#40 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
This is a fifty minute long movie that’s missing ten minutes, a full fifth of the runtime. That’s unfortunate, because what survives is an amusing little adventure tale from John Ford, thrusting the action into the great white north of Canada instead of the American Old West. Like most of his early feature length films, especially those that only run 50 minutes, North of Hudson Bay relies heavily on thin characters and sensational filmmaking to provide entertainment while telling a familiar story of the good country boy getting the best of a slick character. While the ending has been cut off, I don’t think it’s hard to predict who won this bout, and an entertaining little bout it was.
Peter Dane (Eugene Pallette) is a successful miner in the wilds of winter with his partner Angus (Will Walling). Together they arrive at the trading post run by Cameron McDonald (Frank Campeau) who wishes to buy into the mine, but Angus refuses the offer, a decision that Peter backs up. McDonald leaves the room to the two partners, and in the few minutes that he’s gone a gunshot goes off. Everyone in the post rushes in to see Angus holding a gun and Peter dead on the floor. There’s only one way justice gets meted out for murderers in this cold place, Angus gets sentence to the Death March. Forced out into the wilds with no food or water, he must walk until he dies, followed by well-equipped minions of McDonald.
At the same time is approaching Peter’s younger brother Michael (Tom Mix). He is going up north to join in his brother’s venture. He rides a riverboat north alongside Estelle McDonald (Kathleen Key), Cameron’s daughter. There’s instant affection between the two, made more potent by Michael’s puppy dog-like pursuit of her, namely in how he retrieves her hat (this portion feels choppy and incomplete, so I think that’s what happens). They arrive at a remote house together for shelter, and in stumbles Angus, separated from his companions. Michael instantly shows Angus compassion by offering him food, but when it’s discovered that Angus is on the Death Trail, his host forces him to stop lest Michael be relegated to joining Angus. That doesn’t stop him, though, as he gets Angus in through the back and offers him what hospitality he can before his guides show up and arrest him, unsure of what to do with the introduction of Michael helping him.
Back at McDonald’s place, it is decided that Michael must die as well, in no small part because McDonald wants the mine and Michael has ownership of it as Peter’s heir. Angus, though, tells Michael the truth. He was sitting alone with Peter when one of the guns on a rack pointed directly at Peter went off suddenly, shooting him perfectly in a way that would kill him instantly. Silly? Yes. Good enough for a 50 minute silent film about nefarious deeds and heroic men in the wintery wilds? Also, yes. McDonald set up a system with water in a pitcher where the sun, at the exact right time of day, will shine directly onto the open powder of the rifle. Sure. It could work, I guess.
Yeah, the central crime is silly, but it’s not really the point. The point is that McDonald is a dastardly man with a dastardly plot, and Michael must fight him to win vengeance for his brother and to also win Estelle’s heart. Estelle learns of her father’s treachery after Michael and Angus leave on their Death Trail, and she goes after them. The finale of the movie is truncated, but there’s enough surviving to show Michael single handedly fighting off a pack of wolves with his bare hands (awesome), and a chase down the rapids of a river in a trio of canoes, the movie suddenly ending the second that Michael pulls Estelle onto shore. So, we don’t know how McDonald gets his comeuppance, but we know it’s coming.
Incomplete, the movie’s got some silliness but also some of Ford’s great command of action and thrilling sequences. It’s a fine little example of his ability in the nascent film medium, and it’s only forty minutes long, too.