Drylanders (Un autre pays) Commentary

As the first full-length, feature film from the National Film Board (NFB) and its most expensive production to date ($200,000), you would think that Drylanders (Un autre pays) (1963) would have received more critical attention when it was released than it did. Nor did it receive the sort of support one might have expected from the NFB, which did not enter Drylanders for the Canadian Film Awards, or in any other festivals.

The early 1960s was not a time when such an intensely regional film would have been received well. It was released in an era of energetic nation-building; the gaze was national and not regional. In fact, “regional” had acquired the negative connotation of “parochial.” Ironically, the film did speak to people in other countries. When lead actor, James B. Douglas (Dan Greer), travelled to the former Soviet Union, he found to his surprise that he was recognized in the streets. Russians had seen Drylanders and had identified with the struggles of the pioneering Greer family on the rolling western Prairies during the Great Depression.

Over time, the stark truthfulness of Drylanders gained it a solid position in the canon of Canadian filmmaking. By the end of the 1990s, “regional” had re-gained its cultural capital. Local cultures that had developed in specific geographic locations were now seen as the touchstone of Canadian national identity.

Viewed from a distance of several decades, the film is interesting as a transitional moment in the NFB’s history. It is filled with documentary tropes: Elizabeth’s (Frances Hyland), voice-over, the foregrounding of situational information, the careful attention to detail, telling the story of the average person, etc. Yet, the actors were able to re-work the script, parts of which they improvised.

Drylanders is a true story in that it depicts an authentic story in its authentic context. It was the first full-length feature film to be made by Canadians in Saskatchewan. Filmed on the locations treated in the story and using local farmers and their families as extras, Drylanders evokes just as much lived experience in its Canadian viewers as it did in the Soviet Union. It tells the story of an urban couple joining the pre-World War I rush to take up homesteads in the West. Between 1905 and 1910, over a million people flooded into the Canadian West. By the 1920s, most of these people had migrated into the new towns and villages of Saskatchewan and Alberta; their inexperience and the harsh living conditions had beaten them. However, many families, like the Greers, stayed through the good years of the late 1920s and through the drought-stricken decade of economic depression.

Most pioneering stories are presented as one of two sorts of epic: the quest or the domestic struggle. In the first type, a long, physical journey is privileged; the hero engages in one adventurous episode after another on the way to his ultimate ideal, whether it be personal freedom, free land, open country, a new start, etc. This generic type, like its Greek ancestor, focuses on action, rather than affect. The audience is drawn to what the hero is doing and how well, not to what he is thinking about or feeling.  These epics make for great box office: they feature idealized, panoramic vistas; stirring musical scores; handsome, energetic heroes; gorgeous girls; exciting chases; etc.

Domestic epics are a harder sell. They tend to take place over a much longer time span. Typically they are painfully realistic portrayals of the tensions of everyday life. They examine the great personal struggle and sacrifice that it takes to overcome harsh circumstances in a single geographic location. The journey taken by the hero is internal. Such narratives focus on the emotional lives of the characters rather than on physical action. To an eye trained on the epic quest, nothing seems to actually happen in the domestic epic. Yet, the action can be dramatic, as the hero discovers truth in himself or in the lives of his family. Instead of dramatic landscapes, the domestic epic asks the viewer to read the messages contained in faces, hands, and the articles of daily life.

The kitchen is the most important setting for many domestic epics. In Drylanders, a turning point in the family’s history occurs when Russel Greer (Don Francks) tells his family that he will be leaving the farm for the city, where he can find work. The conflicting emotions evident in Russel’s face and body as he tells his parents and brother one thing, but believes another, is riveting. He knows that he is just one more mouth to feed and that things will be easier for everyone if he leaves. His father’s (James B. Douglas) physical reaction to Russel’s announcement tells the whole story of what the Depression did to the human spirit. He seems to shrink physically. Saying nothing, he walks past his son, a beaten man.

Director Don Haldane then shoots scene after scene of Russel’s booted feet walking forlornly from one potential job site to another across Canada without success, while the narrator reads his hopeful letters home. It is clear that Russel has embarked on a fruitless journey to nowhere. These sequences remind the viewer of the earlier scenes where we follow the hopeful footsteps of Dan Greer behind the plow as he broke the sod and built up his farm.

Shot in black and white, and all the more powerful for it, Drylanders is an important evocation of a time and place in Canadian history as well as a turning point in the history of the National Film Board.

Evelyn Ellerman