A Historical Analysis
Black Robe presents the story of a French Jesuit missionary struggling to stay true to his religion while traveling from Champlain’s fur trading outpost to a Huron Native American mission in Nouvelle France during the 17th century. Father Paul La Forgue sets out on the 1,500 mile journey with members of the Algonquian tribe and a young Frenchman named Daniel Davost, determined to convert the “savages” to Christianity. Throughout the film, Father La Forgue faces the Algonquians’ beliefs that he is a demon, calling him “Black Robe”, and even abandoning him for a short period. Later, when his Algonquian guides and Daniel recover him, they are captured and tortured by an Iroquois tribe. Eventually, Father La Forgue escapes the Iroquois encampment and makes it to the Huron mission. There, at the request of the Hurons, he baptizes both their sick and healthy tribe members and vows to remain with them for the rest of his life. An epilogue title reveals that fifteen years after this vow, the Iroquois obliterate the converted Huron tribe and the Jesuits close the mission and return to Quebec. In the film Black Robe, the Algonquian, Iroquois and Huron Native American tribes are, with a few exceptions, accurately depicted through the costumes, languages spoken, beliefs conveyed and customs observed. Additionally, the fictional character Father La forgue closely parallels the historical accounts of Father Paul Le Jeune’s 1634 Native American encounters, Father Jean de Brebeuf’s trek from Samuel du Champlain’s fur trading outpost in Nouvelle-France to the Huron mission, as well as Noel Chabanel’s time spent at the same mission until his death and its ultimate demise in 1649 at the hands of Iroquois Native Americans.
Undoubtedly, the tribe with whom Father La Forgue has the most contact throughout the film Black Robe is the Algonquian tribe. The Algonquians were historically a nomadic tribe, making their role as guides for Father La Forgue credible. Consequently, their migratory lifestyle also presented the Jesuit missionaries with unique challenges in converting the Algonquians to Christianity, also suiting them to be the perfect group of Native Americans to be set in opposition to Father La Forgue’s beliefs in the film. Interestingly, although the Algonquians oppose Father La Forgue in religious beliefs, they are depicted throughout the film as the “good” tribe of Native Americans, leading to the theory that Native Americans who submitted to European control of American land and resources are typically coded as “good”, while those who resisted European settlement are coded as “bad”. Further, the film is believed by some critics to further the theme from classic western films in which the old stereotype of the lone hero (Father La Forgue) and the inferior or menacing “injun” is perpetuated.
Another tribe with whom Father La Forgue had regular contact in the film Black Robe was the Montagnais, a faction of the Algonquian tribe who were also migratory. The portions of the film about the Montagnais drew heavily from documented history. The Jesuit priests’ efforts to convert the Montagnais in the seventeenth century included the argument (as La Forgue did with Daniel in the film) that Christianity was simply more sensible than the Algonquian ideas of religion. The sorcerer in the film, Mestagoit, was based on a real Montagnais tribesman described in Father Paul Le Jeune’s portion of the Jesuit Relations. Father Le Jeune tells of a winter he spent with the Montagnais as a guest of the chief whose brother was the sorcerer, Mestagoit. All through this winter, Father Le Jeune and Mestagoit clashed. The two men competed over their beliefs about religion, the true afterlife, and how their beliefs were reflected among the other Native Americans in the tribe. He also outlines the smoke-filled sleeping tents and the gluttonous eating habits of the Montagnais tribesmen. Many of...