Director: King Vidor
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Robert Young, Walter Brennan
When discussing the greatest action/adventure movies ever made, it always saddens me to see this film excluded from the list. Northwest Passage is one of the most brutal and realistic epics of Hollywood's golden age, depicting a real-life story of one of the most harrowing military expeditions in history. It also contains one of the great battle sequences, the raid on the Indian encampment, which I would rank among the top ten action scenes ever filmed.
It's difficult to understand it's relative obscurity, considering it was a major studio production and stars one of the greatest actors in Hollywood history, Spencer Tracy, in a rare turn as an action hero, though it's much more than that. Part of the reason may be our current, overly-fragile, politically-correct climate, which certainly would object to the depictions of Native Americans, even though they are treated in a light becoming of the period depicted. I find such criticism, fruitless and ultimately, needless, as soldier's depiction of the enemy and the demonizing of race and country, is not limited to the past, but found in all conflict. Plus, the characters are hardly depicted as being saintly, all carrying flaws with them, as well as humanity, which is often forgotten. There are Indians fighting alongside the Rangers depicted in this film, after all and respect for those compatriots is evident, having been carried over from the book from whence this was based, the classic, Northwest Passage by Kenneth Roberts, one of the great books about the colonial period in America and a must for military and adventure buffs, the world over.
Likewise, this film film is recommended for much of the same audience, namely those seeking high class adventure and excitement, in the classic tradition.
Originally designed as a two-part film(hence the subtitle, of "Book One") this film depicts the adventures of Robert's Rangers, an early special forces outfit, commanded by Major Robert Rogers(Spencer Tracy) one of the most fascinating, if forgotten, figures in early American history. The film begins with Langdon Towne(Robert Young) returning to his country home from Harvard. He went to be a minister, but would much rather be an artist, instead, hoping to paint Indians. He leaves behind his beauteous fiance, Elizabeth(Ruth Hussey, one of the most gorgeous and underutilized leading ladies of the classic era.)
He meets up with "Hunk" Mariner(Walter Brennan, the perennial sidekick character in so many adventure films) and they journey together to go west, a decision forced upon them when they speak out against a corrupt government official(a moment that really sows the seeds for the Revolution in viewer's minds) and they find themselves at a tavern("Last Whiskey for 54 miles") where they find Major Rogers, attempting to sober up an Indian Guide through song in a humorous scene.
The boys get to talking and Rogers hears that Langdon has some knowledge of the Northwest Passage, and this intrigues Rogers, as well as Langdon being a talented artist and mapmaker. So, Mariner and Towne are liquored up pretty good and find themselves at a military fort, where they are offered a position in Roger's Rangers for a military expedition to Fort St. Francis, where they are to take out a large army of Abenaki Indians, who are under the command of the French.(This being set during the French and Indian War, or for you out of the United States, the Seven Years War). It's a controversial mission, but when Rogers explains the atrocities that the tribe had committed against the settlers, Lord Amherst(Lumsden Hare) replies, "By Jove, i'd go after them!" and gives the Major his blessing, sending him and his men on their way.
After setting out by canoe(and across some gorgeous vistas that will be scarcely seen in modern movies) the threat of French and Indian forces become apparent, seen at a distance, creating a level of tension in the 200 man army, and the audience. Problems arise when some of the Indians are sen packing back to Crown Point, as being dishonest to Rogers, proving they're loyalty to one of Roger's rivals back at the fort. A fight breaks out among the men about who is loyal to who, and of nationality, which ends with a Mohawk Indian shooting a barrel of gunpowder, which wounds a number of men. As a result, Rogers loses 50 of his men, who are all sent back to the Crown Point for either medical aid or because they could not follow orders.
After an arduous scene where the men have to lug several canoes over a mountain to evade being spotted by the French, Rogers explains the mission and it's objective. Lt. Crofton(Addison Richards) is brought in to illustrate what the Abenaki did to his brother and other soldiers in grisly detail for a film made in the 40s.
Dispensing of the boats, the men make it on foot, through swamps and muddy terrain, so as to not leave any footprints. This leads to a bizarre scene where the men(all 150 of them) are sleeping in various trees, where inevitably, several fall out and one of them, a soldier named Webster, even breaks his foot in two places, forcing him to be left behind. A few other battered soldiers are sent to Crown Point to deliver orders for rations and supplies to make it's way to old Fort Wentworth, where the remaining Rangers will meet at the completion of the mission.
To get there, they have to cross a raging river. With no chain on hand, they endeavor to create a human chain, by wrapping arms together and using man power, in the most literal way. It's a thrilling sequence, with no stunt doubles and it amazes the viewer on it's ingenuity and sheer bravery. You would never see anything like this today.
Soon, they are upon the encampment and Rogers lays out the plan of attack, everybody tense and scared, especially Towne, who has never even shot a man before. It's night and the plan is to attack at dawn, which is built up beautifully to one of the classic action sequences of all time.
Moving quietly through the fort, Rogers leads the initial group, only pausing to chuck a tomahawk at a dog(!) and sound the attack bell, by firing a cannon into a room of sleeping French officers!
The battle begins with each group attacking in formation against the Indians who either fight or flee, as the attackers swarm them. Highlights include a wonderful old guy named Jesse Beacham(Hugh Sothern) getting two Indians on the other side of a river and proclaiming, "Prettiest shot I ever made!" There's also some great editing here, which sometimes makes the action resemble an absurd football game, as well as an early POV shot involving a Ranger lining up his shot on a fleeing Indian. There's muskets, pistols, knives, hatchets and everything else imaginable used in the melee, and it's pretty brutal stuff for the 1940s. The stand-out has to be Crofton, who takes in maniacal delight in hacking his victims to death, blood splattering his shirt as he laughs in glee. Honestly, I have no clue how this ever got past the censors. When one soldier asks him, "Haven't you had enough?" Crofton's reply is a manic cackle. It still gives me the shivers.
After the smoke clears, the white settlers who were taken captive are rounded up, including a young woman named Jennie Coit(Isabel Jewell) who resembles Beverly Garland and calls Spencer Tracy, a "white devil," which i'm sure will amuse many viewers, as it did me.
Rogers leaves the old and warns them and tells them this is a lesson and that they ever attack any settlements again, he will have no mercy the next time. It's easy to understand the sentiments, when a grotesquely visible reminder is seen taken down as he speaks, a pole containing hundreds of dried scalps!
During the fight, Towne has been wounded and describes his wound like feeling like he spilled hot soup on himself, as he got a bayonet in the gut. Rogers has orders to leave any man behind that can't do his own walking, but he has a conscience, knowing he got Towne in this mess and gives him a pep talk, reminding him that he's got a pretty girl back home and a reason to live("You paint pictures") showing him his many sketches as he goes through Towne's sketchbook that he brought along.(I wonder where that book is today?) and Rogers enlists Jenny and a young Indian boy to help Towne walk and they set off for home.
After that horrendously violent sequence, the return home proves just as harrowing. The men expected to find food at St. Francis to keep them going, but instead found Indians. Now, they are starving and getting sick and an Officer's council is held, splitting the remaining group into hunting parties, with one detachment heading for Crown Point with the remaining Indians and the white settlers. As this is planned and the men are eating the few morsels of corn they have available to them, Crofton has gone mad, carrying with him a ghastly "souvenir" which turns out to be the head of an Abenaki Indian. Rogers discovers this and throws the head over a cliff, and Crofton threatens Rogers, but is thwarted by Towne, who tackles him. Crofton goes mad and jumps over the cliff to his death. Rogers salutes the veteran soldier.
Such horrific occurrences really did happen, as cannibalism was reported in the expedition, illustrating how poorly equipped and desperate these men were.
Rogers wants to keep the men together and suggests that a man can survive as long as the crow flies, but Mariner screws up his entire analogy, by replying that they are not crows. Mariner also gets angry at Rogers, because he doesn't end up in Towne's team. Tracy has a beautifully performed scene here, when he asks Brennan to have a little charity if he meets him when he is not a Major in command of men.
When the parties reunite, two whole detachments have been captured and murdered, as we are told in graphic detail, including one that stopped to cook a moose they had shot. Towne arrives, wounded and limping, mentioning how his comrades were hacked to pieces and how the Indians played ball with the heads of the dead.(Again, how did this get past the censors?)
Meanwhile, Rogers' men have concocted a wonderful starvation stew, including such wonderful delicacies like rock tripe, minnows, salamanders, crows and blue jays. I'm fascinated at what that must have tasted like, if it was indeed, edible.
The remaining men are on the trail again, looking more worn and haggard than before, with most near collapse, both mentally and physically. When they arrive at the fort, it's with great jubilation. However, the fort is found empty and in a wonderful moment for Tracy, Rogers is driven to tears, having stayed strong through the whole mission. When the men arrive and discover that they are basically finished, they understandably break down. However, the sound of a bugle in the distance, announces the arrival of British troops and soon the men are saved and fed by the soldiers, led by Lord Amherst, who congratulates them on a mission most impossible.
In the end, Rogers is decorated for his service and Towne and Mariner return home, both finished with war, and Towne is reunited with Elizabeth, who in technicolor, looks like a sexy, colonial vampire! Rogers is embarking on another expedition to discover a Northwest Passage, and stops to thank Towne for his service, repeating a line that he has said many times before, "I'll see you at sundown, Harvard" and departs into the sunset, a fitting conclusion for such a legendary character and one of the greatest performances from a giant of cinema, and ladies and gentlemen, this film is indeed a classic.
For one thing, the story of Roger's Rangers is one of the great military stories of history, as over 200 men made it through hostile territory, largely on foot, to decimate an army twice their size, and still make it back, though with under half of what they went in with. It's a powerful story and one that was destined to be a cinematic epic and director Vidor and star Tracy, were the perfect combo. Vidor was one of the great Hollywood directors, using his camera as a palette, utilizing the lost art of cinematography, in a way seldom seen today. His 1928 film, The Crowd, is one of the most breathtaking and beautiful films of the silent era. Northwest Passage is similarly as gritty and realistic, emphasizing natural locations and open vistas to achieve the great space of the New World. Each shot resembles a painting, much like the work of John Ford, and many beautiful compositions are interwoven, between the brutality and action.
Many of the action sequences are incredible, using several techniques that were not common for many years, including point of view shots and gore to emphasize the terror of combat. Hundreds of extras are used in the massive attack scene and it easily ranks among the ten best action sequences in film history. Sadly, it's hardly anthologized anymore, similar to the previous year's equally brilliant action masterpiece, Gunga Din, which may be the finest of the Hollywood adventure films.
Few films would depict with as much unflinching carnage the kind of violence that Vidor unleashes here, as Rogers Rangers prove themselves as potent as any later-day special forces outfit, attacking with everything they got against the hostile Indian force.
Tracy, who was largely known for appearing in comedies and social dramas, is a fine fit as Robert Rogers. He makes a great leader, one of the best in the cinema, able to invoke both presence and authority, while also sympathy and humanity. Tracy was a notorious bellyacher and he complained about this film as well, but he delivers the goods in one of his best roles. He really is believable in the action scenes and realistically distraught as he discovers that fort abandoned at the conclusion, his mind and body pushed towards the breaking point. It took an actor of some subtlety to carry such a character and Tracy does admirable in the role, creating a man of many dimensions, both epic and legendary, but also flawed and human.
Likewise, Young is very good in the role of Towne, the young man who acts as the eyes of the audience, along for the adventure and trying to make sense of the journey he has been pulled into. He brings a real conviction and naivety that helps the character along and makes him believable in transforming from innocent into mature man, which clearly was the intention, this being something of a tale of redemption and of maturity.
Walter Brennan is always a delight when playing his kooky characters, eccentrics like Mariner, a backwoods type, which the actor specialized in. He has wonderful comic timing throughout and lightens the mood, especially when the tension mounts. Brennan was an ideal choice for this part.
The supporting cast are wonderfully cast, with the obvious focus on burly and western types, bringing in one of the more memorable casts for an adventure movie. Addison Richards goes memorably mad in the picture, beginning as stalwart soldier and ending up as crazy cannibal. He's one of the most unforgettable things about this picture and is great here. Douglas Walton is the innocent Lt. Avery, who ends up mad as well, running over a mountain, thinking he has found his home. He was always a likable actor and his demise is quite poignant and beautifully shot. Donald MacBride is ideally cast as the gruff Sgt. McNott, constantly trying to keep the men in the sticks, no matter the odds.
I found Hugh Sothern's character of Jesse, to be especially amusing, offering many deadpan slices of philosophy throughout. His character is pretty humorous(I love what he calls minnows, "Little Stinkpans." I have to remind myself to use that sometime) and yet, he is one of the most grounded and noble of the cast, retaining courage right to the end. When he even has to admit that the men are right to protest at the conclusion, about finding the empty fort, it makes the scene more powerful.
Ruth Hussey is under-utilized, but makes an impression as Towne's lovely fiance, Elizabeth, It's not as showy a role as either of her parts in The Philadelphia Story(1940) or The Uninvited(1944), but she's still a lovely and welcome sight.
Nat Pendleton, the comic relief actor of many MGM films, also has a nice role as a friendly bartender, who befriends Towne and Mariner early in the picture.
No question, this was a very well-cast film.
Northwest Passage contains the most brutal action scenes of any classic adventure film, including the already mentioned raid on St. Francis. The river fording scene is exciting as hell and one of the most realistic ever attempted, probably because it wasn't faked! The film was shot on location and it gives the entire film a feeling of authenticity lost in other adventure and western films. There's a real sense of history on display here and it's doubtful that any will be produced with as much honesty and disregard for political correctness as this one, which just simply wants to tell a story and tell it as accurately as possible.
I'd implore any classic film buff to seek this one out at the earlier opportunity. With it's witty and accurate script, wonderful performances, and gorgeous cinematography and excellent action scenes, this stands atop as one of Hollywood's great adventure films and it deserves a reappraisal, posthaste! Northwest Passage is one of my favorite films, and it deserves more than being an obscurity of Hollywood's past. It's a truly classic film about man's struggle to overcome the impossible and how one can rise above his/her own problems to find salvation, even in the most precarious circumstances. For that alone, it's an important motion picture.