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Indians in Northwest Passage

Northwest Passage

Northwest Passage is another classic film I watched in 2008. Alas, it's filled with classic stereotypes.

Northwest Passage (film)

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

It 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 gives an account of an attack by Rogers's Rangers on Saint-François-du-Lac, 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.

Northwest Passage (1940)

Based on Kenneth Roberts's 1937 novel, this rousing tribute to Rogers' Rangers, a guerrilla unit attached to the British army during the French and Indian War, stars Spencer Tracy as the tough-minded Robert Rogers. When rebellious artist Langdon Towne (Robert Young) needs to leave his native New Hampshire after nearly being jailed for libeling the provincial governor, he accepts Rogers's offer to join his company as they seek a northwestern route to the Pacific. Along with his friend Hunk Marriner (Walter Brennan), he soon finds the arduous journey more demanding than expected but is driven forward by the iron will of Rogers. Taking revenge for a spate of recent Indian massacres, the Rangers execute a sneak attack on an Abenaki village, wiping out its inhabitants and burning it to the ground, leaving a powerful impression on the young artist. They head for an assignation with the British at Fort Wentworth, believing that they'll be able to restock their sadly depleted supplies, but find the fort completely empty on arrival. The reliably excellent Tracy leads a fine supporting cast in a film that is surprisingly gritty in its portrayal of his company's travails. Vidor's exhaustive research into the period paid off in settings that have the feel of absolute authenticity.

Rob's comment
Absolutely authentic? Absolutely not.

[Spoiler alert]

Northwest Passage is supposed to be about the British and their Indian allies versus the French and their Indian allies. But I don't think there's any European-on-European fighting. Because that would mean we'd have to root against white men.

Instead, Rogers wants to destroy the antagonistic Indians, which makes this similar to a typical Western. In a war fought between two European nations, the message is somehow twisted to become: white men good, Indians bad. Kill the Indians before they kill us!

The first Indian seen is a drunk at a tavern. Not too much of a stereotype there, eh? Rogers and Towne help sober him up.

Rogers persuades Towne to join his Rangers. With their green suits, caps, backpacks, and rifles, the Rangers look like American doughboys from WW I. Though the men are British, we're supposed to admire them as if they're "our boys." The shots of them marching in uniform are pure propaganda, not historical reality.

Indians half-naked and phony
The Rangers are accompanied by shirtless Indians with fake braids and warpaint. I'm pretty sure non-Indian actors played most or all of them. At least they speak a genuine Native language (or a reasonable facsimile).

When they spot French ships nearby, they decide to port their boats over a mountain to avoid being sighted. This leads to a dramatic struggle against gravity. But then Rogers accosts his Mohawk allies for not reporting the French ships—for doing nothing but eating and drinking the British supplies.

In other words, the British allies turn out to be lazy, good-for-nothing bums. None of the Indians in Northwest Passage, even the "good" ones, are portrayed positively.

But Rogers isn't a racist. Rather he's a firm but fair leader. He's Spencer Tracy playing a typical Spencer Tracy character, which means he's a humanitarian at heart. Tracy as Rogers is merely reacting rationally to the stereotypical Indians the movie has given him.

More drama arises when the Rangers must leave wounded soldiers behind and form a human chain across the river. In fact, most of the movie's excitement comes from something other than what you'd expect in a forest—i.e., Indian or animal attacks. Give Northwest Passage credit for its innovative non-Indian subplots.

Babies roasting on an open fire
As the Rangers approach the Abenaki village, Rogers fills them in on the problem. The white settlers in the area are just minding their own business: clearing trees, plowing farms, and raising children. Meanwhile, the Abenakis are taking scalps, cutting people into pieces, roasting babies, and playing ball with severed heads. Obviously the Rangers must destroy these inhuman monsters.

The village has a mix of tipis (!), lodges, and log cabins. There are scalps hanging on poles. It's early morning, I think, so the depraved Indians are all drunk or asleep. They're obviously not rational enough to post guards.

The Rangers attack. The Indians run around, disorganized, or flee in canoes. The Rangers shoot and stab them unmercifully. Some Rangers apparently are wounded or killed, but it happens off-screen. Seeing Indians kill white men would contradict the theme of Euro-American superiority.

After what can only be called a massacre, there are a few nice touches. The Rangers "rescue" some white women who don't want to be rescued. One spits on Rogers. Towne is injured and thinks he must be left behind, but the others persuade him to walk with his rifle as a crutch. One of the remaining Indian scouts wears glasses.

The rest of the movie
The Rangers continue marching but have no food. The men revolt against Rogers and split into four groups. The groups not led by Rogers are ambushed by the French and Indians.

In Rogers's group, two men go crazy. One carries the head of an Abenaki in a bag, the other runs off to Concord. Both die.

The men endure a ten-day march to Ft. Wentworth, where they expect to find help. Instead, it's abandoned. Rogers gives them a stirring speech about not giving up. Just when all hope is gone, a regiment of redcoats arrive. "The Abenakis are destroyed," someone announces.

The movie closes with an epilogue about Rogers that doubles as pro-American propaganda. He and his Rangers will march to 1,000 miles to Ft. Detroit. They'll see Plains Indians. They'll march to the Pacific. They'll see America's lands and peoples. They'll find the Northwest Passage.

In other words, they'll represent the heroic pioneers of American myth: Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark, the wagon trains, Huck Finn, the homesteaders, et al. They'll pave the way for an American empire—one built upon the ruins of Indian lands and nations.

Except for its racism—its bias for white men and against Indians—Northwest Passage is a fine frontier-style movie. Most of its dramatic scenes—e.g., porting boats over a mountain, going crazy from hunger—have rarely if ever been done in a Western. Rob's rating: 8.0 of 10.

Related links
The best Indian movies

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2008 by Robert Schmidt.

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