Road to Saddle River Commentary

Francis Damberger’s second feature film, Road to Saddle River, benefitted from his critical success with Solitaire in being able to attract over $2 million dollars in funding from Telefilm Canada, the NFB, the Alberta Motion Picture Development Corporation and other sources. Writer-director Damberger set out to make a road movie about the search for a pristine place, where skies are blue and the grass is green: a place “where a man’s gotta do, what a man’s gotta do.”

Inspired by the massive cultural legacy of the German pulp fiction writer, Karl May, Francis Damberger imagined the hero of this quest for purity to be a young man of vaguely central European origins, the Cowboy Kid (Paul Jarrett), whose expresses in broken English all the clichés that resonate through the Karl May opus. During the latter years of the nineteenth century, May wrote dozens of cowboy novels set in what he imagined to be the American West, a place he had never been. May’s “West” was a strange stew of plains Indian images, totem poles, Spanish cantinas, and his own idiosyncratic interpretation of what the “Code of the West” was.

As bizarre and unrecognizable as May’s West might be for people who actually live in the west, his novels were and are hugely popular in Germany where, to this day, they support a large and vibrant industry of Karl May movies, festivals, clothing, cowboy and Indian paraphernalia, CDs, and special events. Germans learn about Karl May from an early age; every bookshop for children in Germany has an entire section, a big one, dedicated to May’s books. Many Germans spend their weekends and vacations camping in the countryside re-enacting scenes from the books and dressing up as Indians.

The interesting thing about May is the prominent role given to the Indian Chief, Winnetou, whose wisdom is paramount. Over the series of Karl May novels, Winnetou shares adventures with three different cowboys, the most famous of which is Old Shatterhand, who many people believe to be the alter ego of Karl May himself. But it is Winnetou, with his nature lore and spiritual strength, who is the real hero of the May books.

The movie opens, then, with the Cowboy Kid reciting the Cowboy’s Commandments from a poster pinned to the wall of his bedroom. He has come to Canada from “the old country” in search of Saddle River, a fictional place valorized in movies featuring an idealized cowboy named Rango (Francis Damberger). For now, the Kid is trapped in his uncle’s deli, grinding hamburger meat day after day. But the fortuitous falling of a saddle out of the sky near his feet will set him on his quest for the true, pure west, as represented by the mythical Saddle River.

The Cowboy Kid embarks on his quest by hitchhiking along a straight stretch of highway in a flat, spare landscape. He is picked up by Sam (Paul Coeur), a salesman who has lost his house, his job and his wife; they come across Dieter (Eric Allan Kramer), a huge German searching for a home while hiking across the prairies with a suitcase full of “rocks from the Berlin wall”; and Norman Manyheads, a native man on a vision quest, any vision will do. Norman is happy to play spiritual guide to these “lost boys” so long as they give him smokes. He has no idea where Saddle River is.

The dialogue that Damberger has written for the native characters in this movie is funny and quick-witted. It is strongly reminiscent of the dialogue written by Tom King for his native characters in the CBC Radio comedy, “Dead Dog Cafe” and in his novel, Green Grass, Running Water. Damberger pokes fun at all the stereotypes that the audience might have brought to the theatre, including the “noble savage” staple of the Karl May tradition. Damberger’s Indians are just a bunch of guys laughing at the tourists and drinking their beer for free. In one wonderful scene, we see Sam and the Cowboy Kid naked and tied to a telephone pole, left there over night by the Indians, who have stolen their clothes. They are saved the next morning by the German hiker, who lends them his lederhosen until they can buy cowboy clothes.

Interspersed with the many silly exploits of our heroes along the road are scenes with two trickster characters: a Cowboy (Shaun Johnston), complete with six-gun, and an Indian (Ben Cardinal) in buckskins, who dances across the screen playing the violin in a manner similar to the old fiddler character in Milagro Beanfield Wars. The interchanges between the Cowboy and the Indian are priceless. Their characters are clearly meant to represent the spirit of the western narrative. When they aren’t actually interfering with the Cowboy Kid’s quest, they play out the classic game of trying to sneak up and “get” the other guy. The Cowboy gets the drop on the Indian, points his gun at him and says, “Bang.” The Indian swears and falls on his back. One of the funniest scenes in the movie has these two characters lying side by side in the dirt raising their legs, once, twice, and then locking legs in an Indian wrestling match. In the sun-drenched space beyond time where these spirits dwell, this children’s game of Cowboys and Indians goes on forever.

The cinematography in Road to Saddle River is beautifully evocative of southern Alberta. Several breathtaking scenes show characters walking in silhouette along a horizon lit with an unearthly gold and orange light. Peter Wunstorf was able to take advantage of the late autumn light that suffuses this part of the province to add warmth to the intersecting lives of Damberger’s lost boys.

In the end, all is found; that’s what road movies do. And this very clever movie does it particularly well.

Evelyn Ellerman