in her autobiography that Curwood even used a publicity photo of himself posed with a foot on a dead grizzly's head.
After a short-lived but remarkable career breaking boundaries Shipman had an unhappy end in Hollywood. Over the course of her career, Shipman had often made financially unwise moves, like failing to acquire a major distributor for her films. And she lived to regret her decision to turn down a seven-year contract with Samuel Goldwyn. Shipman died penniless in Los Angeles in 1970, and her pioneering work and unique, feisty personality (captured in her autobiography The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart published posthumously) has been largely overlooked in film history. Tresore met a comparably sad end as well, dying a painful death after being poisoned.
Director: David Hartford Producer: Ernest G. Shipman Screenplay: James Oliver Curwood Cinematography: Dal Clawson, Joseph Walker Production Design: (Production Management) Bert Van Tuyle, Gavin Young Music: Paul M. Sarazan Cast: Nell Shipman (Dolores LeBeau), Wheeler Oakman (Peter Burke), Wellington A. Playter (Captain Rydal), Roy Laidlaw (Baptiste LeBeau), Charles Arling ("Sealskin" Blake). BW-75m.
by Felicia Feaster
Back to God's Country
Critically ill, the lead actor, Ronald Byram, left the shoot during the first two weeks and was replaced by Wheeler Oakman. It is probable that it is Byram in the close-ups in the sledge in the final chase scenes. Roy Laidlaw is frequently but erroneously referred to as Ralph Laidlaw in the trade press of the time. Edna Shipman did not act in this film as is sometimes claimed. The film opened at the Strand Theater in Owosso, Michigan where it played for three days. Canadian Photoplays Ltd. was a Calgary-based company incorporated 7 February 1919 under the laws of Alberta. Shipman-Curwood Company was later called Curwood-Carver Productions Inc.
The opening credit reads: "James Oliver Curwood presents Nell Shipman in Back to God's Country by James Oliver Curwood." Curwood's writing credit reads: "Adapted from Mr. Curwood's Novel Wapi the Walrus in Good Housekeeping Magazine and produced under the personal supervision of the Author." An opening title card reads: "In days when the lure of gold lay heavy on the land there labored into the great white north a Chinaman named Shan Tung, and with him a giant dog called Tao." Portions of the film were tinted, blue for outdoor sequences, sepia for indoor and magenta for the final sequences showing the return to the cabin. To illustrate Dolores LeBeau's" homesickness for the woods, a small insert was placed at the center bottom of the frame showing Dolores in the city, surrounded by full-frame footage of Dolores in the woods with the animals. In one sequence, Dolores is shown bathing in the nude.
In 1920, Curwood republished his short story in the book Back to God's Country...and other stories. According to Nell Shipman's posthumously published autobiography, Ronald Byram was originally cast in the role of "Peter Burke." While shooting the film in Northern Canada, he contracted pneumonia and consequently died, after which Oakman was cast as his replacement. In Shipman's autobiography and other modern sources, the following actors also mentioned as having appeared in the film: William Colvin as a Mountie, Kewpie Morgan as Shan Tung's killer, and Charles B. Murphy as Rydal's henchman. A modern source adds Iron Eyes Cody to the cast as an extra. In his autobiography The Light on Her Face, photographer Joseph Walker described how assistant director Bert Van Tuyle suffered permanent frostbite injuries during filming. Another modern source reported that Van Tuyle served as both assistant director and production manager, and also added to the crew assistant director Gavin Young, and production manager William Colvin, and animal trainers Charles B. Murphy and Felix Graff.
The Moving Picture World review reported that the Canadian-American co-production was shot on location in the northern part of Alaska, and Wid's reported that it was shot at a l"atitude north of 56 degrees." According to Shipman's autobiography and other modern sources, portions were shot in the following locations: snow scenes on Lesser Slave Lake, one hundred and fifty miles north of Edmonton, Alberta; shipboard scenes in San Francisco Bay; woodland scenes in the Kern River District of California; interiors at Robert Brunton Studios in Hollywood, California; and in Calgary. The modern sources report that Back to God's Country began shooting in March 1919.
Several reviews noted the "novelty" of the film's use of wild animals. The Wid's review suggested that exhibitors advertise the film with "catchlines," such as "Nell Shipman Braves Rapids in Thrilling Rescue," "Battle in Chase Over Frozen Fields," and "Eskimo women take part in wild orgy on board sailing vessel."
A 1985 National Archives of Canada restoration of the film was made from two separate prints, one held by the American Film Institute and another owned by a private collector. According to the introduction to the restoration, Back to God's Country is Canada's oldest extant feature film.
Two other films based on Curwen's short story, "Wapi, the Walrus," which also bear the title Back to God's Country, include the 1927 Universal production directed by Irvan Willat and starring Renee Adoree and Robert Frazer, and the 1953 U-I production directed by Joseph Pevney and starring Rock Hudson and Marcia Henderson.
Released in United States 1919
Released in United States October 1996
Released in United States on Video August 30, 2000
Released in United States September 16, 1989
Shown at Toronto Festival of Festivals September 16, 1989.
Shown at Vancouver International Film Festival October 4-20, 1996.
Released in United States 1919
Released in United States on Video August 30, 2000
Released in United States September 16, 1989 (Shown at Toronto Festival of Festivals September 16, 1989.)
Released in United States October 1996 (Shown at Vancouver International Film Festival October 4-20, 1996.)