Kenneth Roberts in Hollywood: Northwest Passage (1940) on Smithsonianmag.com “Reel Culture”

Lobby card for Northwest Passage. Spencer Tracy (center) and Robert Young (right).  Picture courtesy of Smithsonianmag.com<br />

It seems that the Hollywood rendition of Kenneth Roberts’ Northwest Passage made the rounds in the blogosphere in 2012.  Today we meet up with Smithsonian.com‘s “Reel Culture” in which they ask: “Where are the great Revolutionary War films?”  Noting the film industry’s success in making blockbuster films of the US’s past (particularly of the Western frontier days and the Civil War), the number of great movies on America’s Revolutionary War is quite small.  “Reel Culture” provides one possible reason for the apparent lack of films honoring America’s struggle for nationhood:

Part of the problem is due to our general ignorance of the times….Designers had little experience with costumes and sets from eighteenth century America, and few collections to draw from. Screenwriters had trouble grappling with events and themes of the Revolution. A few incidents stood out: the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the Minutemen. But how do you condense the Constitutional Congress to a feature-film format?

Though the number of Revolutionary War films are small in number, “Reel Culture” lists various attempts by filmmakers to chronicle this crucial time in our nation’s history, such as 1776, Revolution, and The Patriot (among others).  And, more importantly to this website, the author of the blog post lists Northwest Passage among Revolutionary War films.  Though the setting does not occur during the Revolutionary War, the author justifies the inclusion of this film as such:
Yes, it’s the wrong war and the wrong enemy, and King Vidor’s film drops half of Kenneth Roberts’ best-selling novel set in the French and Indian War. But this account of Major Robert Rogers and his rangers is one of Hollywood’s better adventures. MGM spent three years on the project, going through over a dozen writers and a number of directors. Location filming in Idaho involved over 300 Indians from the Nez Perce reservation. By the time it was released in 1940, its budget had doubled.Most of the action involves a trek by Rogers and his men up Lake George and Lake Champlain, ostensibly to rescue hostages but in reality to massacre an Indian encampment. Vidor and his crew capture the excruciating physical demands of dragging longboats over a mountain range and marching through miles of swamp, and also show the graphic effects of starvation. Spencer Tracy gives a bravura performance as Rogers, and he receives excellent support from Robert Young and Walter Brennan.

While films depicting Roberts’ works shared some time in the spotlight, Roberts was not a fan of his works making it to the silver screen.  And it is with this thought that I will begin what I hope to be a fun, interesting series: Kenneth Roberts in Hollywood.  In an upcoming post, we will take a look at Roberts’ attitude toward Hollywood taking on his novels.
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