“Don’t Let Him Eat Your Heart.” – The Widow Emilie Grant
Now here’s a film you don’t here a lot about these days. Alien Thunder (Claude Fournier, 1974) aka Dan Candy’s Law, is a politically charged Canadian produced Western that attacks the treatment of the Cree Nation by those dastardly government officials, so dang determined to herd the pesky native people into their own, secure parcel of land. Yes, yes, yes. It’s all very Dances With Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990) and there is no denying the horrors and atrocities committed in the name of manifest destiny. White Guilt firmly established.
But is there more to this movie other than an undeniable self-loathing?
Sure. It’s a revenge Western. The Best Kind of Western.
Donald Sutherland stars as the hat fiddling Mountie, Dan Candy and he brings a heap of moaning rage to the film along with his monstrous soup-straining mustache. The story opens with a dispute over the slaughtering of an Indian Agency Cow by the Cree husband Almighty Voice (Gordon Tootoosis). He might have been just trying to feed his family and he may have even had proper ownership of that cow, but The Queen of England charges Donald Sutherland and his partner Kevin McCarthy to fetch the scoundrel. There’s much arguing, a lot of “redskin” taunting, a jailbreak, and Kevin McCarthy soon finds himself playing a corpse with very little screen time. A genuine bummer for Invasion of the Body Snatcher (Don Siegel, 1956) fans.
McCarthy leaves a widow and a knife-clutching child behind (that’s no good), and Donald Sutherland cannot bear to look at them let alone help around the house or attempt surrogate fatherhood. So he does what the best hate-filled cowboys do in this situation—he goes on a hunt. But he takes too dang long to branch out on his own. For the first half of the film he’s struggling and butting heads with his superiors; he’s going back and forth from the wilderness and home base with little to no progress against the Cree. It’s not until he strips the Mountie’s red coat from his shoulders and embeds himself into the pursuit that the film gathers any kind of momentum. And that’s a little too long to wait for excitement.
Still, the wrath of Sutherland is a sight to behold and the activist actor probably relished the chance to channel his political views into a role as twisted and angry as that of Dan Candy. The Mountie is such an impotent creature; he wants so desperately to put Almighty Voice into the ground, but to do it on his own terms without the aide of his agency or the flock of greedy bounty hunters bursting forth from all corners of the prairie. And they are all just getting in his way. No matter how close he comes to his prize, Almighty Voice slips from his grasp.
The film works best when it’s Cat & Mousing. One of the best scenes in the film occurs when Almighty Voice reverses the action and sets upon Sutherland in his backwoods cabin. The gunplay lacks the explosive violence of an action film, but there is a certain dreaded glee in their exchange, an understanding that both men are trapped in their doomed roles. Sure, the film certainly could have used more of this table-turning action and a lot less hand wringing.
Especially since the trouble with a Cat & Mouse film is that the mouse should be as interesting as the cat. And Gordon Tootoosis’ Almighty Voice is never given enough screentime to be anything but a cypher. Sure, there’s some quiet time spent between him and his woman and there are plenty of knowing-looks as his child is brought forth into this world, but the man needs a voice. And instead much of that voice comes from Chief Dan George’s elder Cree leader. But the whole time you’re listening to his platitudes you’re just thinking how much more entertaining his character in The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976) was compared to this Zen dialogue spewer. Nope, the mouse is just a blank to be filled by Donald Sutherland’s groans.
Alien Thunder is not a Western meant to be remembered by mass consumers of cinema. It’s for aficionados and genre collectors—you know, snooty bloggers like myself who feel more complete after devouring the latest obscure DVD release. It’s a gem. An oddity. It might be hard to muster up the enthusiasm for the film, but we gotta thank Scorpion Releasing for finally allowing a modern audience the pleasures of Donald Sutherland’s useless malice.