2 Samuel 6:14

by Raymond H

Black Robe is often thought of as the Canadian Dances with Wolves, but is the comparison apt? Raymond investigates.
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Today's song is this.
Also, if you haven't already seen it, I highly recommend the documentary Reel Injun. It's what made me finally watch Black Robe after several years of being on the fence, and it's an educating and entertaining film in its own right. Now! Down to business.


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Black Robe is a movie that has invited comparison to its more famous cousin, Dances with Wolves, pretty much since its release, and it is not difficult to see why. You have the White protagonist journeying into lands yet uncharted by Europeans. You have more humanized portrayals of Native American characters in a direct attempt at reversing the Savage Injun stereotype so prevalent throughout Hollywood. And you have an underlying message of the Whites and the Indians not being so different after all. There are many similarities between Black Robe and Dances with Wolves. However, there are also several key differences between the two films. And while these differences may seem minor at first, their repercussions result in two vastly different movies, with two vastly different outcomes.

The first of these differences is that of space and time. It is easy to think of the European colonization of America as a singular, sweeping wave, uniform in its composition and design. However, New France in the 1630's (the setting of Black Robe) and the American frontier in the 1860's (the setting of Dances with Wolves) were two vastly different places. Disease had not fully ravaged the Native American population of New France during the time of the Jesuit missionaries, although we see the beginnings of it by Black Robe's end. Because of this, the balance of power during this time was more equal between the Europeans and First Nations, with both parties mainly concerned with trading and partnership, as opposed to conquering and subjugation. Indeed, if the droves of Frenchmen "going native" as the European settlers proved unprepared for the harsh New World winters were any indication, in some ways the balance of power actually leaned towards the First Nations. The American frontier during the height of Manifest Destiny, on the other hand, had the balance of power firmly favoring the expanding Americans. European diseases had already done most of their dirty work by this point, and although generals like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull managed to make several impressive last stands against the US military, this period of American history is marked by a dread sense of inevitability. The plagues, the Trail of Tears, Manifest Destiny, it had all already happened. The frontier had already been won, it simply needed to be tamed. This difference between the two stories thus infuses Black Robe with a much greater sense of stakes, since with the colonial enterprise in its infancy, rather than adulthood, the sense of inevitability that hangs over Wolves is not nearly so prevalent. We genuinely are not sure what will happen to Father LaForgue's enterprise, because the First Nations he encounters are on much higher ground than those of Wolves, and they react to him the same way any established culture would react to some strange, foreign outsider entering their warren. The game is already set for Lt. Dunbar, but the odds are stacked against Father LaForgue.

This leads to the second major difference between the two films, that of the frontier itself. Dances with Wolves, is, at its heart, a thrilling Western. It takes place in lands that were already cleared and cleansed by Indian inhabitants, and it is filled with gripping action and Hollywood romance. Despite the genuine hardship Dunbar faces in making his fort livable, the wilderness is presented through a romanticized lens. Throughout the film, Dunbar is filled with appreciation for the glory and beauty of nature, and the film supports this viewpoint in its portrayal of both the wilderness and the Native Americans who inhabit it. In Black Robe, however, the frontier is portrayed as a perilous and horrifying wild. The First Nations do not work together because they are beyond such European notions of selfishness and individualism, but because if they do not work together, they will die, plain and simple. The wilderness, and its winter, will kill anyone who does not pull their weight. And while the forts and teepees in Wolves are presented as cozy and comfortable, those in Black Robe are run-down, cramped, and filthy. To give an example, both Dances with Wolves and Black Robe feature sex scenes in a tent. However, while the scene in Wolves is shown with all the glamour and orchestral accompaniment of any good Hollywood love scene, the scene in Black Robe features two huddled figures awkwardly pawing each other as they try not to wake up the other inhabitants of the tent. It is awkward and uncomfortable, as opposed to the titillation found within Wolves.

Although, there is another reason for Black Robe to treat sex the way it does, besides simply showing a dirtier, grittier world, and that leads us to the third major difference between the two films, that being the primary reason the main characters have journeyed into the wilderness. In Dances with Wolves, Dunbar wants to go to the frontier so that he can see the beauty of nature before the government paves it over with cities and parking lots. Again, this is ignoring the fact that the Native American population had already largely cleared away the wilderness to make room for their own settlements. But, putting that aside, Dunbar's primary motivation already marks him as an outsider to his countrymen, and as someone who will be receptive to the one-with-nature philosophy of the Indians he encounters. LaForgue, meanwhile, has come expressly to convert the ignorant Huron tribes to the glory of God. Rather than being an outsider to his countrymen, he is too French for the New Frenchmen's liking. While the White Americans consider Dunbar a tree-hugging, nature-loving hippy, the New Frenchmen regard LaForgue as a stuffy, uncompromising git. They are, of course, absolutely right. Dunbar's disposition leads him to completely embrace the Sioux way of life, and LaForgue's religious piety leads him into constant conflict with his Algonquin guides and a Montagnais shaman he encounters. However, whereas Dunbar's behavior is rewarded, and he is proven to be right in his presuppositions, LaForgue's devotion typically leads him into trouble, for which he bears the consequences. When he tries to explain the concept of celibacy, and the idea of the Christian heaven, to his would-be converts, they find the idea to be more alien and strange than anything else. However, it is this same unwavering devotion that shows us LaForgue's moral integrity. This is in contrast to Daniel, LaForgue's New French interpreter, who abandons his culture just as readily as Dunbar, but who is portrayed as a self-serving coward motivated primarily by lust and boredom. LaForgue genuinely believes that he is doing the right thing, and he is so committed to this, we can see through his point of view, and may even perhaps agree with him. And although LaForgue's faith is tempered by the end of the film, it is never abandoned.

This leads to the fourth major difference between these two films, that being the protagonists' character arcs. While Dunbar starts the story with some prejudice towards the Indians, he gets over it pretty quickly, because his rustic outlook has already made him receptive to their pastoral culture. Indeed, by the end of the film, not only has Dunbar been accepted by the Sioux as one of their own, but he willingly throws away the old life and the old people he once belonged to in favor of his new life and new people. Dunbar starts the film receptive to Native American culture, and in the end is rewarded for fully embracing it, while fully abandoning the culture he originally came from. In contrast, LaForgue never abandons his faith in God, or in the sanctity of his mission. However, he does learn, through the friendships he makes and the hardships he endures, that he cannot keep pursuing his mission blindly. He still believes his mission is just, but by story's end this conviction is tempered with genuine compassion for fellow human beings, as opposed to condescending irritation towards backwoods savages. Rather than abandoning his culture, or in doubling down and becoming more close-minded, LaForgue learns to evolve and change as he learns to work and live with the people he has been sent to convert. He is no longer a full Frenchman, but he has not fully become a Huron either. He has, instead, become something new, a more aptly titled New Frenchman than many of the settlers he encounters on his journey.

And this leads to the fifth and final difference between the two films, and perhaps the most important one. There is an inherent problem with stories about clashing cultures, with messages of us not really being so different after all, and that is the question of who must take on the role of antagonist. Sometimes the "antagonist" between the two disparate cultures is simply nature itself, with both sides having to come together to survive. Other times there are joint antagonists, one on each side of the cultural conflict, with both unknowingly working in tandem. However, most times, writers will simply take one of the two sides of the conflict, and then make that side the antagonists'. And many times, this ends up undermining the entire theme of these two sides being not so different. See, ultimately, no matter how despicable our protagonists are, and no matter how well-intentioned our antagonists might be, we as an audience are still expected to take the side of the protagonists. We may not agree with everything they do, but when push comes to shove, we are ultimately supposed to back them up and stand against the side of the antagonists. Because of this, even though Dances with Wolves is ostensibly about how the Native Americans and the White Americans really are not so different, because the White Americans are the antagonists, and because our protagonist abandons them to take the side of the Native Americans, this supposedly murky conflict is really just a simple, black and white matter of good vs evil. The Sioux are good, end of story. The American soldiers are evil, end of story. There is of course a cursory attempt to muddy the situation by inserting the Pawnee characters, but mostly this just serves as a means to provide thrilling action and battle sequences while we wait for the American soldiers to show up. Also, a quick glance at a history textbook shows that the Pawnee actually fought with the US military against the Sioux, so already by the rules of Wolves' story they are evil by association. Even with this though, Wolves does not really address the conflict between the Sioux and the Pawnee in any meaningful way. In distinct contrast, the Iroquois in Black Robe are the primary antagonists of the story. Much has already been said about the historical inaccuracy of this depiction of the Iroquois, by people far smarter and more qualified than me, and I have no intention of debating these people on that front. However, I do believe that this depiction was necessary for the filmmakers to tell the story that they wanted to tell. By making the antagonists not the Huron, and not the Jesuits, but rather, a third party, Black Robe is able to show the similarities between the First Nations and New French much more effectively than otherwise.

Throughout Black Robe, the New French and the Algonquin tribes are constantly juxtaposed, and I do mean constantly. While the message of the film is very rarely spoken aloud by the characters, it is consistently shown through visual shorthand. I particularly enjoyed a scene near the beginning where Samuel de Champlain and the Algonquin chief get dressed in their full ceremonial regalia, and we see not only that there is genuine reverence and seriousness attached to these rituals, but also that these ceremonial garbs, when you get right down to it, are honestly quite pompous and silly-looking. This is, I believe, the true essence of multiculturalism. There has never been a completely good or completely evil culture in existence. Every one of the tribes and groups human beings have divided themselves into since the dawn of time has had abhorrent and terrible qualities to them, as well as noble and virtuous qualities, and Black Robe goes out of its way to show both sets of these qualities in both sets of the cultures it examines. We see the bravery and comradery of the Algonquin just as we see their superstition and tribalism. We see the nobility and piousness of the Jesuits just as we see their connivance and condescension. Both sides are presented in all their glory warts and all. To then turn around and have one of these sides become the antagonists, to force the audience to pick a side between the two, even as the film simultaneously asks us to see the good and bad in both of them, would have ultimately defeated the whole purpose of the story. Again, the path the filmmakers took to tell this message resulted in an unflattering and unrealistic portrayal of the Iroquois, and the attempts to humanize them are about as effective as any attempts to humanize antagonists can be. However, ultimately I maintain that this was the right call for the filmmakers to make so that they could tell the story they wanted to tell.

Dances with Wolves seems like a multicultural story at first, but when you dig a little deeper, you find that it is still the same old "Noble Savage = Good" "Stuffy White People = Bad" story we have seen a million times before. Black Robe, on the other hand, seems like a Eurocentric story at first, but as we journey deeper into Huronia with Father LaForgue, we find the story, and the truths it preaches, to be significantly more complex. I should like to take this opportunity to state that I do not actually hate Dances with Wolves. Despite legitimate criticisms levied at it throughout the years, there has definitely been a positive impact from this film on Native American representation in media. However, I also believe that Black Robe is a far superior film, both in its message and execution, and that it provides a nice alternative to the contemporary Wolves. So, if you are looking for a story about clashing cultures, with "twice the punch of Dances with Wolves", I recommend you check Black Robe out.
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Comments (go to latest)
Bill at 23:43 on 2018-05-09
I haven't seen either movie, but I have read the Brian Moore novel Black Robe is based on. Any thoughts on book/movie similarities/differences?
Raymond H at 08:50 on 2018-05-10
Alas, just as you have not seen the movie, so too have I not read the book. Judging from the Wikipedia article though, it seems as though LaForgue in the book baptizes the Huron because they believe it will cure them of the plague, something LaForgue in the movie pointedly refuses to do. LaForgue in the film desires converts, but he refuses to obtain them under false pretenses, in contrast to the other priest at the mission, who sees little point in actually teaching the Huron Christianity so long as he fulfills his baptism quota.
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