Black Robe (film)

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Black Robe
Black robe ver2.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byBruce Beresford
Produced byRobert Lantos
Sue Milliken
Stéphane Reichel
Written byBrian Moore
StarringLothaire Bluteau
Aden Young
Sandrine Holt
August Schellenberg
Tantoo Cardinal
Music byGeorges Delerue
CinematographyPeter James
Edited byTim Wellburn
Alliance Films
Samson Productions
Distributed byThe Samuel Goldwyn Company
Release date
5 September 1991 (Toronto International Film Festival)
4 October 1991 (Canada)
27 February 1992 (Australia)
Running time
101 minutes
BudgetA$11 million[1]
Box office$8,211,952[2]

Black Robe is a 1991 historical drama film directed by Bruce Beresford, adapted by Brian Moore from his novel of the same name. Set in the 17th century, it depicts the adventures of a Jesuit missionary tasked with founding a mission in New France. To do so, he must traverse 1500 miles of harsh wilderness with the help of a group of Algonquins, facing danger from both the unfamiliar environment and rival tribes. The title refers to the nickname given to the Jesuits by the Algonquins, referring to his black cassock.

The film stars Lothaire Bluteau in the title role, with other cast members including Aden Young, Sandrine Holt, Tantoo Cardinal, August Schellenberg, Gordon Tootoosis and Raoul Trujillo. It was the first official co-production between a Canadian film team and an Australian one. It was shot mostly in the Canadian province of Quebec.[3] It was Young and Holt's film debut.

Black Robe premiered at the 1991 Toronto International Film Festival and was given a wide release on 6 October, becoming the highest-grossing Canadian film of 1991.[4] It received generally positive reviews and won several accolades. It was nominated for ten Genie Awards and won six, including Best Motion Picture, Best Director (Beresford), Best Adapted Screenplay (Moore), and Best Supporting Actor (Schellenberg). It was also nominated for ten AACTA Awards, with Peter James winning Best Cinematography.


Set in New France in 1634 (in the period of conflicts known as the Beaver Wars), the film begins in the settlement that will one day become Quebec City. Jesuit missionaries are trying to encourage the local Algonquin Indians to embrace Christianity, with thus far only limited results. Samuel de Champlain, founder of the settlement, sends Father LaForgue, a young Jesuit priest, to found a Catholic mission in a distant Huron village. With winter approaching, the journey will be difficult and cover as much as 1500 miles (2414 kilometers).

LaForgue is accompanied on his journey by a non-Jesuit assistant, Daniel, and a group of Algonquin Indians whom Champlain has charged with guiding him to the Huron village. This group includes Chomina – an older, experienced traveller who has clairvoyant dreams; his wife; and Annuka, their daughter. As they journey across the lakes and forests, Daniel and Annuka fall in love, to the discomfort of the celibate LaForgue.

The group meet with a band of Montagnais, First Nations people who have never met Frenchmen before. The Montagnais shaman, Mestigoit, is suspicious (and implicitly jealous) of LaForgue's influence over the Algonquins. He accuses him of being a demon. He encourages Chomina and the other Algonquins to abandon the two Frenchmen and travel instead to a winter hunting lodge. This they do, paddling away from the Frenchmen. LaForgue accepts his fate, but Daniel is determined to stay with Annuka and follows the Indians as they march across the forest. When one Indian tries to shoot Daniel, Chomina is consumed by guilt at having betrayed Champlain's trust. He and a few other members of the Algonquin tribe return with Daniel to try to find LaForgue.

As they recover LaForgue, a party of Mohawk Iroquois attack them, killing most of the Algonquin, amongst them Chomina's wife, and taking the rest captive. They are taken to an Iroquois fortress, where they are forced to run the gauntlet, watch Chomina's young daughter be killed, and are told they will be slowly tortured to death the next day. That night Annuka seduces their guard, allowing him to engage in coitus with her. When this distracts him she strikes him with a caribou hoof, rendering him unconscious and allowing them to escape. Chomina, dying of a wound from his capture, sees a small grove he has dreamed of many times before, and realizes it is the place he is destined to die. LaForgue tries, unsuccessfully, to persuade Chomina to embrace Christ before he dies. As Chomina freezes to death in the snow, he sees the She-Manitou appearing to him.

As the weather grows colder, Annuka and Daniel take LaForgue to the outskirts of the Huron settlement, but leave him to enter it alone, because Chomina had dreamed that this must happen. LaForgue finds all but one of the French inhabitants dead, murdered by the Hurons who blamed them for a smallpox epidemic. The leader of the last survivors tells LaForgue that the Hurons are dying, and he should offer to save them by baptizing them. LaForgue confronts the Hurons.

When their leader asks LaForgue if he loves them, LaForgue thinks of the faces of all the Indians he has met on his journey, and answers "Yes". The leader then asks him to baptize them, and the Hurons receive his baptism. The film ends with a golden sunrise. An intertitle states that fifteen years later, the Hurons, having accepted Christianity, were routed and killed by their enemies the Iroquois; the Jesuit mission to the Hurons was abandoned and the Jesuits returned to Quebec.



Bruce Beresford had wanted to make a film out of Brian Moore's novel ever since it was first published. The rights had been acquired by Canada's Alliance Films, which had signed another director. That person fell out, as did another director, before the job was given to Beresford.[5] Beresford:

I think that, even if you have no religious faith whatever or, even if you despised the Jesuits, you would still find it an interesting story. It's a wonderful study of obsession and love. And it is a wonderful adventure of the spirit and of the body. What those people did, going to a country where winters were far more severe than anything they had known in Europe, meeting people who were far more fierce than anyone they had ever encountered... Having to deal with these people shows us something of humanity at its greatest. It's the equivalent of today's people getting into space shuttles and going off into space. It takes unbelievable courage to do this.[6]

The film remained in development hell for over four years due to no major American studio willing to finance the project. Beresford was only able to convince Alliance Films to hire him after his previous film, Driving Miss Daisy, won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The success of Dances with Wolves, a film with similar themes released the prior year, also convinced Alliance of the project's viability.

Funds were raised under a co-production treaty between Canada and Australia. The production needed 30% Australian financing, and the Film Finance Corporation investment had to be spent on Australian elements, such as an Australian crew and two Australian actors.[5][6]


The film was shot primarily on-location in Quebec, in the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region. Additional scenes were shot in Rouen in northern France. The entire film was shot in-sequence.


Black Robe opened in Canada on 4 October 1991 and then had a exclusive opening in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago on 1 November 1991 before expanding on 22 November to a further 222 theaters.[7]


Black Robe was praised as a "magnificently staged combination of top talents delivering a gripping and tragic story",[3] and has been rated one of the most meticulously researched representations of indigenous life put on film.[8] Notably, the film includes dialogue in the Cree, Mohawk, and Algonquin languages. The French characters speak English in the film. Latin is used for Catholic prayers.

Political activist Ward Churchill, after highly praising the film-making, criticized historical inaccuracies.[9] He said he thought the film vilified the Mohawks as part of a theme that Indian resistance to European culture was evil.[10]

Box office[edit]

Black Robe grossed $1.1 million in Canada in its first 4 weeks before opening in the United States. Expanding to 55 screens it grossed $179,467 for the weekend of 3 November 1991.[11] It expanded on the weekend of 22 November to 282 screens, grossing $882,300 for the weekend, finishing eleventh in the United States and Canada for the weekend.[12] In Canada, it won the Golden Reel Award, indicating the highest box-office performance of any Canadian film that year. In English Canada, it was among only three Canadian films to gross over $500,000 between 1987 and 1990, along with Jesus of Montreal and Dead Ringers.[13] Black Robe grossed $2,036,056 at the box office in Australia.[14]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Genie Award[edit]

Year Category Nominee Result
1991 Best Motion Picture Robert Lantos, Sue Milliken, Stéphane Reichel Won
Best Achievement in Direction Bruce Beresford Won
Best Screenplay, Adapted Brian Moore Won
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role August Schellenberg Won
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role Sandrine Holt Nominated
Best Music Score Georges Delerue Nominated
Best Achievement in Cinematography Peter James Won
Best Achievement in Film Editing Tim Welburn Nominated
Best Achievement in Art Direction Gavin Mitchell, Herbert Pinter Won
Best Achievement in Costume Design John Hay, Renée April Nominated
1992 Golden Reel Award Robert Lantos, Sue Milliken, Stéphane Reichel Won

AACTA Award[edit]

Year Category Nominee Result
1992 Best Film Robert Lantos, Sue Milliken, Stéphane Reichel Nominated
Best Direction Bruce Beresford Nominated
Best Screenplay, Original or Adapted Brian Moore Nominated
Best Actor in a Leading Role Lothaire Bluteau Nominated
Best Actor in a Supporting Role August Schellenberg Nominated
Best Original Music Score Georges Delerue Nominated
Best Cinematography Peter James Won
Best Editing Tim Welburn Nominated
Best Sound Phil Judd, Penn Robinson, Gary Wilkins Nominated
Best Costume Design John Hay, Renée April Nominated

Other awards[edit]

Year Association Category Nominee Result
1992 Australian Cinematographers Society Cinematographer of the Year Peter James Won
Motion Picture Sound Editors Best Sound Editing - Foreign Feature Phil Judd, Penn Robinson, Karin Whittington, Jeanine Chiavlo, Stephanie Flack,
Frank Morrone, Susan Midgley, David Grusovin, Nicki Roller

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Greg Kerr, "Black Robe", Australian Film 1978–1992, Oxford Uni Press 1993 p331
  2. ^ "Black Robe (1991) – Box Office Mojo". Retrieved 20 January 2018.
  3. ^ a b Stratton, David (9 September 1991). "Black Robe". Variety. p. 65.
  4. ^ "Black Robe | The Canadian Encyclopedia". Retrieved 10 February 2021.
  5. ^ a b Andrew Urban, "Black Robe", Cinema Papers, March 1991 p6-12
  6. ^ a b "Interview with Bruce Beresford", Signet, 7 December 1991 accessed 13 June 2019
  7. ^ Ayscough, Suzan (2 December 1991). "'Robe' breaks out". Variety. p. 78.
  8. ^ Rotten Tomatoes. "Black Robe (1991)". Archived from the original on 29 June 2007.
  9. ^ Such as showing a young male Mohawk chief killing a captive child, whereas, Churchill says, female elders made the Mohawks' decisions on captives and adopted children into the tribe.
  10. ^ Churchill, Ward (1996), "And They Did it Like Dogs in the Dirt... An Indigenist Analysis of Black Robe", From a Native Son: Selected Essays in Indigenism, 1985–1995, South End Press, pp. 423–437, ISBN 0-89608-553-8, retrieved 22 October 2009
  11. ^ "Weekly Box Office Report". Variety. 11 November 1991. p. 8.
  12. ^ "Weekend Box Office Report". Variety. 2 December 1991. p. 8.
  13. ^ Michael Dorland, ed., The Cultural Industries in Canada: Problems, Policies and Prospects, James Lorimer & Company, Publishers, 1996, p. 150.
  14. ^ "Film Victoria // supporting Victoria's film television and games industry – Film Victoria" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 February 2011. Retrieved 20 January 2018.

External links[edit]