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Films >> Black Robe (1991) >> Scene Analysis >>

Tick Tock Captain Clock

By Kelsey Cannon

[1] Early in the movie Daniel enters the makeshift chapel to find a group of Algonquin natives staring at a clock in the front of the room. The scene does not contain much action, dialogue, or detail; however, there is a lot to be said about the symbolism of the happenings and the few words that are exchanged between an Algonquin and a French missionary. The scene, though simple, is integral to the rest of the movie because it sets the framework through which the viewers will judge further interactions between natives and Europeans.

[2] When Daniel walks into the room where the Algonquin group sit, the viewer first sees the scene from his perspective—looking towards the front of the room to the clock—and then views the same image from the opposite perspective—looking from the front of the room to see their faces as they stare intently at the clock. Daniel seems taken aback by their gathering and a look of confusion flashes across his face, presumably reflecting that of the viewer. As Daniel leaves the room to speak with the Jesuit priests, the camera stays trained on the staring contest between the natives and the clock, simultaneously allowing the viewer to more closely observe the natives and form his/her own evaluative opinion of the unexplained scene.

[3] As the natives stare intently at the clock, it is unclear if they watch it out of mystery surrounding a foreign object, if they watch it to gage how long they must remain in the chapel, if they watch it because they are unsure of what to do, or if they watch it because they are supposed to be learning how to pray or talk to God according to Jesuit conventions. Their blank stares and complete silence do not give away their predicament until the clock rings for the hour. Some natives react with fear and others with fascination, showing the reader that this interaction with the clock is the first of its kind, thereby marking the natives as naïve and technologically inferior.

[4] As the clock rings, the camera pans to the back and the viewer sees the mechanics of the object working to produce the dinging noise heard by the natives. The viewer can see the mechanism that reels back and releases to strike the bell, making the source of the noise obvious and providing an interesting contrast to the ignorance of the Algonquin people. Since the viewer has seen exactly how the clock makes its noise, it is difficult to sympathize with the surprise of the native, making them look simple to a fault—an image that is further enhanced when the Algonquin woman asks a Jesuit what “captain clock” is saying.

[5] In spite of the fact that the viewer knows that the Algonquin did not speak English or French (in a more historically accurate context) the way in which director Beresford chooses to portray the Algonquin woman makes her look simplistic and unintelligent, especially when the Jesuit priest answers her inquiry by telling her that “captain clock” says it is time to go. He does not stop to patiently explain that the clock is not personified but, in fact, an inanimate object; instead, he speaks to her as he would a child and allows her and the others to believe that “captain clock” is a valid form (of life or spirit, it is unclear) that is capable of communication.

[6] If the priest were to tell a European child that the clock says “it’s time to go,” that child would, presumably, understand that the clock is only an object that the priest is personifying—of course, this knowledge would be implicit based on previous exposure to clocks and other mechanical items. The natives, on the other hand, do not have the previous background in European technology and do not appear to understand the implications of the priest’s words; therefore, the director, by having the priest speak to them in a patronizing manner, conveys the attitude of the French towards the natives. It reflects the sense of superiority held by the Europeans that the rest of the movie will work to combat.

[7] While the scene does not last long or seem terribly relevant to the journey of LaForgue, Daniel, and the Algonquin people, it sets the stage for the journey and foreshadows what LaForgue will possibly face when he reaches the Huron tribe. It also, more importantly, lays the groundwork for the friendship or relationship of mutual respect between Chomina and LaForgue by the end of the movie—in contrast to this scene, their relationship seems all the more progressive and humanitarian.