World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format          

Film Review


Black Robe (Canada and Australia, 1991). Directed by Bruce Beresford. 101 mins. In French, Algonquian and Iroquoian with English subtitles. VHS and DVD available generally.

      World historians traffic in the intangible—diasporic cultural interactions, the global impact of the New World silver, biologic "exchanges"—that transcend region and, on occasion, obscure human agency. Whatever their scholarly merits, such abstractions can deaden a classroom, supplanting the very thing that interests students: real lives. And while including films may do much to leaven a course, the medium inherently lends itself more to the portrayal of events than processes. Black Robe's usefulness as a classroom tool emerges from its ability to depict vividly not just the experiences of individuals but the concept of cultural encounter, so dear to instructors and textbooks alike. 1
    Moreover, while many students know something about the conquest and displacement of Native Americans in the eastern United States, the story of eastern Canada is much less familiar. Here, along the St. Lawrence River and into the Great Lakes, 17th century French colonies relied so much upon local peoples to extract the region's one exportable commodity—beaver pelts—that they could not afford the Indian enmity. It is in this world of French and Indian interdependence that novelist and screenwriter Brian Moore sets Black Robe's tale of two groups struggling—and ultimately failing—to understand one another. 2
    At the center of the story is the courageous but dangerously naïve Father Laforgue (Lothaire Bluteau), a Jesuit priest called "Blackrobe" by the Algonquians guiding him to a distant Huron (Wyandot) mission village. Before they can reach that village that is Laforgue's goal, however, they are waylaid by Iroquois, adversaries of the Algonquians. Though the film follows Father Laforgue, it is no less the story of his companions. 3
    This rich film (it won best film honors in Canada for best picture, director and cinematography) pairs beautifully with the chapter "Canada and Iroquoia, 1500–1660" from historian Alan Taylor's particularly accessible American Colonies (2001). Taylor's description of the Iroquois' "mourning wars" as the heartbreaking convergence of virgin soil epidemics brought on by Europeans and the Iroquois' cultural mandate to replace lost kin through forced (and sometimes violent) adoption is grippingly recalled in the film's torture scenes  
     Black Robe also dramatizes Taylor's analysis of the consequences of seventeenth century transcontinental arbitrage. Prior to the European arrival, animist inhibitions had restrained hunting. The strong market incentives created by European demand for North American pelts challenged and eroded these inhibitions. Despite a few inaccuracies (the Iroquois eschewed sex with future adopted kin, despite scenes to the contrary), the film offers an ideal springboard for class discussions of cultural encounter precisely. While Black Robe respectfully portrays the worldviews of its protagonists, the film never lapses into romantic sentimentalism or simplistic victimology. 4
Fritz Umbach
John Jay College, City University of New York

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use