Although contemporary audiences are more familiar with the image of modern Mounties in TV series such as Due South and Cold Squad, the Mountie image in films has a long history. In fact, films featuring the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and their predecessors, the North West Mounted Police and the Royal North West Mounted Police, have been a part of Hollywood film production since the first decades of cinema. Though never as popular nor as pervasive as the Western, Mountie films were favourites with producers seeking contrast or variation to traditional Western themes.
Inevitably, the RCMP were mythologized — and Canadian history distorted — (just as the history of the American West), but their appeal stemmed principally from the existence of a law-and-order frontier force, visually distinguished by its quasi-military uniforms.
Most of the productions (more than 250) were of B-picture status, but a handful had more of an impact on audiences: William S. Hart's O’Malley of the Mounted (1921), the three versions of Rose-Marie (1928, 1936, and 1954), Susannah of the Mounties (1939) with Shirley Temple, Cecil B. DeMille's North West Mounted Police (1940) and Raoul Walsh's Saskatchewan (1954).
The genre had several defining characteristics. The Mountie was almost invariably noble, brave, honourable, courteous and trustworthy. Unlike sheriffs, the Mounted Police were incorruptible and always "got their man" — a phrase which stems from romantic fiction and has never been an official motto of the force. This theme commonly set up a related theme: the "testing" of the Mountie in a situation that requires him to choose between duty and love or duty and friendship. Duty always wins, even though the Mountie may have to track down his loved ones — who, in the end, are never the real villains. Mountie movies show a marked penchant for last-minute confessions, which helped portray Mounties as being more noble than intelligent, since they were constantly shown capturing the wrong people.
The first Mountie film, The Cattle Thieves, was made in 1909, only six years after The Great Train Robbery, commonly considered the first Western. Produced on location in Canada by the Kalem Company of the United States, it featured participation by actual members of the RCMP force. But this approach was not characteristic of films produced in the ensuing years. Producers preferred to build elaborate sets rather than shoot on location and to recreate the Mounties' uniform and other appurtenances in Hollywood.
Approximately 190 Mountie films were made between 1909 and 1922. When 23 were released in a single year (1922), the market was glutted. Reviewers protested and a bored public killed them at the box office. (It is worth noting that 1921 and 1922 were peak years for Canadian production. It is interesting to speculate whether the surfeit of Hollywood-produced "Canadian content" films — 34 in 1922 — helped smother public taste for Canadian themes. Certainly, the domestic industry collapsed in 1923.) Production slackened somewhat after this, but was vigorously revived in the 1940s with the advent of the Canadian Cooperation Project. Among the CCP productions were several Mountie serials with such titles as Canadian Mounties versus the Atomic Invaders.
The RCMP itself consistently objected to the films on the grounds that they presented incorrect facts and history: guns were fired inappropriately, ranks were wrong, uniforms were depicted and worn incorrectly, and so on. Even when the RCMP, often reluctantly, collaborated with producers (Rose-Marie, Saskatchewan), the force was usually unhappy with the results. During the 1930s and 1940s, the RCMP was pleased to be able to refer these requests to Bruce Carruthers, a former RCMP corporal based in Hollywood who acted as a freelance technical consultant on Mountie films. He corrected details of dress, behaviour and other concerns, which appeared to be what the force was principally concerned about. The RCMP continued this tradition in 1995 when it licensed Walt Disney Canada Ltd. to market products bearing its images and symbols.
There have been numerous Canadian documentaries about the RCMP, a few television series and a handful of Canadian fiction films. Mounties have often also been portrayed in subsidiary but key roles in films, from Back to God's Country (1919) to Drying Up the Streets (1978). The few fiction films include Cameron of the Royal Mounted (1921); A.D. Kean's Policing the Plains (1927); several of the quota films produced by Kenneth Bishop for Central Films and Booth Dominion; File 1365 — The Connors Case (1947); the television serial RCMP (1958–1960), produced by Crawley Films; and Claude Fournier's Alien Thunder (1973). The modern, urban Mountie was featured (very critically) in Jean Pierre Lefebvre's On n'engraisse pas les cochons a l’eau claire (1973), more sympathetically in the TV series Cold Squad and parodied in the popular TV series Due South. Paul Gross, the featured actor in the series, also played a former RCMP undercover agent accused of murdering his wife in Murder Most Likely (1999).