The Return of the Far Fur Country is a collaborative project to resurrect a lost silent film called The Romance of the Far Fur Country. Produced by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1920, the silent feature film has been shelved, stored in pieces and largely unseen in a British archive for the last half-century. This is a project to bring the 8 hours of film footage back to Canada, to reconstruct the original film, then to return these archival moving images to the communities of origin. Collaborating on the project are archivists, academics, filmmakers and community groups.
The goal of this project is to explore the contemporary meanings of these images through consultations with various stakeholders. This process includes the preservation of the nitrate film elements, the re-release of this historic film, and a revisiting of the route taken by the filmmakers in 1920 to host town-hall screenings for communities to contribute names and knowledge to this unique archival collection.
The end result of the project is the distribution of these images and stories to the public through a documentary film, web site, and traditional print publications; contributing to the ongoing discourse of Canada’s regional and national identity.
Background to The Romance of the Far Fur Country
In 1919, the Hudson’s Bay Company was approaching its 250th year in business. What began in a coffee house in London, in 1670, had now grown to become the undisputed leader of the international fur trade.
For their landmark 250th birthday, the HBC spared no cost. A written history of the company was released, with a gramophone recording of that history. They commissioned The Beaver magazine, to actively chronicle the company’s workings in the North—The Beaver would become the oldest and most important history magazine in the country, only recently changing its name to Canada’s History. As well as publications, celebrations were planned across Canada, and in London.
The biggest gathering was slated for Winnipeg, the company’s Canadian headquarters. The main ticket item would be the release of a feature film that depicted the Hudson’s Bay Company history, as well as its current activities across Canada’s North. To accomplish the task of filming the North, the Company bought a film company in New York, and made plans for a crew to head to Canada. The film would be called The Romance of the Far Fur Country.
Filming The Romance of the Far Fur Country
In spring of 1919, two cameramen from New York City set out to film Canada’s northern wilderness. They first boarded Canada’s most famous icebreaker, the HMSNascopie, and headed from Montreal toward the Arctic Circle. For the next nine months, the film crew lugged their crates of gear by foot, canoe, dogsled and icebreaker, trudging through the Arctic, the boreal forest and up some of the fiercest rivers in the world.
The filmmakers perched their cameras in places never before filmed. By the time they completed filming at the end of December, they’d gathered 75,000 feet of film, some eight hours of viewing time. The footage was rushed to New York where editing began. By mid-April, a first draft was complete, and clocked in at four hours. A month later it was cut in half.
The Romance of the Far Fur Country premiered on May 23, 1920, at Winnipeg's illustrious Allen Theatre. Advertisements boasted that the viewer could “travel over 2,000 miles through the North, sitting in the Allen Theatre.”
The audience in Winnipeg was a mix of HBC store clerks, shoppers, and a hundred First Nations people, all dressed in traditional clothing. The latter sat in reserved seats close to the classical orchestra brought in for the event. Unfamiliar with European theatre-going etiquette, the First Nations community interacted with the motion pictures, calling to “get your gun,” or “shoot him,” when animals appeared on screen.
The film was then released across Western Canada, and was eventually re-cut for a British version and screened in London. The British version included new footage of women wearing expensive furs, spliced between scenes of Inuit hunters and fur trade posts—it was a not so subtle reminder of the film’s intent to chronicle the HBC fur trade.
A Lost Film…
By the end of the 1920s, audiences were turning their attention to the talkies, wanting more than just moving pictures. Soon after the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, barely a decade after The Romance of the Far Fur Country was filmed, the footage from the epic Hudson’s Bay Company film disappeared from public view, the canisters of nitrate film stock were packed away by the HBC in an archive in London for safe keeping— but lost to the world.
Though continually on the minds of the Hudson's Bay Company Archives, it would be over half a century before the nitrate would find its way back to a projector's light. In the 1990s, visual historian Peter Geller revisited the HBC footage held in the vaults of the British Film Institute. After spending days looking at the footage on a Steinbeck reel-to-reel viewing station in the basement of the BFI, Geller returned to Canada in order to examine his research notes.
Recognizing immediately the importance of the HBC footage, Geller began writing what would become an important book about northern images and moving pictures:Northern Exposures: Photographing and Filming the Canadian North, 1920-45, devoting an entire chapter to The Romance of the Far Fur Country.
No complete print of The Romance of the Far Fur Country exists. But thankfully, there exists fragments that make up the whole, which have been stored securely for over half a century at the British Film Institute Archive.
What is more, the diaries kept by the film crewmembers have also been preserved, albeit on the other side of the Atlantic, in the HBC archives in Winnipeg. With the footage, and the notes, it is possible to resurrect the film to its original two hour run time, returning The Romance of the Far Fur Country to its former glory.
From London to Winnipeg
The Hudson’s Bay Company Archives' interest to add this cache of 1920s HBC footage to its collections in Winnipeg has gained momentum in recent years. For the last two years, Five Door Films and the Hudson's Bay Company Archives have been collaborating in order to bring this footage back to Canada. What started as a distant idea grew into reality when the British Film Institute agreed that the important HBC film collection should be relocated, brought back to its rightful home in the Hudson's Bay Company Archives in Winnipeg.
Transferring the tens of thousands of feet of highly flammable nitrate film across an ocean is no easy task. After lengthy discussions, a plan was established to preserve and transfer the film to HD video for future use. The film elements from 1920 were transferred first to the BFI preservation centre, then to a film lab in London to scan each frame to a digital format, then packed carefully for the trip back to the country where it was shot some 90 years earlier.
Northern Re-Release: Return of the Far Fur Country
Return of the Far Fur Country is all about putting what is perhaps the most important record of northern Canadian life, back on the screen.
Unbeknownst to the filmmakers in 1919, their footage has become an extraordinary time-capsule, a moving history of how Canada has developed as a nation. That is why the goal of the project is not only to bring the film back to Canada, but to bring it back to the very communities where it was shot.
This return to local communities will be held in town-hall screenings to provide a place for local people to view their ancestors on film, tell stories of how the country has changed, and help name the people and places that appear in the film.
This very unique tour will go not only to cities like Montreal, Winnipeg and Victoria—places that feature in the HBC film—it’s also going back to some of the most remote locations in Canada. The tour includes Northern Alberta, Nunuvut, Alert Bay off Vancouver Island, and Northern Ontario.
A Collaborative Effort
This project would not be possible without the cooperation of Hudson's Bay Company Archives, the British Film Institute / National Film and Television Archives in London, England and funders such as the Manitoba Arts Council.