The movie opens in 1759 with Langdon Towne (Robert Young) returning home to New Hampshire after being thrown out of Harvard. Robert Young is a young man just expelled from Harvard. When he gets in a fight with the local town boss, he and his friend Hunk (Walter Brennan) take off. They soon run in to the famous Indian fighter, Major Rogers (Spencer Tracy) of Rogers' Rangers, and join him and his group on a mission.
We first see Rogers sobering up a drunk Indian scout by giving him some beer so he will get sick. We then see Rogers with the British. He tells Langdon and Hunk that they are fighting a war with Indians who would like to take their scalp. He says: "When you see an Indian you lie down and paint him alive, as long as you feel safe. When he gets too close, why, you better let him have it and then get up and finish him with a hatchet. That's simple enough, isn't it?" Langdon: "Why that's just plain common sense." The demonizing and de-personalizing of the Indian begins early. They are looked at as objects that need to be done away with.
He tells General Amherst: "Those red hellion up there came down and hacked and murdered us, burned homes, stole women, brained babies, scalped stragglers, and roasted officers over slow fires for five years. If you were in our place, what would you do?" Spence Tracy is setting up the movie audience for the justifiable atrocities that are going to follow. Perhaps King Vidor, the director, was also talking to the 1940 movie audience about what the Americans and British were going to have to do to the Germans. When the film was released in the U.S., the Department of Secondary Teachers of the National Education Association recommended Northwest Passage for classroom use because "the success of this hardy band of early pioneers symbolizes our own struggles against bitter enemies in the modern world."
Rogers has Stockbridge (Mahican) scouts but General Amherst also gives him some Mohawk scouts, but Rogers doesn't trust them. Rogers and his men sets out on the journey to the Abenakis village at Fort St. Francis. He soon finds he can't trust the Mohawk scouts who fail to report the French presence, and he sends them back to the British.
Rogers than gives his men a pep talk. One of his men tells them of the atrocities the Abenakis have done. "Phillips had a strip torn upward from his stomach. They hung him from a tree by it while he was still alive. They chopped his men up with hatchets and threw the pieces in to the pines so there wasn't any way of putting them together again. They tore my brother's arms out of him. they chopped the ribs away from his backbone and pried them through his skin one by one." Rogers gets the men all psyched up for the upcoming massacre. here is a clip from the movie.
When he is forced to leave a wounded man behind, Rogers says: "Good luck webster, get a redskin for me." Webster: "I'll do better than that major. I got her loaded with buckshot." Rogers: "That's the spirit Webster."
Maj. Robert Rogers: "Now we're under orders to wipe out this town, so see that you kill every fighting Indian - kill 'em quick and kill 'em dead, and for Heaven's sake, don't kill any of our own Indians and don't kill any of the white captives. Our own Indians will have white crosses on their backs, so keep your eyes open. Don't make any mistakes." In his Journal the real Robert Rogers wrote of the massacre of October 4, 1759: "At half hour before sunrise I surprised the town when they were all fast asleep, on the right, left, and center, which was done with so much alacrity by both the officers and men that the enemy had not time to recover themselves, or take arms for their own defense, till they were chiefly destroyed except some few of them who took to the water. About forty of my people pursued them, who destroyed such as attempted to make their escape that way, and sunk both them and their boats. A little after sunrise I set fire to all their houses except three in which there was corn that I reserved for the use of the party. The fire consumed many of the Indians who had concealed themselves in the cellars and lofts of their houses."
Rogers and his men enter the village, and they see wigwams, oval shaped long houses and a fort. They also see scalps hanging everywhere. The rangers attack with torches burning and start burning everything down. The Abenakis try to escape, but are gunned down wherever they go. We see hundreds of Indians shot down, hatcheted or knifed, and we see a couple of rangers go down. Rogers tells the men they have to hurry off. He says : "What do you think the French are going to find to eat? Nothing but roast Indian", which gets a good laugh from the men. One of the wounded is Langdon, and he ends up being supported by a hostile captive blonde girl and an Indian boy.
One of the men, Crofton has gone insane. He is carrying an Indian head in his pouch and has been eating it. When Rogers confronts him, he tries to shoot Rogers and then he jumps off a cliff.
Langdon trails behind, and he sees some of the rangers being captured. They cut up one man while he was still alive, and then played ball with the heads of the men. Once again, the Indians are demonized to justify what has just happened.
The movie is beautifully filmed in Technicolor. The colors are bright and vibrant, and the rangers look like Robin Hood's men in the 1938 movie, The Adventures of Robin Hood.
I don't think that it is right to demonize a people, and justify a massacre, just because you are at war with someone else and want to make a movie to rally the people back home. The beautiful colors, and the rousing speeches can't cover up or justify the massacre that took place. This movie was made at a time when Indians were seen as savages, who were in the way of civilization, which may have accurately reflected the views of the colonialists in 1759.
NY Times Review
By FRANK S. NUGENT
Published: March 8, 1940
Now that the "Wind" has stopped ruffling your hair, you can have it lifted, scalp and all, in the King Vidor film of Kenneth Roberts's "Northwest Passage," which opened at the Capitol yesterday. It's a mannish, not-for-the squeamish, generally robustious screen version Metro has made, somewhat too generously Technicolored and inclined to grow sanctimonious about its Indian-fighting hero, Major Robert Rogers of Rogers's Rangers; but it still is a better-than-fair condensation of the first part of the book, still a rich and well-played and vicariously thrilling chapter of pre-national history.
It was in 1759, according to Mr. Roberts and less vivid historians, that Rogers's Rangers stealthily launched their whaleboats on the smooth surface of Lake Champlain at Crown Point and rowed quietly away on a punitive expedition against the Indian village of St. Francis on the St. Lawrence. The way led past French ships at the mouth of the river, over a bluff they had to portage, by foot through swamp and bog and across white water; and then, their bloody mission accomplished, back again, without food, through terror of ambush, capture and torture, to a pre-arranged rendezvous at Fort Wentworth on the Connecticut-one of the most hazardous military missions in history, one of the goriest victories of the French and Indian war.
Mr. Vidor's film is scarcely more than a journal of the expedition, with barely time for a quick introduction of his characters, barely a pause to mention the Northwest Passage itself-that will o' the wisp of all the early voyagers which drove Major Rogers, in the second half of the Roberts novel, to adventures even more incredible than those he dared against the St. Francis Indians. He has told it that way, as straight narrative, as pure thriller, as sheer spectacle; and it is only the circumstance that the expedition actually progressed that way, or generally that way, which stifles an indignant protest that this is all too fantastic for words, too astonishing to be true or even a reenactment of actuality.
In a film so completely dependent upon its scene and its broad strokes of action, performance naturally is relegated to a subordinate place. Thus Spencer Tracy's Major Rogers, while sound as a dollar and communicating perfectly the almost legendary energy and infectious enthusiasm of the man, is relatively of no more importance to the narrative than the performance of white-bearded Ranger Beacham (Hugh Sothern) whose stoic acceptance of the hardships of the trail is at once comic and the sincerest tribute to the qualities of the old Injun fighters.
Robert Young's Langdon Towne, ex-student of Harvard College, who joins the Rangers for reasons political, romantic, economic and artistic-but chiefly because he had no head for hot buttered rum-is more open to suspicion, although not to the point of complete disbelief until he makes a pointless little speech of Rogers's eulogy at the film's end. That was bad and banal.
The picture's color is eye-blasting in almost every interior shot, with faces sunburned to salmon pink and a trace of coral in all the decorations. Once outside, however, the rainbow pulls itself together again and things begin to look as they should. Fortunately, most of it was filmed outdoors, where the color cameras were able to provide stunning shots of Redcoats on parade, redskins in the smoke of battle, red blood running redder still and red-haired scalps drying on the tent poles without completely out-dazzling the subtler sequences of boats gliding in silhouette against the rivered reflection of a campfire, men trudging through a misty bog, the soft blues and greens of the lake country. So, if "Northwest Passage" is on the grim and gruesome side, even its horrors are attractively painted; and it makes a mighty interesting film of white men on the warpath.