Tag Archives: Spencer Tracy

The Sea of Grass

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 1, 2014

The Sea of Grass—Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Melvyn Douglas, Harry Carey, Robert Walker, Phyllis Thaxter, Edgar Buchanan, Ruth Nelson (1947; Dir: Elia Kazan)

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Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn were one of the great pairs from Hollywood’s golden age, appearing in nine films together.  This one is based on a 1936 novel by Conrad Richter, reckoned a considerable literary light in his time.  The director, on only his second movie, was Elia Kazan, who turned out to be one of the greats.  There’s a terrific supporting cast, and an excellent screenwriter in Marguerite Roberts (Ambush, True Grit).  A superb cinematographer is on board in Harry Stradling.  Should have been a recipe for a classic, right?  Well, it’s probably one of the two least-watched of the Tracy-Hepburn collaborations, along with Keeper of the Flame.  This is a family saga-range war story, albeit one with more literary roots than is normal for such tales, and it’s also an easterner-comes-west-and-doesn’t-get-it melodrama.

In 1880, Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn) of St. Louis decides to marry Col. James B. Brewton (Spencer Tracy) of Salt Fork, New Mexico Territory after a short courtship in St. Louis.  He’s the biggest rancher in the Salt Fork area, consisting of high (7,000 feet) plains he calls “the sea of grass.”  Brewton owns the water holes in the sea of grass, but he does not have title to the thousands upon thousands of acres he uses as grazing land for his many cattle.

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Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn) arrives in Salt Fork.

Brewton was unable to come to St. Louis for the wedding because he’s embroiled in a trial with Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) as opposing counsel.  A homesteader was shot and driven off his 160 acres, and Chamberlain’s representing him in suing the supposed assailants.  As Lutie arrives, she meets Chamberlain in the local hotel while looking for Brewton.  He is obviously taken with her.  As he returns to court, the jury finds that the homesteader was attacked by “parties unknown.”  Brewton reiterates his view that the high sea of grass won’t work for farming (much as John Wayne’s G.W. McClintock would put it in the comedy McLintock! twenty years later).

Lutie and Jim are married in town, and Jim takes her out to the ranch, where the nearest neighbor is fifteen miles away.  She doesn’t get Jim’s insistence on keeping the land as grassy range, but she wins over Jeff, the ranch’s crusty cook (Edgar Buchanan).  The Brewtons have a daughter, Sarah Beth, and Lutie talks Jim into allowing her friend Selina (Ruth Nelson) and husband Paul to homestead, although he says they will only last six months.  During a winter blizzard, the Brewton cattle knock down Paul’s fences; he shoots one and is beaten by Brewton riders.  Selina loses her baby and terminates her relationship with Lutie.  Chamberlain tries to talk Lutie into running away with him.

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Brewton (Spencer Tracy) and Lutie (Katharine Hepburn in white) argue; Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) tries to romance Lutie (Hepburn in black).

After a couple of years (one character or another frequently announces that it’s been two years since the previous scene), Lutie takes off to Denver to shop and perhaps to take an extended break.  While there, she encounters Chamberlain at the historic Brown Palace Hotel where she’s staying, and they indulge in a night of passion.  But Lutie discovers that she loves Brewton and goes back to Salt Fork, only to realize that she’s pregnant with Chamberlain’s child.  When she gives birth to a boy, she tells Doc (Harry Carey) and Jim the truth while she’s apparently out of her head.  Things are never the same between them again.  She goes back to St. Louis after another two years; Brewton keeps the children.

Chamberlain is appointed a federal judge and sees that the range is opened to homesteaders with the support of the cavalry.  At first they do all right, when there’s a lot of rain.  But after two or three years of drought, their farms blow away and there’s no longer grass to hold the soil down.  The Brewton children grow up; Sarah Beth (Phyllis Thaxter) goes east to school, and son Brock (Robert Walker) becomes a wild hand, good with a gun.

When Sarah Beth comes home, she finds that Brock is largely out of control.  His birth circumstances are an open secret in Salt Fork, and when another gambler brings it up during a card game, Brock shoots him.  He jumps bail despite Jim’s asking him not to, and a posse finally hunts him down about the time Lutie comes back to Salt Fork.  After fighting it out with the posse, Brock dies in Jim’s arms, and Jim and Lutie are finally reconciled.  Presumably the settlers did not survive the drought on the sea of grass.

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Brock Brewton (Robert Taylor) gets into a dangerous game.

For a couple whom we know to have been romantically involved for years, including while this movie was made, and who had superb chemistry in other films, the relationship of Tracy and Hepburn is curiously flat throughout this one.  We never see what brought the Brewtons together; they have few interests in common and disagree on a big one that affects Col. Brewton.  There are several occasions when it seems like these people could resolve matters between them if they would just talk to each other about them.  When they don’t, that tends to be frustrating in a movie.  Tracy, who was a superb actor, doesn’t show much range in this film.  Hepburn, as Lutie, is not terribly sympathetic, in part because the writing doesn’t play to her usual strengths and independence.  If you like melodrama, this may be your cup of tea, though.

This was director Elia Kazan’s only western.  In his autobiography, his comment on it was, “It’s the only picture I’ve ever made that I’m ashamed of.  Don’t see it.”  And in the 65 years since it was made, viewers have largely followed that advice.  It’s not terrible, but it doesn’t really come to life.  This is not the best work for either the fledgling director or the writer.  At the time this was made, Kazan was a talented stage director and nobody knew then that he would turn out to be a great screen director.  He didn’t really demonstrate that with this film, and he went back to the stage for a few years.

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Director Elia Kazan confers with Hepburn and Tracy behind the scenes.

During filming, director Kazan complained that Kate kept changing her character’s outfit in every scene.  Costume designer Walter Plunkett, who had been dressing Hepburn and her characters since 1933, explained, “It’s because of Spence.  He’s the love of her life, and she wants him to think she’s prettier than any other girl.”  Kazan explained, “I mean in the movie.”   Plunkett responded, “The movie!  I mean in real life.  That’s what matters.”  We don’t see that chemistry in this film, though.

For Harry Carey, this was the next-to-last of his movies, made just before Red River was released.  He carries kind of a folksy authenticity, as he always did, in playing Doc Reid.  A long-time giant of the screen, he had made 132 westerns, many of which from the silent era are now lost.  Melvyn Douglas is good in a role that calls for him to be both self-righteous (about the homesteaders) and a bit slimy in trying to make off with another man’s wife.  He’s hard to like, but it’s believable that there could be a character like that.  Edgar Buchanan is excellent as the cook-cum-nursemaid Jeff.  Both Ray Teal and Hank Worden have small, uncredited roles in this, too.  Robert Walker would play a similar role again in 1951’s Vengeance Valley, with Burt Lancaster as the good brother to Walker’s wild, amoral brother.

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Katharine Hepburn with costume designer Walter Plunkett, staying pristine between scenes.

Brice Chamberlain: “Why do women insist on loving men for what they want them to be instead of what they are?”  [Seems like this ought to be a line for Jim Brewton, but he never says anything this vulnerable, so Chamberlain says it for him.]

For Tracy in better westerns, check him out in Northwest Passage (1940, set during the French and Indian War of the 1750s) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, set in a modern west).  Hepburn made no other westerns for another 25 years until she made Rooster Cogburn with John Wayne, a sequel of sorts to True Gritor and/or a remake of The African Queen, depending on how you want to look at it.

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Watching this movie, the cinematography is occasionally dazzling, with small wagons against immense, brightly lit rock formations.  Even the shots of the sea of grass are persuasive.  This is one of those that, if made just a few years later, would have been shot in color and in widescreen format, which would have made it better.   Although Harry Spradling was a superb cinematographer, nominated thirteen times for Academy Awards, he’s known much more for shooting large scale musicals, including My Fair Lady, Hello Dolly and Funny Girl, as well as A Streetcar Named Desire and many others.

Music is by Hubert Stodhart.   Excellently shot in black and white, at 123 minutes.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 6

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 9, 2013

Robert Mitchum as Clint Tollinger in Man With the Gun

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Clint Tollinger comes into the town of Sheridan looking for a new horse shoe and his ex-wife.  Because of his reputation as a town tamer, Tollinger is recruited to clean up Sheridan, especially in resisting the forces of local cattle baron Dave Holman.  He’s up to the task, but the townfolk don’t always like his approach or the results.  In his middle period as an actor,  Mitchum has a noir feel to him in this role.  His earlier westerns (such as Blood on the Moon and Pursued) generally work better than his later ones (The Wonderful Country), although he’s not bad as the alcoholic sheriff J.P. Harrah in El Dorado.  For a superb non-western performance, catch him in one of the quintessential noir movies, Out of the Past.  He was also very good at playing bad guys, as he did in the original Cape Fear, The Night of the Hunter and Five Card Stud.  Even when he was a good guy, he seemed on the verge of becoming a bad guy, and that possibility added an edge to his performances.

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Kirk Douglas as Matt Morgan in Last Train to Gun Hill

Kirk Douglas was in a surprising number of westerns, and he’s fairly good in many of them, although he tends to seem both urban and egocentric.  He was one of the biggest stars of his time, and Last Train from Gun Hill, directed by John Sturges, is one of his best westerns.   Matt Morgan is a sheriff married to an Indian wife.  She is raped and murdered by two young men, one of them the son of Morgan’s old friend Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn).  The core of the movie follows Morgan on his expedition to Gun Hill to retrieve the evildoers, and his resulting battles with Belden, with a variety of gunmen and with his own drive for vengeance.  Quinn is excellent here, too, and Carolyn Jones is good.  If you like Douglas’ style in this one, try him in The Big Sky, as Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral and with John Wayne in The War Wagon.

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Anthony Quinn as Bob Kallen in The Ride Back

Anthony Quinn was in a surprising number of westerns from his early days in the movies, usually in small roles where he is an Indian, a villain or both (see The Plainsman, Union Pacific and The Ox-Bow Incident, for example).  During the 1950s he was more often a supporting character, and was always interesting.  Look for him, for example, as magnetic and multi-dimensional bad guys in Last Train from Gun Hill and Warlock (both from 1959).  He was also one of the leads in two smaller westerns:  The Ride Back and Man from Del Rio.  The Ride Back is really a two-man film, with Quinn and William Conrad, and they’re both excellent.  Quinn’s Bob Kallen is, like Quinn himself, half-Mexican; a dangerous gunman, he’s wanted back in Texas for a shooting that may have been justified.  He’s better with people and with guns than Conrad’s Chris Hamish and is constantly calculating how to play that next, spending most of the short film on an edge but going along for the moment with Conrad’s deputy sheriff.  He could play ethnic convincingly, and his career of the 1960s blossomed in those roles.  Look for him in The Guns of Navarone, Zorba the Greek (perhaps his signature role of the 1960s), Lawrence of Arabia and in a mural on the side of a building in downtown Los Angeles.  He’s one of those actors like Lee Marvin, who was almost always worth watching no matter what he was in.

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Spencer Tracy as Major Robert Rogers in Northwest Passage and as John J. Macreedy in Bad Day at Black Rock

Spencer Tracy was one of the best actors of his time, beginning about 1935, and his performances wear pretty well.  He didn’t make many westerns, but in these unconventional two he was excellent.

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  • As Major Robert Rogers, he leads Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War, in their arduous and perilous raid on the Abenaki village of St. Francis in eastern Canada.  He projects decisive leadership when things are going well, harder leadership when men have to be left behind, and harder yet on the return trip when provisions are low and his men are being hunted on all sides.  He finally almost cracks when his beleaguered men reach Fort Wentworth, only to find it abandoned and without the supplies he had been promising his emaciated men.  His is the performance that holds attention during the movie, notwithstanding the supposed leads of Robert Young and Walter Brennan.  This movie wasn’t often seen, since it only became available on DVD in December 2011.

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  • Tracy’s career was on its downhill side and he was struggling with alcoholism when he was cast as the lead in this John Sturges modern western with a noir feel.  One-armed John J. Macreedy is getting backed into corners as soon as he steps off the train in Black Rock, and he’s quietly up to the challenges he faces.  Almost always he faces them with an even temper, but he also has mostly believable physical confrontations with Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan.  By the end he has sorted out the local mystery and all the bad guys before he gets back on the train.  This may be one of the best films set in the modern west, and Tracy was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance in it.

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Dean Martin as Dude (Borachon) in Rio Bravo

In movies he usually played some form of caricature of himself, but Dean Martin could actually act when given good material and direction as he was in his first movie, Rio Bravo.  As Dude, the now-alcoholic former deputy of Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne), Martin is convincing in his booziness and in his rehabilitation.  His barroom scene when he and Chance follow a killer into a bar where everybody thinks of him as a drunk is a classic.  You can see both desperation and calculation as he tries to figure out what to do.  He’s also pretty good in The Sons of Katie Elder (again with Wayne) and bearable in Bandolero! and Five Card Stud.

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Brad Pitt as Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

Jesse James has often been portrayed on film, including by his son Jesse Edward James at age 46 in the silent film Jesse James Under the Black Flag (1921) and by Tyrone Power (1939).  His historical charisma is elusive, and for some reason it’s harder to portray him than it is his brother Frank, who has been done well by Henry Fonda (twice) and Stacy Keach, among others.  Brad Pitt may be the best Jesse on film, in this beautifully-shot retelling of the Ron Hansen novel with the cumbersome title.  He’s charismatic, dangerous and a bit tired of it all at the end of his life, coolly playing with and pushing those around him.  This isn’t the best movie about Jesse and the James-Younger gang; that would be The Long Riders.  But Brad does make a better Jesse than the remote James Keach does in Walter Hill’s film.  This one is worth watching for the gorgeous cinematography and for Pitt’s performance in a notoriously difficult role.

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Robert Taylor as Buck Wyatt in Westward the Women

As an actor, Taylor was beautiful but not terribly expressive.  He could be a bit wooden sometimes, but this stoic quality is not always a detriment in westerns if the actor is well-directed in well-written material.  This underrated wagon train movie is really an ensemble effort, but Taylor’s wagonmaster Buck Wyatt is the dominant character.  He’s on screen most of the time, and he’s very good.  Taylor’s notable career in westerns begins with his performance as Billy the Kid (1941), mostly wearing his signature black, when he was more than ten years older than the Kid ever became.  Beginning in the late 1940s, he started to do more westerns:  Ambush and Devil’s Doorway (an early Anthony Mann western) are watchable.  In the 1950s his best westerns were with directors John Sturges and Robert Parrish:  The Law and Jake Wade and Saddle the Wind.

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Burl Ives in Day of the Outlaw

This wintry low-budget western noir is superbly cast in its two leading roles, and it wouldn’t work well otherwise.  Robert Ryan is head rancher Blaise Starrett, whose town is invaded by a band of military renegades led by Burl Ives as the dying Jack Bruhn.  It’s only his will and his leadership abilities that are keeping his lowlifes in line at all, and it’s a constant exercise in balancing what can be done with what basic decency requires even from a renegade.  Bruhn, whose past participation in some notable Civil War-era military mess in Utah is only alluded to and never much described, still has some kernel of that decency but can’t let it come to the fore lest his men rebel and tear him to shreds.  It’s always interesting to see what he’ll allow and what he won’t, what he can control and what he can’t, and what will happen if/when he dies.  The rotund Ives was best known in the 1950s as a singer of folk-type music, but he could also be very effective in Big Daddy-type roles (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof).  For his other western in such a role, see him in the large-scale The Big Country, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  He also played a singing hotel desk clerk in Station West, with Dick Powell.

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Ben Foster as Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma

Ben Foster was unknown to many moviegoers when he showed up as outlaw chieftain Ben Wade’s principal lieutenant Charlie Prince in this remake.  But he captured the screen as a bad guy trying to rescue his boss.  Partly it’s good production design with his costume, partly it’s written as a juicier role than in the original, but mostly it’s Foster’s compelling performance in one of the best westerns in recent decades.  Even though he’s a supporting character and not one of the principals, it’s no accident that it’s Foster’s Charlie Prince on some of the most prominent posters for this movie.  He tends to linger in the memory, and his performance is one of the reasons many rate the remake higher than the original.

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Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit

He’s a different kind of one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn than John Wayne was, symbolized by his wearing the patch on his right eye instead of the left, as Wayne did.  He is surrounded by a better ensemble of actors (Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld) than Wayne was and doesn’t have to carry the entire movie the same way.  However, he is still central to the story, and his Rooster Cogburn is fun to watch and quite believable, even if it can be hard to understand what he’s saying at times.  In a role created by the most iconic of western stars, Bridges stands up to Wayne’s performance by disappearing more into the part and coming up with a harder-edged Cogburn.  He didn’t win a Best Actor Oscar for this, but he was nominated.  You should watch both versions.

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Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained

The Vienna-born Waltz, in his second film with Quentin Tarantino, was reportedly reluctant to take on the role of the loquacious German-born, bounty-hunting dentist in Django Unchained.  He only did so upon being assured that his character would have no negatives—other than his profession of killing people, presumably.  His smooth brand of courtliness toward most people around him, including the newly-freed slave Django, provides a counterpoint to the hardness he displays in his profession, causing the viewer to constantly balance the two and wonder which will dominate in any situation.  He holds the screen well and less abrasively than other characters.  Coming into his own in Hollywood in middle age, he hasn’t been in other westerns.  But he played an excellent Nazi villain in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for both that role and this one.

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Bad Day at Black Rock

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 2, 2013

Bad Day at Black Rock—Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Walter Brennan, Lee Marvin, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine, Dean Jagger (1955; Dir:  John Sturges)

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Perhaps the best movie set in the modern west (but see Lone Star and No Country for Old Men), a claustrophobic noir-inflected story that takes place in a tiny town in the Arizona desert. 

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First Train Conductor:  [Looking at Black Rock] “Man, they look woebegone and far away.”

John J. Macreedy:  “Oh, I’ll only be here twenty-four hours.”

First Train Conductor:  “In a place like this, it could be a lifetime.”

The movie begins with an interesting opening shot of a train crossing the desert.  One-armed John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) gets off the train in Black Rock in 1945 in a dark suit, the first time the train’s actually stopped there in four years.  World War II is just over, but rationing and other strictures persist.  None of the town’s suspicious residents want him there, as he tries to locate a local Japanese farmer, Mr. Komoko. 

blackrockjj-macready The mysterious stranger arrives in town.

A couple of local cowboy-thugs, Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine) and Hector David (Lee Marvin), try to intimidate Macreedy, who bears them with patience and an even temper.  Local rancher-boss Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) suggests that Komoko was sent off to an internment camp shortly after Pearl Harbor, and only three months after he arrived at Black Rock.  Macreedy visits Adobe Flats, where the Komoko farm was; he finds a burned house, a deep well and what may be a grave. 

Mr. Hastings, Telegrapher:  “Sure you don’t want some lemonade? It don’t have the muzzle velocity of some other drinks drunk around here, but it’s good for what ails you.”

On the way back, Coley tries to drive him off the road, but Macreedy makes it back to Black Rock.  Coley then tries to pick a fight in a diner, only to find that Macreedy knows judo and takes him out using only one arm.  It becomes clearer that Smith and his people killed Komoko, and they’re probably going to kill Macreedy, too.  Macreedy is a veteran who lost his arm in Italy; Komoko’s son was killed saving his life, and he wants to give the old man his son’s medal. 

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Reno Smith:  “She must have strained every muscle in her head to get so stupid.”

The drunken sheriff Tim Horn (Dean Jagger) and undertaker Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) try ineffectively to help him.  Finally, young local hotel clerk Pete Wirth (a James Dean-esque John Ericson), plagued with guilt over his minor role in Komoko’s death, recruits his sister Liz (Anne Francis) to take Macreedy out of town in her jeep.  She betrays Macreedy to Smith, who kills her anyway.  In a shootout with no gun, Macreedy improvises a Molotov cocktail and sets Smith afire.  Having brought in the state police to Black Rock, he then catches the train out of town. 

[last linesSecond Train Conductor:  “What’s all the excitement? What happened”

John J. Macreedy:  “A shooting”

Second Train Conductor:  “Thought it was something.  First time the Streamliner’s stopped here in four years.”

John J. Macreedy:  “Second time.”

A superb cast cast, although Tracy seems old for a recent veteran, and some excellent writing in the screenplay by Millard Kaufman.  Tightly directed, the film comes in at 81 minutes.  Tracy was nominated for Best Actor.  This was part of a good run for director Sturges in the 1950s, along with Escape from Fort Bravo, Last Train from Gun Hill and Gunfight at the OK Corral, before he got into his larger-scale action films of the 1960s.  Music was by a young Andre Previn.

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Northwest Passage

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 8, 2013

Northwest Passage—Spencer Tracy, Robert Young, Walter Brennan, Ruth Hussey, Montague Love, Addison Richards (1940; Dir:  King Vidor)

Epic version of part of Kenneth Roberts’ 1936 novel about Rogers’ Rangers and their most famous exploit, the raid on the Abenaki settlement at St. Francis in October 1759 during the French and Indian War.  More than half the Rangers died on their grueling return from the raid through very wild country teeming with French and their Indian allies.  The subtitle of the film is Book One:  Rogers’ Rangers.  A sequel was planned but never made, showing Rogers’ deterioration and descent into debt and alcoholism in England after the war, as a loyalist increasingly out of tune with more pro-American colonists.  During arduous filming in northeastern Washington, Tracy came to loath director King Vidor and swore he’d never work with him again.  The film’s music features the old English army tune “Over the Hills and Far Away,” later used in a similar fashion in the Sharpe series set in the Napoleonic wars.

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The posters emphasize Indian-fighting, the epic scale of the story, and its connection with the best-selling novel by Kenneth Roberts.

Young Harvard-educated (until he is expelled) artist Langdon Towne (Robert Young) and his friend Hunk Marriner (Walter Brennan) get in trouble in their native Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for making seditious comments about a local English official (Montague Love).  To avoid jail, they leave for the west.  They join Major Robert Rogers (Spencer Tracy), who offers them the chance to go farther west and paint Indians if they become Rangers and go with him on a raid north into French territory and make maps.  Trying to avoid detection by the French, the Rangers make their way arduously northward from the English fort at Crown Point, at one point portaging their boats laboriously over a mountain and at another wading through interminable swamps. 

The St. Francis Abenaki village the rangers are hitting is not just a peaceful Abenaki settlement.  It has been used for decades as a base for raids by French-allied Indians (Abenakis, Hurons, and Catholic Mohawks) on frontier settlements in the colonies farther south in English territory.  Most of the rangers have experienced the effects of these raids, and the objective is to hit it hard enough so that it won’t be used as a base for future guerrilla activity.  According to Rogers’ subsequent report, the rangers found 600-700 scalps fluttering in the breezes at St. Francis.  Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the British commander, also wanted to divert French military attention and resources from James Wolfe’s army at Quebec.

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The rangers arrive at St. Francis and are successful at their military objective in a harrowing sequence, but they find none of the food they had counted on for their difficult return by a different route.  Towne receives a wound to his midsection, and they gather white captives for the return by way of Lake Memphremagog.  Against Rogers’ advice, they vote to break into four groups for the return trip.  French and Indians pick off some; injuries, starvation and madness take others.  Out of the 142 Rangers, only about 50 make it to the rendezvous at Eagle Mountain.  Straggling into Fort Wentworth where they expect finally to find provisions and support, they instead find it abandoned.  But it isn’t long until a British unit headed in most unlikely fashion by Lord Jeffrey Amherst (Lumsden Hare) himself marches in, replete with supplies.  Towne goes back to his girlfriend (Ruth Hussey), and the Rangers march off to the west, supposedly in search of the Northwest Passage across the continent. 

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Tracy is superb as Rogers, an inspiring leader who carries our attention and commands respect throughout the movie.  He didn’t actually make westerns, though; the closest he ever came again was in the excellent Bad Day at Black Rock, set in the modern west, in Broken Lance and in the range melodrama The Sea of Grass..  Brennan is good and Young pretty good as the two regular characters whose story we’re following.  Addison Richards is also good as an officer who becomes unhinged after the brutality on both sides.  Ray Teal and Hank Worden have uncredited early roles as Rangers.  Much of the film was shot outdoors on location in eastern Washington and the Payette River in Idaho, and it shows on screen.  Shot in color (rare for 1940), this film was nominated for an Oscar for cinematography.  It was also long for its time, at more than two hours.  It finally became available on DVD in Dec. 2011. 

The title hasn’t much to do with the events or subject matter of the movie; it refers to where the Rangers are headed at the end of the film.  However, it probably had to be the same as the best-seller on which it was based.  Compare the plot with Errol Flynn’s World War II movie Operation Burma a few years later. 

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The racial attitudes will appear dated to the sensibilities of viewers more than 70 years later.  But they weren’t much questioned in 1940, and they were even stronger in the era depicted, 200 years earlier, when many frontier dwellers had been subjected to Indian raids and atrocities.  Viewers who can’t put themselves into the perspective of other historical times may have trouble with this.  The Indians are mostly stereotypical, with Konkapot as the head of Rogers’ Stockbridge Indian scouts not given much to say and little screen time.  Indian tortures and atrocities are described, but not shown.  At St. Francis, almost all of the Indians shown are men of fighting age, not the women and children who would also have been present.  The Indians generally look like plains Indians, rather than their eastern woodland counterparts, especially as they would have dressed late in the year.  The whole idea of slaughtering Indians, admirable in the 1930s, is almost unthinkable today.  Modern animal rights enthusiasts wouldn’t care for the way Rogers silences a barking dog in the Abenaki village, either—with a thrown hatchet.  The movie makes compelling watching if you can get past current social attitudes, though.  This and 1992’s Last of the Mohicans are probably the best movies about the French and Indian War and this phase of American frontier history.

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Lord Jeffrey Amherst here is shown more positively than he is generally remembered these days.  Sir William Johnson’s Mohawks are depicted as unreliable, duplicitous and shifty; Johnson usually gets better press now.  It is true that the actual Rogers didn’t get along well with Johnson, and was regarded with suspicion by the British army structure within which he served.  As depicted, the Indians did call him White Devil.  There have been a couple of good biographies of the father of U.S. special forces in recent years:  see White Devil by Stephen Brumwell (2006) and War on the Run by John F. Ross (2009).  Roberts’ pro-American novel with 1930s attitudes is also good reading, although long out of print now.  Roberts was reportedly horrified at the movie, however.  As a Loyalist (or Tory), Rogers was responsible for uncovering American spy Nathan Hale during the Revolution, with which he disagreed.  He was an American type:  the frontiersman competent and feared while fighting Indians and exploring terrain in the wilderness environment where he felt at home but out of touch in other more civilized surroundings (see George Rogers Clark, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, maybe even Meriwether Lewis).  It makes Andrew Jackson seem more admirable, as one who could function well in several worlds.

Not to be confused, or even connected, with Southwest Passage (1954).

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