To the Wilderness for Northwest Passage

By Behlmer, Rudy | American Cinematographer, November 1987 | Go to article overview

To the Wilderness for Northwest Passage


Behlmer, Rudy, American Cinematographer


IT is NOT likely that you will find Northwest Passage (1940) on many top ten lists of all-time favorite films, yet at the time of its production in the late 1930s MGM regarded it as that studio's most important property. Originally a major best selling novel, the picture version was to have an "all-star" cast headed by Robert Taylor, Spencer Tracy, and Wallace Beery (in that order).

MGM's heavyweight team of producer Hunt Stromberg and director WS. Van Dyke were assigned; it was to be the studio's first feature in the then new three-strip Technicolor process, and a remote location was scheduled for several weeks' work with a cast of hundreds - and this was for only the scheduled first half of the film!

On November 5, 1936, William Fadiman of MGM's New York story department read the galley proofs of a Saturday Evening Post serial which ran under the title of Rogers' Rangers and recommended its purchase. This serial represented the first half of American historical novelist Kenneth Roberts' most widely read work, Northwest Passage, which was published in book form in June of 1937. MGM purchased the motion picture rights in September for $25,000. The novel was number two on the best seller lists for 1937, number five for 1938, and had gone into 30 editions domestically and 15 in England and other countries by the time the film version was completed.

Northwest Passage is almost a biography of the colorful, real life Rogers - explorer, adventurer, author, and virtually the inventor of commando and guerrilla warfare. The first half of the book details an historical expedition of Rogers and his Rangers in 1759 during the French and Indian War to destroy the Abenaki Indian village at St. Francis, from where all the Indian attacks on New England towns for many years had emanated. Rogers was aggressive; he carried the fight to the enemy. His method and tactics were based on Indian procedures and timeless principles of mobility, security, and surprise; and he displayed incredible woodsmanship. The second half of the book deals with Rogers' gradual disintegration when his idea of a Northwest Passage culminates in defeat via constant frustration, alcohol, and debtor's prison.

Stromberg signed author Conrad Richter (The Sea of Grass, etc.) in mid-October to work on the adaptation. Although Richter was on the payroll until mid-January, nothing survives in the archives of whatever he may have contributed to this project. Meanwhile, veteran screenwriter Frances Marion, under contract to MGM, was assigned to do a screen treatment of the novel starting in November, 1937. Then Jules Furthman, Noel Langley, Bruno Frank, and Jack Singer worked on parts of the material for a while. Stromberg originally had tried to interest author Roberts to work on the script. He declined. The eminent playwright and screenwriter Sidney Howard was approached in February to do the screenplay, but other commitments prevented him from accepting at that time. Stromberg wired the equally eminent Robert E. Sherwood on February 24, 1938 and asked:

"Could you find time to write dialogue on Northwest Passage, which is to be one of biggest productions in Technicolor starring Robert Taylor, Spencer Tracy and Wallace Beery? . . . Have no one here capable writing type of virile and colorful dialogue needed for these characters and this historical study . . ."

By April 20 Sherwood had completed a script that covered the entire novel, although he was involved with various other projects at the time - including his 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Because of the struggle he had with the MGM script, Sherwood always referred to it as that "God-damned Northwest Passage." The problems inherent in compressing the novel's vast range of time, place, and incidents - to say nothing of the shift in Rogers' character - into a realistic screen running time were considerable and plagued all who had worked and who would work on the project in the future. …

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