Nell Shipman’s environmental and feminist activism through the early silent film

By Victoria Jones.

Back to God’s Country

Despite many believing animal rights, environmentalism and feminism to be thoroughly modern causes, women pioneers were in fact addressing these issues through film as early as in 1919. Such is the case with Nell Shipman’s film Back to God’s Country; a masterpiece blending together femininity, female empowerment and nature in the Canadian landscape. I will argue here that many women film pioneers were portraying scenes that are not alien to the present and can very well fit to what we would call environmental activism and feminism today.

In Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s review of Amelie Hastie’s Cupboards of Curiosity: Women, Recollection, and Female History, women seemed to address future audiences, rather than the people of their time, as they were already predestined to fail in a male-dominated industry. When searching for the marginalized women filmmakers that were excluded from the patriarchal canon, Back to God’s Country has been found and restored, and it brought back to our screens issues of rape, racism, and animal abuse. Shipman was born in Victoria, British Columbia in Canada, and her love for the Canadian wilderness is indicated in the movie. Back to God’s Country is an adaption of James Oliver Curwood’s novel Wapi the Walrus. In the movie, Nell Shipman plays Dolores, a woman who becomes a heroic figure by protecting her husband from a villain, Rydal, who attempts to rape Dolores and eventually kills her father. Trapped on a ship with Rydal the murderer being the captain, she tries to escape and save her husband by running away on a dog-sled.

As stated in the YouTube documentary, The Canadians: Nell Shipman, she deftly switches the attention from the murderer dog in Curwood’s novel to the female figure of Dolores; whose feminine and peaceful aura ‘tames’ even the wildest dog murderer, Wapi. Thus, she manages to portray a heroine who actually saves the man. The movie opens with the murder of a Chinese man, whose dog, Tao the Great, returns after 40 dog generations as ‘Wapi the Killer’ in the hands of a white owner and the land of a ‘brown man’. The dog is presented in the intertitles as a dog without friends who hated humanity because their law was ‘the law of the whip’ instead of kindness and love, and he will appear in the last scenes to save Dolores and her husband. In the meantime, his ‘spirit’ follows the plot of the story and a suggested connection between Wapi and Dolores is generated, even before they meet. Importantly, Nell Shipman was appalled by the animal cruelty on the scenes, so she demanded that there would be no guns, or whips on her set. She was very sensitive about the way animals should be treated and shocked by the horrific methods that were being used. This aspect of hers is captured by the camera, where the heroine is found in an adorable shot where she is reading on her bed and a porcupine jumps on the bed to ask for some love and attention. Her cottage is open to all kinds of animals‒ owls, porcupines, donkeys, chickens, raccoons, bears and dogs‒ who enter the house to look for food and love.

In another magnificent scene, Dolores is portrayed almost as a painting, with her wavy hair hanging on her shoulders, lying by the river and playing with a bear, then getting into the river naked. Despite the expected disapproval of this scene, considering the deeply conservative morality of time, the scene is not scandalized. This emphasizes the natural beauty of a naked body, devoid of any sexualized interpretations of it. Dolores is an aethereal and pure being, filled with femininity but also heroism. Thus, I view the movie as a celebration of feminism, by presenting a woman able to appease the wildest killer dog Wapi, or walk in front of Wapi to protect him, when he gets whipped for fighting with other dogs; but also, the woman that will boldly hold a gun against the villain to protect her husband. Training her animal troupe, Shipman assigns her animal actors with an important role, be it the owl that prevents the new lover and future husband of getting too close to Dolores, or Wapi the dog who attacks the dogs of the villains’ sledge to help Dolores and her husband escape. The movie’s plot is also closely connected to an anti-racism statement, as the introductory shots present the murder of a Chinese man in a pub, whose spirit-dog will later punish the villains by becoming reincarnated in Wapi the killer dog.

Overall, the role of Dolores represents a unique relationship with animals, which is certainly far from the abusive relationship we have come to achieve in a century where veganism is still considered a trend, despite the wide-spread revelations of animal abuse and slaughtering. In a century where climate change threatens the whole planet, silent film pioneers like Shipman shout the loudest for restoration of our human-animal relations, of the way we treat our planet, and against racism and sexism. For readers with a flair for the vintage, or simply the curiosity to witness the power of silent performances to confront issues of today, from the context of 100 years ago, I would recommend watching the movie on YouTube, accompanied by classical music.

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