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Dan Candy's Law
(a.k.a. Alien Thunder)
(1973)

Director: Claude Fournier   
Cast:
Donald Sutherland, Kevin McCarthy, Chief Dan George


Ever since I started work on The Unknown Movies, I have been working hard to give the site some balance and some kind of variety. I have been doing this for several different reasons. One reason is for my readers; I have concluded that if I give readers a wide variety of things to read, not only is there a greater chance they will find something to their liking when they come across my web site and start poking around it, there is also a greater chance that they will return to the web site at a later date. The second reason I aim to put a lot of variety on this web site is for myself. If I review a wide range of different movies, I am less likely to fall into some kind of a rut. A wide range of different kinds of movies means that with every new movie I review, there is a new challenge. A new challenge with every new movie reviewed means I always have to work hard and keep my standards high. But even with this aim of variety constantly in mind, there are inevitably some things I keep coming back to every so often, and with that in mind, let me announce: It's that time again! Long-time readers of The Unknown Movies may know where I'm heading. So is it time to review another example of my favorite genre, the western? Well, as a matter of fact, it is. The movie I am reviewing here happens to be a western. Actually, it happens to be a different kind of western, a kind I doubt you're familiar with, but I'll get to that later. But it's also time again to do something else I like to do every so often on this web site, and that is to moan and bitch about the Canadian film industry! Canadian films are awful! (Moan!) They suck! (Groan!)

In order that you don't get the wrong idea just what about the Canadian film industry that I don't like, I need to make myself clear. I don't hate the small part of the Canadian film industry that relies on private funding. With those particular Canadian filmmakers, they are at least trying to make entertaining films. That's because they are not protected by government funds; they know that with the films they make, they have to make them attractive to an audience in order for them to make their money back. No, what I am complaining about are those in the Canadian film industry who use money from the government to make their movies. Millions of dollars of taxpayers' money is spent every year on this larger part of the Canadian film industry, and what do we get in return? We get companies like Alliance, who grew bigger and bigger every year on government subsidies, then one day announcing they were getting out of making product and sticking mainly to distributing American movies in Canada (and not handing those tax dollars back.) We get producers like Robert Lantos who basically proclaim they are Canada's saviors, though if you look at his resume, you'll see most of the movies he's made do not take place in Canada or involve Canadians, and practically all of them have not made their money back. But the biggest complaint I have for the whole system is Telefilm, the government film funding agency. Year after year, the same people there stay in power despite funding box office flop after box office flop, and being reluctant to fund anything that might be popular with Canadians.

I could list you a number of examples when Telefilm has had a chance of funding a movie project that might have interested Canadians, but rejected the chance each time. Canadian film producer Alexandra Raffé Dan Candy's Lawa few years ago recalled the time she approached Telefilm for funding for developing a screenplay for a project called Crusade, which she described as a "techno medieval quest movie with laser swords." In response, Telefilm asked her, "Why would we want to develop something so commercial?" Then there was the time when one writer approached Telefilm with a script that was a shoot-'em-up involving the Mounties. The Telefilm representative who read the script said he liked it, but had a problem: It was a western, and Americans make westerns. The writer pointed out that everyone in the script was either a Mountie or an Indian. But the Telefilm representative said, "We can't make the same kind of movies the Americans do." The writer then pointed out that Italians had made a number of successful westerns, as well as Mexico and Spain. But these facts didn't matter to Telefilm, and because of that the project died. Because of the idiots at Telefilm, it's amazing that any Canadian western-themed movies have been made. I can only think of three right off the top of my head: the based-on-fact Showdown At Williams Creek, the western-comedy Gunless, and the movie I'm reviewing here, Dan Candy's Law. I had wanted to see this movie for some time, and it wasn't hard to find a copy, seeing that the movie has now entered the public domain and has been issued on several cheapo DVD labels.

This particular Canadian movie is kind of a rarity not just that it is a western, but because it is one of the few Canadian movies based on a true story... though just how close this movie sticks to the facts, I cannot say, because one thing that the Canadian educational system is guilty of is not being very good at teaching Canadian history. It takes place in the late 1800s in what is now Saskatchewan, back when it was referred to as part of the Northwest Territories. It centers around a band of Mounties who keep the peace in the Cree nation. One day, starving Cree band member Almighty Voice (played by Gordon Tootoosis) slaughters a government cow. When Mountie Malcolm Grant (McCarthy) subsequently tries to arrest him, Almighty Voice kills him. Fellow Mountie Dan Candy (Sutherland), filled with grief after the killing of his friend Malcolm, swears he will bring Almighty Voice... not knowing it's not going to be a short or easy task. With very little rewriting, this would be the plot for a standard American western. Though in this version, there are several welcome touches that help differentiate this from an American western and make it both different and Canadian. As the first notes of the somber musical score play in the first few seconds of the movie, for example, we realize this won't be a movie about great heroics and tough characters. Also, instead of seeing a hot sun over dry desert lands, we have cool weather, fog and snow, all over prairie grasslands and large patches of mud. It's unspectacular, but it feels more real. You feel that these characters are far from civilization and share their isolation.

Backtracking just a little, I'll get to how more of the movie tries not to be heroic or tough. The screenplay does not show its characters to be black or white, as they are in most American westerns, but attempts to show more than one side to these characters. Almighty Voice is indeed a murderer, but there is evidence shown that he was both starving and desperate when he did what first got him in trouble with the law. And while Dan Candy is certainly in his right to pursue Almighty Voice and bring him to justice, at times he gets so obsessed with the idea of getting justice for his friend that he forgets his other duties and creates problems for others at times. Things like these in the movie could have been part of a good offbeat western. Note that I said "could have". I should mention now that I read several years ago of Donald Sutherland saying that he considers this movie to be the worse one he's ever been in. While I can't be sure of that, having not seen all of his movies, I am confident that it would at least be in the bottom five. Made in the infancy of the Canadian film industry, Dan Candy's Law generally comes across as the work of amateurs. Take how the colorful cast is used... or rather, wasted. The American actor McCarthy appears just in the first few minutes of the movie so that the movie can boast more star power. Chief Dan George, so memorable in movies like Little Big Man and The Outlaw Josey Wales, is given almost no dialogue and only makes a few brief appearances despite being the tribe's chief. Tootoosis also has little dialogue and also only appears a few times, even though he is the character being pursued by Sutherland for most of the movie.

I guess Sutherland has a respectable amount of screentime, though he's offscreen for some significant chunks of time. Though he has a lot more opportunity than his fellow actors, he doesn't make the most of what he's given, and gives a performance just as lackluster. He seems to be very uncomfortable in his red uniform and trudging through the wilderness. I suspect the working conditions on this movie were far from the comforts he was getting in Hollywood movies around this time. This unfavorable environment might also explain the often shoddy nature of the rest of the movie. This was (no surprise) a low budget movie, and some scenes suffer for it (a train pulling only one car, a Cree village with only two teepees.) Also, I suspect the editor was often forced to work with a limited amount of footage shot because of those limited funds. Establishing shots, for example, are often missing, and as a result the movie several times jumps to what seems to be the middle of a scene. Sometimes the movie even jumps ahead before a scene appears to be finished. Other technical foul-ups include the lighting of both indoor and outdoor scenes, with some sequences simply too dark to make out what's happening. But the biggest sin the movie makes is not with anything technical or with the actors - this movie is boring. After Dan Candy starts his pursuit, the movie plods along with pretty much nothing significant happening until a few minutes before the very end. It almost seems at times that in its attempt to do something different from the Americans, anything that could be considered entertaining was left out. If Hollywood made this movie, it may have been more conventional with its story, mood, and characters, but I am confident it would have been more lively and entertaining than this.

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See also: Duel At Diablo, Free Money, Navajo Joe

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