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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Kenneth Roberts in the Blogosphere: Monster Mania and the Northwest Passage

HT: Monster Mania

Though I’ve been a big Kenneth Roberts fan for over twenty years, have sought to own and read all of his books, and began a website devoted to the man and his works, I must confess (ashamedly) that I have never watched the movies based upon his books.  I am not a big fan of movies made in the 1940s-1960s (probably the time period in which movies based on Roberts’ books were produced), and I am not much of a movie fan in general, so I have been reluctant to watch these movies. Perhaps the biggest reason for my reluctance is that I am afraid that I would find the movies too cheesy and/or ruining what Roberts set out to do in his books.  Nevertheless, I know I must watch these movies at some point, but I’ll wait until my Ph. D. is over.

Thankfully, there are blogs and websites that spend time reviewing these movies, and today I would like to highlight Monster Mania, who provides a brief summary of the 1940 film of Northwest Passage starring Spencer Tracy.  What I found interesting is that this was to be a two-part movie series (hence the “Part I” in the title).  For whatever reason, no second part was produced.  (The reason why would be hunt down and know!)  I appreciate the post as it offers a review from a cinematography aspect and numerous screenshots of the movie itself.  Take some time to read this post and enjoy!

Kenneth Roberts in the Blogosphere: A Shout Out to an Old Friend

Wow.  At the risk of sounding repetitive, I am amazed at how much has been sitting in the hopper since April 2011 that I just forgot about.  Russ Grimm from the blog My Military History has been a rather helpful friend to this blog since its inception.  Today I saw his numerous comments providing links to old newspaper and magazine archives that discuss Kenneth Roberts and his works in his contemporary setting.  Say what you will about Google, but they have made research easier when it comes to research.

KennethRoberts on Rogers' Rangers in MilwaukeeJournal-Aug271942

Take this article, for instance, written on August 27, 1942 by the Milwaukee Journal in which they take parts of Kenneth Roberts’ account of how Roger’s rangers were formed as a way of explaining a new special unit of soldiers being formed in the US forces.  This unit, designed to “strike swiftly, silently, and efficiently,” took their name from Rogers’ Rangers; the new, modern rangers, then, were not something new, but a unit that adopted and adapted a method of warfare almost two centuries old – a method well documented in Roberts’ research and in his novel Northwest Passage

I definitely have my work cut out for me now, as I have a treasure trove in Google’s news archives to find old articles written on Roberts.  The timing, though, isn’t the best…I have a seminar paper to write, but I’d rather be wading through news archives…Again, Russ, thank you very much for your help!  (See also his most recent post in which he provides links on the Battle of Cowpens, which happens to be the subject and title of Roberts’ last book, The Battle of Cowpens, which was published posthumously.)

K.R. in the Blogosphere: “Northwest Passage” in the News – a Blast from the Past

My Military History has a nice post showing snippets of news from the past regarding Roberts’ novel Northwest Passage and the movie based upon that book.  Russ, the author of the blog, sent me links to these contemporary news bits, but I’ve been unable to do anything with them yet (doctoral work … ‘nough said).  I’m glad he worked up something showing contemporary reaction to Roberts’ work.

Hopefully I’ll be able to take a gander at these clippings in more detail in the near future; until then, stop on by Russ’ blog and enjoy.

K.R. Books: Hauser’s Book Review of “Northwest Passage.”

This has been quite a hectic year as I have begun my Ph. D. in Philosophy at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  As such, I have had no time to catch up on news and blog posts on Kenneth Roberts (I have many Google Reader updates starred for review, but have not looked at them!); rather, I’ve been reading up on Jonathan Edwards’ idealism, philosophy of religion, and now aesthetics.  My summer reading plan fell through, of which I hoped to glance through a Roberts book (ideally).  As, so goes the life of a student and father.

Thankfully, there are others who are looking out for some great finds on Kenneth Roberts.  Russ Grimm over at mymilitaryhistory.blogspot.com notified me of a book review written in December 1937 by Mary Jo Hauser for Western Pennsylvania History.  Here’s the bibliographic information:

Mary Jo Hauser

Book Review: Northwest Passage. By Kenneth Roberts.

Source: Western Pennsylvania History, Volume 20, Number 4 (December 1937) , 293a–294

Reviewed Works:

Kenneth Roberts, Northwest Passage., (Garden City, N. Y., Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1937. 709 P.)

Full-text:
Download the full-text here:
PDF (414 KB)

You can download a PDF of the book review.  I’ve only had a chance to read the review; however, I noticed that she raised a point that many readers (in 1937) would have issues regarding Roberts’ depiction of Gates’ Indian policy.  She did, though, mention the unpublished original documents Roberts had access to that many others did not.

If memory serves me right, it seems that critics in the past (and present?) charge Roberts of fitting historical facts to fit his plot, or even of doing revisionist history.  I tend to differ (whether it’s because I’m a fan or because I’m naive, I’m not sure); I give Roberts the benefit of the doubt.  I believe Roberts was a historian first and a novelist second, and I believe he presented a picture of Colonial America that he believed was the most accurate based upon his research.

Well, enough of me talking.  Take a gander at the PDF of this book review and enjoy a nice trip back in time.

K.R. in the Blogosphere: Kenneth Roberts a Revisionist?

Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism Last week or so I linked a post on Lew Rockwell‘s site that contains a chapter from Jeff Riggenbach’s latest book “Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism.”  In a nut shell, Riggenbach seeks to look at the change in the way historians understand American history since the mid-nineteenth century.  America’s history, once held in high esteem, is now viewed as being “series of betrayals by political leaders of all major parties, in which the liberal ideals on which this country was founded have been gradually abandoned and replaced by precisely the sorts of illiberal ideals that America officially deplores” (Riggenbach, ch. 1).  In the chapter provided on Rockwell’s site, Riggenbach deals with objectivity (or lack thereof) of the historian and the seemingly oxymoron “historical fiction.”

Riggenbach spends some time highlighting Kenneth Roberts and his works to illustrate his previous section on historical fiction.  While briefing the reader on Roberts’ bio, Riggenbach mentions Roberts’ desire for writing historical fiction: “to help insure preservation of ‘the speech, the events, the customs and the appearance’ of his native state” (ch. 1).  Riggenbach, however, seems to imply that Roberts’ intentions were not so pure.

Riggenbach notes that Roberts’ first works (Arundel, The Lively Lady, Rabble in Arms, and  Captain Caution) received very little attention until his publication of Northwest Passagein 1937, which received much acclaim that resulted in a Hollywood movie based on the novel.  Roberts’ subsequent novels were best sellers.  So, why the sudden attention and acclaim?  Riggenbach seems to suggest that Roberts’ success resulted from his ability to to adapt his writing in a way that matched American sentiments, thus allowing him to gain noteriety and fame.

To support this, Riggenbach compares two of Roberts’ novels – Rabble in Arms(pre-fame) and Oliver Wiswell (during the height of his fame) – in which Roberts’ highlights unfavorable characters in a positive light (Rabble in Arms – Benedict Arnold; Oliver Wiswell– title character is a Tory).  Riggenbach quotes Linda Orlando as the voice of American sentiment toward Roberts’ Rabble in Arms:

Linda Orlando may be overstating the case when she writes that Roberts “explained and defended the treason of General Benedict Arnold” and that Roberts considered Arnold “misunderstood,” and “not the villain history had depicted him to be.”  But there can be little doubt that Roberts’s novels were taken in just this way by many of his contemporaries.

Americans, then, did not take to Roberts’ novel because of his  positive portrayal of the epitome of betrayal and evil (at least to Americans) – Benedict Arnold.  No American, then, would dare to read Roberts’ pro-Arnold books!

When Roberts wrote Oliver Wiswell, he was still riding the wave of success resulting from Northwest Passage.  Around the same time of Northwest Passage’s publication, Riggenbach notes that American sentiment towards Britain had begun to change as well.  Though as late as 1941  most Americans did not view Britain in a too-positive light (just two years before, American ships were harassed by the Royal Navy), Ameircan sentiment towards Britain began to change as a result of the work of “the ‘liberal’ wing of the Democratic Party, who in the late 1930s sought to change  American foreign policy.  Coincidentally (?), when Roberts published Oliver Wiswell (a book in which the title character is a Tory during the later part of the American Revolution)  in 1940, his works continued to sell well based upon his recognition from Northwest Passage and the rising pro-British sentiment in the U.S.

Riggenbach concedes that what he argues as cause for Roberts’ sustained popularity is not completely certain:

Perhaps it was this same ‘underlying favorable pre-disposition’ that led the reading public to suddenly embrace the pro-British novels of Kenneth Roberts, after years of ignoring them.  Or perhaps, as the efforts of the ‘liberal’ intelligentsia to reshape public opinion on the crisis in Europe began to succeed, the pro-British stance of Roberts’s novels began to seem more palatable – even appealing.  Or did a confused American public, still only partially weaned from its suspicion of England and its distrust of what George Washington had called “foreign entanglements,” reach out for Kenneth Roberts’s novels out of a felt need to find a way to justify the friendlier attitude toward the English that already seemed well on its way to becoming the new conventional wisdom?

While Riggenbach leaves the question open for the reader to decide, he leaves no doubt as to his answer:

History is the witness both of the times it describes and of the times in which it is written … Roberts’ meticulously researched depictions of the American Revolution tell us much about the times the depict, but they have much to reveal as well about the times in which they were published and first found a mass audience.  For the writers who gain the widest fame and favor with the public in any given period are the writers who do the best job of reflecting back to that public whatever are its own major preoccupations – the ideas, the dreams, the notions of what things in life are the most and least important, most and least worthy of a person’s attention and concern (emphasis mine).

So, without having read the entire book, it seems that Riggenbach is including Roberts as a revisionist, interpreting historical fact and information in light of current ideals, sentiments, philosophies, etc.  Roberts, virtually unknown before Northwest Passage, happened to hit the perfect storm with rising pro-British sentiments in the U.S. and the publication of Oliver Wiswell, enabling him to sustain his popularity.

I’m not sure what to make of this claim; as I stated, I’ve not read the entire book and I don’t want to take one chapter out of context of the entire book, but what I’ve read so far seems to make Roberts out as a mere opportunist.  What do you think?

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