“It’s better to be hungry than to be cut up alive with hatchets.”
During the French and Indian War, Major Robert Rogers (Spencer Tracy) enlists an aspiring painter (Robert Young) and his buddy (Walter Brennan) into his elite militia with the goal of seeking revenge on local Abenaki Indians — but their trek is long and arduous, and soon the men must find creative ways to survive.
- Historical Drama
- King Vidor Films
- Native Americans
- Robert Young Films
- Spencer Tracy Films
It’s a challenge to watch this impressively filmed Technicolor wartime adventure tale, knowing that we’re watching a reasonably authentic recreation of the ferocity wrought upon Native populations (albeit often in retaliation for similar treatment) during our quest for continental dominance. While the decimation of various tribes of American Indians — either through warfare or ongoing deculturalization — is now well-known, this MGM production spares no details in sharing how ruthless our tactics were — and how thoroughly we dehumanized and humiliated the tribes we were fighting against. Tracy is stoic but not overly sympathetic in the unenviable role of a tough-as-nails commander directing his men to keep going no matter what, fueling their motivation through no-holds-barred tales of brutal Indian tactics.
As DVD Savant describes it:
[Young] listens as Rogers encourages veterans to tell the new soldiers about Indian atrocities — raping women, chopping men up a bit at a time, braining babies, the works. One description of a prisoner having his ribs severed and pulled out one by one is almost too awful to picture, and seems unthinkably strong for a studio film from 1940. Rogers refers to these outrages to inspire maximum savagery from his troops.
Indeed, retaliation against Indians in this film is relentless, with no room at all for humanization or empathy. As Tracy attempts to help Young survive after he’s been wounded and can barely walk, he yells out, “Bring that [nameless] little Indian boy over here”, then says to the boy (without a hint of irony), “From now on your name is Billy”.
While it’s true, as DVD Savant points out, that “the movie is very successful in communicating the idea that just a few miles past New York, the green forests stretch beyond the horizon, a seemingly limitless frontier for expansion” (the cinematography throughout this location-shot flick is impressive), the film is a hard one to stomach, and will likely only be of interest to those curious about Hollywood’s early depictions of historical American events.
Note: The film’s title is an infamous misnomer, given that the crew never embarks on its quest to find a “northwest passage”; the title was intended for a sequel that never emerged.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Beautiful Technicolor cinematography
- Fine recreation of historic sites
No; this one is only must-see for the curious.