I dusted off my movie case for Black Robe tonight, and I don’t regret a single second of the entire thing. (Almost.) You should watch this movie soon. Not only is it an accurate depiction of life in early New France, it is an accurate depiction of both the French in America and of the Indians themselves. No Dances with Wolves, James Fenimore Cooper “noble red man” nonsense here. We see the Indians as they really were, with both their many virtues and their many vices. And, for that matter, we see the French in the same light. Furthermore, I’ve rarely seen a movie that so beautifully portrays the beautiful country of the near North. It was filmed entirely on location in Quebec, and it shows what a lovely country this is, and still in many places largely empty. It’s nothing short of visually stunning in that regard, and makes me want to go back to my native homeland once again. (Upstate New York is different, but akin.)
Before I begin, I should elaborate: this is a modern production and it has some problems. The most significant problem (the only significant problem, in my view) is its sexual explicitness. There are three scenes in the movie that required aversion of the eyes. They fall only barely short of hard-core pornography; they are brief, but inexcusable. If you are particularly sensitive to these things, it’s best if you simply skip this one. In this case, you can get the benefits of it by reading this review. (!)
That said, the sexual scenes do serve a purpose. Certainly, no purpose whatsoever can justify such immorality, but while this fact doesn’t make these scenes good, it at least makes them less bad. The first is an entirely random incident of two Indians engaging in sexual intercourse; the purpose of this scene is to show the utterly casual nature with which the Indians (this tribe of them, at least) treat the issue. The second is an incident of an Indian and a Frenchman having intercourse; the purpose of this scene is to show what causes the Frenchman to “go native.” As usual, that cause is a woman. The third is an incident in which the materialism of the natives is used, by another Indian, to effect the party’s escape when captured. This is the most graphic. All of them require turning away from, and all are completely unnecessary; the fact of the relations could easily have been made clear without actually displaying them. But that is what they’re there for.
The French missionaries in the New World were almost universally Jesuits, whose habit was (is) a black robe. The Indians, therefore, almost universally knew missionaries as “Blackrobes.” The movie is the story of Father LaForgue, an idealistic thirtysomething missionary who seeks nothing but bringing the Good News to the savages. For the first half of the film, we are intermittently treated to scenes from Fr. LaForgue’s earlier life, prior to coming to New France. The first is Fr. LaForgue, still a layman, coming to serve the Mass of a Jesuit priest in a great cathedral. That priest turns, and LaForgue can see that he is horribly disfigured in his face and in both hands.
“Good morning,” the priest says, as LaForgue vests in cassock and surplice, “you are to serve my Mass?” He notices LaForgue looking at his deformities, and he responds, “The savages did this to me.” LaForgue asks, “In New France?” The priest affirms this, and says something along the lines of, “They are savages, just as the English and Germans were savages before we brought our Faith to them.” He then tells LaForgue, “I am going back…What greater glory can there be?” Speaking, of course, of bringing light to the darkness, of teaching about Jesus to those who know nothing of Him.
The second scene of LaForgue’s earlier life is him sitting with his mother listening to a pretty young woman play the recorder. His mother remarks to him what a beautiful girl she is, and how talented she is, and from what a good family she comes. LaForgue is clearly, from his dress and demeanor, from a wealthy and important family; and the girl is indeed pretty, and she does indeed play well. But he will not be moved; his meeting with the missionary in the cathedral has struck him, and the next time we meet younger LaForgue, he is in Jesuit garb, meeting with his mother, who is praying before a statue of St. Jeanne d’Arc. She tells him that she prays for St. Joan to guide him, because she is certain that God has chosen him, LaForgue, to die for the good of the Indians.
In the New World, LaForgue spends some time learning the Algonquin and Huron languages, and the movie opens with him completing this stage of his mission. His superior is speaking with Samuel de Champlain, the great founder of New France, about obtaining an Indian escort for LaForgue to go to the Huron mission, hundreds of miles to the west, through raw, untamed wilderness, near the territory of the hostile Iroquois. Eventually, Champlain acquiesces; and we are treated to one of the most poetic juxtapositions I’ve seen in all of cinema.
The Algonquin chief we follow for most of the movie, Chomina, is getting dressed. He’s clearly putting on his finest to meet the great French chief, whom the Indians know only as “Champlain.” He puts on his paint; others help him with his paint and his clothes; he wears great furs, including a great bear fur as a cloak, and a tall headdress replete with pelts and feathers. As we watch Chomina prepare for the meeting, we also watch Champlain prepare for it. He puts on his armor; his royal pendant depicting his authority as governor of New France; his broad hat, with its plume; and, most poignantly, a great bearskin which he wears as a cloak. Then, while the Indians wait outside the walls of the fledging colony of Quebec City, his soldiers line up, with their breastplates, plumed hats, swords, and matchlocks, and his drummer and fifer proceed him in solemn procession down the hill to the Indian encampment. As he processes, Chomina is led to the meeting place with his braves beating drums and singing along with their women.
Indians not participating in the meeting are singing and dancing about the fire, playing their drums and shaking their rattles; Frenchmen not participating are also dancing (albeit not around the fire), playing their own instruments and singing their own songs. It’s a powerful reminder: we’re not really all that different, in the externals. It’s the core things that vary, our fundamental beliefs. The necessities of life are almost always mostly the same.
In exchange for some knifes, tools, beads, and a few pots, the Indians under Chomina agree to escort Fr. LaForgue and another young Frenchman, Daniel (who agrees just prior that, after he returns from the Hurons, he will go to France and study to become a Jesuit) to the Huron mission. They leave the next morning. We watch Fr. LaForgue relate to the Indians, and at first things seem to be going rather well. He laughs with them, rows with them, rests with them, works with them, eats with them. They seem to accept him as a man, like themselves. But things take a turn for the worse when LaForgue first shows them something that they cannot understand.
Chomina is watching LaForgue writing in a journal, and asks him what he’s doing. LaForgue responds, “I am making words.” Chomina, who knows nothing of writing, is confused and says, “You’re not speaking.” So LaForgue asks Chomina to tell him something that he doesn’t know; Chomina says, “My woman’s mother died in the snow last winter.” LaForgue writes it down, then brings it to Daniel and hands it to him. Daniel reads it, and the Indians, including Chomina, are shocked; they are convinced that it must be some type of black magic. This is historically viable; nonliterate peoples often, upon first experiencing writing, believe it to be some kind of magic. But LaForgue doesn’t realize this, thinking that they are merely amazed. “There are still greater things than this that I can teach you,” he tells them, unaware that they are already thinking of killing him because he must be a demon, able to impart knowledge to others without speaking as men must do.
They become increasingly mystified by LaForgue as time goes on. One example of this is the source of our second sexual scene; Daniel, losing his idealism and becoming more and more sympathetic to native customs, begins a sexual relationship with Annuka, Chomina’s daughter. She asks him at one point, “Is the Black Robe a demon?” He’s amused by the question and replies in the negative. She says, “He must be a demon; Black Robes never have sex with women.” He says, “It’s a promise they make to their God.” Annuka asks, “Why would you make a promise like that?” The Indians were, fundamentally, materialists; they made gods of the material things around them. They were therefore unable to understand why a man might give up these material things for the sake of immaterial ones. Daniel and Annuka’s relationship makes that clear; and as Daniel becomes more and more like the Indians, he becomes more and more unable to understand LaForgue and his mission.
Another interesting scene involves tobacco, which was not yet well-known in France. (The movie takes place in 1634.) Daniel, who had smoked it with the Indians in Quebec, offers a pipe to LaForgue, and says, “They say it is soothing, once one is used to it.” LaForgue tries it and coughs, saying, “It will take some time.” The Indians ask him, “Black Robe, tell us: will we have tobacco in your Paradise?” LaForgue responds, correctly, that they will have no need of tobacco, or of anything else; they will possess God Himself, and want nothing. They shocked response: “No women?” Once again, we’re confronted with a fundamental clash of worldview; LaForgue, and at first Daniel, are able to understand why a man would sacrifice material comforts for immaterial glory, while the Indians cannot comprehend this.
One of the Indian women is pregnant, and she gives birth one night; the child, sadly, does not survive. The Indians sing a mourning song, and the woman takes the child into the woods and leaves the body in a tree. LaForgue follows her, and christens the child after she has left. However, the Indian shaman Mestigoit, convinced that LaForgue is a demon, follows LaForgue along with Chomina and some others; Mestigoit tells them that LaForgue is casting a spell on the infant, and they are finally convinced to abandon LaForgue in the forest, and proceed to the winter hunting grounds.
Daniel has gone so native by this time that, though the Indians abandon both Frenchmen, Daniel takes the only remaining canoe and leaves LaForgue behind. He pursues the Indians throughout the night, while LaForgue sleeps without shelter under a tree, thanks God for his suffering, and asks for still more if it will bring salvation to the Indians. Finally, one of the Indians decides to kill Daniel, and nearly does before Chomina stops him. Chomina says, “I may be stupid, but I agreed to take him to the Huron mission.” Chomina is an honorable man, and was convinced against his better judgment to abandon LaForgue; he, his wife, his son (who looks to be about ten), and his daughter Annuka return with Daniel to LaForgue.
They are ambushed there, however, by a party of Iroquois, who put an arrow through Chomina’s wife’s neck. LaForgue fearlessly strides out into the middle of the combat (where Daniel makes an excellent, and historically accurate, defense of the party with his matchlock, firing one shot and killing an Iroquois warrior and then using it very effectively as a club, all it was good for once it had released its load). He is not fighting, though; he proceeds straight to Chomina’s wife and baptizes her, whereupon he is clubbed on the back of the head by an Iroquois.
Daniel, LaForgue, Chomina, Annuka, and Chomina’s son (the boy never got a name, as far as I could tell) are led by leashes to the Iroquois village (I suppose they were Mohawks, but they’re never identified precisely). There, Daniel asks LaForgue for forgiveness; LaForgue inexplicably responds, “God is with us; He is the one who forgives us.” (I have no idea why, in this movie where the missions are portrayed so sympathetically, confession is somehow missed at this crucial juncture, especially since the writer apparently remembered it a bit later.) The three men are forced to run the gauntlet; LaForgue is hit in the head and falls, whereupon Daniel, who has recovered his European sensibilities, runs back through the gauntlet, braving the clubs of the Iroquois, and drags him the rest of the way through. Chomina is badly wounded by the gauntlet. The three men are then dragged into a longhouse along with the women, stripped naked, and LaForgue is brought forward. The Iroquois chief cuts off his finger with a mussel shell; LaForgue never cries out, accepting it as his cross for the conversion of the Indians.
Chomina tells Daniel and Laforgue to sing; while Chomina sings an Indian song, Daniel and LaForgue together sing Ave Maria. As they sing, an Iroquois comes forward and slits Chomina’s young son’s throat, throwing him to the ground without ever batting an eye. The Iroquois chief tells them that only more pain is in store for them, and they will die slowly. They then are left, bizarrely with only one guard, for the night.
Chomina asks Daniel, “You wanted to be one of us. What do you think now?” Daniel responds, “That the Iroquois are not men; they are beasts.” But Chomina shakes his head. “No, they are the same as us. If they show pity, they seem weak.” I understand that some criticized the movie as racist, because it showed the Indians as so violent. But this is a fact: American Indians were violent. They were violent in a way that most Europeans, even in a violent age of religious warfare and burning at the stake, couldn’t comprehend. They had brought the disgusting art of torture to a perfection that would’ve made the most hardened jailer at the Tower of London blush in shame. This movie downplayed real Indian violence; it did not exaggerate it.
Which brings me to the best part of the movie: it is honest. The Indians are shown as virtuous in many ways. They fight bravely; they are loyal to kin; they share everything with one another, without any question. But they are superstitious; they are violent; they are unable to look toward the future in any meaningful way. The Europeans are also portrayed honestly, whether it is good or bad; I see no reason why the historical violence of the northern tribes should be whitewashed. It’s not a question of racism; it’s one of history. And this movie is true to history; if anything, it’s kind to the Indians in this regard.
Our third sex scene comes now, when Annuka asks for water from the guard, who releases it on condition of sexual intercourse. To effect that intercourse, he was forced to cut her bonds, and after a few moments she bashes him over the head with his own club. Chomina, Annuka, LaForgue, and Daniel now escape, and begin the long journey toward the Huron mission. Chomina has been having a dream about his own death, and sees the place from his dream during the trip. He therefore insists that they leave him there to die, explaining that the dream world is real. This is as close as the Indians come to a notion of an immaterial world: the dreams. Annuka at one point insists, loudly and confrontationally, that the dream world is real. Because he dreamed that he would die there, he must die there. Annuka, understanding, leaves him freezing in the snow.
But LaForgue tries one more time to convert him, telling him that God loves him, and wants to welcome him into Paradise. Behind him, Annuka demands that LaForgue let Chomina die on his own, and tells Daniel that LaForgue is a fool for trying to disregard the dream. Daniel, however, remembers; he says, “No; he [LaForgue] loves him [Chomina].” Chomina refuses baptism, but he does say goodbye to LaForgue and call him “friend.” LaForgue, honoring Chomina’s wishes, leaves with Annuka and Daniel.
Finally, the river freezes, and the canoes can go no further. Annuka insists at that point that she and Daniel abandon LaForgue, because in her father’s dream “the Black Robe walks alone.” Daniel, again, has remembered; he tells LaForgue, “Father, I will go with you.” But LaForgue refuses. “She needs you; she has lost everything because of us.” And he proceeds the remaining way to the Huron mission alone.
Arriving, he finds that one of the two priests at the mission has been killed; his body lays unburied in the nave of the small, wooden church inside the Huron village. The other priest, Fr. Jerome, is very old, and at death’s door himself. A plague had hit the village, and many had died; the Indians believed that the Jesuits had brought it with them, to punish those who did not accept the Faith. Fr.Jerome felt sure that the Indians would torture them to death the next day. However, Fr. Jerome says, we do have hope; they may believe that baptism will cure them. LaForgue protests respectfully; he says they should not baptize the Indians unless they understand. The two priests hear one another’s confessions; the older one dies in the night.
The next morning, LaForgue stands before the altar of God and begs Him to help him teach the Indians. He then rings the church bell and comes outside. The Indians come outside, as well; it is the first time they have seen Laforgue, except when he was burying the dead priest, when they talked about killing him. One of the Indians then said, “The Black Robes want us to stop obeying the dreams, to have only one wife, to stop killing our enemies. If we do this, we will no longer be Hurons.” One Indian says, “We will cut pieces of their flesh from them and make them eat.” (This is one of the real tortures Indians in this part of the world would inflict upon one another, as well as upon missionaries who got on their bad sides.)
This morning, cooler heads prevailed; the Huron chief tells LaForgue, “Many want to kill you, Black Robe.” LaForgue nods. “I know.” “If we take your water sorcery, will it heal us?” LaForgue tells them no, that it will not heal them, but that it will open up for them a place in Paradise. To be healed, they must pray, and God may listen to their prayers. The chief then looks up at LaForgue and says, “Black Robe, do you love us?”
LaForgue remembers; he remembers all the kindnesses and cruelties he’d experienced at the hands of the natives, up to and including the amputation of his finger, and then nods his head. “Yes,” he says. The chief responds, “Then, baptize us.” LaForgue does so, baptizing the whole village.
And that, my friends, is what this movie is all about; it’s about love. It is never questioned, throughout the whole movie, that LaForgue is in New France, risking his life, enduring incredible hardships and pains, solely for love: love of the Indians, so badly in need of enlightenment, like the English and Germans before they had been taught the Faith. Daniel finally understands that when he rebukes Annuka concerning LaForgue’s final attempt at conversion: “No, he loves him.” Missions make no sense whatsoever, except in the light of this incredible love.
If you can get past those sexual scenes, this movie is well worth the watching. It will impress you, remind you, and inspire you.
Praise be to Christ the King!