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The Mountie from Dime Novel to Disney

by Michael Dawson

The Mountie is a bizarre and paradoxical figure in the Canadian imagination. On one hand there is the picture-postcard image of a fearless red-suited horseman, steadfastly loyal and lantern-jawed, who always gets his man. And then there is the more prosaic Royal Canadian Mounted Police force, better known for burning barns, shooting picketing workers, purging homosexuals, and bungling investigations into the business affairs of former prime ministers.

Michael Dawson, a Queen’s University scholar, has immersed himself in 150 years of Mountie lore. His historical study is built from a mountain of Nelson Eddy movies, pulp novels, Dale of the Mounted books, Seargeant Preston of the Yukon series, Dudley Do-Right, Snidely Whiplash cartoons, and Disney figurines, as well as archives full of RCMP memos, letters, official policies, and committee reports. The result is often hilarious.

Between the Lines deserves credit for transforming what was originally Dawson’s Master’s thesis into a reasonably accessible general interest book, filled with illustrations, and relatively free from cultural-studies babble. But, at times, its academic origins prove frustrating for the lay reader.

For example, Dawson devotes the largest stretch of the book, three full chapters, to a detailed examination of the RCMP’s 1973 centennial celebrations. While 1973 was a watershed moment in the force’s identity crisis, many readers will probably wish he had devoted more attention to other periods, such as the great Mountie movie boom of the 1930s and 1940s.

To the extent that Dawson does do this, his findings are fascinating. As Hollywood’s Nelson Eddy rids the north of evil Indians and “half-breeds,” officials in Ottawa torture themselves trying to ban “undignified” Mountie images from movies and advertisements; at one point, the RCMP requests the recall of a View-Master slide because it features a Mountie standing beside a puddle of engine oil.

Dawson carefully argues his central theme, that the Mountie’s romantic image as an “antimodern crusader” was fundamentally incompatible with its later image as a tolerant force of national unity, and that uniting those images in the 1970s often took place at the expense of accuracy. Now that the Mountie image has literally been sold to Disney, it would seem impossible to disagree with his thesis.