Northwest Passage (1940); Strong Drama Starring Spencer Tracy

Kenneth Roberts’ fact-based novel Northwest Passage was adapted into a solid MGM film, despite the potential censorship problems.

Though popular at the time of release, Northwest Passage is an entertaining action adventure set in the pre-revolutionary wilderness, but its attitude toward Indians was then–and still is–debatable.

The tale is set in 1759, when the young artist Langdon Towne (Robert Young) is expelled from Harvard–to the chagrin of his parents and his fiancee, Elizabeth Browne (Ruth Hussey).

Towne and his tough sidekick Hunk Marriner (Walter Brennan) get soused one night in a pub and, while intoxicated, insult Elizabeth’s father, Reverend Browne (Louis Hector).

The two men escape, winding up at the camp of famed Indian hunter Major Robert Rogers (Spencer Tracy). Rogers invites Towne to his troupe as a cartographer, and suggests that Marriner joins too.

The Indian fighters under Rogers team up and chart their way through the wilderness, headed straight for St. Francis, the base of the French-supported Abenaki tribe.

Along the route, the men counter such obstacles as traitorous Native American guides and exploding gunpowder.

Oscar Context:

Northwest Passage marked King Vidor’s first Technicolor film. Cinematographers William V. Skall and Sidney Wagner received Oscar nominations for their outstanding work.

The winner, however, was Georges Perinal for The Thief of Bagdad.

TV Series

Northwest Passage became a TV series in 1959-1960 season, starring Keith Larsen in Tracy’s role, Buddy “Jed Clampett” Ebsen in Brennan’s, and Don Burnett in the Young role.



Running time: 126 minutes.

Directed By: King Vidor

Written By: Laurence Stallings,Talbot Jennings

Released: February 23, 1940