A bit of a plodder
MGM rather missed the boat (or the stagecoach anyway) in 1939 when the big-budget adult Western suddenly became fashionable again at the end of the 1930s and the other major studios released A-pictures in the genre. Fox started things in January 1939, releasing its Technicolor blockbuster Jesse James, with the studio’s big star Tyrone Power; United Artists followed in February with John Ford’s highly successful Stagecoach; on April 1 Warners premièred its Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland picture Dodge City in Dodge City; and at the end of that month we got Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea in Paramount’s Cecil B DeMille-directed mega-budget picture Union Pacific; finally, at the end of November, Universal released its Destry Rides Again with Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart. Westerns were decidedly all the rage – and grown-ups were waiting in line all round the block to get in and see them. Only Metro, of the majors, had nothing to offer that year – unless you count Stand Up and Fight, with Wallace Beery and a young Robert Taylor, not really a true Western, more of a costume drama.
Back in 1937, the year of Paramount’s precursor Wells Fargo, MGM bought the rights to the new Kenneth Roberts novel Northwest Passage, and the idea was to use it as a vehicle for the studio’s great white hope Spencer Tracy. They might have got the new picture out in ’39, to rival the others, but it was beset with problems. Tracy had been signed by Metro in 1935, and in 1937 and ‘38 he won consecutive Oscars, for Captains Courageous and Boys Town, so he was a hot property. He hadn’t done a Western and would in his career largely avoid the genre, but it didn’t matter. Northwest Passage was hardly a Western anyway.
John Ford, who, as well as Stagecoach also, in November of ’39, had the eighteenth-century frontier story Drums Along the Mohawk released, said that there had been so few of these semi-Westerns “I think because actors are afraid of wearing those wigs.” I don’t know about that but it is right that many of these stories, dating from Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales, didn’t ring true as Westerns. Knee-britches and tricorn hats didn’t suit, a coonskin cap was no match for a Stetson, those single-shot muskets could never rival a Winchester, and the whole setting was wrong – too Eastern and too early. They were frontier stories alright but the frontier then was in upper New York State. Hollywood tried to give them a Western gloss, especially when Indians could be woven in, but it never really worked. Furthermore, the pre-Revolutionary War movies had the heroes fighting for or with the British, and that was hard to portray positively to all-American Western fans.
Northwest Passage was the story of Major Robert Rogers (Tracy). Rogers, born in Massachusetts in 1731, was a British army officer during both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. During the French and Indian War, Rogers raised and commanded the famous Rogers’ Rangers, trained for raiding and close combat behind enemy lines. He had a slightly shady past, having in 1754 become involved with a gang of counterfeiters; he was indicted but the case was never brought to trial. His Rangers operated primarily in the Lake George and Lake Champlain regions. They frequently undertook winter raids against French towns and military emplacements, traveling on sleds, crude snowshoes, and even ice skates across frozen rivers. Rogers showed an unusual talent for commanding his unit in conditions to which the regular armies of the day were unaccustomed. In 1758 he was promoted to major, with the almost equally famous John Stark as his second-in-command.
In 1759 Major Rogers was sent with 200 men deep behind enemy lines to attack the Abenaki Indians at their village of St Francis in Quebec. It is this which is the subject of the film – not the search for the Northwest Passage at all, which only starts in the very last minutes of the movie – hence the ‘Book 1’ part of the title.
The attack was a doubtful success. Rogers burned St Francis and claimed to have killed 200 Indians but probably killed only 30 and captured 5, at a loss to his own men of 41 killed, 7 wounded and 10 captured. So it was a Pyrrhic victory at best, if a victory at all. Furthermore, his force ran out of food during their retreat through the rugged wilderness of northern Vermont. In the movie, however, only heroism and conquest are on display.
One of the more unpleasant aspects of the MGM film is the sheer glee with which they burn down the village, massacre all the men of fighting age, steal all the food they have left and cheerfully joke that anyone else can feast on roast Indian. Director King Vidor’s work was, according to Wikipedia, “distinguished by a vivid, humane, and sympathetic depiction of contemporary social issues”. You certainly wouldn’t know it from this picture. This was of course well before the 1950s more positive portrayal of American Indians began with the likes of Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway and Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow, but still Northwest Passage is one of the most egregious of the Hollywood movies concerned with the wholesale slaughter of indigenous peoples, and it is nastily racist, even for its time. There’s even a sub-plot about a ranger who, while the others are starving, periodically snacks from something in a pouch which turns out to be the severed head of an Indian.
The project started badly when MGM handed it to WS Van Dyke (1889 – 1943), famed for The Thin Man (1934) and the first big disaster movie San Francisco (1936), who happened to be married to the niece of Metro exec EJ Mannix. Nicknamed ‘One-Take Woody’, for his propensity for churning out product rapidly and cheaply, he had started under DW Griffith and directed many silent Westerns from 1917 on. But he suffered from various ailments and as a Christian Scientist refused all treatment. Eventually he committed suicide in 1943. Wallace Beery and Robert Taylor were lined up to star with Tracy. The script was still undergoing rewrites when shooting finally began in 1938, and 60,000 feet were completed. But too much time had elapsed, Van Dyke was now needed on the set of Another Thin Man, which would be released in November ’39, and he was replaced by Vidor. Taylor and Beery dropped out, and were replaced by Robert Young as the ingénu painter and mapmaker Langdon Towne, who is at the center of the novel, and Walter Brennan, only 45 but already specializing in comic-relief/cranky old-timer parts, as Hunk Marriner (with the worst teeth ever seen on film). Shooting in Idaho and Oregon was beset by illness caused by ticks, the new film-stock didn’t match the old, the Technicolor cameras weighed in at a huge 300 kilos+ and were almost impossible to shift, Vidor himself got restless and also fell out with Tracy, Jack Conway taking over direction, and the whole thing seemed ill fated.
Technically the picture was a hodgepodge. Frank Nugent in The New York Times of the day wrote that it was “too generously Technicolored”, adding that “The picture’s color is eye-blasting in almost every interior shot, with faces sunburned to salmon pink and a trace of coral in all the decorations,” while the exteriors featured “Redcoats on parade, redskins in the smoke of battle, red blood running redder still and red-haired scalps drying on the tent poles without, completely out-dazzling the subtler sequences.” William V Skall, then Sidney Wagner were the cinematographers. The picture was actually nominated for Best Color Photography but lost out to The Thief of Bagdad, probably rightly.
That said, there are some stunning shots of seemingly virgin Northwestern land, and the famous scene of the human chain the men form to cross a treacherous river, filmed without stunt doubles in an Idaho lake and a tank in Hollywood, are remarkable.
Once the village has been destroyed, the pace of the picture slows right down, as tales of men walking long distances are wont to do, and another weakness is the rather daft costumes of the rangers (I don’t know how authentic they were), which resemble those in a Robin Hood movie. Of course Tracy is strong, and Young quite good too. The movie isn’t a total dud. In fact it did reasonably well at the box-office, even if it couldn’t compete with the likes of Disney’s Pinocchio and Fantasia or United Artists’ Rebecca, and MGM found that it did not recoup the $4m cost (it was the most expensive picture Metro had made to date).
The designed sequel, to tell of the Northwest Passage itself, died on the vine. The novel anyway described how Rogers had failed in business ventures, was equally unsuccessful as a gambler, was arrested by George Washington in the Revolutionary War, escaped and formed another Rangers unit for the British army, his wife divorced him on grounds of abandonment and infidelity, he became an alcoholic and died in debt and obscurity in London in 1795. No director MGM might muster could make that story attractive, and Tracy was unlikely to want to play such a role. Roberts too wanted no part of it. In any case the money men vetoed the idea.
MGM did produce a TV series, though, Northwest Passage, which NBC started screening in the fall of 1958. It starred Keith Larsen as Rogers, Don Burnett as Towne and Buddy Ebsen as Hunk Marriner. This did concentrate more on the search for the titular route to the Indies. But it only ran for one season and wasn’t renewed.
Northwest Passage, the movie, has its admirers. But I’m not one of them.