October 9, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
King Vidor’s Northwest Passage

Northwest Passage. 1940. USA. Directed by King Vidor

These notes accompany screenings of King Vidor’s Northwest Passage on October 10, 11, and 12 in Theater 3</a>.

An especially intriguing example of a high-quality, landscape-oriented “A” Western of the World War II era is King Vidor’s Northwest Passage (1940), a colorful and visually rich portrait of frontier survival…. The movie exhibits the kind of appreciation for the natural world which reminds us once again of the influences of nineteenth-century landscape photography and landscape painting. The movie’s use of Technicolor impresses the viewer…with its rich palette and deep hues…. Vidor concluded his long career as director in 1980 with a brief documentary titled The Metaphor, which features painter Andrew Wyeth. It was perhaps only natural that Vidor, another “painterly” director in the vein of Ford and Walsh, returned to filmmaking in his final years to discuss painting.

The film concludes with a shot of Rogers [Spencer Tracy] silhouetted against the sky at the end of a dark road—not unlike the concluding iconic shot in Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). The chiaroscuro image reminds us that the road ahead will be a mixture of darkness and light. But as long as the light exists, there will be a mission to fulfill and a nation to build. Once again, the memory of suffering and sacrifice is combined with a sense of optimistic faith and historical destiny in order to do justice to the story of American expansionism. And yet the film clearly shows us—even if it does not say so—that the story of America and its ideal of Manifest Destiny are inevitably intertwined with death and loss, with racism and conflict.

– Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr, Ride, Boldly Ride: The Evolution of the American Western (University of California Press, 2012) (currently available in the MoMA Store)

While M-G-M focused its attention on Gone with the Wind, King Vidor was brought in to salvage Northwest Passage, which turned out to be a more authentic epic (aside from William Cameron Menzies’s burning of Atlanta), more creative in its use of color, and an infinitely more personal work of art. John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk, made simultaneously with Northwest Passage, is Ford’s first color film and is curiously similar to Vidor’s. Ford used both art director Richard Day and composer Alfred Newman, who had been Vidor regulars throughout the 1930s. In fact, with these two films, the careers of the two directors came closer together than at any time before or after.

Spencer Tracy’s character is strikingly similar to Nathan Brittles, the John Wayne role in Ford’s great She Wore a Yellow Ribbon a decade later. The fact that Laurence Stallings contributed to both scripts makes this something more than a coincidence. Stallings also wrote Vidor’s monumental silent, The Big Parade, and Robert Young’s character in Northwest Passage is highly reminiscent of John Gilbert, as the young aristocrat dabbling in war until it almost kills him. At the climax of Northwest Passage, Tracy must make a highly charged three-and-a-half-minute speech in a single take. Vidor had forced a reluctant Tracy to cry in anguished disappointment, and the speech was delivered, as Tracy biographer James Curtis says, “his character teetering on the brink of madness.” Tracy’s Major Rogers, both autocratic and idealistic, is a classic American hero.

The sequence of the carnage in the Indian village is one of the most incredible examples of location shooting in any film. Whatever its moral and racist implications might be, it is, like the whole of Northwest Passage, undeniably an extraordinary piece of filmmaking.