June 9, 2006

Northwest Passage (1940)
Grade: 41/100

Director: King Vidor
Stars: Spencer Tracy, Robert Young, Walter Brennan

What it's about. In 1759, college-educated mapmaker Robert Young and his loyal friend Walter Brennan join up with Spencer Tracy's rangers, a small Colonial army accustomed to hardship, privation, and travel. They fight the French and their Indian allies in the unsettled west. Slaughtering the enemy proves easy, the hard point is getting back home.

How others will see it. Northwest Passage is a big budget western-military epic from MGM. It's filmed in color, but it still looks like the old-time movie it is. The primary audience is classic film fans, since the other potential audience, military historians, might scoff at the film's bias and simplifications. Classic movie buffs may enjoy Northwest Passage, but primarily for its cast, especially the familiar three leads. Watching the beloved actors in their prime will pass the time agreeably, but hardly memorably.

How I felt about it. Unmemorable may be the best word to describe Northwest Passage. My records indicate I watched the film a few years ago, but I didn't remember any of it seeing it again, a unique occurence for me throughout the thousand-plus films I have graded over the years.

It's not that the movie is bad. If it was, I'd remember it, since I remember truly awful movies like Dear God, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and even Def-Con 4. The problem with Northwest Passage, then, is just that it's standard. So much so, it seems like The Last of the Mohicans, except stripped of interesting characters and situations.

Young and Brennan play agreeable enough characters, but they don't get mad so much as ornery, even though they are kidnapped, forced to hike miles with gaping wounds or on an empty stomach. Guilt about killing Injuns passes momentarily after the question arises. Injuns aren't people, they're targets, at least in this movie. The ones to fear are the French, who are talked about but rarely seen.

Besides the treatment of Indians as something, well, savage, the film raises a question it doesn't dare address. Why would anyone join Tracy's outfit, which appears to be a volunteer force. You march, starve, and kill, and for this you get ... nothing. If you're lucky. If unlucky, you get killed. Maybe joining the clergy and putting up with a difficult father-in-law was the better choice after all for our protaganist Robert Young, especially if Ruth Hussey is part of the bargain.

Tracy's motivation is slightly more understandable. Maybe he hates the French and their Indian allies. Perhaps he's a sadist who takes secret pleasure in watching his outfit starve to death during a forced march. More likely, he seeks advancement in the Tory army. Fair enough, but it's the hard way to go about it. Better to flatter generals.

This is the kind of movie where Tracy finally arrives at the home fort with his half-starved, ragged troops, expecting applause and a banquet. The fort is abandoned without food, but a rousing speech immediately brings back the Redcoats offstage, to a fife and drum soundtrack that sure isn't coming from the Redcoat boats. Glad that worked out, and I suppose the new uniforms also arrived on the incoming flotilla.