Northwest Passage (film)

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Northwest Passage
Northwest passage poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by King Vidor
Produced by Hunt Stromberg
Written by Laurence Stallings
Talbot Jennings
Starring Spencer Tracy
Robert Young
Music by Herbert Stothart
Cinematography William V. Skall
Sidney Wagner
Edited by Conrad A. Nervig
Distributed by Loew's Inc.
Release date
  • February 23, 1940 (1940-02-23)
Running time
125 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $2,687,000[1][2]
Box office $3,150,000[1]

Northwest Passage is a 1940 Technicolor film, starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Young, Walter Brennan, Ruth Hussey, and others. The picture is based on a novel by Kenneth Roberts titled Northwest Passage (1937).


The film opens in the year 1759 with the arrival of Langdon Towne (Robert Young) in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The son of a cordage (rope)- maker and ship rigger, he returns from Harvard University after being expelled for complaining about college food and drawing an unflattering picture of the President of Harvard College. Though disappointed, Langdon's family greets him with love, as does Elizabeth Browne (Ruth Hussey), the daughter of a noted clergyman. Elizabeth's father (Louis Hector) is less welcoming, however, and denigrates Langdon's aspirations to becoming a painter. That evening, while drinking in the local tavern with friend Sam Livermore (Lester Matthews), Langdon makes indiscreet remarks disparaging Wiseman Clagett (Montagu Love), the king's attorney, and the Indian agent, Sir William Johnson, unaware that Clagett is sitting in the next room with another official. Facing arrest for his comments, Langdon fights the two men with the help of "Hunk" Marriner (Walter Brennan), a local woodsman and friend, before they both escape into the woods.

As they flee westward, Langdon and Marriner stop in a backwoods tavern for something to drink. There they meet a man in a green uniform who treats them to a drink called "Flip" which is similar to hot buttered rum, after they help him with a drunk American Indian. After a night of drinking, the two men wake up at Fort Crown Point, where they are told that the man they had met was Major Rogers (Spencer Tracy), the commander of Rogers' Rangers. Needing Langdon's mapmaking skills, Rogers recruits the two men for his latest expedition, one to destroy the hostile Abenakis tribe and their town of St. Francis far to the north.

Setting out at dusk, Rogers' force rows north using whale boats on Lake Champlain. Traveling by night, they successfully evade river patrols by French forces but are forced to send several soldiers back to the fort after a confrontation with Mohawk scouts who were dismissed by Rogers. During the confrontation, a powder keg explodes which injures some of his force. However, Rogers not only sends back the injured to Crown Point, but the disloyal Mohawks provided him by Sir William Johnson (Frederick Worlock), and a number of his men who didn't obey orders to avoid a confrontation with the Mohawks. Although his force is depleted, the rangers move onto their objective. Concealing their boats for a much later return, the force marches northward through swampland, avoiding dry land wherever possible to conceal their movements. When informed by his Stockbridge Indian scouts left to watch over the boats that the French have captured their boats and extra supplies, Rogers revises his plan and sends an injured officer back to Fort Crown Point requesting the British to send supplies to old Fort Wentworth, where the returning rangers will meet them.

After making a human chain to cross an unbridged river, the rangers reach St. Francis. The force succeeds in their attack, setting fire to the dwellings and cutting the Abenakis off from retreat. When the battle is over, however, the rangers find only a few baskets of parched corn with which to replenish their dwindling provisions. Worse, as Marriner is searching the destroyed village, he comes across a prostrate Langdon suffering from a bullet wound in his abdomen. Facing hostile forces and a long march with only meager supplies, the rangers set out on their course to Wentworth, trying to evade the French and Indians pursuing them. Their initial objective is Lake Memphremagog, with the injured Langdon bringing up the rear.

Ten days later, Rogers' men reach the hills just above Lake Memphremagog, where they hope to find food by stopping to hunt and fish. Encountering signs of French activity, Rogers prefers to press on to Fort Wentworth a hundred miles distant, but the men vote to split up into four parties and fan out in search of game to eat. Game proves scare, though; worse, two of the detachments are ambushed by the French and most of the men killed.

After persevering through harsh conditions, Rogers and the remaining fifty men finally reach the fort, only to find it unoccupied and in a state of disrepair. The hoped-for British relief column has not arrived. Though personally despairing, Rogers attempts to rally the men, who are on the verge of collapse. As Rogers attempts to perk up their flagging spirits with a prayer, they hear the fifes and drums of approaching British boats with the supplies. Reporting that the Abenakis are destroyed, the British do Rogers' men the honor of presenting their firearms and shouting "Huzzah". After returning to Portsmouth, Langdon reunites with Elizabeth while Rogers' Rangers are given a new mission: to find the Northwest Passage. Rogers fires them up with a brief speech telling them of all the wonders they will see while they march towards the first point of embarkation, a little fort called "Detroit." He passes by Langdon and Elizabeth to say goodbye where Elizabeth informs him that she and Langdon are headed for London where she is hopeful he will learn to become a great painter. Rogers bids them farewell and marches down the road and off into the sunset.




The film is set in the mid 18th century during the French and Indian War (as the Seven Years' War in North America is usually known in the US). It is a partly fictionalised account of the St. Francis Raid, an attack by Rogers' Rangers on Saint Francis (the current Odanak, Quebec), a settlement of the Abenakis, an American Indian tribe. The purpose of the raid is to avenge the many attacks on British settlers and deter further attacks.

The title is something of a misnomer, since this film is a truncated version of the original story, and only at the end do we find that Rogers and his men are about to go on a search for the Northwest Passage.


The film was shot in central Idaho, near Payette Lake and the city of McCall.

The film wound up as MGM's most expensive film since Ben Hur (1926).[2] The picture was originally slated for an even more lavish budget in an earlier incarnation and was to star Wallace Beery and Tracy but management difficulties between Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer interceded at that time.

Depiction of American Indians[edit]

The film's depiction of American Indians has in recent years been criticized as racist, even by the standards of Hollywood at the time. This treatment mirrors the section of the book set during the French and Indian War, which was equally regarded as deeply racist.[3]


Box office[edit]

According to MGM records the film earned $2,169,000 in the US and Canada and $981,000 elsewhere but because of its high cost incurred a loss of $885,000.[1]

Awards and honors[edit]

The film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography (Color) in 1941, but lost the award to The Thief of Bagdad.

Sequels and related projects[edit]

According to one source, the script was revised by as many as 12 other writers, in addition to the two credited.[4] Author Kenneth Roberts served as a co-writer on a second draft of a proposed script for the movie, one that covered the entire novel, not just the first book of it. However, executives at MGM scuttled the revision and instead used the first draft of the script, which covered only the first book, as the basis for the finished film. This is why the film Northwest Passage was subtitled Book One: Roger's Rangers.

Director King Vidor then attempted to make a sequel to the film in which Rogers' Rangers find the Northwest Passage, although Roberts refused to cooperate with the project. But filming never began, because MGM ultimately refused to "greenlight" it.

MGM produced a 1958-1959 American television series Northwest Passage starring Keith Larsen as Robert Rogers, with Buddy Ebsen costarring as "Hunk" Marriner, replacing Walter Brennan, who had his own TV series, The Real McCoys, in production at the time. The show aired on NBC.[5]


  1. ^ a b c The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study .
  2. ^ a b James Curtis, Spencer Tracy: A Biography, Alfred Knopf, 2011 p388, 399 puts this figure at $4 million
  3. ^ According to the book, American treatment of natives during that war was similar to American treatment of Japanese during World War II, although Towne's experiences with natives cause him to question it.
  4. ^ Rob Nixon, Northwest Passage,
  5. ^

External links[edit]