Cinema: The New Pictures: Mar. 4, 1940

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Northwest Passage (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) is a grim reminder to pale faces with an atavistic itch to bag an Indian that potting "those red hellions up there" is all work and no play. So Rogers' Rangers (a band of buckskinned vigilantes) find out when (circa 1759) they put themselves in Spencer Tracy's calloused hands, shove off with him and Captain Ogden (Truman Bradley) in whaleboats for a little massacre of the Abenaki Indians.

The expedition has to drag its heavy boats over forested hills to avoid the French on Lake Champlain; sloshes waist-deep in mosquito-infested swamps; forms a human chain to cross the rushing St. Francis River (actors were protected against chills by some 200 suits of watertight rubber underwear). Amidst repeated admonitions to caution, the Rangers make enough noise (once they explode a powder keg) to rouse half the Amerinds in North America. But the Abenakis pay them no mind. These obliging Indians have been on a bender the night before the raid, are sleeping it off when Rogers' Rangers gleefully fire their huts. In one grand blood bath all the Abenakis are slaughtered. This, however, does not seem to solve the Indian problem. Hunger, fatigue, other Indians, do for Rogers' Rangers what the Abenakis cannot. Only a third of the expedition ever gets back.

Nevertheless, this unrelieved saga of march and massacre, played by a topheavily male cast, whose embarrassing way of laughing at Spencer Tracy's feeblest sallies gets loonier as they get hungrier, is more than run-of-the-mill cowboys and Indians. Responsible are King Vidor's veteran directing, his earnest regard for realism in frontier history, some first-rate Technicolor photography, and the capable acting of Spencer Tracy. As Ranger Rogers, Spencer Tracy is as much at home in a whaleboat in Northwest Passage as he was in a fishing boat in Captains Courageous. It is no more a surprise to find him on the warpath than to find toothless Walter Brennan or Isabel Jewell, who is dragged from the burning Indian village, cussing and clawing with her usual high spirits. The shocking thing is to see debonair, man-of-the-world Robert Young, smiling perkily in his best bedside manner in the middle of the howling wilderness. He stops when he makes the unsoldierly mistake of looking at his bayonet after using it.

By the time the picture ends, nobody in Northwest Passage has had a free moment to look for a northwest passage. For this there are also sound business reasons: M.G.M. is contriving a film sequel, which, using the same cast, will cover the second, exploratory half of Novelist Kenneth Roberts' bestseller.

The Human Beast (French). Cunningly Director Jean Renoir (Grand Illusion] contrasts the distraction of human lives (in this filming of Zola's novel) with the mechanical majesty of locomotives, the modern industrial beauty of the railroad yards, which are regimented, grimy and shabby, but also vast and mysterious. In the morning the yards are seen bustling, in the rain forlorn, at night ominous. There is a gnawing dread that, like the human characters, the rushing trains will destroy each other, kill some one. But in the end it is the humans who kill and are killed.

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