Black Robe (1991)



Director:  Bruce Beresford

Starring:  Lothaire Bluteau (Jesuit priest), August Schellenberg (Algonquin leader Chomina), Sandrine Holt (love interest Annuka), Aden Young (young French settler Daniel), Jean Brousseau (Champlain)

Country:  Canadian-Australian film


Champlain, the founder and governor of Quebec, sends out Jesuit missionaries (called "black robes" by the Indians) to convert the Huron tribe to Catholicism. In 1634 Father Laforgue makes a very grueling journey 1,500 miles north to the Huron tribe. Once in the land of the Hurons, the priest runs into cultural conflict between the way of life of the French and that of the Hurons.



I liked the film.  I had read about how much suffering the early missionaries had gone through in their attempts to bring Christianity to the Indians and figured the movie, if truthful, would have to be somewhat tough to watch.   All I can say is that I am glad I did not have the job of those early Christians.  Even if one is not that fond of Christianity, one has to admire the courage and devotion of these early religious pioneers in the New World. 

In the movie, there is a clash of cultures, obviously, but what struck me is how both sides approached the other culture with suspicions, distrust and prejudice.  The Hurons were extremely suspicious and on many occasions contemplated killing Black Robe.  This provided a lot of the suspense in the movie as one worried about the death of the missionary. 

For his part, the Jesuit was also very biased toward the religious views of the natives.  If one does not understand the religion of the Indians, how can one figure out the best way to get one's religious beliefs through to them? 

In reading some of the reviews by others, I think they drew the wrong conclusions.  And maybe, or maybe not, the movie helped in this by its message at the end of the movie that 15 years after the encounter with the priests, the Iroquois were able to defeat totally the Hurons because they had been weakened by the Christian faith.  So to speak, Christianity killed the Hurons.

I am not a fan of cultural (ideological) explanations of large-scale historical events.  Let me offer some better explanations:

1)  It was not Christianity, but the early introduction of the white man's diseases, that was probably most responsible for the weakening of the Hurons.

2)  The Iroquois was the power house in the area, dominating the entire northeast area and down into parts of the American southeast.   The Hurons were no match for the Iroquois. 

3)  The Hurons sided with the French, the losers to the English in the battle for the control of North America, while the Iroquois sided with the English.

After all, Christianity never stood in the way of the Europeans in their desire to fight and kill others.

So except for the possible misinterpretation of the final words of the movie, the film was excellent in that it showed both sides as victims of their own prejudices and lack of respect for others.  Neither side is superior to the other in terms of virtue; both are victims of a more primitive time.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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