BLACK ROBE (1991)

Filmic Context:  Print -- Video -- Online

Print Resources

(see 2nd generation additions 12/06/02)

Churchill, Ward.  "And They Did It Like Dogs in the Dirt . . . : An American Indian Analysis of Black Robe." Indians Are Us?  Culture and Genocide in Native North America.  Monroe: Common Courage P, 1994.  115-37.

In a scathing chapter from his vituperative book, Churchill comments on the popular reception to Bruce Beresford's 1991 film.  Noting that mainstream critics tended to praise Black Robe for offering an account that criticized cultural imperialism "without creating any villains," he argues that the film has served its purpose of justifying the genocide of indigenous peoples to the European-descended conquerors who still dominate the Western hemisphere.  What most critics praise as a gritty, "realistic" depiction of the native tribes, Churchill suggests is a series of devices to vilify or primitivize the Hurons, Iroquois, and Algonquins.  He offers corrective information, such as that the Iroquois were often led by elderly women, who would have adopted another tribe's son, not viciously killed him, as occurs in the film.  Particularly offensive to Churchill is the implication, made by the film and critical response to it, that the colonization, geographical and spiritual, of North America, was "as natural, inevitable, and free of human responsibility, as glaciation" (123).

Dahlie, Hallvard.  "Black Robe: Moore's 'Conradian' Tale and the Quest for Self." Irish University Review  18.1 (1988): 88-95.

Comparing Moore's 1985 novel to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Dahlie posits the story as Laforgue's existential journey.  Though many critics have either praised or criticized Black Robe (the book or the film) for its historical accuracy or lack thereof, Dahlie does not consider that issue important, since Moore's research seems diluted from going through so many intermediary sources to get at the historical events of the story.  In the critic's account, Laforgue undergoes a metamorphosis that shatters his earlier idealism (as happens to Kurtz's idealism in Conrad's novella).  But instead of resigning him to bitterness and hatred, his experiences allow him a profound sense of love toward the Hurons which "makes his ritual [of baptism] meaningful" (95).

Fast, Robin Riley.  "Resistant History: Revising the Captivity Narrative in "Captivity" and Blackrobe: Isaac Jogues. American Indian Culture and Research Journal 23.1 (1999): 69-86.

Native American Maurice Kenny's 1982 representation of Jogues makes an interesting contrast: "Kenny shows us that the still-contested histories and interpretations of colonization demand, even create, dialogic discourse."  Kenny complicates received history, inventing documents, "directly confronting and reimagining the victor's accounts" (83.)

Flood, Jeanne A.  "Black Robe: Brian Moore's Appropriation of History." Eire-Ireland  25.4 (1990): 40-55.

Most negative criticism of Black Robe's attempt at making history, the book or the film, concerns inaccuracies in the depiction of Native Americans.  Flood continues in this tradition, but she also calls Moore to task for his depiction of the Jesuit Father Laforgue.  She notes that the author claims to have researched the Jesuit Relations for information concerning Iroquois and Algonquin (among other tribes') customs and submits that there is textual support for the natives' vulgarities.  However, the natives are also reported to have had extensive, complicated vocabularies, a part of their culture Moore decided to leave out.  Moore claims historical accuracy, to be a reporter of events recorded in the Relations, but clearly, like any artist, he is selective about what he represents so that he can achieve his vision for his novel.  Flood argues that Moore's depiction of Laforgue, a weak, easily frightened and, in the ways of nature, incompetent traveler, is a subversion of the Relations, which depicts brave men of faith overcoming obstacles to fufill their Christian duty.  She does not criticize Moore for his (apparent) attack on the Relations but for his artless, unconvincing method of subversion.

Freebury, Jane.  "Black Robe: Ideological Cloak and Dagger?"  Australian-Canadian Studies 10.1 (1992): 119-26.

Freebury acknowledges the film's attention to authentic recreation of 17th century New France in the mise-en-scene but criticizes Beresford's work for its unself-conscious portrayal of the native Americans.  Despite the film's ambitions toward equal treatment of the French and the natives, she claims that, like classic westerns, Black Robe reinforces old stereotypes of the lone hero and the inferior or menacing Injun.  She notes in particular that we first see the Algonquins sitting on the floor, staring at "Captain Clock" as if it were a god and marveling at the sounds it produces.  Laforgue, on the other hand, is depicted as the lone hero of the western, overcoming adversity to save the town (in this case, the Huron mission, through baptism).  Freebury offers astute observations on the camera angles and emphases in the narrative that further illustrate Black Robe's reliance on western tropes to celebrate the lone Jesuit.

Gallagher, Michael Paul, S.J.  "Religion as Favourite Metaphor: Moore's Recent Fiction."  Irish University Review  18.1 (1988): 50-59.

This article uses a small range of Moore's novels to discuss the author's understanding of religion, and faith in particular, by way of his protagonists.  Gallagher distinguishes between "Faith" and "faith," the former referring to an acceptance of the doctrines of a certain religion and the latter meaning general organizing principles by which one lives.  Laforgue gradually abandons his Faith while adopting a more secular faith by professing love for the Hurons whom he is about to baptize, even though he questions the meaning of the ritual.  Gallagher makes the case that this trope, the individual who explores his consciousness for self-meaning, is common throughout Moore's recent fiction.

Greene, Graham.  "Francis Parkman."  Collected Essays.  New York: Viking, 1981.  329-36.
In this volume of essays appears the piece on Francis Parkman from which Brian Moore gets his idea to write the novel Black Robe.  Greene discusses a variety of works by Parkman, but the reader coming to this site will be more interested in pages 334-36, where he praises Parkman's ability to mix eloquent style with engaging narrative in his book, The Jesuits in North America.  He likens Parkman to Fr. Noel Chabanel, since both of whom fulfill vows to work at their calling until death (Chabanel, one of the 17th Century historical figures on whom Moore's character Fr. Paul Laforgue is based, vows to remain at the Huron Mission until he dies).  There is not much to be learned about the history of the Jesuit missions in New France from this source, but it is a point of interest for those digging through layer after layer to get at Moore's primary source, the Jesuit Relations.

Leahy, David.  "History: Its Contradiction and Absence in Brian Moore's The Revolution Script and Black Robe." World Literature Written in English  28.2 (1988): 308-17.

Leahy looks at two Moore novels with a Marxist lens, commenting on their failure to acknowledge the socio-economic forces that would have motivated their characters' decisions.  In the case of Black Robe, the Jesuits' missions in New France, historically, were not merely sites for the conversion of "savages" but part of the bargaining chips Champlain used in his trade with the natives.  Accepting Christianity was often a condition for a tribe to have trading rights with the French.  Leaving out such facts makes acts like the Iroquois attacks on the Algonquins and Hurons appear cruel and mindlessly barbaric.  However, the Iroquois were in competition with the Huron for trading rights with the French.  Leahy acknowledges that Laforgue is an improvement on Fr. Jerome, offering a God of love instead of a God of revenge and appeasement.  But the love that Laforgue offers "is still synonymous with repression and colonization" (314).

McIlroy, Brian.  "A Brian Moore Bibliography: 1974-1987."  Irish University Review  18.1 (1988): 106-33.

McIlroy's article is exactly what the title suggests it is.  Check it out for an extensive (though not comprehensive) list of citations for his novels; the critical response to them; other Moore writings including material for the stage, movies, and television; and interviews.  Of course, since the article was published in 1988, there is nothing in the list about the film Black Robe, though there are citations for reviews of the novel.

O'Donoghue, Jo.  "Historical Themes, Missionary Endeavour and Spiritual Colonialism in Brian Moore's Black Robe." [Dublin] Studies  82:326  (Summer 1993): 131-39.

O'Donoghue discusses Moore's novel as a commentary on the dangers of institutions, particularly when those institutions have the power to impose their beliefs on other, weaker groups.  The critic cites a fundamental difference between Black Robe and Conrad's Heart of Darkness (with which Moore compares his novel) in that the cruelty does not stem from an evil individual but is a "traditional, tribal cruelty" (137).  She argues that Laforgue must, and does, abandon his faith in spite of the pain it causes him: "Yet he is a far better person now; so, in a way, his salvation as a human being comes from his loss of faith" (137).  Ultimately, O'Donoghue argues, the faith that survives in the novel is a faith in the individual to overcome institutional bigotry.

Santos, Paula Mota.  "Good Indians and Bad Indians: The European Perspective of Native Americans as Depicted in 'The Mission' and 'Black Robe.'" Native American Women in Literature and Culture.  Ed. Susan Castillo and Victor M.P. Da Rosa.  Porto: Fernando Pessoa UP, 1997.  185-90.

Santos examines the dichotomy that traditional Hollywood cinema creates between "good" Indians and "bad" Indians.  Focusing particularly on the films Black Robe and The Mission, she finds that Indians are considered "good" when they promote European control of American land and resources and "bad" when they pose a threat to that control.  In particular, Indians who appear to make a strong claim for their land are "bad."  The Algonquins who guide Father Laforgue and Daniel to the Huron Mission and tend to live a nomadic lifestyle are coded good, while the Iroquois who capture and torture them (and who, not coincidentally, have more permanent structures in their settlement) are coded bad.  Santos calls for the popular media to be more conscious of their dichotomic portrayal of Indians and play a role in the "fight for the rights of native Americans" (190).

See also:

Johnson, Brian D.  "Epic Struggles: Revealing the Rage When Natives Met Whites."  Maclean's 7 October, 1991: 72-73.

Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn.  Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film.  Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999.  138-41.

Pevere, Geoff.  "Hostiles: You Don't Win Genies for Telling the Truth."  Canadian Forum November (1992): 35-37.

Video Resources

The Company: Inigo and his Jesuits.  Dir. Joseph D. Fenton.  Narr. Cyril Cusack.  First Run Features Home Video, 1991.

The video provides background on the founding of the Jesuits (in 1551) and a biography of the order's founder, Ignatius of Loyola.  Jesuits from different countries offer their perspectives on Ignatius and the order as it functions today.  Though the film can be helpful for those interested in kind of philosophy Laforgue lived by, it does not go into great depth (it runs about 52 min.) on the Jesuits' North American missions, and does not even mention Fr. Noel Chabanel, the actual Jesuit on whom Laforgue is based.

A Question of Conscience: The Murder of the Jesuit Priests in El Salvador.  Ed. Marcelo Navarro.  Narr. Pam Cruz.  First Run Home Features Video, 1990.

Though this video is on a contemporary subject and set far away from the location of Black Robe, it may be of interest to learn about a much more recent instance of violence towards Jesuits and the threat this order apparently represents to modern governments.  It is a documentary of the November 16, 1989, murder of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador by uniformed soldiers, and its consequences.  The film looks at the personal histories of the priests and their murderer, the history of El Salvador during their time, and the role and attitude of the church and the University in Salvadoran society.  (48 min.)

Online Resource

Internet Movie Database Listing for Black Robe.
http://us.imdb.com/Title?0101465

This site offers a more extensive cast list than you'll find here, as well as links to information about other films in which the actors, director, and crew have been involved.
 
 

Copyright (c) 2000 by Robert F. Kilker, Graduate Student at Lehigh University.

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