Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Northwest Passage

Another of my recent DVR watches was Northwest Passage.

Robert Young plays Langdon Towne, who is returning to his hometown of Portsmouth, NH in the late 1750s after having been expelled from Harvard. He and town drunk "Hunk" Marriner (Walter Brennan) decide the best way to deal with their troubles is to drink them away, so the two get good and drunk, saying some insulting things to a couple of British soldiers that requires the pair to beat a hasty retreat.

The two go out into the wilderness, Langdon being a budding artist who wants to do sketches of the Indians. But if you'll remember your history, this is during the French and Indian War, when the British and French (who still owned Quebec) were using various tribal groups as proxies to attack each other. Langdon and Hunk run into Robert Rogers, who had been given the task by one of the British generals of training a raiding force, eventually known as Rogers' Rangers, to help deal with the Indian raids. The big problem is that they'll be going into fairly inhospitable territory in what is now the Lake Champlain region as well as northern Vermont.

Eventually the plan is to raid a settlement at St. Francis, on the St. Lawrence River downstream of Montreal, which is probably supposed to be more of a psychological victory than a real military victory. Langdon and Hunk, having joined the Rangers, set out with Rogers on the dangerous march north. They have to watch out for both the Abenaki tribe as well as any French in the area, while also having to deal with a lack of food. Indeed, part of the plan for the mission is to raid the fort at St. Francis to get food for the return voyage.

In what is probably the high point of the movie, Rogers' men raid St. Francis and rout the inhabitants, also freeing some English settlers who had been taken prisoner. But they find that there's almost no food to take with them. And Langdon has been shot in the belly. Rogers' plan is to go overland to Fort Wentworth, in what is now northern New Hampshire, a march of about 150 miles. But can the men, who are growing increasingly disaffected thanks to the lack of food and what they see as Rogers' dictatorial ways, handle the march?

Northwest Passage is based on a 1936 book of the same title that deals both with this campaign and Rogers' later time out west looking for the Northwest Passage, hence the full title of the movie, Northwest Passage (Book I - Rogers' Rangers). The movie only deals with the French and Indian War, with a closing scene in which he tells his men they're going to be going out west (in real life, Rogers did go west to quell the Indians in the area around what is now Detroit). Apparently there were plans to make a second movie that never materializes, probably due to the intervention of World War II.

As for the movie we have, Northwest Passage isn't a bad movie, but one that I felt could have been a lot better. The big problem I have is that it runs 128 minutes, with a lot of nothing happening since the soldiers have to make a long march north to St. Francis, followed by one back to New Hampshire. The march back goes on and on, and still relatively little happens. I can't help but think they could have come up with a way to make this 20 to 30 minutes shorter which would suit the movie artistically. Of course, the location shooting and Technicolor probably demanded a longer movie to make a spectacle the public would want to go see.

Northwest Passage has been released to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection. The TCM Shop claims it's on backorder, which has never made sense to me with the MOD titles; it seems to be readily available at Amazon.

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