With a nod to Canada Day, and given the tongue clucking a while back over the movie Argo downplaying a story of Canadian heroism into a footnote to American ingenuity, it's perhaps worth pointing out that Canadian figures have been dramatized over the years. From Brother Andre to Kootenai Brown, from Tommy Douglas to Machine Gun Molly, figures from history have made it to the screen.
Great movies have been made about lesser figures and lesser movies have been made about great figures. And, yes, Colm Feore seems to be the go-to guy for biographies, even playing John McCrae in a Heritage Minutes short! (And co-starring as Cardinal Rovere in The Borgias)
Here's a look at (more-or-less) 10 movies that might warrant a trip to the DVD store...
John A: Birth of a Country (2011) - manages being a chronicle of historical events (Confederation), a character study of Sir John A. Macdonald (brilliantly played by a charismatic Shawn Doyle) as well as of George Brown and others while, thirdly, being highly entertaining! Supposedly people fell asleep during Lincoln -- I doubt anyone would fall asleep during this dynamic, dramatic, and witty made-for-CBC "political thriller."
Edwin Boyd (2011) (a.k.a. Citizen Gangster) - bank robber Edwin Alonzo Boyd had already been semi-dramatized in the documentary The Life and Times of Edwin Alonzo Boyd, but didn't get mined for the big screen until 2011. Star Scott Speedman brings a lot of nuance to this moody flick that sentimentalizes Boyd without overly romanticizing him -- he's a crook but, suggests the movie, as much a product of broken dreams and societal indifference as any inherent larceny. There's a cleverly nonchalant "Canadianness" to some of the scenes (using Lorne Greene as almost a thematic metaphor, or the idea that Boyd could slip into Quebec at the height of his notoriety and be confident he wouldn't be recognized). It's a low-key film but one that lingers with you.
Trudeau (2002, 2005) - arguably the most influential Canadian politician of the 20th Century his life was dramatized in two CBC mini-series. In the stylish and vibrant Trudeau, Colm Feore uncannily evokes Pierre Elliott Trudeau in a chronicle of his very public political life, beginning in 1968. Yet the subsequent prequel, the more down-to-earth, Trudeau II: Maverick in the Making, is equally compelling focusing on his life before federal politics -- an equally tumultuous era, but with the advantage that it's less familiar. And Stephane Demers' Trudeau is every bit as compelling as Feore's. Completists might want to check out the Rene Levesque mini-series for an alternate perspective on the same eras!
Glory Enough for All (1988) - most Canadians know the names of Frederick Banting and Charles Best, the discoverers of insulin. But this CBC mini-series shows it wasn't as easy as all that, the duo locked in a feud with colleagues Macleod and Collip. A riveting drama, with a fine cast headed by R.H. Thomson -- who, at the time, was regarded as one of the greatest English-Canadian actors of his generation.
Elijah (2007) - Elijah Harper (played by Billy Merasty) was the First Nations politician whose single "nay" vote scuppered the proposed Meech Lake Accord. But this CTV movie uses that "little incident" to tackle a big story, not only chronicling Harper's life, but exploring the whole Native/white relationship. And the tone veers from drama to satire and comedy. And all anchored by the almost Frank Capra-esque moment of one man with a feather...
Bethune (1977, 1990) - Dr. Norman Bethune has been featured in two bio-pics -- both starring Donald Sutherland! Three if you consider the second is available in two versions -- a theatrical release, and an expanded TV mini-series. All are pretty good, albeit with differing strengths and weaknesses (maybe making interesting companion pieces to watch on a long weekend). Bethune was a pioneering battlefield doctor -- but also controversial, both for his private life (a carouser and womanizer) and his politics as he embraced communism in the 1930s. Though as an advocate for universal health care and a fighter against fascism, he actually walked where the rest of the country followed! The first movie was a kind of play-for-television, and tells Bethune's saga in a straight, linear fashion. The later motion picture/mini-series is a sweeping epic and tackles the story with a jumbled chronology.
Grey Owl (1999) - Grey Owl was a famous half-Indian trapper turned pioneering conservationist, but posthumous revelations saw him start to slip into obscurity only to see a revival of interest in him a few decades later, perhaps with the rise of interest in environmentalism. This Canada-U.K. bio pic was directed by Sir Richard Attenborough and starred Pierce Brosnan as Grey Owl. A sanitized look at his life, perhaps, but still affecting as a human drama and romance.
Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993) - what do you do if you have an interesting subject but not necessarily a story? You toss narrative convention out the window and concoct a compilation of vignettes, told with whimsy, wit, and atmosphere. Colm Feore -- yup, him again! -- stars as arguably Canada's most famous -- and eccentric -- classical pianist in a movie that has no right to be as enthralling -- as entertaining -- as it is. You could even wonder if it influenced the Bob Dylan bio-pic, I'm Not There.
Beautiful Dreamers (1990) - chronicles the friendship between American poet Walt Whitman (American actor Rip Torn) and Canadian psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke (Colm Feore in probably his first major biographical role). It's a gentle comedy-drama following the formula of a staid, conservative town being shaken up by the eccentric outsiders. Whitman is the catalyst for the story, but Bucke was an important figure in his own right, some of his writings in print to this day!
Riel (1979) - if Canadian history didn't have Louis Riel we'd have to make him up! And this CBC TV drama was unusually ambitious for the time, mixing character drama, politics, and battlefield action -- a sweeping saga of a man who still leaves people arguing about him today. Raymond Cloutier stars effectively as Riel and the supporting cast includes Christopher Plummer (as Sir John A. Macdonald, bringing us full circle) and appearances by William Shatner and a few other notables.
That's just a random list of 10 good-to-great bio pics (as I remember them, albeit some I haven't seen in years). Leave a comment below if you have other recommendations...