Northwest Passage (1940) [1940 Week]

Northwest Passage is a better film than North West Mounted Police, but that doesn’t really mean that much. What makes it better is that it is filmed better, there are some spectacular scenes, the acting is better and the colors don’t blind you. When it comes to the depiction of Native Americans this might be even worse. At least it shows the extinction of Native Americans as detailed and gruesome as possible, while not taking any moral stance against it and actually justifying it most of the time. This is essentially a war movie, but instead of soldiers killing other soldiers in WWI or WWII, we have rangers taking out Native Americans. While they walk through swamps and forests, there is almost an impossible Vietnam vibe to all of it. It sort of works as a war movie adventure, in depicting the struggles the soldiers have to get through (the action scene in the river is kind of cool), the way they plan their mission and the difficulty of getting back home. In that sense it is almost enjoyable, if you ignore any ethical alarms setting of at watching the glorification of war and genocide.

The story is simple enough: during the French and Indian War in 1759 illustrator Langdown Towne (Robert Young) joins Major Rogers (Spencer Tracy) on a mission to take out an Indian town of the Abenakis. They go there, kill all the Native Americans and struggle to get back home. Story-wise, there is really not much more than this. Before the actual mission takes place, the image of Native Americans is established early on. The first Indian we meet is drunk, helpless and made a laughing stock by the others. There is really no point in showing him, other than as a joke.

Later we see some Indian scouts accompanying the mission and we get a shot of a group of them, with the comment that they “seem anxious” to go. The way it is shot and told makes them look stupid, like kids waiting for their adventure to start. Again, they don’t seem to have their own will.

In another scene, on ranger tells the story of an Indian attack to make clear how cruel and dangerous and savage they are. It’s the rallying speech for the attack on the village later on, dehumanizing them, so that no one thinks twice about killing them.

But none of this compares to the actual attack, a long sequence of the endless shooting and slaying of Natives, over and over again. They don’t really seem to have a chance against the soldiers and the soldiers themselves seem to get a real kick out of killing them all. Everyone who tries to run away is shot and the further they are away and are still hit, the prouder the soldiers are of getting good shots out of them. The Indians seem to be really slow in understanding what’s going on to, sleeping in groups while their tents are set on fire. There is a certain fascination in watching all of this carnage, not the least because it is really well filmed. This must be the most cinematically pleasing genocide ever. Take a look yourself.

One soldier is stopped short of killing women and children, so there seems to be some sort of limit there. But probably out of frustration, he hacks at the man living in the same house with a passion that is clearly meant to be craziness. He is stopped again, but much later in the movie we realize that he has taken the Indian’s head along with him! This behavior is not acceptable to the others and he conveniently throws himself off a cliff to escape any punishment. Still, singling out this one crazy killer (and potential cannibal, from what I figure), makes all the other mass killings seem less gruesome. I mean, the portrayal of the village is not meant to be bad in the first place, but putting in a head-hunting maniac pulls all the focus towards him. “What do you mean the shootings? Didn’t you see that one guy walking around with a head?!”

After the massacre, there are some offside comments about Native Americans that make it clear what the movie thinks of them. Right after the attack, Rogers lets one Indian go, to send a message, being “I’ll have no mercy on anyone next time I come,” which is absurdly funny, since the whole massacre sequence showed that there was no mercy. I guess women and children are game next time too. A couple of minutes later he makes a joke that the French will only find “roast Indians” in the village. And in a final speech before the end, Rogers promises all the settlers he will bring them all the way to the West of America and that they should think of all the land they will “and you will get it all free.” Wait, you say, what about… ? He goes through a list of Indian tribes, pronouncing them in a slightly slurring way before finishing “Well, I sort them all out to you, when we get to them.” Ho, ho, ho. Everyone smiles, music swells, The End of another 1940 racist movie.