Sunday, August 8, 2010

#97 - Northwest Passage


The film is based on the acclaimed novel of the same name by Kenneth Roberts which was published in 1937. The movie came out in 1940 and was one of the first big Technicolar movies. It was nominated for an Oscar for cinematography. Director King Vidor was one of the best directors of the time and star Spencer Tracy was as big as they got. The movie was meant to be the first of two parts with the sequel covering the actual attempt to locate the Northwest Passage. The main character was the real-life Robert Rogers who formed the famous Rogers’ Rangers unit that fought in the French and Indian War. The Rangers were a light infantry unit that the British used for reconnaissance and special operations like raids into Indian territory. They specialized in guerrilla warfare. The movie depicts their most famous exploit – the St. Francis Raid.


The movie opens in 1759 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Langton Towne ( Robert Young ) returns home after getting kicked out of Harvard. He wants to be an artist and his parents are supportive. Langton is in love with Elizabeth Browne, but her father strongly disapproves of his career choice calling it “claptrap”.


At a tavern, Langton slanders a British official named Daggett and the Indian agent William Johnson and has to flee with his friend “Hunk” Marriner ( Walter Brennan ) for fear of arrest. They meet a green-uniformed man at a rural tavern who turns out to be the famous Robert Rogers ( Spencer Tracy ). Rogers buys them drinks and next thing they know they wake up at Crown Point with Rogers’ Rangers. Rogers convinces Langton to come along on a raid as his map-maker. He can paint Indians also.

Gen. Amherst (commander of British forces in New York) gives Rogers orders to take the war to the Indians who have been ravaging the frontier killing settlers. The mission is basically to get revenge by destroying the main Indian village at Saint-Francis. William Johnson insists Rogers bring along a force of Mohawk Indians. He reluctantly agrees.

The Rangers start on boats on Lake Champlain and pass by a French-Indian camp by night. They are headed into territory where they will have to avoid French and Indian forces. They have to portage over hills to avoid French sloops on the lake. This scene does a good job showing the difficulty of moving large boats across land from one waterway to another.

Rogers fires the Mohawk Indian scouts because they did not report the French ships. It turns out they are working for William Johnson who was trying to sabotage the expedition. Rogers also sends back 40 men for indiscipline. The remainder of about 160 men leaves the boats behind and strikes off into the wilderness. The movie is noteworthy for the beautiful scenery which the new Technicolor highlighted.

Robert Rogers

The march is extremely difficult with much wading through swamps while fighting mosquitoes. Because there is no dry land, they are forced to sleep in felled trees which makes for a cool sight. Rogers is a great role model for leadership as he goes without sleep, is enthusiastic, and tough, but fair with his men. He leaves behind a man with a broken leg saying “he knew what he was getting into”. The men have only cornmeal and sausage to eat and it soon runs out. There is a well-done scene of them crossing a raging river by creating a human chain.  (Tracy once said that the exertions actors had to go through were overrated, but he made an exception for this scene.)

Finally they arrive at the village and can hear the savages celebrating into the night. Rogers goes over the plan which involves some of them assaulting the village while other forces lie in ambush for fleeing Indians. Rogers tells them to “kill every fighting Indian, kill them quick, and kill ‘em dead.”

At dawn, with the Indians sleeping, Rogers leads the attack. They set fire to the village and the Indians panic and run into several ambushes. There is a great amount of gunfire partly because the actors are able (by the magic of Hollywood) to reload their flintlock muskets (called “firelocks”) in record times. They also use bayonets on the hapless Indians (watch closely and you can see the rubber bayonets wobbling). There are no women and children among the Indians until one shelter is busted into and a few come out. Rogers stops the men from killing them. A few white captives are taken, including one who has “gone Indian” and does not want to return with them. They lose 16 men killed and only one wounded. Unfortunately, the one wounded is Langton who has been stabbed in the stomach.

Rogers motivates Langton to get up and come with them ( “put your left foot forward, then your right” ) or else. Rogers orders the white wannabe Indian woman to be Langton’s crutch and she does it even though she could have easily escaped from him (not in a Hollywood movie, though). Surprisingly, they do not fall in love and get married at the end of the movie.

The movie jumps ten days with the force reaching Lake Agar. Langton is getting better. Apparently the best cure for a gut wound is to walk it off! They are out of food and miserable. Some of the men suggest splitting up so they can hunt better. Rogers argues the French and Indian pursuers are close and they need to stick together. This time Rogers’ speech falls on deaf ears and a war council votes to split up.

An interesting subplot is one of the men named Crofton has gone insane and is carrying something in a pouch and talking to himself a lot. It turns out the thing in the pouch is an Indian head that he has been snacking on! When Rogers confronts him, he tries to shoot Rogers and then jumps off a cliff. Rogers salutes him. What did they call “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” in the French and Indian War?

The men proceed in four separate units and we follow Rogers’ unit, naturally. At one point, they make a stew of an assortment of critters. One of the men goes crazy and runs off. Two survivors of one of the other units arrive and report that they had shot a moose which led to the detachment being captured by the French, but the two were able to escape. This is the way the movie points out Rogers was right about not separating. There are only 50 men left at this point. They press on through the rain with Rogers trying to keep their spirits up.

They finally arrive at their destination – Fort Wentworth. They find the fort abandoned and in a soul-crushing discovery realize that there is no food to be had. Rogers breaks down for a short while, but recovers before the men can see his depression. He gives an inspirational speech saying it could be worse. Be thankful for the roots and water that you have. As he quotes from the Bible, fife and drums are heard and a relief force arrives under Amherst with food. The British soldiers salute the ragged colonials.


The Rangers return to Crown Point to the acclaim of crowds. Rogers gets new orders and tells the men their next mission is to go to the Pacific to find the Northwest Passage. They march off into the sunset as Langton watches with Elizabeth. Langton: “It’s every man’s dream to find a short route to his heart’s desire. If the major dreams long enough, he’ll find it”.


Action - 7

Acting - 8

Accuracy - 7

Realism - 7 as good as you could expect from a 1940 movie

Plot - 7

Overall - 7


Although there are two speaking female roles, this is pretty much a guy movie. It does not have any gross or graphic images. However, the idea of a man eating an Indian’s head means you definitely want to put the dinner before the movie.


Roberts’ book is considered to be well-researched and he did help with the screenplay, so the movie is better than most as far as accuracy is concerned. However, there are some disturbing exceptions to this. The attack on the village is Hollywoodized quite a bit. In actuality, few “fighting men” were in the village at the time. Most were off hunting or with the French searching for Rogers’ force. This means the 200 dead that Rogers claimed (actually it was closer to 30) were mostly women and children. Although Amherst gave Rogers specific orders not to kill noncombatants, Rogers either ignored the orders or could not control his men. The movie does not show the killing of any women or children. All the dying are Indian men running around in a panic. Substitute women and kids for the Indian actors and you would get a truly accurate depiction of the raid on Ft. St. Francis. Curiously, in the movie Rogers loses 16 men killed whereas in reality he lost only 1. I suppose the filmmakers decided it would be hard to swallow only one loss to all those Indian men fighting for their lives.

There is no evidence that Rogers disagreed with the decision to split up. It could be argued that it was the correct decision and the reason Rogers’ detachment survived was because it was the luckiest and it had him as its leader.

A very typical Hollywood fabrication is the British relief arriving literally minutes after the Rangers despair at Ft. Wentworth. In actuality, Rogers left his men at the fort and went to get food and a relief force promising to be back within ten days. He returned ten days later with the rescue party. You can figure out why the moviemakers decided to shorten the time frame and not have Spencer Tracy leave the starving men behind while he went for food!

The rest of the movie is pretty spot-on. It does an especially good job showing the trials the unit went through. The strategy and tactics are accurate. Tracy’s portrayal of Rogers is a good one.

The movie has been criticized for its racist tone toward the Indians. It does cause modern seats to squirm, but remember the movie was made in 1940. Plus, the movie reflects the books accurate look at colonial attitudes toward the marauding Indians. They really hated those Indians and with good reason considering the atrocities perpetrated against white settlers. If anything, the movie pulls its’ punches by not accurately showing the killing of innocents at Saint-Francis. It is asking too much for a 1940 movie to point out the whites were no angels when it came to atrocities. It will be another 30 years before “Little Big Man” gave us the Indian perspective and an accurate depiction of what whites did to sleeping Indian villages.


For its time period, “Northwest Passage” is a pretty good movie. It is an excellent study in leadership with Tracy doing an outstanding job as Robert Rogers. Aspiring leaders could get some tips from how Rogers handled his men through some very difficult obstacles. (Serious injury? Walk it off!) However, it has to be noted that the movie glorifies Rogers and he probably was not a saint.

The scenery is awesome and gives you the idea of why the colonials would later fight the British for possession of it.

You have to credit the filmmakers for making a movie about a forgotten war (the French and Indian War) and some forgotten heroes (Rogers and his Rangers). If they took a few typical liberties with the facts, they can be excused.


In conclusion, if you are interested in an old school “action-quest” film and do not like to watch black and white, try “Northwest Passage”. Just don’t expect to learn how to get to the Northwest Passage. It serves as a good history lesson about the original “Rangers” that inspired all the other Ranger groups throughout American military history. Today’s Army Rangers should watch it to learn their heritage. Boy Scouts should be required to watch it so they won’t complain next time they are in the woods. Anyone in a leadership position might get some ideas from Robert Rogers. You might want to be careful with his advice on how to handle worker injuries. One group that should skip it – Native Americans.

Next up:  #96 - Ben Hur


  1. In "The Searchers," the Texas Rangers and US Cavalry attack a sleeping Comanche village, and we see the Indians trying to protect their children. It was no "Little Big Man" or "Soldier Blue," but it did at least admit that there was savagery on both sides.

    1. The scene in "The Searchers" would have been better executed with different music, in my opinion. And a way of showing the Texas Rangers as the "other", as a shadowy menace.

  2. The title "Northwest Passage" is misleading. The subtitle "part 1-Rogers' Rangers" seems to imply that they planned to make a sequel based on the second part of the book. A host on TCM once commented, "Seventy years later, we're still waiting."

  3. With three incredible actors (Spencer Tracy, Walter Brennan, Robert Young) in one movie; there was no other outcome but a great movie.

    The scenery is perfect and with a musical score by Herbert Stothart to match.

    It is only a shame they didn't do book/part 2. If ever there was a movie part 2 was needed it was this.

    Of course Errol Flynn's Objective Burma and Gary Coopers Distant Drums were remakes of the same storyline/theme. Also classics!

  4. A sequel would have been great, but I do not think Hollywood was addicted to them back then.

  5. It's a good looking, well-edited film.
    I much prefer 'The Hidden Fortress'. Not a perfect film either, but Tahei and Matashichi have a much stronger chemistry than Towne and Marriner, who for most of the film are rarely seen together, and from whose perspective the film is much more rarely told.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.