Northwest Passage (film)

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). In February 2020, the film was shown at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival, as part of a retrospective dedicated to King Vidor's career.[3]

Northwest Passage
Northwest passage poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byKing Vidor
Produced byHunt Stromberg
Screenplay byLaurence Stallings
Talbot Jennings
Based onNorthwest Passage
1937 novel
by Kenneth Roberts
StarringSpencer Tracy
Robert Young
Music byHerbert Stothart
CinematographyWilliam V. Skall
Sidney Wagner
Edited byConrad A. Nervig
Distributed byLoew's Inc.
Release date
  • February 23, 1940 (1940-02-23)
Running time
125 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$3,150,000[1]


In 1759, Langdon Towne (Robert Young), son of a cordage (rope)- maker and ship rigger, returns to Portsmouth, New Hampshire after his expulsion from Harvard University. Though disappointed, his family greets him with love, as does Elizabeth Browne (Ruth Hussey). Elizabeth's father (Louis Hector), a noted clergyman, is less welcoming, and denigrates Langdon's aspirations to become a painter.

At the local tavern with friend Sam Livermore (Lester Matthews), Langdon disparages Wiseman Clagett (Montagu Love), the king's attorney, and the Indian agent Sir William Johnson, unaware that Clagett is in the next room with another official. Facing arrest, Langdon fights the two men with the help of "Hunk" Marriner (Walter Brennan), a local woodsman, and both escape into the woods.

Fleeing westward, Langdon and Marriner stop in a backwoods tavern, where they help a man in a green uniform. After a night of drinking "Flip" - similar to hot buttered rum - the two men wake up at Fort Crown Point, where they learn the man they met is Major Robert Rogers (Spencer Tracy), commander of Rogers' Rangers. In need of Langdon's map-making skills, Rogers recruits the two men for his latest expedition to destroy the hostile Abenakis tribe and their town of St. Francis far to the north, several miles north of New Hampshire's northernmost border.

Rogers' force rows north in whale boats on Lake Champlain by night, evading French patrols, but several soldiers are injured in a confrontation with Mohawk scouts. Rogers sends not only the wounded back to Crown Point, but also the disloyal Mohawks provided by Sir William Johnson (Frederick Worlock) and a number of men who disobeyed orders. Concealing their boats, the depleted force marches through swampland to conceal their movements. Informed by Stockbridge Indian scouts 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 send supplies to old Fort Wentworth, to be met by the returning rangers.

Making a human chain to cross a river, the rangers reach St. Francis. Their attack succeeds, and they set fire to the dwellings and cut the Abenakis off from retreat. After the battle, the rangers find only a few baskets of parched corn to replenish their meager provisions. Marriner finds Langdon shot in his abdomen. The rangers set out for Wentworth, pursued by hostile French and Indian forces. Their initial objective is Lake Memphremagog, with the injured Langdon bringing up the rear.

Ten days later, Rogers' men reach the hills above Lake Memphremagog. Encountering signs of French activity, Rogers prefers to press on a hundred miles to Fort Wentworth, but the men vote to split up into four parties to hunt for food. Game proves scare, and two of the detachments are ambushed by the French, leaving most of the men dead. Persevering through harsh conditions, Rogers and the remaining fifty men finally reach the fort, only to find it unoccupied and in disrepair, and the British relief column has not arrived. Though personally despairing, Rogers attempts to rally the men from 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 have been destroyed, the British honor Rogers’ men by presenting their firearms and shouting "Huzzah".

Returning to Portsmouth, Langdon reunites with Elizabeth while the Rangers are given a new mission: to find the Northwest Passage. Rogers fires them up with a speech about the wonders they will see on the march to the first point of embarkation, a little fort called "Detroit." He passes by Langdon and Elizabeth to say goodbye; Elizabeth informs him that she and Langdon are headed for London where she is hopeful Langdon will 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 IndiansEdit

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.

Biographer Clive Denton made these observations on the subject:

Vidor’s Northwest Passage “sits more than a trifle uneasily that [Spencer] Tracy and his submissive band attack and burn a sleeping Indian village. The tribe has massacred and outraged [innocent whites], we are told, but we have not seen them do anything wrong, and they are certainly not belligerent in their sleep. Perhaps I should not berate Vidor for the conventions of good guys and bad guys in adventure movies. But I am still somewhat bothered by Major Rogers, who, beneath Tracy’s charm, is something of a bastard...” (emphasis in original) [4]


Box officeEdit

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 honorsEdit

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 projectsEdit

According to one source, the script was revised by as many as 12 other writers, in addition to the two credited.[5] 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.[6]


  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. ^ "Berlinale 2020: Retrospective "King Vidor"". Berlinale. Retrieved 28 February 2020.
  4. ^ Denton, 1976 p. 19-20: Denton adds that Tracy’s character, Major Rogers “reminds his men to kill only bad Indians, not the good ones, who conveniently wear white crosses on their backs. Perhaps in 1939 one could question less the morality and the smooth practicality of such discrimination.”
  5. ^ Rob Nixon, Northwest Passage,
  6. ^


  • Denton, Clive. 1976. The Hollywood Professionals, Volume 5: King Vidor, John Cromwell, Mervyn LeRoy. The Tanvity Press, London. ISBN 0-498-01689-7

External linksEdit