Northwest Passage (1940)

Passed   |    |  Adventure, Drama, History


Northwest Passage (1940) Poster

Langdon Towne and Hunk Marriner join Major Rogers' Rangers as they wipe out an Indian village. They set out for Fort Wentworth, but when they arrive they find no soldiers and none of the supplies they expected.

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7.1/10
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  • Robert Young and Ruth Hussey in Northwest Passage (1940)
  • Ruth Hussey in Northwest Passage (1940)
  • Walter Brennan and Robert Young in Northwest Passage (1940)
  • Robert Young and Ruth Hussey in Northwest Passage (1940)
  • Robert Young and Ruth Hussey in Northwest Passage (1940)
  • Spencer Tracy in Northwest Passage (1940)

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20 November 2007 | dpingr1
Well, it's well photographed, but .....
Northwest Passage is one of the few films about the Seven Years' War that isn't based on a James Fenimore Cooper novel, and in that sense, it's a welcome lesson in how that important period has come to be mythologized in popular culture. I've never read the Roberts books, so I can't comment on how faithful the film is to its source material. I can only make a few comments on how movies have their own sensibilities and cultural rules. Like most films, this one tells us more about the era in which it was made than the time period in which the film's events take place. It's certainly an exciting story, but it has a number of cringeworthy elements (and they would have elicited just as many cringes back in the 1930s, I assure you.)Here's a few comments:

Jeffrey Amherst and Sir William Johnson: As anyone who has read any of the fine studies of this era can attest (I recommend the works of James Axtell, Gregory Evans Dowd, Daniel Usner, Daniel Richter, Richard White, and many others as fine introductions to Indian-White relations in the 17th and 18th centuries), this film takes a rather interesting view of these historical figures. Amherst is here depicted as the realistic good guy, who is in tune with Rogers's vicious sentiments. Johnson, on the other hand, is seen as part of the problem because of his private relationships with several Indian groups, especially the Mohawks. Johnson's Mohawk allies are here shown as lazy, duplicitous, suspicious interlopers. In fact, Johnson and his many Indian allies throughout Iroquoia and the Ohio country were indispensable to the British victory in the Seven Years' War, while Amherst, a capable officer but a virulent anti-native racist, instituted policies that helped start the 1763-64 Indian uprising ("Pontiac's War") and actually approved using germ warfare on Indians near Fort Pitt (he approved a plan to give them smallpox-infected blankets.)

Uniforms: If you squint, Roger's Rangers look like they should be in the Confederate Army. This may be a Technicolor issue. In fact, Roger's men often dressed as Indians and other backcountry residents did. It is the demands of movie convention that put them all in blue buckskin uniforms -- just as Japanese and German soldiers always wore particular shapes of helmets, so you can tell them apart from the other guys. Even the Mohawk and Abenaki Indians wear similar "uniforms," i.e. matching loincloths. The Indians in this movie look like they belong in the Southwest or the plains -- not in the Eastern Woodlands, especially late in the year.

Rogers himself: Well, his anti-Indian rants probably do illustrate something of the man himself. It should be noted that Rogers's sensationalized exploits made him a problematic celebrity during his life. He was always distrusted by his British superiors, who nevertheless bowed to public acclaim and gave him important positions after the war, including a brief command of Fort Detroit, and his disastrous tenure commanding Fort Michilimackinac after the Indian uprising. Like many outpost commanders, Rogers let his personal greed take over in the relative freedom of the pays d'en haut, and ended up being arrested and returned to Niagara in irons. Amherst gave him guarded trust, but Amherst's successor, Thomas Gage, and Indian Supervisor William Johnson, considered him a villain. As for the native Americans, everyone knew about Rogers's Indian killing, and he had few Indian friends and many enemies. Everywhere Rogers went became a tense place of interaction between Indians and Europeans.

Indian issues: Well, it's true that Indians, Abenakis and others, used brutal tactics in war. But this movie, like other movies such as Drums Along the Mohawk, definitely take the settlers' side in their confrontations with native Americans. In one scene, Rogers tells his men how the Abenakis should be killed for brutally hatcheting innocent settlers, who were just trying to make lives for themselves and weren't bothering anyone. It should be noted that settlers were often a great bother to Indians, just by their presence alone. Indians who lived in transitional regions resented the encroachments of white settlers more than anything else, including the presence of forts and soldiers. Settlers used land for farming, which was an exclusive operation. Unlike the skin trade, which used native residents as partners, farmers viewed Indians as being in the way. All Eastern Indians knew that farming was the one operation that turned Indian country into European territory exclusively, and did everything they could to oppose it. And as far as relative levels of brutality go, backcountry settlers and soldiers were capable of all the worst kinds of viciousness. Reference the Gnadenhutten Massacre during the Revolutionary War if you want to read about some really vicious behavior by America militiamen.

This movie is a great mirror on its time. Americans looked to their settler past, mythical or otherwise, whenever they wished to differentiate their national identity from the "bad old" Europeans, or the brutal state of nature. The rugged, idealistic frontier settler, hacking a life out of the wilderness but imbued with democratic virtue, was a popular model for Depression-riddled Americans who felt that their agency and power was slipping away. People today might like these movies for the same reasons!

As for me, I think the film is well-acted and filmed, and somewhat exciting, but too laughable to take very seriously. That is, it's laughable when it is not deplorable. This is the most virulent anti-Indian movie I know, worse even than most westerns. Some of the comments here label this as a "family" film. The hero of this film repeatedly labels all Indians as brutes, thieves, and cowards. I wouldn't let any child see this movie.

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