The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Romance of the Far Fur Country.
The Romance of the Far Fur Country returns after being lost for more than 90 years. Reconstructed thanks to efforts by the British Film Institute and the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, the film provides a rare glimpse at life connected to the HBC’s northern trading posts in the early 1900s, full of ice floes, dog sleds, trap lines, canoe rides, and spectacular Canadian geographies. Director H. M. Wyckoff’s feature, an episodic documentary prepared to celebrate the HBC’s 250th anniversary and predating Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North by two years, puts aboriginal peoples front and centre as participants entwined in colonial commerce and documents the challenges and dangers of filming in such harsh environs. Perhaps the most important document of northern life ever made, The Romance of the Far Country is as extraordinary travelogue of everyday adventures in unknown Canada.
- New high-definition digital restoration, created in collaboration with the British Film Institute and the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives
- Traditional score inspired from research on the film’s exhibition and a contemporary score by Winnipeg-based musician Nathan Reimer (both presented as uncompressed stereo soundtracks on the Blu-ray edition)
- Introduction by filmmaker Guy Maddin
- Audio commentary by reconstructivist Kevin Nikkel and scholar Peter Geller
- Short films derived from The Romance of the Far Fur Country footage – An Eskimotion Picture, HBC Pageant, Hides- and Go Seek, Hudson’s Bay Company Celebrates Its Birth, A Tale of the Far Fur North, and The Trials and Tribulations of a Cameraman
- Audio recording of Hudson’s Bay Talking Book, a commemorative gramophone record outlining the HBC’s history and provided as souvenirs to children during the Company’s 250th anniversary celebration
- Adventures on the Bay, a collection of excerpts from silent archival footage from the HBC’s archives dating to the 1930s, including footage of the HBC’s Governor’s 1934 tour of Company outposts
- This Film is Dangerous, Frank Phillips’ rare 1948 short film created for the British Navy and demonstrating the dangers of extremely flammable nitrate film
- On the Trail of the Far Fur Country, Kevin Nikkel’s 75 minute documentary on the film, its reconstruction, and its screening for northern Canadian communities as part of a naming project
- PLUS: A booklet of essays by HBC archivist Judith Hudson Beattie and Canadian documentary film scholar Jim Leach, along with press releases and clippings on the film and the HBC’s 250th anniversary celebrations
A significant collection of film footage belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company was recently transferred from the British Film Institute to the HBC Archives in Winnipeg, Canada. Currently underway is The Return of the Far Fur Country project, a collaborative effort to reconstruct The Romance of the Far Fur Country, a 1920 feature commissioned by the HBC for its 250th anniversary. Directed by H. M. Wyckoff of New York’s Educational Films Corporation, the movie reviews the film crew’s travels aboard the Company’s icebreaker, the HMS Nascopie, from Montreal to the Arctic Circle and details 9 months of footage filming across the Arctic lands and the Canadian Northwoods. Traveling by dog sled and canoe, the filmmakers provide a vision of aboriginal Canadian life and its modern interactions with the HBC and its outposts. The film is generally episodic in construction and ran approximately 2 hours at its release.
The Romance of the Far Fur Country screened for the three consecutive days in Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Victoria, coinciding with various celebrations also organized for the HBC’s anniversary. The most prominent of these celebrations was the Red River Pageant held at Lower Fort Garry in Manitoba, a carefully staged event wherein the HBC brought representatives of various Aboriginal bands associated with the Company for a display of commercial friendship and spectacular “Indianness.” Despite the film’s success and further life as short films derived from the main feature, The Romance of the Far Fur Country was quickly forgotten with the advent of sound technology and Robert Flaherty’s characterization of Inuit life as harsh and isolated in Nanook of the North (1922).
Alas, The Romance of the Far Fur Country is lost, but archivists currently working on The Return of the Far Fur Country project have identified all of the film’s component parts as contained in the material provided by the BFI, and so work is ongoing to reconstruct this lost gem of Canadian film, a rare document of life in northern Canada during the early portion of the 20th century. Elements of the full film are currently making appearances at theatres and museums across Canada (and abroad in rarer cases), and are worth seeing if the chance arises. Further, this footage is also being screened by archivists and reconstructionists in the same northern communities as depicted in the film. These screenings, done as part of a production documentary and a naming project, have apparently been quite successful. The reconstruction of The Romance of the Far Fur Country will likely take another year or two, giving Criterion ample time to negotiate rights and develop a full coterie of special features for a potential title. The film would make a lovely companion to a Blu-ray edition of a long-awaited Nanook of the North, perhaps even outstripping Flaherty’s famous work and filling out on offering competitive with Flicker Alley’s recent Blu-ray release of Nanook of the North/The Wedding of Palo (and other Films of Arctic Life).
The Hudson’s Bay Company is so iconic that it seems almost required that a cover treatment take inspiration from the HBC’s famous point blanket. The green, red, yellow, and indigo stripes, along with the indigo “points” marking its value, would make for an eye-catching, emblematic, and entirely fitting touchstone. If original art was incorporated into the cover design, award-winning Canadian artist Scott Chantler is the perfect candidate. Chantler’s interest in Canadiana is well documented by his books Northwest Passage (about 18th-century frontiersmen in Rupert’s Land) and Two Generals (about his grandfather’s service in World War II and in the invasion of Normandy). The HBC would do well to let Chantler’s nimble lines recast their iconography.
Credits: This post is adapted from my previous blog. For more information on The Return of the Far Fur Country project and their screenings, consult the project’s website and their frequently updated blog. Nathan Reimer’s music appears on the film’s trailer (the first clip in this post). I’ve had the pleasure of being an audience member at Kevin Nikkel’s presentation of his ongoing work and have no doubt he could provide an excellent commentary. Nikkel gives a lot of credit to Peter Geller and his book, Northern Exposures: Photographing and Filming the Canadian North, 1920-45, which has an excellent chapter on the film. I saw This Film is Dangerous at a Far Fur Country screening event and it’s an excellent document on the fragility of the nitrate stock and reminds how lucky we are to have films that survive. Brock University’s Jim Leach is a major scholar on Canadian film, having authored Film in Canada and co-edited Candid Eyes: Essays on Canadian Documentaries, making him an easy choice for a booklet essay.