Set in New France in 1634 (in the period of conflicts known as theBeaver Wars), the film begins in the settlement that will one day become Quebec City. Jesuit missionaries are trying to encourage the local Algonquin Indians to embrace Christianity, with thus far only limited results. Samuel de Champlain, founder of the settlement, sends Father LaForgue, a young Jesuit priest, to find a distant Catholic mission in aHuron village.
LaForgue is accompanied on his journey by a non-Jesuit assistant, Daniel, and a group of Algonquin Indians whom Champlain has charged with guiding him to the Huron village. This group includes Chomina (August Schellenberg) - an older, experienced traveller who has clairvoyant dreams; his wife (Tantoo Cardinal); and Annuka (Sandrine Holt), their daughter. As they journey across the lakes and forests, Daniel and Annuka fall in love, to the discomfort of the celibate LaForgue.
The group meet with a band of Montagnais Native Americans who have never met Frenchmen before. The Montagnais shaman is suspicious (and implicitly jealous) of LaForgue's influence over the Algonquins. He accuses him of being a devil. He encourages Chomina and the other Algonquins to abandon the two Frenchmen and travel instead to a winter hunting lodge. This they do, paddling away from the Frenchmen. LaForgue accepts his fate, but Daniel is determined to stay with Annuka and follows the Indians as they march across the forest. When one Indian tries to shoot Daniel, Chomina is consumed by guilt at having betrayed Champlain's trust. He and a few other members of the Algonquin tribe return with Daniel to try to find LaForgue.
As they recover LaForgue, a party of Iroquois (specifically Mohawk) attacks them, killing Chomina's wife and taking the rest captive. They are taken to an Iroquois fortress, where they are forced to run the gauntlet, to watch Chomina's young son killed, and told they will be slowly tortured to death the next day. That night Annuka seduces their guard, allowing him to engage in coitus with her. When his orgasm distracts him she strikes him with a stick of firewood, rendering him unconscious and allowing them to escape. Chomina, dying of a wound from his capture, sees a small grove he has dreamed of many times before, and realizes it is the place he is destined to die. LaForgue tries, unsuccessfully, to persuade Chomina to embrace Christ before he dies. As Chomina freezes to death in the snow, he sees the She-Manitou appearing to him.
As the weather grows colder, Annuka and Daniel take LaForgue to the outskirts of the Huron settlement, but leave him to enter it alone, because Chomina had dreamed that this must happen. LaForgue finds all but one of the French inhabitants dead, murdered by the Hurons who blamed them for a smallpox epidemic. The leader of the last survivors tells LaForgue that the Hurons are dying, and he should offer to save them by baptizing them. LaForgue confronts the Hurons.
When their leader asks LaForgue if he loves them, LaForgue thinks of the faces of all the Indians he has met on his journey, and answers "Yes". The leader then asks him to baptize them, and the Hurons accept Christianity. The film ends with a golden sunrise. An intertitle explains that fifteen years later, the Huron were massacred by the Iroquois, and the French mission was destroyed.
Breaker Morant was a significant film.
Yes, but, again, it was a film that nobody went to see. But it was an important film. In terms of actual audiences, nobody saw it. Critically, it was important, which is a key factor, and it has kept being shown over the years. Whenever I am in Los Angeles, it's always on TV. I get phone calls from people who say, 'I saw your movie, could you do something for us?' But, they're looking at a twenty year old movie. At the time it never had an audience. Nobody went anywhere in the world. It opened and closed in America in less than a week. And in London, I remember it had four days in the West end. Commercially, a disaster, but... It's a film that people talk about to me all the time.
What do they talk about, the war situation, the character of Breaker Morant, the trial?
I think it's the moral conflict. It's a good story. I read an article about it recently in the LA times and the writer said it's the story of these guys who were railroaded by the British. But that's not what it's about at all. The film never pretended for a moment that they weren't guilty. It said they are guilty. But what was interesting about it was that it analysed why men in this situation would behave as they had never behaved before in their lives. It's the pressures that are put to bear on people in war time. Look at the atrocities in Yugoslavia. Look at all the things that happen in these countries committed by people who appear to be quite normal. That was what I was interested in examining. I always get amazed when people say to me that this is a film about poor Australians who were framed by the Brits. That was not what the film was about for me. And I never said that.
Many have commented on the violence of Black Robe. In fact, at the preview one radio commentator stood up during the torture scene and proclaimed loudly that she had seen enough and walked out. Catholics in the past were brought up with the stories of the martyrdom of Jesuits, Isaac Jogues and Jean de Brebeuf, (contemporaries of Laforgue). Words have their impact but to see the torture on screen, however briefly, is much more frightening.
Well, of course, you're right. The story of de Breboeuf and the other martyrs is so famous in north America that to try to tell the story of this period and not to convey a sense of the violence that was part of it would have been a travesty.
At the press preview, some reviewers breathed in audibly or laughed at some of the expressions of faith by Fr Laforgue. Some people these days seem somewhat embarrassed that he was so intellectually convinced of the truth that he spoke and that the Indians had to believe this truth and, if they were not baptised, they would not go to paradise. This would not be a Catholic approach these days although some of the fundamentalist churches would still take these stances.
Certainly some of the Churches I saw in the American south would. But it was part of the way Laforgue and those like him thought. A number of times in the film he says to the Indians. `let me baptise you and you can go to paradise' - and there is another point, a lovely line, when Laforgue says to the Indian, `when I die I'll go to paradise; let me baptise you and you will go there also'. And he fervently believes this. That is why I was so keen to get Lothaire Bluteau to play the role, to get an actor who can convincingly portray faith, the hardest thing to portray on the screen. You can portray anything, but religious faith is very difficult to fake. Unless I could get an actor with Lothaire's conviction, the film would have been a farce; people would have laughed at it.
At the end of Breaker Morant, Peter Handcock declares that he is a `pagan'. Perhaps many Australians would identify with that stance. How do Australians respond to Black Robe?
Perhaps Australians not being so religious will make it more attractive to audiences. I'm not particularly religious myself, in fact, and I think my philosophy agrees more with that of the Indians in the film, especially the dying Indian who says, `Look, the world is a cruel place, but it is the sunlight - and that's all there is'. This is my feeling too. But, at the same time, it's impossible to research a film like Black Robe and not come out without immensely admiring the Jesuits and their beliefs.
I read thousands of the `Relations', the letters the Jesuits wrote back to France. These men were extraordinary. They were courageous, and then did everything they could to understand the Indians. They wanted to help. They were so well-intentioned.
What appealed to you in Brian Moore's novel and its themes to make you agree to direct Black Robe?
It was my idea to make the movie. No one approached me about the film. I read the novel when I was passing through Los Angeles in 1985. I had always been a great admirer of Brian Moore's novels. This is a historical novel quite unlike his others. It struck me for a lot of reasons. One was simply the novelty of it. I knew nothing whatever about pioneer life in Canada in the 17th century and suddenly to read this story about these insanely savage Indians and these brave, courageous French voyagers trying to colonise them was very striking. In particular the priest, Laforgue, was significant, trying to convert the Indians to Christianity and baptise them. He travelled right across the known world to try to convince the Indians that they're living their lives all wrong because they've got to go to this place, heaven, which doesn't even exist.
Looking back from the 20th century, this seems, in many ways, a mad thing to do. But they had their own approach to the world worked out and in terms of 17th century views, they thought they were doing the Indians a great favour. It is fascinating that someone's faith could be so strong.
What interested me really about Black Robe, apart from the fact that it's a great story, is that clash between the European and the native American cultures. Period films are always hard to do. The further back in history you go, the harder it is. Everything changes - the look, the manners, the thinking, everything. You have to understand the way someone like Laforgue thought. He had an obsession with getting everyone into heaven, a concept which few people these days take seriously. My job is to convince the audience that this is important.