Brotherhood marks the second snippet of early-20th-century Canadian history to hit the screen in as many weeks. Last Friday gave us Stand!, an awkward grafting of musical-theatre to the story of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.
Brotherhood is a more straight-ahead story. True, there is singing aplenty, but it’s realistic and specific to the year 1926, sung by the boys who attended a youth camp on Balsam Lake in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes region that summer.
In the early going they’re high-spirited ditties like “When the Red, Red Robin” – a big hit that year. Later, after a summer squall overturns their war canoe in the middle of the lake, they sing ribald (for the time) ballads to keep their spirits up, as the cold water threatens their lives.
Canadian director Richard Bell cuts back and forth from early woodsy hijinks to the boys’ fight for survival, accompanied in both by their adult camp leaders, played by Brendan Fletcher and Brendan Fehr. These are men who have survived the Great War and the flu pandemic that followed; many of the boys’ fathers were not so lucky.
The film is awash in period detail, like the luminous Ingersoll Radiolite sported by one of the boys. “Keen wristwatch,” another chirps. And there’s a mention of the recent South Pole expedition and the fate of Lawrence Oates, which proves eerily prophetic.
But the story is also (unfortunately) timeless; clinging to the side of an overturned boat in frigid waters is not a century-specific activity, and the rugged, dangerous beauty of the Canadian Shield is similarly eternal.
Even our current concern about kids getting back to nature isn’t new; when one of the counsellors mentions the possibility of tuning in to Sam ’n’ Henry, a popular radio sitcom, the other berates him: “The point of all of this … is to get them as far away from electrical sockets as possible. I think electrical things put us further from ourselves.”
That said, this modern talkie tells a powerful story, worth putting up with the whirr and buzz of the film projector to experience it.