Starring: Spencer Tracy, Robert Young, Walter Brennan, Ruth Hussey
Screenplay: Laurence Stallings, Talbot Jennings
Director: King Vidor
Those who want to avoid repeating history are sometimes doomed to watch it.
King Vidor was a respected film director from the Silent Age who transitioned into talkies and even made a film in 1980, a career spanning seven decades. And judging by his body of work, he had no fear of nearly impossible novel adaptations, as judged by his attempts at Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Still, Northwest Passage can’t have been easy, and in fact, this film only adapts the first book, Roger’s Rangers.
I’ll be honest: this one was hard to get through. It involves a young artist played by Young who is fleeing possibly hanging for critical comments about the government. After getting drunk, he ends up in Rogers’ Rangers, a military outfit run by Major Rogers (Tracy), and they’re going to find a passage through French territory to the West. This will involve male bonding, hardship (eating a handful of corn a day, which made me think, isn’t corn basically indigestible and lacking calories?), homesickness, madness (some guys run right off a cliff, one guy cackles madly about his Indian head trophy, and this is way before Apocalypse Now), mutiny, rousing speeches by Rogers, what had to be appalling-smelling, buckskin-clad genitals, resourcefulness (nice scene where Rogers has the men form a human chain to cross a rapid river), and a very ugly section where they killed tons of mindless Indians.
Young is charming as the young second male lead, though there’s no time spent on his relationship with his girl, Tracy is commanding even with a fake ponytail, and Brennan is typically great, even with a rarely exposed bald spot and a fake gap in his teeth. Vidor shoots some very nice scenes and gets fine performances from his cast. the problem is it’s hard to keep track of just what the point is, and it’s just too long.