Northwest Passage (Book I—Rogers’ Rangers)

Kenneth Roberts’s novel Northwest Passage chronicles the exploits of Major Robert Rogers (1731–1795), who during the French and Indian War raised and commanded an independent unit of light-infantry soldiers attached to the British Army known as “Rogers’ Rangers.” Often employing techniques eschewed by the British regulars, the unit was able to move through difficult territory under harsh conditions. In 1759, Rogers led 200 of his men from Fort Crown Point in New York to St. Francis in Quebec, where they destroyed an Indian settlement used as a base from which to attack British colonists. On the journey back through northern Vermont, the rangers ran out of food and sought shelter at Fort Wentworth in New Hampshire.

The first 360 pages (Book I) of Roberts’s novel of historical fiction concern the Rangers’ St. Francis mission, with Book II covering the later periods of Rogers’s life: while visiting London, the adventurer met King George III, who appointed him royal governor at Fort Michilimackinac (in modern-day Michigan), from whence he dispatched expeditions in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. In 1936, Book I appeared in serial form in the Saturday Evening Post, with Book II following in 1937. When Doubleday published the 734-page novel the same year, it became the year’s No. 2 bestseller, behind only Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, prompting M-G-M and producer Hunt Stromberg to snap up the film rights.

The studio originally planned Northwest Passage as its first three-strip Technicolor feature, but because of production delays, that distinction went to a 1938 Nelson Eddy–Jeanette MacDonald musical, Sweethearts. A number of actors came and went from the project due to these delays, including Robert Taylor (who would have played Langdon Towne, the novel’s narrator) and Greer Garson (as a love interest), but from the beginning Spencer Tracy had been pegged for the lead role of Major Rogers. The film’s original director, W.S. Van Dyke, also departed the project, replaced by King Vidor, and at least a dozen writers reportedly contributed to the screenplay (in the end credited to Laurence Stallings and Talbot Jennings). One draft that would have condensed the action of the entire novel into a single film ran an hour longer than Gone With the Wind, so the studio opted to split the story into two films. To capitalize on the novel’s popularity, however, the picture’s full title became Northwest Passage (Book I—Rogers’ Rangers), in spite of the fact that none of the film actually concerns a search for the Northwest Passage. And while the film achieved critical and popular success, budget concerns prompted the studio to cancel the planned sequel.

Audiences and critics alike responded to Spencer Tracy’s affecting performance as the inspirational Rogers and to Vidor’s balancing of the human story against a grand-scale wartime backdrop. The film’s impressive action sequences, many of which were filmed on location in Idaho, include the rangers crossing a treacherous river as well as their raiding of the Abenaki village.

Variety praised Herbert Stothart’s characteristically thematic score as “one of the finest yet written for films.” Recorded with a 60-piece orchestra and a 60-voice chorus, the music embodies the courageous spirit of Rogers and his militia: Stothart represents the infantry with various patriotic themes, based in part on popular British songs such as “Rule Britannia” and “Over the Hills and Far Away.” A yearning love theme for strings reminds artist Langdon Towne of his sweetheart Elizabeth back home, while a primitive, repeated-note idea drives the rangers toward St. Francis. In addition to the primary melodies, Stothart acknowledges the story’s colonial setting with Americana writing and passages for fife and drum (some of which was provided by William Axt, who along with Daniele Amfitheatrof contributed a handful of cues to the score). Stothart himself explained his modus operandi in an essay published in The New York Times on December 7, 1941:

Bits of comedy can be heightened by little musical quirks in the woodwinds. Melodic violin strains heighten the effect of love scenes. Crashing chords and paraphrases of national anthems exalt an audience, as evidenced in Mutiny on the Bounty and Northwest Passage. Intimate moments can be punctuated with accompaniment handled somewhat as recitative passages are handled in grand opera.

Stothart’s involvement with Northwest Passage also played a tangential role in the creation of one of the greatest film scores of all time. In early November 1939, producer David O. Selznick briefly considered replacing Max Steiner with Herbert Stothart on Gone With the Wind, as he was unhappy with the rate at which Steiner was composing and recording his score. Stothart, who had been Selznick’s second choice to score GWTW behind Steiner, was unoccupied at the time but unavailable due to his commitment to Northwest Passage (which he would begin scoring shortly thereafter). Nevertheless, Selznick arranged a secret screening of GWTW for Stothart on November 9, and related in one of his famous memos that the M-G-M composer was “dying to do the job” and “simply frantic with eagerness and enthusiasm,” assuring the producer that he could deliver his music on schedule. Selznick even considered having Stothart collaborate with Steiner on the score, although he was “not at all certain this would work out.” But within a few days, all of Selznick’s plans had unraveled, as he related in a memo dated November 13:

Stothart had a few drinks on Saturday night, apparently, and did a lot of loose talking about how he was going to have to fix up Max’s work.…[W]ithin ten minutes it was back to Max, and he was in a rage. Second, [M-G-M vice president] Sam Katz, with whom Stothart has been working, started raising holy hell about Stothart being taken off his present alleged assignments. Apparently, no two M-G-M executives could agree on whether or not Stothart was working at the moment, and on what. However, Max, spurred on by the Stothart episode, really went to town, and the result is that by tomorrow we will have considerably more than half the picture scored.

Stothart recorded his score for Northwest Passage on 35mm optical film, which M-G-M subsequently transferred to ¼″ monaural tape. Almost all of the cues survive; FSM presents the few that do not from a music-and-effects stem in a bonus section after the main program (tracks 26–29).

1. Main Title
A bright, unison brass fanfare marks the appearance of the M-G-M logo before Stothart introduces his primary themes over the opening titles, which unfold over a map of North America (the film version of this cue—see track 26—features portentous strings under the fanfare). The main march for Rogers’s Rangers consists of a bold descending line that culminates in a quotation of “Rule Britannia”; a repeated-note fanfare sounds over trudging accompaniment, representing the Abenaki Indians and the arduous journey on which the rangers embark; a joyous fife-and-drum passage firmly grounds the score in colonial times before male chorus sings the Rangers’ secondary march theme, the shape of which suggests the traditional English song “Over the Hills and Far Away.” Stothart closes out the “Main Title” by melding the introductory fanfare with ethereal female chorus and the second half of “My Country ’tis of Thee.” An enthusiastic setting of “The British Grenadiers” plays over a card setting the story during the French and Indian conflict and the opening scene in 1759 Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Portsmouth Harbor
The film proper begins at the Portsmouth Harbor, where Humphrey Towne (Robert Barrat) supervises his sons rigging a ship. Urgent, blustery material hints at the principal march theme before the men sing a gruff work song (off screen). Bells and a noble brass fanfare signal the arrival of a stagecoach from Boston, carrying another of Towne’s sons, Langdon (Robert Young). An earnest hymn leads to peaceful woodwind material as Langdon follows after a tavern keeper, who carries ale to an imprisoned woodsman, “Hunk” Marriner (Walter Brennan). Stothart scores Langdon’s reunion with his friend Hunk with frolicking strings and woodwinds; the woodsman is being publicly humiliated—locked in a pillory—for speaking out against the king’s attorney, Wiseman Clagett (Montagu Love).
2. Harvard Pie
Strings and playful woodwinds—culled from the fife material of the “Main Title”—sound as Langdon reveals to his friends that he has been expelled from Harvard for drawing a cartoon that insulted the school’s food and its administrator. A foreboding, undulating pattern enters when Langdon expresses unease over the prospect of telling his father about the expulsion. (This cue does not appear in the finished film.)
Calling on Elizabeth
Strings, woodwinds and a fragile electric organ underscore Langdon’s subsequent reunion with his sweetheart, Elizabeth Browne (Ruth Hussey). Stothart introduces their love theme (1:29), a bittersweet descending melody for strings, as Langdon expresses how much he missed Elizabeth at school.
3. At the Tavern
This source piece spotlighting fiddle plays at a tavern where Langdon drinks with his friend Sam Livermoore (Lester Matthews). After Langdon drunkenly insults Wiseman Clagett, Hunk arrives and helps him flee the scene to avoid arrest.
4. What’s This Map?
At a backwoods tavern, Langdon and Hunk meet Major Robert Rogers (Spencer Tracy), who prods them into joining him in an a cappella rendition of “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” (not included on this CD). The repeated-note fanfare from the “Main Title” sounds as the major looks through Langdon’s portfolio, impressing him with Langdon’s mapmaking abilities. Rogers notes a depiction of the fabled Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. The secondary ranger theme returns for Langdon voicing his desire to “paint Indians,” with the repeated-note fanfare returning as he dismisses a veiled suggestion from Rogers that he join the army. Woodwind choir quotes “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” when the men consume rum together. (The closing bars of this cue are dialed out of the film.)
5. Rogers Convinces Amherst
Rogers brings the inebriated Langdon and Hunk to his headquarters at Fort Crown Point. Martial percussion and winds develop the repeated-note fanfare as Rogers convinces General Amherst (Lumsden Hare) to allow him to lead an expedition to wipe out a group of murderous Abenaki Indians. A snare drum rolls as Rogers and his British superiors prepare to inspect their troops.
6. Exit to Crown Point
As Rogers and the British officers inspect the assembled forces, a fife-and-drums piece joins a setting of the secondary march.
7. Exit and Addenda to Crown Point
After Rogers begrudgingly agrees to bring a group of suspect Mohawk scouts on his mission, he dismisses his men; fanfaric brass and rolling snare lead to a proud reading of the main theme as they march off. After a transition to nighttime, a pure reading of “Over the Hills and Far Away” sounds for the rangers boarding rowboats.
8. Long Boat Row
Moody, impressionistic material surrounds a flowing reading of the secondary theme as the rangers set out on their mission, rowing their boats across Lake Champlain. A tranquil flute solo marks a transition to the men hiding their vessels on the shore and resting until dark.
French and Indians
The rangers hide in the woods as French patrol boats glide by ominously. While Rogers and Towne discuss the possible existence of the Northwest Passage, Stothart expands and develops the martial winds and percussion of “Rogers Convinces Amherst,” incorporating the secondary march. Once the enemy boats are out of sight, murky bassoons are dressed with dreamy harp glissandi as Rogers tells Langdon to get some sleep.
French Camp Fires
Fateful winds and strings sound over a pulse as the rangers cautiously row past an enemy campfire at night; this cue does not appear in the finished film. (See track 27 for music from a subsequent scene that survives only on the music-and-effects track.)
9. Through the Rain
Rogers sends a group of injured rangers back to the fort, along with the Mohawks, who have proven to be disloyal. A dire, trudging passage emphasizes low colors as Rogers and his remaining men once again set sail and navigate through a storm. An optimistic rendition of the secondary march builds after a transition to the men reaching shore.
Indian Atrocities
The rangers gather around Rogers, who finally reveals their destination: the Abenaki-occupied village of St. Francis. As Rogers rallies the men against the murderous Indians, martial winds and percussion return, joined by a threatening fanfare for muted brass and low-register strings. After Rogers calls upon one of the rangers to give a firsthand account of the Abenakis’ brutality, the cue dies down with a misterioso development of the secondary march.
10. First Swamp
Fateful muted brass and tremolo strings sound as Rogers leads the rangers through a mosquito-infested swamp.
Austere muted horn is joined by eerie string harmonics, woodwinds and suspended cymbal for the men resting in tree branches above the swamp.
11. Second Swamp
A quietly horrified passage for tremolo strings and winds plays as the men continue through the swamp. (This material does not appear in the finished film.)
Leaving Webster Behind
A cautious woodwind setting of the repeated-note fanfare sounds as Rogers checks up on Webster (Regis Toomey), whose leg is broken. After Rogers gives Webster some tobacco, an amicable reading of the secondary march underscores the major leaving the ailing ranger behind. Langdon witnesses the exchange and challenges the major’s decision to abandon Webster with a delicate rendition of the primary theme entering as Rogers defends himself and explains that the ranger is aware of the dangers of the mission. A melodramatic string reading of the secondary theme closes the cue, but does not appear in the finished film.
12. Indian Messengers
Loyal Stockbridge Indians catch up with the infantry, marked by an agitated chromatic pattern. Once they report that the French have seized the rangers’ hidden boats and supplies, a dreary reading of the secondary theme mixes with “Rule Britannia” as Rogers quietly considers the news.
Provisions for Men
A warm reading of the secondary theme plays as Rogers orders Lt. McMullen (George Eldredge) back to Fort Crown Point to request that Gen. Amherst send supplies to Fort Wentworth.
13. To the St. Francis River
An optimistic reading of “Over the Hills and Far Away” underscores the rangers marching toward the St. Francis River.
14. I Could Capture Quebec
After the men cross the perilous St. Francis River (see track 28 for the corresponding cue), Stothart reprises “Over the Hills and Far Away” as they continue on their journey; the woodwinds and strings that conclude this cue are dialed out of the film.
Repeated Instructions
Rogers briefs his men at night (see track 29), with Stothart tentatively developing the primary march for the rangers repeating their orders back to the major. The love theme gradually surfaces, recalling Elizabeth, as Langdon and the others prepare for battle; stoic brass, answered by strings, present a soothing setting of the secondary theme when Rogers comforts Langdon, who has never shot a man before. As the men sneak into the village, tranquil flute and shimmering strings close the cue, recalling material from “Long Boat Row.”
15. Langdon Is Wounded
In a lengthy (and unscored) battle sequence, the rangers succeed in burning down the town and wiping out most of the Abenaki. Afterward, dire strings and brass sound amid tribal percussion when Hunk comes across a wounded Langdon, who has been stabbed with a bayonet. A mournful quotation of “Yankee Doodle” gives way to a tragic setting of “Over the Hills and Far Away” as Hunk helps Langdon to his feet. The rangers proceed to evacuate the village in canoes, to a reprise of the dire material, followed by a fateful version of the secondary theme.
16. I Can Walk
A martial setting of “Over the Hills and Far Away” sounds as the rangers begin their march to Fort Wentworth, where they hope food and supplies await them. Stothart develops the dire material from “Langdon Is Wounded” when Rogers checks on the injured Langdon (the finished film tracks a repetition of the cue’s opening in place of this material). An unused, tragic setting of “Over the Hills and Far Away” was meant to sound as the major tries to motivate Langdon to stand up and walk; Rogers reminds Langdon that Elizabeth awaits him back home, with the love theme playing as he pulls out the artist’s sketchbook and shows him her portrait. The secondary march theme slowly gathers strength as Rogers helps Langdon to his feet, the melody rising sequentially for the artist taking his first belabored steps, before Rogers calls over two captives, Abenaki sympathizer Jennie Coit (Isabell Jewel) and an Indian boy (Lawrence Porter), to assist the wounded ranger. The cue culminates in a jubilant reading of the primary march theme as Langdon rediscovers his strength.
17. Tired Marchers
Fatigued readings of the primary march theme accompany Rogers inspecting the rangers as they march; Lt. Crofton (Addison Richards) appears to be mentally unstable and is concealing a battle “souvenir” in a sack. Rogers orders the men to set up camp when he sees Langdon lagging behind in the distance.
18. There’s the Lake
A softly determined rendition of “Over the Hills and Far Away” plays as the men proceed on their journey and Langdon continues to regain his strength with Jennie helping him along. A quotation of “Rule Britannia” underscores the rangers excitedly arriving at Lake Memphremagog, where Rogers has promised them they can fish. Fearing the presence of the enemy, the major reneges on his promise.
Take a Vote
Aching versions of “Over the Hills and Far Away” and the secondary theme underscore the rangers voting to split into four parties so that they can hunt for food in the woods surrounding the lake, with plans to rendezvous at Eagle Mountain.
19. Crofton’s Vengeance/A Dead Indian’s Head
Murky woodwinds sound as the rangers take note of Crofton’s increasingly bizarre behavior. The fanfare from “Indian Atrocities” returns for Crofton running off with his concealed prize; agitated strings and brass create tension when Rogers catches up with him and sees that he is harboring—and has been feasting on—a severed Indian head. After Langdon arrives on the scene and disarms Crofton, the material escalates, climaxing when the crazed lieutenant takes a running leap off a cliff.
A reassuring version of the primary march plays for Rogers saluting the dead soldier and informing Langdon of the sack’s contents.
20. Divided Rangers
A spirited reading of “Over the Hills and Far Away” underscores the men marching off in separate groups. The primary march theme comes to the fore after Rogers denies Hunk’s request to be reassigned to Langdon’s group.
While Rogers’s group prepares a stew, Lt. Avery (Douglas Walton) stares into the distance, taken by madness. Foreboding tremolo strings underscore his announcement that he is “going home,” with a tragic statement of the love theme sounding as he runs off, abandoning the others.
Hunk Is Reminiscent
The dire material from “Langdon Is Wounded” marks a transition to the rangers camping at night; Hunk and two of the other men lay awake, with a nostalgic, folk-flavored theme playing as they wonder what food awaits them at Ft. Wentworth. A dismissive interjection from elderly ranger Jesse Beacham (Hugh Sothern) receives a sarcastic quotation of “Yankee Doodle.”
Langdon Drags Back
A shimmering setting of “Over the Hills and Far Away” underscores Langdon’s arrival at Rogers’s camp. As he describes the capture and butchering of his comrades, Stothart reprises the martial motive from “Rogers Convinces Amherst” (this material is mostly dialed out of the film).
Friendship Strings
offer a soothing rendition of “Over the Hills and Far Away” for a transition to a private moment between Rogers and Langdon as they look through the artist’s picture book. The love theme appears when they come to Elizabeth’s portrait, with the major subtly reassuring Langdon that he will survive to marry her.
21. The Last March
A belabored ostinato supports gloomy woodwinds—with a hint of “Over the Hills and Far Away”—as the 50 remaining rangers continue their march to Fort Wentworth through a punishing rainstorm. Racing strings and woodwinds create anticipation when a Stockbridge Indian spots the fort in the distance.
22. Fort Wentworth
Brass fragments of “The British Grenadiers” and “Rule Britannia” sound amid urgent, wavering strings as Rogers leads the starving rangers in a race toward the fort. The cue rises fatefully, climaxing as Rogers reaches the structure, only to find it completely uninhabited. A mournful rendition of the main theme plays as the realization sets in and Rogers breaks down.
23. Fife and Drums Corps
As Rogers leads the rangers in a prayer, the fife and drum from “Exit to Crown Point” signal the arrival of British soldiers. The secondary theme appears as the British march into the fort bearing food and supplies for the rangers.
After Rogers announces that the Abenaki Indians have been vanquished, a triumphant brass arrangement of William Boyce’s “Heart of Oak” plays through a transition to Portsmouth, where a celebration plays out in honor of the rangers.
24. You’ll See a Nation
As Rogers informs the rangers that their next mission will be to seek out the Northwest Passage, the repeated-note fanfare returns before giving way to a noble reading of “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”
25. To Find a Northwest Passage
The rangers march off, to a robust brass arrangement of the primary march theme, with “My Country ’Tis of Thee” developed for Rogers bidding Langdon and Elizabeth farewell—they plan to travel to England, where Elizabeth hopes Langdon will become a successful painter. As Rogers heads off to join his men, Elizabeth wonders if he will actually discover the Northwest Passage and if she and Langdon will ever hear from him again; Langdon in turn assures her that Rogers will always be remembered. “Over the Hills and Far Away” sounds before the secondary march is given a rousing reprise for orchestra and male chorus to close the film.

Bonus Tracks

Tracks 26–29 present cues from the film’s music-and-effects track that are otherwise lost.

26. Main Title (music & effects)
The film version of the “Main Title” features portentous, swirling strings under the introductory fanfare (also featuring Leo the Lion’s roar). After this opening section, the cue is the same as that heard in track 1.
27. Over the Hill
On their way to St. Francis, the rangers evade the French by using ropes to pull their boats up a steep hill. Stothart plays through their labor with the secondary theme, belabored chromaticism, the fateful material heard in “Fort Wentworth” and fierce developments of “Rule Britannia.” Descending chromatic brass and strings sound for the rangers guiding their boats down the other side of the hill.
28. Human Chain
Continuing their perilous journey north, the rangers form a human chain in order to cross the St. Francis River. For this extended sequence, swarming strings mingle with threatening, exclamatory brass and bold statements of the main theme. Both march themes sound victoriously when the men succeed in reaching the opposite side of the river.
29. Elizabeth
On the eve of the St. Francis raid, the rangers camp outside the Indian village. The love theme plays fondly as Langdon recalls Elizabeth and the other comforting staples of his home life to Hunk.

Tracks 30–31 feature two early recordings of the “Main Title”:

30. Main Title (original opening)
This is the “Main Title” as originally recorded by Stothart; the opening is different, but the balance of the track is the same recording as heard earlier on this disc. (See track 1 for the “Main Title” with the revised fanfare, and track 26 for the revised fanfare with string overlay—otherwise lost—from the music-and-effects track as heard in the finished film.)
31. Main Title (orchestra only)
This alternate take of the “Main Title” for orchestra only omits the male and female singers. It was recorded immediately after the version heard in track 30, and thus features the original, unused opening. —