Northwest Passage (1940)

Directed by King Vidor
Written by Laurence Stallings and Talbot Jennings

The beauty of the Western genre is, even though it may be summarized into just 7 different plots, it can still run the gambit. In this next installment in my never ending marathon of the genre, we get a taste at the frontier western. Some may not consider this a part of the genre, and it is a stretch, but for me, even though much of this film takes place in New Hampshire and Canada, it still has the same principles as many of the other films already reviewed here. Northwest Passage is a film about rugged men pushing forward into uncivilized lands. When I think about the old West, I think of uncivilized lands, which is why there were so many outlaws and bandits, so many mythical lawmen. If I open my imagination up enough, I can find a place for Northwest Passage as a western. That, however, doesn’t necessarily mean it is a particularly good one.

After getting kicked out of Harvard College, Langdon Towne (Robert Young) heads home to Portsmouth where he runs into old friend Hunk (Walter Brennan). After failing to impress the father of Elizabeth Browne (Ruth Hussey) with his ambitions to become a painter, Langdon and Hunk get into a fight at the local tavern. After fleeing into the wilderness, they encounter Major Rogers (Spencer Tracy), who hires them on as part of his rangers. Rogers’ Rangers trek through the northern wilderness to seek revenge against the Indians. But on their way, they encounter numerous perils, including hunger. As they work through the landscape toward Fort Wentworth, where they are to rendezvous and receive supplies, some of the men begin to doubt they’ll ever make it.

I’m perfectly fine with classifying this as a Western, even if it feels a little different from what most would consider. Trade in the dust and sand and ghost towns for wilderness and you have the same basic concept. Maybe I just say that because it was a chance to see Spencer Tracy and Walter Brennan. Each are fine here, especially Brennan, as always. This is actually the first time I have seen Tracy and I enjoyed his performance as the rugged, confident leader. The other two notable performances, Robert Young and Walter Brennan, were also good, though stood out a little less. This is definitely Tracy’s film once we are introduced to his character. Young is forgettable and standard, while Brennan is himself as always. I am starting to really enjoy every time he shows up in one of these Westerns.

The story itself here, however, is fairly unexciting, even given its promising premise. The trek through the wilderness is met with a few interesting and exciting moments, like when they must cross a rapids section of the river, and using his ingenuity, Major Rogers puts on a display of great strength and fortitude. But a major issue the film had was its treatment of Native Americans. From what I can gather, the treatment reflects that of the source material, but that is hardly an acceptable excuse. The main plot of the film centers around a group of British Rangers (this is pre-US) settling out to essentially exterminate a tribe of Indians for the purposes of British expansion. And the characters certainly show no appreciation for their culture, merely mowing their way through this lesser culture for the purpose of advancement. The racial treatment here is very problematic, and impossible to ignore.

There is some stunning color cinematography here, certainly an attraction. The wilderness makes for some beautiful shots throughout. One of stranger elements to this film is how it is really only the first part of a supposed trilogy, which never came about. This film was adapted from the first part of a novel, with the promise of the rest to follow, but the budget for Northwest Passage versus the money it made prompted producers to scrap the following projects. For this reason, the film feels partially incomplete, and renders the title of the film rather silly. I would be interested the see where the story takes us beyond its conclusion here. I don’t see Northwest Passage as necessarily incomplete, but rather lacking in anything notable, expect perhaps its beautiful raw wilderness vistas and Tracy and Brennan’s undeniable presence.

** 1/2 – Average

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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