Saskatchewan is the first western I have ever seen where a native tribe rides to the rescue of the cavalry. The first thing that is mentioned about the film by anyone, however, is the gorgeous location shooting done at Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. A typically entertaining Raoul Walsh directed adventure, Saskatchewan offers a chance for dashingly attired Mounties to take a scenic tour of the Rockies by way of avoiding the Sioux.
The second thing that is frequently mentioned about the film is that Saskatchewan looks nothing like Banff National Park, but is actually much flatter, so I am not certain if the title refers to the province of Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan River (which does flow through Alberta), or if the fort in the film was called Fort Saskatchewan. Titles of films are often an enigma to me, but Saskatchewan does perhaps make a more catchy title than Alberta.
Alan Ladd is Thomas O’Rourke, an orphan who was raised by Chief Dark Cloud of the Cree (Antonio Moreno) and raised as a brother to Cajou (Jay Silverheels). He is now a Mountie, however, and his duty comes into conflict with his friendship with the Cree.
Early in the film, he and Cajou come across a wagon train that has been destroyed by the Sioux, who have come up through Montana after destroying Colonel Custer. The only survivor of the wagon train is American Grace Markey (Shelley Winters), who is fleeing a U.S. Marshall (Hugh O’Brien). But when the Cree are ordered to turn in their guns, leaving them without a means of hunting food for themselves, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull see an opportunity to persuade the Cree to join them in war. The Mounties set out with guns and ammunition, but the Sioux attack, thus providing the Mounties with the opportunity to escape picturesquely through the mountains.
A little mutiny (though Alan Ladd is the politest mutineer I’ve ever seen; “May I borrow your glasses, Sir”), an exciting canoe chase, a few battles and explosions, negotiations with the Cree, a little romance, conflict between the jealous U.S. Marshall and O’Rourke over Grace, all follows apace, not to mention lots of riding through the Rockies and looking out on shimmering lakes, rivers, trees and snow-capped peaks.
And I must say that O’Rourke seems remarkably complaisant about Grace being an accused murderer. She may possibly be a murderer, but he is always a gentleman, unlike the Marshall, who pushes Grace around and shoots a Cree in the back. But in truth, all the Mounties are gentlemen. The script stresses that in Canada the First Nations tribes are treated fairly. The only reason there is trouble is because the Sioux, who were not treated fairly, are stirring up the Cree to war, aided by the unreasonable attitude of the Canadian authorities about confiscating Cree weapons.
There’s something of the British nobility in the Mounties in general. One Mountie is even Scottish and the commander is played by Robert Douglas, a British actor, thus enhancing the impression. Perhaps a little like those British colonial adventure films meets the western in Canada.
Another connection to Canada is actor Jay Silverheels, who plays Cajou. He was a Canadian Mohawk who achieved his most famous role with Tonto in the Lone Ranger TV series. Before he became an actor, he was an excellent lacrosse player and did some boxing in America. He began in films as a stuntman and gradually was given better roles in a number of ‘A’ Westerns, though was always remembered as Tonto.
While Saskatchewan was being filmed, Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum where also at Banff National Park, filming River of No Return. Shelley Winters evidently spent some of her off time with Monroe and they got along quite well. Banff National Park has been a relatively popular location for filming. Other films at least partially shot there include Days of Heaven and 49th Paralell. I actually have all three films – Days of Heaven, 49th Parallel, and River of No Return – on my list of films to see in the future (which admittedly is a somewhat unwieldy list).
Saskatchewan is definitely not a classic western, but I tend to find that nearly all Raoul Walsh films have a good pace and interesting action and Saskatchewan has that. There’s not much room for intriguing character development, but the setting in Canada is fresh and lovely. In fact, it is safe to argue that Banff National Park is the real star of the film.