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Film / Northwest Passage

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Northwest Passage (full title: Northwest Passage Book I: Rogers' Rangers) is a 1940 film directed by King Vidor, based on the 1937 novel by Kenneth Roberts.

The year is 1759. Langdon Towne (Robert Young), an aspiring artist, is kicked out of Harvard Law School for doing an offensive cartoon of the King's attorney, Wiseman Claggett. After ranting about Claggett in the tavern, not knowing that Claggett is in the next room, he gets into trouble with the attorney and goes on the run with his friend Hunk Marriner (Walter Brennan). Eventually, they come to a tavern where they meet Captain Robert Rogers (a green-clad Spencer Tracy) who gang-presses them into joining Rogers' Rangers, fighting in the French and Indian War and destroying the Abenakis tribe, after he learns that Towne is an excellent cartographer and knows about the elusive "Northwest Passage".

The film is infamous for perpetuating The Savage Indian stereotype. This isn't helped by the fact that the real Rogers was an Unreliable Narrator, for publishing biased accounts of his raid on the Abenakis.

This film provides examples of:

  • British Stuffiness: The Redcoats are presented this way, even though the main characters in the film are all British.
  • The Chessmaster: Shortly after meeting them and treating them to drinks, Rogers leaves Towne and Marriner unconscious by a tree outside Fort Crown Point so he can convince them to join Rogers' Rangers.
  • Dawn of the Wild West: Most of the action takes place in the wilderness of colonial New York during the French-Indian War.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Towne and Marriner. The story actually focuses on Rogers.
  • Doomed Contrarian: The men who turn on Rogers are killed soon afterwards.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Towne after his girlfriend's father scorns him. This causes him to make drunken disparaging comments about Claggett which he can hear in the next room.
  • Eagleland: Though the characters are British, the film paints a glorifying picture of American exceptionalism. It was likely made in part to rally men to fight overseas in World War II.
  • Epic Movie: An expensive, large scale saga of the French-Indian War.
  • Exposition Diagram: Towne's diagram of the fabled "Northwest Passage" is part of what causes himself and Marriner to be recruited into Rogers' Rangers in the first place.
  • The Film of the Book: Adapted from the first half of Kenneth Roberts' 1937 novel of the same name.
  • Heroic BSoD: As soon as Rogers reaches Fort Wentworth and finds it abandoned, he collapses against a beam and cries. He pulls himself together quickly once his men reach him.
  • Sanity Slippage: Crofton, who is seen eating an Abenaki man's head
  • Satellite Love Interest: Elizabeth Crowne, Towne's girlfriend, who has only a couple of scenes with very thin characterization.
  • The Savage Indian: The Abenakis are depicted as savage cannibals who tear their enemies to pieces and scalp everyone, and the Mohawks are depicted as lazy and untrustworthy. Rogers' also appears to have recruited Towne partially to convince him of this view. Additionally, the film condones the slurs directed towards the Rangers' Mohawk allies.
  • Sequel Hook: The movie's ending shows Rogers' Rangers marching off to find the Northwest Passage. However, a sequel was never produced.
  • Title Drop: The title is mentioned a few times, at the beginning, when they meet Rogers, and at the end, when Rogers' Rangers set off to find it.
  • Unwanted Rescue: The two women captured by the Abenakis don't actually want to be rescued.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Based on a fictionalisation of a series of accounts which may or may not be accurate.
  • War Is Hell: For the most part, the film doesn't sugarcoat the life of a Rogers' Ranger, though this is mixed in with War Is Glorious.
  • Wouldn't Hit a Girl: Rogers' Rangers spare the women and children after their raid on the Abenakis' camp.
  • You All Meet in an Inn: How Towne and Marriner meet Rogers.