Heads, I Lose

Thanks to the popularity of the DVD format, virtually every movie made since the sound era, and nearly every TV series shot on film or videotape, even those that barely chugged to the finish line of a single season, are now available for home viewing.  That idea was cemented for me when I saw a pair of discs offered on Amazon, bearing episodes of “Northwest Passage,” which ran on NBC from September 1958 through March 1959.  It was one of the first series broadcast in color, although most viewers were unaware of the fact, and might have been surprised to learn that the rangers were wearing outfits made of green buckskin.  Keith Larsen was ostensibly the star, but the most familiar face was that of Buddy Ebsen, who had previously donned buckskin to play Fess Parker’s sidekick in Disney’s “Davy Crockett."

The TV show was a dumbed-down and prettified adaptation of the 1940 MGM Technicolor adventure film starring Spencer Tracy as Major Robert Rogers, who led Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War.  MGM must have held out hope that it would measure up to their previous year’s historical epic, “Gone With the Wind.”  Kenneth Roberts’ “Northwest Passage” had also been a best-seller in 1937, nudged out of first place only by the continued success of Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War juggernaut, published the previous year.  Conceived as a novel in two distinct parts, only the first half, about a raid Rogers’ Rangers made on an Abenaki settlement at Saint-François-du-Lac, Quebec, has ever been adapted for film or television.  It is the unfilmed second part which deals with the search for a water route to the western shores of the continent.  The director, King Vidor, hoped to present the second part as a separate movie, but lukewarm box office reception to “Northwest Passage,” and Kenneth Roberts’ disappointment with the film adaptation, shelved any idea of making a sequel.

Roberts had also been less satisfied with the second half of his own novel, completed while he was traveling abroad, far away from his neighbor, editor and collaborator, Booth Tarkington, best remembered today as the author of “The Magnificent Ambersons,” the source of Orson Welles’ follow-up to “Citizen Kane.”  Roberts considered Tarkington’s help so vital that he offered to list him as co-author, but Tarkington declined to take the credit.  Tarkington scribbled his editor’s pencil to the nub while going over the first half of Roberts’ manuscript for “Northwest Passage," leading the author to ask if it were because his writing skills were going downhill.  No, Tarkington assured him, it was because this one had the potential to be so good.  Or, at least half of it did.

I did not notice a fall-off in quality from one part to the next, way back when I read the book on the advice of my Aunt Ruth, who told me that there was some mention of an ancestor, whom I think she identified as “Captain Lovell.”  I scoured the novel, but must have overlooked whatever it was that had made her take notice.  However, my first taste of Roberts’ historical fiction led me to his earlier works, “Rabble In Arms,” “Arundel,” and “The Lively Lady.”  The “Lady” from the title of the last-named book, by the way, is a ship.  

“Northwest Passage” is an exhaustively-researched examination into an important facet of American history, and a gritty depiction of the life of a ranger on the frontier.  Napoleon had not yet observed that “An army marches on its stomach” when the rangers made their dangerous trek through the wilderness of the Province of New York and back again.  The privations which Rogers’ Rangers endured, and the horrors they resorted to, are not soon forgotten.  Let’s just say that ever since I read it at an impressionable age, the words “Indian head” have not summoned the image of a bronze cent piece.

When I decided to have another look at “Northwest Passage,” I was in for a surprise.  A Kindle or Epub version of the work, which promised not only to be an inexpensive alternative to a printed copy but a simple one to search, was not available, even though most of Roberts’ other titles are offered in an electronic format.  The public library was open late that night, so I decided to drop by after work and check out the the book, but thought I’d have a look at the online card catalog ahead of time, just to be sure.  Nothing at all by Kenneth Roberts turned up in my search.  Amazon it is.  So I’ll be reacquainted with an old friend, but at a price.

I now know a bit more about Kenneth Roberts than I did when I read his novels the first time.  He was a native of Maine whose great-great-grandfather had marched with Benedict Arnold in the early years of the American Revolution.  He was an irascible and opinionated conservative who did not approve of FDR’s policies or his welfare state, but wrote favorable articles about Italian fascism when he lived in Italy in the 1920’s.  One thing about that Il Duce, he got things done.  Perhaps worst of all, Roberts was an ardent believer in dowsing, including long-distance dowsing, holding a stick over maps of lands half a world away, and finding underground water and mineral deposits.  As Prof. J. T. Lovewell would point out, a man who would believe that might believe anything.  So, I’ll read the “Northwest Passage," but I’ll pretend Booth Tarkington wrote it.    

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com