Why Shoot the Teacher? Commentary

Why Shoot the Teacher? (1977) was the first of four feature films produced by Fil Fraser as part of a goal to tell western Canadian stories to Canadian audiences. It was one of the most successful films ever made in Canada, grossing over $2,000,000 at the box office. The movie was screened at the Cannes Festival, won a Genie award in Canada for adapted screenplay and received the Golden Reel award for the highest box-office receipts.

The screenplay was adapted by James DeFelice from Max Braithwaite’s 1965 novel outlining his own experiences as a young teacher in Depression-era Saskatchewan. More than a coming-of-age novel, Braithwaite’s Why Shoot the Teacher is a stark reminder of the economic and spiritual poverty of life on the Canadian Prairies at a time of worldwide Depression. Focused on the experiences of a naïve city boy who takes the only teaching job available at a time when jobs were at a premium, the novel transports Max to a remote rural settlement where drought is finishing off the work of economic collapse. The crops are almost non-existent: it hasn’t rained in years. Even if a farmer has a crop to harvest, no one is buying. Money is scarce. Most farmers trade their labour for the taxes that they cannot possibly pay. They build the roads, supply the schoolhouse with firewood, or provide room and board for “the teacher.”

Saskatchewan is full of people who emigrated there after World War I hoping for a new start; but, the heady pioneering days of the 1920s have evaporated into disillusion and despair. Prairie farming communities are composed of refugees from central and eastern Europe, veterans of the first World War, and migrants from eastern Canada and the western US: a potent mix of language, religion, culture, and ideology. The only thing that keeps these communities alive is the necessity to work together. It is a harsh world for which Max is pitifully unprepared. But, it is the making of him. Like his neighbours, Max has no option but to survive.

The movie, Why Shoot the Teacher? is sensitively directed by Silvio Narizzano, who manages to translate this true story to the screen with a deft understanding of the people and the times. The flat, grassland district near Hanna, Alberta, stands in for the ironically-named, fictional community of Willowgreen, Saskatchewan, where Max Brown (Bud Cort) is essentially abandoned by the train. Although feeling a bit lost, he is filled with youthful plans for his first teaching position. However, he soon discovers that he is more a burden than a boon to the struggling community: they are not sure how they will pay him; and they have to feed him, even though they may not always have food for their children. Soon after Max first arrives, he is mildly revolted to find several beefy farmwives butchering some beef for him. He does not yet realize what a sacrifice this is for the community’s families.

Not surprisingly, Max feels as though he has landed in a foreign country. His one-room schoolhouse has no running water, electricity, or toilet; there are no roads; there is nowhere to go when he is not teaching - no libraries or cinemas; he must live in a windowless apartment which is little better than a hole in the ground under the school building. Many of his students do not speak English. The older boys test him by putting bullets in the woodstove so that they will heat up and explode in the middle of lessons; and they tip the outhouse over on its door so that he can’t get out.

What is worse, no one seems to value education. Max does not yet understand that any aspirations the parents might have for their children have been compromised by the Depression. The older boys and girls are frequently kept home to work on the farm. For most of the children, finishing school is either an impossible dream or irrelevant. Children use their recess and lunch time to catch gophers whose tails can be turned in for a penny each. It is the only way that they can earn cash money.

The one person with whom Max finds any affiliation is British war bride, Alice Field (Samantha Eggar). Their attraction is born from a mutual desperation at finding themselves marooned in Willowgreen. Both of them appreciate music and literature. They talk and laugh in the little schoolhouse like survivors on a cultural life-raft. Alice feels trapped in a marriage to an uncommunicative veteran of World War I. Like many women of her background in that era, she is desperate enough to run away from home, children, husband; her life is a drab, endless round of drudgery. When Alice’s husband, Bert (Michael J. Reynolds) arrives to take her home, Max sees once more how he has misjudged life in Willowgreen. Bert might be inarticulate, but he is not unfeeling.

The political undercurrents of the times weave themselves into the plot, just as they did throughout Saskatchewan in the 1930s. The anger and frustration of farmers during the Depression engendered many social initiatives to make life easier for working families. The Co-operative Commonwealth Foundation (CCF), fore-runner of today’s New Democratic Party, provided the groundwork for what eventually became universal healthcare in Canada and the Canada Pension Plan. This is the political context for the Harris Montgomery (Gary Reineke) character, who tries to recruit Max the cause.

Despite the serious social and political issues that inform the plot, Why Shoot the Teacher? is sensitive and funny. No one who has seen it can ever forget the aerial view of Bud Cort wandering across a desolate winter landscape,  singing “Oh, sweet mystery of life, at last I’ve found you,” in an effort to stay sane until June releases him to the train, civilization and the city. But, when the opportunity comes, Max decides that he will return to Willowgreen, not because he has to, but because they know him there. And, now, he knows them.

Evelyn Ellerman