The Great Barrier Poster
The Great Barrier Movie Poster

The Great Barrier

Here’s a fine find: a 1937 movie called The Great Barrier, a fictionalized treatment of the building of the CPR through the Rockies. And we’ve met someone who was in the movie, made 68 years ago!

Site visitor Gordon Rebelato read the reference on this site to The Great Barrier and called to tell me he had a copy of the film. It starred Richard Arlen, Lilli Palmer and Antoinette Cellier . . . but the cast member we were most interested in was Ernie Rebelato, Gordon’s father. Mind you, he was just an extra, 15 years old at the time, and working for the CPR. But he was earning a very nice 75 cents an hour on the side for his work on the film.

Would I be interested in having a copy of the film and meeting his dad, Gordon asked.

I was at his place before he hung up the phone.

With me was rail buff Jim McGraw, who assists me in the production of this web site, and who wouldn’t have missed this meeting for the world. While Gordon’s mom Myrtle poured us nice cool fruit drinks and served up pieces of cake, we learned from Ernie—who’s 83 these days—that the movie was made in and around Revelstoke (except for the interior scenes where CPR executives argued about the railway’s progress, scenes that were filmed in New York), that he appeared in the mob scenes (the workers’ pay was sometimes late in arriving, and living conditions weren’t ideal, and so sometimes they got angry), and that Lilli Palmer was the friendliest of the movie’s stars. You can see a write-up on the film at www.imdb.com/title/tt0028951.

The film is dated, of course, and it plays fast and loose with some of the facts (we’re told, for example, that the first train going through is headed for Vancouver, when in fact the first went to Port Moody. And even though Chinese workers were plentiful on the real line, they seem very few and far between—and unheard—in the movie), but it’s great fun and always interesting. The actors playing William Van Horne, Sir John A. Macdonald, Major Rogers and the like look enough like their real-life counterparts, and the quest for what came to be known as Rogers Pass is handled dramatically. The construction camp in the movie—presumably situated in what is now Alberta—is called Moodyville! It’s named for the movie’s camp boss, a fellow named Moody, who has no connection with our Col. Richard Moody of the Royal Engineers, or the unrelated lumberman Sewell Moody, who ran a thriving mill on the north shore of Burrard Inlet. (The little settlement that formed around that latter real-life mill was named, of course, Moodyville.)

The movie’s fast and loud and exciting, and it was fun to see the actor playing William Van Horne, the president of the CPR, putting a furious fist to the jaw of a complaining worker.


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