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In 1937, MGM bought, for an undisclosed "record" sum, a new book by Kenneth Roberts that was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post. It told the story of Rogers' Rangers, an 18th century expedition that defeated a tribe of warring Indians on the American frontier (primarily New York state and Eastern Canada), and then headed West in search of a water passage that might connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Because of the vast scope of the book, the studio decided to make two movies out of it. The first told only of the Indian war: In 1759, Langdon Towne (Robert Young) is expelled from college and heads West to flee a wealthy, powerful man he has publicly insulted. He and his friend "Hunk" (Walter Brennan) meet Major Robert Rogers (Spencer Tracy) and join his perilous mission to wipe out a hostile Indian tribe. Nearly dead from attacks, starvation, and arduous treks through wild, inhospitable territory, the rangers at last reach their destination. The tribe defeated, Rogers leads his remaining men West to find the illusive passage, while Towne decides to travel to England to pursue his goal of becoming an artist. He vows to make Rogers' exploits famous through his paintings.
Thanks to an exciting story based on historical facts, lush Technicolor location photography (that garnered an Oscar nomination), and a solid performance from star Spencer Tracy, Northwest Passage (1940) was a hit with audiences and critics alike (Variety called it "one of the finest epic adventure dramas ever screened"). Yet, in many ways, the picture was a success in spite of itself. The lengthy, often difficult production passed through the command of several directors; the original all-star cast was nixed; and the screenplay's storyline, which a number of writers had a hand in at some point, ended before the quest for the legendary Northwest Passage even began.
In addition to the two credited screenwriters (Talbot Jennings and Laurence Stallings), the script was labored over by no less than a dozen others, including playwrights Robert Sherwood and Sidney Howard, and King Vidor, the director who eventually completed the picture. W.S. Van Dyke was assigned to it first, and scouted locations throughout the West in 1938. About 60,000 feet of background shots had been completed in Idaho before Van Dyke was taken off the picture because of a scheduling conflict and replaced by Vidor; Jack Conway eventually shot some additional scenes as well.
Northwest Passage was intended to be MGM's first full production in three-strip Technicolor, the revolutionary photo process that made its feature debut about five years earlier. But pre-production delays led to the decision to film a Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald musical in color first. Nevertheless, color tests were ordered for Tracy, who producers wanted for the part of Rogers from the start. (Wallace Beery, Robert Taylor, Franchot Tone, and MGM's newest discovery, Greer Garson, were also scheduled for the cast, but none of them made it into the final film.) In terms of extras, it was said that over three hundred Indians from the Nez Perce reservation and an entire Blackfoot tribe were recruited for scenes that were filmed at Glacier National Park.
Vidor had significant challenges making the movie in color. For one thing, the tough location shoot required that the bulky equipment needed to shoot in Technicolor had to be transported in two trains to the remote Idaho setting in McCall and the Payette Lake region. Vidor wanted the green of the Rangers' uniforms to blend in with the scenery, which would have been more accurate and logical, considering the explorers' need to make their way through the forest unseen by Indians. Instead, they came out on film as a very vivid Kelly green, and the director had to persuade the color lab to mix another shade. The blue skies and the wilderness scenes were also rendered in vivid, eye-popping colors ╨ the opposite effect Vidor wanted for a story about the hardships the men encountered on their way west.
The most demanding scene for the actors involved the filming of the "human chain" employed by the Rangers to cross a treacherous body of water. The actors themselves had to do the shots without benefit of stunt doubles. The sequence was begun at Payette Lake in Idaho but had to be completed in the studio tank because the lake was too dangerous. For Tracy, who once complained that the physical labors required of actors "wouldn't tax an embryo," it was his most difficult shoot to that point, surpassing even the taxing ocean scenes of his Oscar-winning Captains Courageous (1937)
Vidor wrote in his autobiography, A Tree is a Tree, "For weeks we worked in swamps and these men had to stand and walk day after day knee-deep and often waist-deep in water. They never complained, although the members of our cast were taken out at periodic intervals and given rubdowns by a corps of masseurs brought along for that purpose." And there were additional hazards. "Some of us had tick fever," Vidor recounted in an interview with Nancy Dowd and David Shepard for A Director Guild of America Oral History publication. "Everyone was afraid that they would be bitten by ticks. I remember we used to come in at night and put a white sheet on the floor, undress on the white sheet, drop all the clothes on the floor and see if there were any ticks that showed up on the sheet. If you saw any, you would kill them. Then you would put on different clothes after you took a shower."
The least appealing aspect of Northwest Passage for today's audiences is its attitude toward the Indians. Racial hatred pervades the film, erupting in the action sequences or even among the Rangers in casual scenes where they jokingly banter with each other. However, audiences at the time of the picture's release were willing to overlook that and accept the script's "justification" for the hatred, claiming retaliation for brutal attacks against settlers. Thrilled by Vidor's powerful direction and a performance by Tracy one critic said was on a par with his Oscar winning roles in Captains Courageous and Boys Town (1938), viewers flocked to see the epic. Unfortunately, costs had run to well over $2 million by the time the film was released, so even packed houses failed to turn a profit. Because of that, MGM didn't make the planned follow-up film, which would have shown the quest for the Northwest Passage. Instead, Roberts and his men are shown striding off in the distance toward a sequel that never happened.
Director: King Vidor
Producer: Hunt Stromberg
Screenplay: Talbot Jennings, Laurence Stallings, based on the book by Kenneth Roberts
Cinematography: William V. Skall, Sidney Wagner
Editing: Conrad A. Nervig
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Major Robert Rogers), Robert Young (Langdon Towne), Walter Brennan (Hunk Marriner), Ruth Hussey (Elizabeth Browne), Nat Pendleton (Cap Huff).
C-127m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon