Yes folks, Canadian history hits the big screen in all its glory. What a rip-roaring project this one must have seemed on paper – a historical action saga depicting the controversial 1837 Patriotes uprising in Lower Canada, or Quebec as it’s known now, interwoven with a classical variety of tall tale involving long-lost sons, forbidden passion, and noble freedom fighters. Scripted by Alan Le May, who had written a few of Cecil B. DeMille’s epics and would also pen the source novel for John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Quebec offers enough plot in just its narrated prologue to fuel a couple of Star Wars films these days, as renegade Charles Douglas (Patric Knowles) recounts the tangled history behind his affair with beautiful Quebecois socialite Stephanie Durossac (Corinne Calvet). Stephanie had abandoned her husband, the vicious loyalist solider Col. Jean Durossac (Don Haggerty), after one grimly fabled night of marriage, and instead had a love child with Douglas, who was forced to go into hiding soon after as Durrossac had him outlawed. As frustration with the glacial pace of political reform and expansion of liberty combusts amidst the general populace and their elected representatives, Stephanie, now the secret leader of the rebel movement with the nom-de-guerre ‘La Fleur’, calls Douglas back in from the frontier wilds where he’s been living with their now-grown son Mark (John Drew Barrymore). Stephanie has started a rumour Charles has been killed as a means of whipping up anger amidst potential fighters, whose numbers include both English and French-speaking citizens, whilst calling Charles and Mark in to give them the order to lead the uprising. Simultaneously, one of her political allies, Racelle (Arnold Moss), kicks off the crisis by leading a push to dissolve the legislature. Soon Charles finds himself commanding a ragtag outfit of volunteers who unexpectedly defeat a superior force of redcoats, and masterminds an ambitious project to seize the Citadelle that commands Quebec City by sneaking into the great fortress via underground passages.
There’s an attempt somewhere amidst all this to portray political fractiousness as an offshoot of deep personal enmities. Themes of family and parentage are so often popular in this kind of historical narrative because they so easily invoke the larger themes of national fates such tales revolve around – brute authority and the rough hands of conquerors giving way to the urbane arts of delegated authority and conciliation, with a little intervening teenage rebellion to midwife change. Here much of the story stems from the peculiar mythos of the unstated calamity that was the Durossac’s wedding night when she was 15, suggesting undertones of nascent feminist rebellion against cruel patriarchy, which is in turn associated with the dark side of the colonialist project. Knowles’ narration at the opening provides an outline for the backstory and the story about to unfold, intriguingly sketching the hidden motives and drives behind the action. But this proves to actually be a desperate attempt to cover up a ham-fisted realisation of a possibly much-curtailed script. The film's wobbly storytelling precepts are cruelly revealed when Knowles dies half-way through, his narration not so much a cleverly measured metafictional device as the post-mortem voiceover in Sunset Blvd. (1950), but a desperate measure to cover over the lacks in the filmmaking in offering exposition. Mark, who doesn’t know Stephanie is his mother, is drawn to her as an object of worshipful respect, whilst he contends with the disparate affections of Stephanie’s maid Madelon (Barbara Rush) and the fiery country girl Jeanine (Nikki Duval). John Hoyt plays a priest who is the keeper of old secrets both personal and political for Stephanie, and who counsels against their actions nonetheless, pushing them to work within the limits of political discourse instead, and lending to Mark the first cynical voice he’s ever heard against the virtues of armed rebellion.
Sadly, Quebec is just about a total bust as a film, desperately lacking the chutzpah DeMille or Ford might have brought to its hoary tropes. Such filmmakers had a way of tackling the most hackneyed plot gimmicks and transforming them into a function of their private universe, or at least at investing them with enough emotional immediacy to make them matter. Instead, director George Templeton lets the material slouch along, the low budget hampering any hope of strong action climaxes, the melodrama a damp squib, and the acting for the most part flat as pancake batter. Young star Barrymore, who had been eye-catching as a prototype for the kind of tortured, method-inflected youth hero Brando and Dean would soon excel at playing in Joseph Losey’s The Big Night the same year, here for the most part is called upon to pout concertedly and slant his brows in as the avatar of his nation’s confusion and troubled progeny. Knowles declaims with stolid, frankly rather boring nobility and Calvet’s glassy accent hampers her occasionally flickers of intelligent performing, her striking blues eyes registering aspects of rage with ancient offences and loves and disorientation in the face of finally confronting their fruits in the form of her grown son. Quebec desperately lacks the kind of outsized passion the storyline pivots on, and worse, never captures any iota of rebel fire, meaning it never seems to have any stakes, not even as Durrossac’s hateful scheming eventually costs the lives of both of Mark’s parents. The best element of Quebec is its fresh-looking location photography, making good use of the city’s almost medieval atmosphere in certain quarters, although the final battle sequence fairly reeks of the extras straining not to knock any masonry off the Citadelle lest the watching preservationists have a fit. And the beauty of Calvet and Rush goes a long way. Otherwise the result is the kind of movie only to be tolerated on the dullest of rainy days.