Riel (1979) (TV)
Director: George Bloomfield.
Cast: Raymond Cloutier (Louis Riel), Roger Blay (Dumont), Lloyd Bochner (Dr. Schultz), James Bradford (Captain Bradshaw), Lee Broker (Evans), Maury Chaykin (Howard), Normand Chouinard (Nolin), Captain Constantinidas (Trooper Captain), Pierre Curzi (Isidore), Neil Dainard (Armstrong), Brenda Donohue (Mrs. Schultz), Don Francks (Ouellette), Daniel Gadouas (Nault), Donald Harron (Donald Smith), Fern Henry (Marguerite Riel), Leslie Nielsen (Major Crozier), John Neville (General Wolseley), Christopher Plummer (Prime Minister John A. Macdonald), William Shatner (The Barker), Dave Thomas (Cdn. Captain), Paxton Whitehead (McDougall), Chris Wiggins (Middleton).
19th Century Canadian founder of the province of Manitoba and rebel leader Louis Riel
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
1868. Hudson's Bay Company agreed to relinquish title to its vast land holdings in the Canadian Northwest, but the transfer to the Crown and to Canada was not yet legally concluded. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald looked forward to the day, so he could further his plans for a railroad and for Confederation. The native people in the Territory, Indians and Metis (fathers French, mothers Indian), saw only an impending danger to their freedom to hunt and live. In the same year, a young Metis returned from the East to the Red River Territory of his birth: Louis Riel.
The barker at a wild west show presents Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull and Mr. Dumont (an expert with the rifle like Annie). A newspaper man wants to talk to Dumont, who was the man with the most power next to Riel among the Metis. The newspaper man asks Dumont why did they lose? Another question he wants an answer to is if Riel was crazy?
Flashback. A group of Metis on horseback charge Louis Riel recently back from the East. They think he is another Canadian trying to grab their land. It takes a while for the Metis to realize that the intruder is none other than their friend Riel.
In Ottawa Prime Minister John Macdonald talks with his aide to the west, Donald Smith. Macdonald is a man who pushes a kind of Canadian Manifest Destiny. He wants Canada to be as one from coast to coast. In pursuit of this dream, the Prime Minister wants to see the country united by a transcontinental railroad from shore to shore. He urges Donald Smith to finish financing the railroad.
Riel was supposed to study religion in the East, but he switched to study law. This background may prove a big help to the Metis. These people live on buffalo. But the Canadians want them to be farmers. The Metis feel their way of life and culture are threatened. Riel wants to petition the government on their behalf, but Dumont wants to use the rifle. By a camp fire, Dumont arm wrestles Riel. Riel loses but he puts up a lot of resistance. One of the men has to intervene because Riel's arm is getting burned by the fire. Dumont examines the bad burn and asks Riel: "Are you crazy?"
The bishop maintains that it is the church that maintains the French culture in Quebec, Canada. He is not happy with Macdonald who keeps pushing the Protestant Confederation.
Mrs. Elizabeth Schultz, wife of Doctor Schultz, is buying some land in the northwest. Tom Scott assures her that there will be no disputes about the land. He reminds her that Canada will soon assume sovereignty over the northwest territory. Riel is worried by all this buying of land by the Canadians. Dumont wants to use force to oppose the Canadians, but Riel tells him that they should fight paper with paper and fire with fire, but right now the Canadians are fighting with paper.
Canadian Tom Scott starts to survey northwest territory even before it has formally been transferred to Canada. A young Metis fellow comes out to protest against this and Tom decides to fight him. Tom easily defeats the boy. The boy then rides to Riel's house for help. The call goes out that they got trouble with the Canadians. Soon Scott and his crew are surrounded by Metis on horseback. Riel tells Scott that the government of Canada is not in power yet. Scott doesn't care. But the Metis get off their horses and stand on his chain to prevent Scott from surveying and marking the land.
The Metis have a meeting to discuss the situation. They ask Riel to compose and write a letter to the Canadian government. Riel says he will think about it. The local priest says that Riel should be the head and Dumont the heart of the group. Riel prays on the matter. Next time he sees the group, he says: "I need paper; I need pens; I need men." A cheer goes up among the men.
William Mcdougal and a group of Canadian troops arrive in the territory. He is given a letter dated October 21, 1869. It says that the National Committee of the Metis of Red River order William Mcdougal not to enter the territory of the northwest without special permission of the Committee. Mcdougal asks Scott: What the hell are you getting me into? When the Metis arrive to stand in front of the Canadians, Mcdougal tells them to get out of the way. The Metis just laugh at him and proceed to chase the Canadians out of the immediate area.
A Metis fellow sneaks into Fort Gary and lets his compatriots into the fort. They take over the place and start making a hell of a commotion in their celebration. Mrs. Schultz comes out to call them names, such as "you half-breed barbarians." The Metis hoist their flag for the nation of the Metis.
The Prime Minister hears the news about Mcdougal, sighs and says "poor Mcdougal." He asks who is this Riel. The fellow was educated in Quebec. Macdonald says that at this time there is no need for troops. Donald Smith tells him: "Your railroad will not reach the Pacific, until the west is secure." The Prime Minister says he wants Donald to see to it that soon the Metis are driven out of Fort Gary.
Riel informs the people in town that the Metis Council has declared a provisional government and that it is the only authority in the region. Tom Scott is livid when he hears this. Riel is to be Secretary General of the Council. And they have demands, such as title to their lands and money for their schools. They send an envoy to Ottawa, but Macdonald won't receive him.
Tom Scott with the help of a few others try and fail to assassinate Riel. Donald Smith calls Scott a "damn fool". The Canadians are hold up in a big house in Fort Gary. Dumont tells his men to get the cannon ready. Riel arrives and calls on the Canadians to come out or else. The Canadians start filing out of the house. Riel tells his men that he does not want anyone hurt. A Canadian woman pulls a gun on Riel, but she has it taken away from her by a Metis. Riel then tells the men to arrest the Canadians.
The Prime Minister visits the Bishop. He wants to discuss Riel. Macdonald tells the Bishop that Donald Smith will return and the Bishop will find the air in Ottawa to be warmer.
Donald Smith tells Riel that he can help him change the Canadian government if he would allow him to return to Ottawa. Riel decides to let him leave. As Smith drives the rig to Ottawa, Dr. Schultz emerges from his hiding place and jumps aboard with Smith. Meanwhile, the Metis arrest Tom Scott. The men start to beat Tom up, but Riel says that there must be a trial by jury, just as in the Canadian system.
Donald Smith talks with the Prime Minister. He tells Macdonald to find a way to include the Metis into Canada; fit them into the Confederation and he will have his railroad and the west. After all, Riel still wants to be part of the Confederation. Macdonald responds that Riel is guilty of treason and the punishment for that is death. He wants him executed.
Tom Scott is brought before a firing squad. The condemned man takes at least two bullets in the chest area, but does not die. He is then shot in the head with a pistol. This may have been a bad move on the part of the Metis because this made Tom Scott a martyr and a symbol of Canadian resistance against the Metis. In Ottawa protestant Canadians shout and scream at the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister tells a Metis representative that the Metis nation would be called Manitoba and that elections would be held in the spring. The representative asks about amnesty for the Metis. The Prime Minister dismisses his concern, saying that the government will not prosecute members of the provisional government. Later the Prime Minister and Smith toast to the railroad.
Back with the Metis, the men and women sing the praises of Riel. They think they have won almost all they had asked for. But the Prime Minister has other ideas. He sends a "peace keeping" mission to Metis land. He adds that a new governor will be coming right after the arrival of the troops.
Back to the present. Dumont tells the newspaperman that the government gave them what they wanted and then the troops came. But he also says that the government made three mistakes: they let Riel get away; they mistakenly thought they could find the whereabouts of Riel by torturing the Metis; and for thought the matter was settled so quickly that there should not be any delay in holding the elections.
Flashback. The Bishop says that Riel has to go to the United States. He says the man is defying the church.
Thinking that the Metis have won, Riel, Dumont and Riel's oldest friend decide to make the trip to Ottawa. But some Canadians follow a messenger to Riel's hideout. When the three Metis start out for Ottawa, the Canadians lie in wait to ambush them. Riel's oldest friend is shot. Two Canadian soldiers on horseback ride their horses to where the man fell in order to finish him off. Dumont is able to kill one of the soldiers, but the other finishes off Riel's friend. Dumont then kills the other soldier. Dumont is such a good shot the he scares away the rest of the ambushers.
In Ottawa there are more assassins wanting to kill Riel and Dumont. The targets manage to dodge the assassins and get away. Riel learns that they have revoked his seat. He talks with the Bishop and says that he has been lied to, used, betrayed, lost his oldest friend, and been pursued by men who feel justified in killing him. Riel leaves for home.
Back home Riel shouts that God has spoken to him telling him to rise up. Now he wants to invite the oppressed of the world to their land. Someone arrives to tell Riel that he has to leave now. He has been exiled from the country. But the clergy has different ideas. The Bishop has Riel committed to a mental asylum. The head of the asylum wants to know all about the voices and visions that Riel says he has had. He asks Riel if he thinks he is the savior, the messiah sent to save his people. Riel is not happy, but the Bishop is. He tells others that at least the church will be spared from his politics.
Macdonald talks with the Bishop. The Bishop stresses that he would like to have the governor of the northwest be a man who the Bishop can approve; a man who will take at least some of the Catholic concerns to heart.
Riel is much better now and he is let out of the asylum. But he cannot stay in Canada. There is a settlement in Montana to which he will be sent.
Back to the present. Dumont tells the newspaperman that he went to Montana, taught school and got married. Dumont himself and other Metis moved father west to an area they called Betosh (spelling?). (It later became Saskatchewan.) And once again the Canadian government did not take care of the Metis. Major Crozier was placed in command of a group of Mounties who kept the Metis in line. Feeling desperate, Dumont and other Metis rode down to Montana to see Riel.
Flashback. Riel decides to go back with Dumont and his men. In fact, the whole family goes. Back with the Metis, there is a big welcome for Riel.
Donald Smith tells Macdonald that the railroad creditors are demanding payment. And that's not the worst of it. Riel is back with the Metis in Canada. Moreover, Riel is suggesting separation.
Riel asks the Cree and Blackfoot Indians to join with the Metis. Major Crozier tells Dumont that Riel will be arrested. He is a threat to the security of Canada. The Metis decide to oppose Major Crozier with force if need be. The local priest tells them that the church does not want this, but they ignore him. The Metis ride out and confront the Major and his men. The Mounties form a barricade and hide behind it. Two representatives from both sides come to the middle of the field to try to negotiate. But the Major's scout accidentally shoots one of the Metis representatives. All hell breaks out. The Mounties start taking a lot of casualties. The Major decides to retreat and they run from the battlefield. (Dumont was wounded, but recovers.)
The Prime Minister says that he will need 5,000 troops. Canada is at war. The conflict will help the Prime Minister move the railroad farther west. General Middleton in charge of the troops tells the newspapermen that it will not be an easy campaign. The troops are transported by train out to the west.
The Bishop is more convinced than ever that Riel is delusional. He has written a paper in which he wants to rename the countries of the world and the days of the week. The Bishop is concerned that any gains the church has made in the west are now endangered because of Riel.
An American crew demonstrates the new Gatling gun. They want to make the conflict with the Metis the first real test of the weapon. The troops are at Fish Creek about ten miles away from the Metis. Once again the priest opposes any Metis military action. But Riel dismisses him saying there is no church and there are no priests. Riel has the priest arrested and confined.
Dumont sets up good defensive positions. The Canadian troops are mostly volunteers and are very green. The General cannot see exactly where the Metis are located, but he knows soon enough as the Metis open fire. They inflict numerous casualties on the Canadians. Dumont returns to tell Riel that their forces were victorious.
The next morning Middleton sets up his positions. He is all prepared to attack when a group looking like so many rough riders jumps the gun and attacks first. This, however, proves to be a secret weapon for the Canadians. The horsemen kill a number of Metis and then jump over their entrenched positions. Now the Metis have to fight in two different directions, forwards and backwards. Now it is the Metis who have to run from the field. Dumont rescues Riel and they head south to close to the border. Dumont says that they have to keep riding because if they capture Riel . . . . But Riel tells him: If I run it will deprive all this of any meaning. Riel separates from Dumont.
Back to the present. Dumont tells the newspaperman that this was the last time he saw Riel. "After that, you know what happened."
Flashback. The Prime Minister says that Riel will be charged with treason, even though he is an American citizen now. Smith objects that this will alienate the French in Quebec. But the Prime Minister will not be deterred.
The prosecutor refers to Riel as the Prophet of Saskatchewan and blames him almost exclusively for the Metis uprising. During the trial the Bishop dies. Riel's lawyers plead him not guilty because of insanity. Riel explodes in anger. He rejects the idea that his actions were simply the result of some mental delusion. The defense lawyers complain to the judge that the defendant is uncooperative. Riel insists on presenting the summation to the jury. The judge asks Riel if he understands the risks, but Riel is very determined.
Riel tells the jury that the Metis turned to him, rather than he turning the heads of the Metis. And they turned to him because the government and the church neglected their concerns. He says: "I was asked to help." He observes that it is easier for the government to call him a mad man or a devil, than to address the real grievances of the people they are supposed to care for. He adds that the Metis cannot keep following the buffalo, so they need the right to develop their own identity and culture. And, yes, he believes that he has a holy mission. He asks: "Are these the actions of an insane man or a rational one?" And Riel sees his actions as very rational.
Riel is found guilty and sentenced to be hung until dead. He is hanged.
Back to the present. The newspaperman thanks Dumont for the information. Dumont's last comment is that he still believes in Riel.
Good movie, but this is really an old story in films and history. In a sense the Metis were just whiter Indians. And we all know what happened to the Indians in the United States. Out west the whites say that the Indian are in the way of their progress and they will have to be put on a reservation or be wiped out. Those tribes that took a relatively peaceful road went to the reservations. Those that chose to fight were seriously reduced in numbers and then forced onto reservations. It's the story of the confrontation of two totally different economies, governments, societies and cultures. The more advanced society triumphs, putting the natives on reservations. Looking back on it, without any fear of the natives, the whole thing looks very evil. Whether it was the Americans or the Canadians, the outcomes, however, were pretty similar (even if the Canadians may have been a bit more gentle).
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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