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Northwest Passage Reviews

One of the greatest adventure films of all time, this Vidor classic owes much of its success to the rugged Tracy, who plays celebrated Indian fighter Robert Rogers, leader of Rogers' Rangers. Tracy is earthy and eloquent as the frontier leader who knows no fear in a wilderness rife with terror and bloodshed. Set in 1759, the film opens with talented artist Young arriving home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to sheepishly explain to his family that he has been expelled from Harvard because of the snide political comments he has inserted into his cartoons. Naturally, his criticism is aimed at the British, which alienates fiancee Hussey's Tory family. Young and his roughneck sidekick, Brennan, get drunk in a pub one night and tell off Hussey's stuffed-shirt father, Hector. As a result, Young's arrest is ordered, but he and Brennan escape into the wilderness, later stopping at a wayside inn, where they meet Tracy. After a night of hard drinking, Young and Brennan wake up outside the military post at Crown Point, headquarters of Tracy's rangers. Tracy entices Young to join the Rangers as a mapmaker, and Brennan tags along. Soon Young and Brennan are boating along with hundreds of other leather-clad veterans of many an Indian war. Their goal is St. Francis, the headquarters of the vicious, French-backed Abenaki tribe, which has conducted bloody raids into colonial territory under British control. Based on Kenneth Roberts's well-researched novel about Rogers's exploits, NORTHWEST PASSAGE is a rousing adventure all the way, full of thundering action. Its depiction of the colonial era is amazingly convincing, thanks to the perfectionist techniques of director Vidor, who went at the $2 million production with the vigor and relentless energy of Robert Rogers himself. In fact, Vidor, who began working on the film with an incomplete script (new portions of which were flown daily to the production's Idaho location), believed that he was shooting a prologue for a film that would also include Rogers's search for the Northwest Passage. However, producer Hunt Stromberg and MGM decided to confine the film to Rogers's adventures during the Indian Wars, bringing Jack Conway in to shoot an ending to the film while Vidor was in New York. To make his "prologue," Vidor took his almost all-male cast into the wilds of Idaho, around Lake Payette, which resembled the New England terrain of 200 years earlier. In his first Technicolor film, Vidor made good use of the lush locations; Wagner and Skall's cinematography is absolutely breathtaking, capturing the rich blues of the lakes and the deep greens of the forests (although they had some trouble with the colors of the ranger costumes, until special dyes were ordered to tone down the kelly green hues). The film is marred only by its racism, pretty virulent even by Hollywood standards.