Fifteen years after the American transcontinental railway was completed, construction began on the Canadian Pacific Railway to connect British Columbia to Eastern Canada. For the purposes of the 1949 film Canadian Pacific, it’s simply a setting for a western in the mountains and forests of western Canada, where the challenge of finding a route through the Rocky Mountains is compounded by the opposition of local trappers and Indian tribes. It is, shall we say, a portrait that refuses to let history dictate the details of the story.
Randolph Scott stars as Tom Andrews, the buckskin-clad surveyor and “trouble boss,” a kind of foreman who has an instinct for spotting troublemakers and intervening in a very physical way before they have a chance to make any trouble. Scott plays Tom as a classic Scott cowboy: ramrod straight, with a big smile, quick fists, and fast draw. He instantly clashes with the railway’s new doctor, Edith Cabot (Jane Wyatt), a cultured pacifist who abhors violence, before returning to Cecille (Nancy Olson), the frontier girl he met in the local trapper settlements while searching for the pass. It’s a classic dichotomy: the man of the west torn between the wild frontier gal and the civilized society woman. In this pairing, trapper’s daughter Olson is the gentler, more romantic of the two, while Wyatt plays the doctor as a fiery, obstinate woman under the corset and severe speeches.
Needless to say, circumstances toss Tom together with Edith while Cecille’s people are whipped up into an anti-railway frenzy by the wonderfully-named villain Dirk Rourke (Victor Jory), a fur trader who fears his monopoly on the trading posts will be broken by the railway. Stir in stolen dynamite, Indian tribes on the warpath, and liquor-induced labor unrest, and you’ve got a war over the rails. Prolific character actor J. Carrol Naish, usually relegated to roles as villains or even Indians, provides color and comic relief as the sourdough Dynamite Dawson, an old coot with a bushy beard who drawls tall tales (“I once won the Kentucky Derby!”) as the railway munitions man and Tom’s most trusted ally.
Plays on Saturday, May 11 on TCM