Best in the West; The Englishman's Boy is an excellent Canadian novel that has now become an excellent TV drama
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 26 February 2008)

Some of the earliest mass murderers in Canadian history were wolfers, an old North American term for hunters of wolves. In 1873, a dozen American and Canadian wolfers came across the porous border from Montana, and committed, for no good reason, the atrocity that history books call the Cypress Hills Massacre, the killing of 20 or more Assiniboine. The wolfers were outnumbered but they had repeater rifles and the Assiniboine had only single-shot muskets. Just one wolfer died. The killings generated a national scandal in Canada and hurried the formation of the North-West Mounted Police to maintain order on the frontier.

The massacre is the core of both The Englishman's Boy, the novel that won the 1996 Governor General's Award for Guy Vanderhaeghe, and the four-hour miniseries that runs on CBC this Sunday and on Sunday, March 9, both at 8 p.m. It's a rare event when an excellent Canadian novel becomes the basis for an excellent TV drama, but in this case it's happened. John N. Smith, working with Vanderhaeghe's screenplay, has directed a drama that's as absorbing as the book and just as convincing.

Vanderhaeghe framed his novel as a search by Hollywood for good western material. A young screenwriter, having been assigned to obtain an authentic account of the Old West, tries to persuade a bitter old cowboy, Shorty McAdoo, to tell his story. As he begs, the narrative moves back and forth between 1873 in the West and 1923 in Hollywood, where a megalomaniac studio boss (Bob Hoskins) plans to produce the ultimate American epic and wants it to be "factual." He dreams of giving America its own equivalent of The Odyssey.

When Vanderhaeghe was 10 years old, in Esterhazy, Sask., he read Whoop-Up Country, Paul Sharp's vivid account of Cypress Hills in the 1860s and 1870s. That helped inspire his first choice of career, historian. But the subject of his MA thesis at the University of Saskatchewan in 1975 foretold his real future: He studied John Buchan, who wrote about history but became famous as a fiction writer (and ended his days as governor-general of Canada).

Eventually, when Vanderhaeghe decided to combine fiction and history in his novels, his early reading led him back to the Cypress Hills and toward The Englishman's Boy, a novel about white-Indian conflict, the torment of long-term guilt and the way we shape history to fill the needs of the present.

We meet Shorty in the1873 sections when he's "the Englishman's boy," the servant of an English adventurer. When his employer dies, Shorty falls in with the wolfers. In the TV version, Michael Eisner plays the young Shorty effectively but the character emerges as the story's dominant figure in the Hollywood era, when we see his wretched life written on his face.

The richly developed performance of Nicholas Campbell as Shorty at age 70 or so will be the chief astonishment of the series. We know Campbell as the ultimate urban Canadian, the shrewd coroner Dominic Da Vinci, who walked the mean streets of Vancouver in Da Vinci's Inquest. As Shorty, Campbell becomes a frontiersman who has visited hell and doesn't want to be reminded of it. It's Campbell's confident, inventive performance that viewers will remember.

Vanderhaeghe changes emphasis in several places. The Indian chief, Little Soldier, is dead drunk at the novel's violent climax but he's sober and eloquent in the TV version, which may reflect the filmmakers' desire for friendship with the Assiniboine. The Indian girl who is kidnapped and raped by the wolfers gets more prominence in the TV show, and Tom Hardwick (R.H. Thomson), the murderous leader of the wolfers, becomes more interesting. He's now anxious to win Shorty to his side because the boy resembles his younger self.

We understand that the boy, a teenager at the time of the massacre, is permanently traumatized. But neither book nor TV series tells us how Shorty spent the half-century between the massacre and 1923.

The novel left us to guess that the massacre filled him with such angry remorse that he never managed to settle down. After shooting a scene in which he explains he spent half a century on the bum, the filmmakers dropped it and left us to speculate, a better solution.

Shorty McAdoo's role has firm roots in silent-era Hollywood. When the studios began pouring out silent westerns, hundreds of "real" cowboys arrived in town, delighted to serve as extras or stuntmen for $5 a day, far more than they could make on a cattle ranch. They became a mini-proletariat in Hollywood, living in barracks on location while featured players stayed in hotels.

They soon discovered that anyone with a good story could get noticed. Tom Mix, a horse trainer's son who performed in a Wild West show before getting into the movies, invented a past in which capturing outlaws was a routine part of his young life. The more stories he dreamt up, the better his parts. By the time he became a star, his official biography freely mixed fact and fiction.

Vanderhaeghe's curiosity about these men was stirred when he read of Al Jennings, an Oklahoma criminal prosecutor who served a few years in jail for robbing banks. In 1913, Jennings starred in Beating Back, an account of his life -- which was immediately followed by a film in which the marshal who had captured him gave his version of the story.

This collision of survivors from the 19th-century frontier with the creators of 20th-century mass entertainment was one of those irony-rich conjunctions that call into question accepted notions about history-writing and fact. A magnificent fantasy was being born and all the time the scattered human remnants of the real past were in the middle of it.

Those who had lived with the brutality and poverty of the frontier viewed with the contempt of veterans the mythology they were helping create. Vanderhaeghe drew Shorty as a man of integrity who worked on westerns but couldn't bear to see his own memories exploited and distorted. That might have made him an oddity among Hollywood cowboys. Even Wyatt Earp, long after Dodge City days, ended up consulting on westerns. When he died in Los Angeles in 1929, at the age of 80, one of his pallbearers was Tom Mix.

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