American Gangster in Montreal: The True Story of Hal C. Banks

by Dana — last modified 2008-10-28T19:31:12-04:00 Copyright Dana Brown 2007
Canada’s Sweetheart: the Saga of Hal C. Banks (1985) is a docudrama about the Seafarers’ International Union and its corrupt, Al Capone-like American leader, Harold Banks. It was co-written, produced and directed by legendary Canadian film maker, Donald Brittain. This film was based on the true story of American trade unionist, Harold C. Banks, turned Canadian labour leader in the 1950s and 1960s. The story is rife with political intrigue, corruption, scandal, and organized crime. Essentially, a convicted felon with a shady past is allowed into Canada to destroy the Canadian Seaman's Union.It started with chains, bats, and pitched battles between communists and thugs (one such battle occurred in S.J. New Brunswick), but ends with fat-cat corruption and the complicity of the Federal Government. The true story and the film has all the trappings of a film-noir, or gangster inspired film, but these cinematic themes, and all the codes that they command, misses the broader, more important commentary that this chapter in Canadian history necessitates. This film is actually considered part of a minority genre known as working-class or labour films, but you'd never know it. Donald Brittain’s commentary overlooks key concepts in labour history that could have accentuated his film’s message.

By Dana Brown

This paper will attempt to analyze Donald Brittain’s critically acclaimed film by examining its origins, reception, conditions of production, and cinematic conventions used to emphasize Brittain’s commentary. In addition to the above, this paper will attempt to assess the historical narrative that Canada’s Sweetheart tries to address.

On the surface, Brittain’s sarcastic commentary and seamless transition from stock footage to dramatization is a powerful depiction of Canadian Labour history. However, upon deeper analysis it is evident that Brittain’s treatment of events, especially the history of the Canadian Seamen’s Union, and general treatment of working class history, is lacking. Brittain’s voice-over misses the class antagonisms that were at play by focusing merely on the injustices perpetrated by one man. Instead Brittain focused on the Canadian government’s involvement in Banks’ impunity while in Canada. His mockery of the Canadian establishment, highlighted the supposed victim status of the country in the face of American imperialism, evades what should be a necessary treatment of class and union politics in Canada during the Cold War. Brittain’s internalization of classic American cinematic conventions, or codes, betrays his liberal/ individualist bent that prevents and in-depth analysis of complex interactions between institutions, ideologies, and groups of citizens with common interests in society.

The inspiration for this film came from Richard Nielsen, a policy advisor for the then powerful Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Transportation and General Workers (CBRTGW) in the 1950s and 1960s.1 Nielsen had since left the union movement to work as a television producer. When Nielsen was a part of the Brotherhood, his union, although actively advocated for the replacement of CSU with SIU, openly opposed the Canadian Seamen’s Union in the early 1960s; which was tantamount to declaring war on Al Capone. Nielsen led an organizing drive that raided SIU members, as a response to attempted raids by the Seafarer’s International Union. Hal C. Banks’ Seafarer’s International Union violently opposed the Brotherhood on the Vancouver docks.2 The man that took Nielsen’s place was so violently beaten by Banks’ bat wielding goons, he almost died. These events inspired Nielsen to write a script, which presumably concentrated on west coast events.

Through a mutual friend, Richard Nielsen met Donald Brittain, by then a world renowned film maker. Brittain received Nielsen's script and promptly rewrote it. His motives for making the movie were clear; Brittain was not interested in Hal C. Banks, he states, “I was interested in the collusion of the Canadian Government… I used to think of Canadians as being superior to Americans, particularly during the McCarthy period, but, as I reached some degree of maturity, I realized there was an enormous amount of hypocrisy in this country’s smugness and complacency.”3 The significance of Brittain’s intention is important as his focus detracts from contributions this film makes to historical knowledge.
Whether he wanted to or not, Brittain created a docudrama out of sheer necessity. This film clearly followed the conventions of film, and was based on primary archival and interview sources. Most of the information used for the film came from the 1962 Norris Commission (the Commission’s purpose was to investigate claims of corruption and violence in the Canadian SIU). The docudrama was filmed in Montreal in 1985 as a joint project between the CBC and the National Film Board. Their budget was approximately 1 million dollars and it was shot in both black-and-white and colour. The film also relies heavily on first-hand accounts by people who were there. Whatever events that were not captured on film, Brittain reenacted them as accurately as possible.

If the lead actor looks familiar to you, he should, because he’s one of those actors that has been in every movie you can think of. Maury Chaykin may be most recently remembered for his role as Chief of Police in an episode of Trailer Park Boys, and he’s recently played roles in Boston Legal, and CSI.4 Chaykin’s physical stature lends him the ability to play Hal C. Banks in a convincing light. Clearly, Brittain struck gold in the then relatively unknown American actor, as critics rated his performance second to none. Chaykin expertly portrayed Banks’ charm, cunning, ruthlessness and his working class background; almost to the point where viewers identify with Banks and start to like him.

Besides Chaykin, there is a full compliment of accomplished Canadian actors. Other contributors include Colin Fox5, as Judge Norris, and Sean McCann as SIU president and Banks’ boss (McCann went on to take the lead as his most famous role of Mackenzie King in Brittain’s The King Chronicles (1988)). R. H. Thompson’s6 enjoyable performance as Banks’ number one goon and strong man, as well as Jonathan Welsh (Banks’ friend) and Marie-Hélène Fontaine (as Banks’ girlfriend) are all valuable contributions by recognized Canadian actors. Also, the film had an original and dramatic musical score, which was written by a famous Canadian musician and a native of New Brunswick, Eldon Rathburn who worked with Brittain at the National Film Board during the 1960s and 1970s where he composed over 185 film scores.7

The film purports to be about Harold Chamberland Banks, who came to Canada with an assignment from his union, and ended up staying for 13 years in Canada with the help of government and shipping companies. Banks entered the union movement in the late 1940s after working on ships in the San Francisco area. He was initially hired on as a strong arm, for his union. The Seafarer’s International Union sent him to Canada on an assignment. Banks was to raid the then militant Canadian Seaman’s Union, the union of workers on Canada’s national carrier, as well as other private companies. The Canadian government wanted to sell off its war-time fleet, which necessitated getting rid of a pesky union that kept demanding more for its workers. In 1949, Banks was allowed into the country, despite having a shady past and being a convicted felon, with the help of the Liberal St. Laurent government. Banks was, while he stayed in the country, aided by Canadian labour leaders in the Trades and Labour Congress, and shipping companies that opted for a corrupt SIU union over a militant CSU union. The confrontations between the two unions, the SIU, a yellow-dog union, and the allegedly Communist CSU, were vicious and violent events. Many of the men who were beaten and fired from their jobs, were the merchant mariners who risked their lives, and whose union brothers had died for this country’s war effort during the Second World War. The SIU won that battle and Banks received landed immigrant status and stayed in the country throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.
The film concentrates on the 13 years that Hal C. Banks ruled his union and, to some extent, Montreal. The corruption, lack of democracy in the SIU, and beatings administered and ordered by Banks, are highlighted in this film. Complaints reached the newly formed Canadian Labour Congress of Banks’ use of the arbitrary and heavy-handed Do Not Ship List (which barred thousands of career seamen from their only known livelihood for the purpose of raising funds through bribes and instilling compliance through fear). The CLC’s initiative ultimately led to the Norris Commission in 1962. It is at the Commission that the film culminates and ends with Banks’ unbelievable escape from the country in 1962, and his eventual escape from total responsibility for his crimes.
This docudrama achieves the above by interviewing participants (in colour) in the events covered in the movie. The use of evidence collected by the Norris Commission, as well as dramatic reenactments, tell the story of Hal C. Banks and the SIU’s dominance over the lives of waterfront and ship workers. Donald Brittain’s masterful commentary in the form of a voice-over throughout the film provides as a useful and poignant analysis of events.

The dramatic parts of the film definitely reference cinematic codes particular to certain film genres. The black-and-white film lends a quality of film noir, with ‘seedy’ looking images, gritty urban scenes, and stark contrast in the lighting that signifies “blurred moral and intellectual values as well as the difficulty in discerning the truth.”8 The film noir genre is also known for its extreme camera angles and high contrast lighting. This is evident even during the last scene in which banks leaves the country. The camera is angled up at Chaykin’s face while he drives his Cadillac, in the middle of night, to the safety of the United States. The lighting from below covers only half his face, achieving a very sinister look.9

The portion of the film in which a petition is presented to the SIU executive, calling for the reinstatement of fired seamen and union democracy. Moral ambiguity is again a central theme as Banks’ right hand man is subtly telling known insubordinates, as they file into the union hall, to leave the meeting. As well, Banks makes it a point to remain relatively quiet and he also makes it a point to tell a reporter that his desk is made of plywood. The moral and upright character of Jim Todd, the one union militant who stands up to Banks, represents what the SIU might have been, had Banks not come to Canada. In Jim Todd, we see a straight forward working class man who goes about his dealings at the hearing in an honest and honorable way. We also again see that in the character that plays the seaman who is put on the Do Not Ship list. He is the example of the good SIU member and worker who is an innocent victim of Banks’ reckless use of power.

The dramatized portion of this docudrama also follows the conventions of a gangster film. The imagery in this film is consistent with gangster film which always show a volley of clothes, cash, cars, and violence, although, the extravagance is still shown in a modest Canadian way. For instance, in the opening sequence of the film, as Banks is shown making his way to Canada, his suitcase is shown to be packed full of thousands of American dollars, 2 handguns, and a sawed off shotgun.

The story line actually follows the trajectory of this genre, the rise-and then the fall of the main character. ‘Spectator identification’, another common feature of this genre, is made with Chaykin’s portrayal of Banks. For instance when he is seen playing songs on his guitar for his goons, or the somewhat light-hearted moments with his significant other. However, the documentary nature of the film negates certain aspects common to gangster films. Usually the gangster has to die, in order to teach the audience a ‘lesson’ that one can only achieve the ‘American Dream’ through legitimate means. The escape of Banks does defy probably one of the most important conventions of a gangster film, but then again, this is not a dramatic film.10

The film has an interesting take on the Norris Commission, and it is a surprising twist in the ‘plot’ as according to the gangster film genre, Banks should either die or go to jail, or in some way pay for his heinous crimes. The colour scene is a marked break with the moral ambiguity of film noir. The film maker cannot stick exclusively to cinema film code, but must tell the story of Hal C. Banks that he believes to be true. This twist in the plot, and violation of conventional code, is where reality and fiction collide, as Banks flees Canada, evades extradition and lives out the rest of his days in San Francisco, California.

However, the film is a documentary, and Brittain’s documentary tradition does not allow the film to escape indigenous Canadian film code (yes, there is such a thing). The perceived national consciousness of ‘bully, coward, or clown’, has become a staple and measuring stick in Canadian film since it was identified by Robert Fothergill's “Being Canadian Means Always Having to Say You're Sorry” in Take One (1973).11 Some critics have rightly pointed out that Banks epitomizes American dominance, both culturally and economically over Canada. As well, the film symbolizes Canadian passiveness and victim status in the face of a “fly-by-night American anti-hero.”12

The Norris Commission is depicted as the vindication of Canadian labour and the Canadian government. The prosecutors and judges in the commission are depicted as the flower of the Canadian elitism, rationalism, and cool-headed professionalism that Canadians would like to think ultimately resides in the upper echelons of the Canadian state. This is consistent with the Canadian tradition of celebrating its own elitism, as a way to distinguish itself from Americans. As Joesph Kispal-Kovaks explains, the film portrays the Canadian judiciary and bureaucracy as the ‘good guys’. This is a sort of deflection away from class issues to a safer, more establishment-friendly nationalist theme.

The film was released on CBC television during the fall of 1985, and received favorable reviews with critics. The film was nominated for four Gemini awards in 1986 and won three, including Best Writing in a Dramatic Program or Series (Original Drama), Best Writing in a Dramatic Program, and Best Direction in a Dramatic Program or Series. The film also received Best Canadian Feature Film in the 1985 Toronto International Film Festival.13

As a history this film makes a valid contribution to the history of the Canadian labour movement. This story plays on important themes in this area of history such as the Canadian union movement’s autonomy, international unionism, corruption in unions, and the Cold War’s effect on unionism in Canada and the United States. Viewers can appreciate how the film centers itself on the victim status of the workers and those who were not only beaten but lost jobs and the only means to a livelihood they ever knew.

For instance, use of anti-communist rhetoric is used by the SIU president, against Jim Todd in a meeting called to address complaints against Hal Banks. The Gouzenko affair, alleged Communist influence in the CSU, and international blockades and solidarity strikes, are mentioned in this film. This references themes of how unions operated during the Cold War, and problems that anti-Communist sentiments created for progressive union leadership, or just militant rank-and-file (like Jim Todd) who stood up for themselves and their fellow workers.

Corruption is definitely depicted, especially in the colour scene at the end of the film where Banks is on the stand at the Norris Commission. Union financial statements are poured through and Banks’ embezzlement and extravagant use of union funds is revealed.

Viewers can also appreciate how the film goes out of its way to show that the Canadian government, shipping companies, and some union leaders were responsible for Banks. However, the narration would have done better if it stayed away from government collusion conspiracies, and gave the viewers more information on the reasons why the CSU was broken by the government.

To his fault, Brittain almost assumes that the CSU is Communist and Moscow controlled. The narration states that the CSU was “led by a handful of Communists…”14 Brittain could have easily shown us a union, the CSU, which was fighting a company determined-not to negotiate with them-but to break them. The evidence as to whether the CSU was in fact controlled by a small cadre of communists is debatable. It is more likely that allegations of Communist control were used merely as a pretext, in the wake of the Gouzenko Affair, for the Canadian government to sell off its national carrier. I think Brittain could have explained this better to his audience. It also makes one wonder what the original script would have looked like and if it was more about union politics of the day and less about the Canadian government’s involvement.

In Brittain’s quest to condemn Canadian politicians for the injustice inflicted on SIU workers, by their gangster-like union leader, Brittain misses the more important narrative that these events necessitate be told. Brittain’s commentary implies that it was acceptable to break a “Communist led union”, and that it was acceptable to bring Banks to Canada in the first place, but not acceptable to keep him in Canada for so long.15 The film’s analysis is inherently liberal, betraying Brittain’s naiveté towards Canada’s labour history and union politics; the film touts the avenger status and “nobility of the civil service and the judiciary [as]… contrasted to the behavior of Banks’s allies in the federal cabinet and the Canadian business establishment.”16

Brittain’s point of departure for this narrative leaves out valuable historical context. In doing this, Brittain allows the viewer to remain ignorant about the circumstances surrounding the birth of the Canadian Seamen’s Union and the working conditions of seaman in the early part of the 20th century. He presents his viewers with a villainous ‘Communist controlled’ union that was beaten out by a corrupt union. This shallow analysis fails to pierce the ‘specter of communism’ that was so pervasive just after the Second World War in Canada (especially after the Gouzenko affair in which Brittain briefly alludes to in his film).

The historical evidence tells us that workers on Ocean and Great Lakes carriers experienced harsh working conditions. Heavy-handed management techniques subjected workers to various forms of discipline while at sea, including incarceration and fines.17 Desertion, insubordination, and strikes were literally outlawed by ship’s articles, “Under such hash, quasi-military management, sailors had little or no room to raise complaints about the generally low wages, poor food, and often-wretched living and working conditions.”18 The extreme position of authority over the workers on ships was commensurate with the concentrated nature of the shipping industry before the Second World War. On the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence seaway, shipping companies had consolidated and concentrated their ownership to just a handful of companies.19 The shipping companies were also known for their outright hostility and hard-lined attitude towards unionization efforts.

In 1936, the Canadian Seamen’s Union was born out of a merger between two smaller, but equally independent unions. During the war, the CSU kept to its no-strike-pledge, but after Japan surrendered in 1945, the CSU was hopeful to gain the eight-hour day for its members. After contract negotiations started in 1946, the shipping companies refused but eventually were forced to comply with CSU’s demands for an eight hour day, considering the public and government had sided with the union.20 The Union had gone on strike in 1948 and 1949 to fight against a 20 to 50 dollar per month wage cut, attacks on CSU’s hiring hall practices, and raids by the Seafarer’s International Union. Thus, the CSU was not just causing trouble because they were allegedly Communists, they were fighting shipping companies that traditionally had never dealt with unions and didn’t want to deal the CSU in the late 1940s. The series of strikes that the CSU engaged in was not just about wages, but about the survival of the CSU itself. In 1949, the CSU, after a long fight, had lost to the SIU. Brittain’s narrative states “In thirteen months, the communist led CSU had been destroyed… It had been a dirty business but such was the way of the Cold War.”21
Another thing to consider is that the CSU was from the beginning a democratic and fiercely independent union. It did have Communist members and a sympathetic line towards the Communist Party, but by no means was he CSU an arm of the Communist Party of Canada. Certain authors have a one-sided assessment of the executive and membership of the CSU as purely Communist.22 The reality is that the CSU was an extremely democratic union. According to Craig Herron, Communist lead unions had a reputation for being solidly democratic, and the CSU was no exception: “the union ran on an ideal of active, well-informed rank-and-file democracy.”23

With this history in mind, then the fact that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canadian government, and a company union destroyed a democratic and legitimate union is the real history that Donald Brittain’s film and commentary overlooks. It seems that Brittain’s film chose to pay attention to themes of nationalism rather than class. In doing this, Brittain has internalized and reproduced the conventions of American cinema and society in his film.24 An in-depth analysis of Hollywood films has revealed a relatively consistent trend of over-looking complex class relations and social conflicts in order to concentrate instead on individual conflict and romance, without giving the audience time to think about alternative interpretations of events treated in films.25 This emphasis on the individual is a necessity of a capitalist society that demands a compatible type of leisure time, and compatible ideologies reproduced by film. A film that could adequately address the complexities of Cold War politics and working class history would require more time than working people are able to commit to.

By following conventional cinematic codes, a great disservice was done to the history and a story that needs to be told. Brittain’s analysis and instead focused on individual actors (i.e. Banks) in a history that involved the agency of government, unions, and the working class. Also, consistent with a tradition in Canadian films, nationalist sentiments were highlighted instead of class antagonisms. This history puts forth a narrative about working men who lost their livelihoods in order that a part of Canada’s business class could enjoy greater profits. The real injustice was the breaking of the CSU and installation of the undemocratic SIU. In this respect, Canada’s Sweetheart fails as history on film.

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1.Brian Nolan. Donald Brittain-Man of Film, Amherst: DigiWire, 2004 p. 323

2.Ibid

3.Ibid

4.“Maury Chaykin” Internet Movie Database, Accessed 14 April 2007,

5. Best known for his role as Professor Anton Hendricks in 68 episodes of PSI Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal. See Internet Movie Database, “Colin Fox”, Accessed 14 April, 2007

6.Recently known for his role as Dr. Moulds in Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story (2006), See Internet Movie Database, “R. H. Thompson”, Accessed 14 April, 2007

7.“Eldon Rathburn” The Canadian Encyclopedia, Accessed 14 April 2007,

8.Susan Hayward. Cinema Studies: Key Concepts. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 2000. p.129.
http://site.ebrary.com/lib/unblib/Doc?id=5001587&ppg=150, p.130

9.Hayward. Cinema Studies, p.129

10.Ibid, p. 155

11.Patrick Lowe “Pete 'n' Joey have grown up: did anyone notice?” Take One, Spring 1998

12.Joyce Nelson. “Canada’s Sweetheart: The Saga of Hal C. Banks” Cinema Canada, 1986, p.16

13.“Canda’s Sweetheart: The Saga of Hal C. Banks (1985)”, Internet Movie Database, Accessed April 8,2007

14.Brian Robinson, “Sweetheart of the Lake Scum” Canadian Dimensions, Jan-Feb, 1986, p.42.

15.Joseph Kispal-Kovaks, “Class and Nationalism in Canadian ‘Realist’ Cinema” Working on Screen: Representations of the Working Class in Canada Cinema, Malek Khouri and Darrell Vagra, eds., p.240

16.Ibid

17.Craig Heron, “Communists, Gangsters, and Canadian Sailors” Labour / Le Travail, v.25 Fall (1989), p.233

18.Ibid, p. 232

19.Heron, “Communists, Gangsters, and Canadian Sailors” p.232

20.William Kaplan, Everything that Floats: Pat Sullivan, Hal Banks, and the Semen’s Unions of Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press (1987), p.46

21.Robinson, “Sweetheart of the Lake Scum”, 1986, p.42.

22. Craig Heron, “Communists, Gangsters, and Canadian Sailors” Labour / Le Travail, v.25 Fall (1989), p.233

23.Ibid

24.Kispal-Kovaks, “Class and Nationalism in Canadian ‘Realist’ Cinema”, p.236

25.Ibid, p.237

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