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Northern Pursuit

Well this is a first for me. The themed blogathon has grown in popularity and I’ve always wanted to contribute to one. The thing is I’ve never been one of those disciplined souls who’s felt able to commit himself to producing something appropriate on a given date. That said, when Kristina, the hostess of the always entertaining and informative Speakeasy, sounded me out and said she was running a blogathon in partnership with Ruth at Silver Screenings, well I thought I’d give it a go. The terms of reference are broad – Canada. I could pick anything I wanted so long as it pertained to Canada in some way. Well, I settled on Northern Pursuit (1943) as it stars one of my favorite actors, Errol Flynn, and was directed by the great Raoul Walsh. It’s a wartime propaganda piece, always interesting in themselves, and a good solid adventure/espionage yarn to boot.

A U-boat punches its way through the ice and deposits a party of German flyers on Canadian soil. The nature of their mission isn’t revealed – in fact, it doesn’t actually become apparent until quite late in the movie – and all we know is they are desperate to press on as quickly as possible into the inhospitable northern wilderness. Eventually the unforgiving conditions take their toll and an avalanche wipes out the whole party, save one man. Von Keller (Helmut Dantine) was the leader of the group and finds himself the sole survivor. He manfully struggles on through the wintry landscape until the elements overcome him. However, he’s a lucky man in many ways and is discovered just as he’s on the point of succumbing to exposure. Steve Wagner (Errol Flynn) and Jim Austin (John Ridgely) are a couple of Mounties out on patrol who happen to cut Von Keller’s trail just in time. The point where Von Keller is taken into custody is, for me anyway, the most intriguing part of the movie. Here we learn that Wagner is in fact of German descent and a sense of ambiguity is built up around the character and his motives. As viewers, we’re faced with a moral dilemma, one every bit as knotty as that apparently faced by the hero himself. Is it possible that the clean-cut and dashing Wagner could really be a Nazi sympathizer? The doubt lingers and is then fueled by the escape of Von Keller and a handful of his compatriots from an internment camp. Frankly, I feel it’s a little unfortunate that the allegiances of all the principals are revealed too early; while the remainder of the picture plays out as a reasonably tense and action-packed affair, the conventional nature of everyone’s behaviour is something of a disappointment after such a promising build up.

Despite the fact the film  was shot on Warner studio sets and on location in Idaho, it still acts as a showcase of sorts for the harshness and primal beauty of Canada’s far north. Cinematographer Sid Hickox captures some wonderful wintry images which are both forbidding and attractive. Walsh’s handling of the action scenes has all the assurance that typifies his work, and the quieter passages also bear his unmistakable stamp too. If you see enough of this director’s work, it soon becomes apparent how much he was interested in faces. There are close-ups throughout, quick cut reaction shots zeroing in on the actors which reveal more in an instant than reams of dull exposition could ever do. Now propaganda films can be a mixed bag, at their worst they can lay the jingoism on so thick it’s a bit of a chore to watch them. Northern Pursuit is one of the more interesting examples though. It gets its message across loud and clear yet there’s a thoughtfulness in the script which elevates it to an extent. For one thing, the grievances and dissatisfaction of the indigenous Indian population is touched upon, albeit in passing. The aspect that particularly drew my attention though was the treatment of Canadians of German extraction. A lesser film might well have opted for the simplistic approach and pandered to prejudice. To this film’s credit, the question of loyalty among the émigré community is dealt with in a balanced and enlightened way. The casting obviously plays a part, but the writers were also conscious of their responsibilities and saw to it that the complexities of such an issue were not neglected.

Flynn was still in his prime at this stage, although the trials and their aftermath would shepherd in his decline with remarkable swiftness. By his own admission, he was often simply walking through roles as his expenses mounted. His part in Northern Pursuit had some meat on its bones, although the potential isn’t fully developed. The first half of the movie holds out the prospect of a nuanced and subtly shaded characterization. That it’s not carried on into the latter stages isn’t Flynn’s fault though; the script moves in a much more traditional direction, and the result is a more one-dimensional (though still perfectly entertaining) portrayal. Helmut Dantine is strong in his role as the driven Von Keller, He also starts out better, coming across as grimly determined as opposed to the cold fanatic he reveals himself to be as the plot progresses. In a sense, the supporting players fare better over the 90 odd minutes. Julie Bishop, John Ridgely, Gene Lockhart and Tom Tully all turn in fine performances and see their roles evolve satisfactorily.

Warner Brothers released Northern Pursuit as part of an Errol Flynn adventure set some years ago, and the film looks pretty good on that DVD. It’s a nice clean transfer of a movie whose elements seem to have stayed in good shape – no distracting damage or major flaws. As far as I’m concerned anything with Flynn is highly watchable – the swashbuckler roles are certainly going to be ones he’s best remembered for, but I always enjoy seeing his other genre pictures. Northern Pursuit probably isn’t that well-known yet any collaboration between Flynn and Walsh is worth investing a little of one’s time in.

Submitted as part of the O Canada Blogathon – you can follow the other posts in this celebration of Canadian influences on cinema by clicking on the banner image below.

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2014 in 1940s, Errol Flynn, Raoul Walsh

 

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Cry Wolf

The popularity of certain genres, or perhaps sub-genre is more accurate in this case, is always subject to change. Old dark house movies seem to have lost a lot of their appeal; I think they would have to be accompanied by significant quantities of gore to generate a lot of interest these days. Such films rely heavily on atmosphere and a sustained level of tension that is hard to achieve in the age of lightning editing and a succession of jump-cut shocks. Cry Wolf (1947) is one of these vaguely old-fashioned yarns where mood and setting play a major role in maintaining the suspense. I would term it a moderately or intermittently successful vehicle; the plot is serviceable without being particularly remarkable, but the look of it all and the unexpected casting makes for interesting viewing.

The opening has a breathless, intense quality: a black automobile hurtles along winding rural roads while a rider on horseback tracks along and ahead. As the horse clears a boundary wall, the car pulls up in front of an imposing mansion. Two figures, a man and a woman, alight and are admitted by the help. These two people are Senator Caldwell (Jerome Cowan) and Sandra Marshall (Barbara Stanwyck), and they’ve been racing through the countryside to attend a wake. An interview with Mark Caldwell (Errol Flynn), the senator’s brother and head of the house, establishes the fact that Sandra has arrived at this place of mourning to pay her respects to her late husband. Sandra claims that she was married to the deceased, the nephew of Mark and the senator, and has come to see the instructions he left in his will are carried out. It transpires that the dead man was extremely wealthy, his fortune held in trust and administered by Mark until he should turn 30 or marry. His sudden departure means that Sandra now stands to inherit a substantial fortune, providing her claims bear scrutiny of course. Mark is naturally suspicious of this unexpected widow, but that feeling is reciprocated. The death of Sandra’s husband is accounted for in fairly vague terms, the casket has been sealed, and the entire household appear to be held in the grip of some nameless dread. If Mark wants to find out a little more about Sandra’s assertions then that’s as nothing compared to her determination to dig deeper into the Caldwells’ past. She instinctively knows that something doesn’t ring true; there are little details that niggle, but the main issue is the sinister atmosphere that hangs over everybody and everything. The presence of a fragile, neurotic niece, the mysterious laboratory where Mark works late at night, and the awful, unacknowledged screams that echo along the corridors in the darkness all combine to drive Sandra to investigate further. It’s tempting to try to predict the outcome of this story and the trail is littered with clues and allusions, but there are various red herrings present too. By the time the tale twists its way to the climax I reckon it would take a very savvy viewer to step around the pitfalls and reach the correct conclusion.

I haven’t seen too much from director Peter Godfrey apart from the Bogart/Stanwyck feature The Two Mrs Carrolls. This movie shares the same feeling of overheated melodrama, and both films tend to disguise a mediocre script through the use of heavy atmosphere. I don’t usually comment on matters such as set design, but Cry Wolf, with its predominantly indoor setting, relies quite a lot on this. The sprawling Caldwell mansion and estate becomes almost a character in itself, a kind of brooding edifice that’s full of secrets and menace. Godfrey and cameraman Carl Guthrie use the architecture well to build mood – shooting from below and through the balustrades to achieve the classic noir imagery of characters pinned in place by shadows and bars, and mix this up with high angle shots from the gallery that coldly objectify the small figures milling about below. Even the outdoors scenes, with their matte paintings as backgrounds, blend in well. Theoretically, this ought to give the movie a cheap, B picture vibe but it actually adds to the air of unreality, heightening the sense of the characters inhabiting a world apart in much the same way that Hitchcock employed such techniques.

Errol Flynn rarely gets a lot of credit for his acting abilities. He even admitted in his (fantastically entertaining) autobiography that, especially in the post-1942 years, he was often just going through the motions, basically churning out pictures simply to cover his expenses. He was always at his most memorable in swashbuckling action roles, yet he was capable of more subtle performances whenever the opportunity arose. Cry Wolf offered him something quite different, a calmer, more thoughtful and genuinely ambiguous part. Perhaps some thoughts of his own father came into play when he assumed the role of the slightly aloof, pipe-smoking scientist. While he could be criticized here for a certain stiffness, I think he hit the right note under the circumstances; the character of Mark Caldwell is, after all, a man living under intense pressure with a lot of skeletons rattling around the family closet. I guess it could be said though that he doesn’t bring a strong enough sense of menace or threat to his performance to make it as convincing as possible. In something of a reversal of roles it’s Barbara Stanwyck who gets to do all the proactive stuff in the movie: riding horses, clambering across rooftops, dangling through skylights and generally toughing it out. As such, this was a perfect piece of casting since Stanwyck was one of the few actresses of the period who could credibly pull off this kind of thing. She was enormously versatile, at home in most any genre, yet particularly suited to playing gritty heroines who remained unfazed by physical danger. I’ll also give a mention to Geraldine Brooks who was highly effective and quite moving, in her debut role here, as the emotionally brittle and highly strung niece.

As far as I know, the only way to get Cry Wolf on DVD at the moment is via the Warner Archives disc. I remember buying this title on VHS way back in 1989 and I have to say that it looks very much like the same master has been used for the DVD. That’s not to say the image is poor, but there are plenty of speckles and damage marks, not to mention a general lack of crispness, that betray an unrestored source. The disc, as is usual with these MOD products, is very basic: no extra features whatsoever, a generic menu and standard ten minute chapter stops. I’ve tagged this picture as a film noir, but the truth is that it’s a borderline entry at best. The plotting has more in common with a Mary Roberts Rinehart style of mystery – a gutsy heroine blundering into a perilous situation. However, the dark mood and the atmospheric photography do earn it a place on the periphery of the noir world. Personally, I’m a fan of both the stars and I like the fact that it has Flynn playing against type for a change. It’s by no means a perfect film though it is a lot of fun – therefore, it earns my qualified recommendation.

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2012 in 1940s, Barbara Stanwyck, Errol Flynn, Film Noir

 

Rocky Mountain

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Having already made seven westerns, Errol Flynn got into the saddle one last time in 1950 to make Rocky Mountain. The whole tone of the film is different to what went before, and that makes it somewhat atypical. Both They Died with Their Boots On and Silver River had their darker moments but neither was as relentlessly grim as this. From the opening moments, when a weary, unshaven Flynn leads his bedraggled soldiers across a bleak landscape, an air of resigned fatalism hangs over the characters. This makes for a superior little picture, and one entirely in keeping with the era in which it was produced. By 1950 the western was on the cusp of one of its regular periods of transition, about to enter that Golden Age when heroes were less than perfect and endings weren’t always happy.

Lafe Barstow (Flynn) is a captain in the Confederate army who, in the dying days of the Civil War, has been sent west to California to raise a guerrilla force which his superiors hope will cause sufficient havoc to take the heat off their forces back east. We get our first sight of the small band of rebels as they near their rendezvous with the bandit warlord who has pledged his men to the cause. From there on the action is confined to the titular mountain and the barren valley below. Things go awry almost immediately when Barstow and his men take it upon themselves to rescue a stagecoach being pursued by a raiding party of hostile Shoshone. This act of gallantry is destined to backfire when it’s revealed that the sole surviving passenger is Johanna Carter (Patrice Wymore), the fiancee of a Union lieutenant stationed nearby. Not only has the secrecy of their mission been compromised but the rebels soon find themselves besieged by the vengeful Shoshone. A tense waiting game ensues and hard decisions will have to be made by all concerned. This is quite a downbeat story and, despite the misleading publicity blurb on the poster, the romantic aspects are largely ignored. There’s also a conspicuous lack of the kind of broad comedic moments that frequently characterise westerns starring Flynn.

Errol Flynn about to make a fateful decision in Rocky Mountain

I really enjoyed Flynn’s performance as the doomed soldier struggling to choose between duty and human decency. It’s sort of ironic that it should be his last western, and a low budget picture, where he finds a role that he could get his teeth into. Rocky Mountain was to be one of Flynn’s last good parts before he experienced a mini revival in his last years. It proves that the man could certainly act when the right material was offered to him – it’s just a shame that he chose, or had to accept, such poor vehicles thereafter. Patrice Wymore was soon to become the third Mrs. Flynn and she does fine as the reluctant hostage, appearing remarkably assured in what was only her second film. The support cast is generally good and there’s the bonus of seeing Slim Pickens making his screen debut as one of Flynn’s men. Long-standing sidekick Guinn Williams is also prominently featured (looking quite old and weathered, it has to be said) and he indulges in none of the comic pratfalls with which he’s often associated. Director William Keighley shot this sparse movie very professionally; both the action set pieces and the more thoughtful, talky passages work equally well, and he really gets the best out of the New Mexico locations. There’s not one interior in the whole film, and that’s always a good thing when the budget is restricted.

Warner’s R1 DVD of Rocky Mountain is another excellent transfer that shows off the crisp black and white photography to good effect. There’s the usual package of extras with three more of the very welcome western shorts that appeared on the disc for Montana. The film has also been granted a commentary track by Thomas McNulty, which I found both enjoyable and informative. All told, we get a classy presentation of a very fine movie which I’d recommend highly.

So, that brings me to the end of this little series on the westerns of Errol Flynn. I’m not sure how I’d rank them, but Rocky Mountain, They Died With Their Boots On and Silver River would have to be in the top three, with the first two probably sharing the top spot. I’d have no hesitation in placing San Antonio and Montana at the bottom of the pile, with the other three jockeying for position in the middle. Anyway, I’ve enjoyed viewing and writing down my thoughts on these films, and I hope others have taken some pleasure in reading them.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1950s, Errol Flynn, Westerns

 

Montana

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After watching Silver River, with it’s strong plot, good cast, and high production values, it’s a bit of a disappointment to view Montana (1950) next. What we have here is a B movie that uses technicolor in a vain attempt to disguise that fact. It’s a real struggle to find anything good to say about this film; the story is flat and unengaging, the cast largely anonymous, and the action (what little there is) is dull and devoid of tension. On the plus side, the colour photography adds a little sheen to a few scenes and it’s mercifully short, clocking in at just 76 minutes.

Montana falls into that small sub-genre of westerns that deals with the conflict between the cattlemen and the sheepmen. Now, there’s a very good reason why such stories never gained much popularity – it’s essentially a dull subject that doesn’t grab you. The plot deals with the efforts of Morgan Lane (Flynn) to drive his herd of little woolly guys into Montana and graze them on the open range. The cattle ranchers, who have already established themselves, are implacably opposed and are prepared to use whatever means are necessary to keep the sheepmen out. The ranchers, in the shape of Maria Singleton (Alexis Smith) and her betrothed Rod Ackroyd (Douglas Kennedy) have the range carved up between them and are preparing for war. Lane manages to trick Miss Singleton into signing over a lease, and the stage is set for a showdown. The problem is that there’s no real tension generated and the on-off romance between Flynn and Smith just feels contrived and serves only to pad out what is basically a lean tale. By the time you get to the appallingly poor climax it’s hard to care what the outcome will be.

Errol Flynn in Montana - angling for a drink, and who could blame him!

This is one of Flynn’s poorest performances and it’s clear his heart just wasn’t in it. He looks tired for most of the running time and even his likability can’t lift this drivel. Worst of all there’s the unedifying spectacle of the star gritting his teeth and warbling along to a godawful ditty in a duet with Alexis Smith. Miss Smith wasn’t really served any better by this material and spends much of her time flouncing around playing a character whose behaviour perpetually alternates between the arch and the petulant. The  rest of the cast is filled up by a bunch of instantly forgettable nobodies giving one flat, one-note performance after another. Oh, S.Z. Sakall makes another of his unwelcome appearances but his character abruptly disappears and no explanation is offered – he’s just there, and then he’s not. This kind of continuity lapse, and the short run time, suggests that portions of this movie ended up on the cutting room floor. Ray Enright was one of those journeyman directors who could produce something passable given the right material, but his point-and-shoot handling of Montana is underwhelming and uninspiring. His filming of the big stampede at the climax is an object lesson in how not to shoot an action scene. We get pointless images of rampaging cattle interspersed with head and shoulder shots of Flynn and others bobbing up and down, pretending to be riding horses, against a painted backdrop!

For such a weak film Montana is presented handsomely on DVD in R1; the transfer is clean and the colours are strong. There’s a good selection of extras from Warners with trailers and shorts – best of all are three western shorts, which I actually found more entertaining than the main feature. Prior to this viewing I hadn’t seen Montana in over twenty years. I had forgotten most of the story and I have to say it really is a forgettable movie. If you’re a Flynn completist, like me, you’ll probably want it just to plug the gaps but I seriously doubt it’s the kind of movie anyone is likely to return to in a hurry. Next will be Flynn’s final western, and the last in this short series of reviews – Rocky Mountain.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1950s, Errol Flynn, Westerns

 

Silver River

What a difference a director makes. One of my gripes with San Antonio was the fact that it was made by a man who didn’t seem to be in touch with the genre. The western is one kind of film where such a lack of association is especially damaging. Despite the fact that it encompasses so many themes and types of story, the western has its own look, rhythm and ethos – that’s what makes it unique, in my eyes anyway. Silver River (1948) is an odd mix of western and slightly soapy melodrama but, at heart, it’s really an old-fashioned morality play. Raoul Walsh was very much at home making oaters and his steady hand on the tiller ensures that this movie holds true to its course.

Silver River is a tale of one man’s rise, fall and ultimate redemption. It opens towards the end of the Civil War, when Mike McComb (Errol Flynn) deliberately disobeys an order, for the best of reasons, and is subsequently court martialled and cashiered. This has the effect of hardening his resolve to succeed at all costs in civilian life, and look out solely for number one. The first half of the movie charts his seemingly unstoppable rise both socially and financially, as he acquires capital, transport, a gambling house, interests in the mining business, and another man’s wife in rapid succession. As we follow each step of McComb’s progress, the script throws in one reference to the classical world after another (ranging from Julius Caesar to King David) to draw parallels with the character’s actions. McComb’s ruthless pursuit of power and glory drives him right to the brink of moral bankruptcy, but results in the financial bankruptcy that is necessary if he is to avoid slipping into the abyss. The aptly named Plato Beck (Thomas Mitchell) is on hand all the while to act as the voice of conscience. The drunken lawyer first assists McComb in his meteoric rise and then presides over his downfall, knowing that he must destroy his friend in order to save him.

Ann Sheridan casts a distrustful glance at Errol Flynn.

Silver River is one of those movies that was almost perfectly cast. Flynn, nearing forty and with a few rough years behind him, is fine as the man still young enough for grandiose dreams but tinged with the kind of realism that comes from having lost a few rounds. His own personal troubles and the knowledge of what he was doing to himself at this point must surely have coloured his performance. Some of the scenes in the latter half of the film, where he is confronted with the ugliness of his actions and the prospect of abandonment, really ring true and one can read the resignation and despair in his eyes. Ann Sheridan is wholly believable playing the tough as nails frontier woman who first rails against Flynn before finally succumbing. Sheridan was one of those actresses who brought a lot of honesty to her playing and I thought she was especially convincing in the early scenes where she eschewed all of the usual Hollywood glamour to portray a woman who was the equal of any of the men around her. I always enjoy seeing Thomas Mitchell in anything and, although some may have a problem with his admittedly hammy style, find he brings an enormous amount of pathos and humanity to every part. His role in Silver River is a pivotal one and it’s entirely to his credit that it would be hard to imagine anyone else playing it. As I said earlier, Raoul Walsh holds everything together expertly and succeeds in preventing the melodrama from becoming too suffocating. The outdoor scenes and the action are everything you would expect from a director of Walsh’s calibre, and the more dramatic indoor confrontations are well shot with plenty of emphasis on the actors’ faces – something of a characteristic with this director.

Silver River was a surprise omission from Warners Errol Flynn western package, but it is freely available on DVD from them in France. The image quality looked pretty good to my eyes, save for a little softness in the first ten minutes or so. Thereafter the picture remains clean, sharp and quite consistent. The disc has removable French subs and is completely barebones but, on the positive side, it’s not all that expensive. I think this is a bit of an undervalued film that deserves to be rediscovered, so I’d recommend it. I’ll be looking at Montana next.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1940s, Errol Flynn, Raoul Walsh, Westerns

 

San Antonio

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It’s often difficult to put your finger on exactly why a film doesn’t work for you. I’ve frequently found that such films suffer from two basic flaws; they can’t seem to make up their minds what style to adopt, and/or the director is someone who has no real affinity or feel for the genre in which he’s working. The existence of one of these factors can easily hamstring a production – when they appear in tandem it’s never good news. I feel that San Antonio (1945) is one of those films that falls into this unfortunate category. There’s actually the makings of a fine film in there, and indeed it contains some well executed sequences, but it ultimately loses its way and winds up as a pretty unsatisfactory experience.

San Antonio is basically revenge western. The prologue places the action in Texas in the 1870s at a time when a struggle is taking place between ranchers and rustlers. Clay Hardin (Flynn) was once a big time rancher who’s been run off his property and left for dead. The early part of the movie finds him holed up in a Mexican pueblo, recovering from his wounds and preparing to return across the border with the hard evidence that will finally doom the rustlers. The plot follows a fairly straightforward line as Hardin tries to bring his enemies to book and they in turn try to find and dispose of his proof. The high point of the movie is the duel that takes place in the ruins of the Alamo between Hardin and the two principal villains (Paul Kelly & Victor Francen). This is a nicely shot sequence that generates a bit of tension but loses much of it’s impact due to the fact the story is allowed to dribble on when it should have ended there at its natural climax. Along the way there’s also time for a romance to develop between Hardin and visiting actress Jeanne Starr (Alexis Smith) – an attempt is made to turn this into a love triangle involving Paul Kelly’s character, but it quickly fizzles out as there’s never any doubt as how the chips are going to fall in this situation. The irritating thing is that all this forms the basis of what could have been a pretty good western. Unfortunately, there are far too many instances of jarringly inappropriate comedy and overblown musical numbers that stop the movie in its tracks. Any dramatic tension that had been building just gets killed stone dead in these moments.

Errol Flynn, in the aftermath of one of San Antonio's more dramatic scenes.

Flynn played his part fairly straight throughout, and gives a generally sound performance. His features  were just starting to show a bit of wear at this point, but I thought that was fitting for a character who has taken a bit of a beating. Alexis Smith made a number of films as Flynn’s co-star and they work well enough together; her character remains believable and she certainly photographed nicely in technicolor. As the villains, Messrs Kelly and Francen are passable if fairly generic – their performances being of the snarling and moustache-twirling variety. One of my biggest problems was the casting of S.Z. Sakall, one of those acquired tastes I’ve never managed to develop. In my opinion, his presence is unnatural and unwelcome, adding nothing of worth to the picture and, most damningly of all, draining the dramatic clout out of a number of scenes. In his defence, he does manage to raise a smile when, early on, upon observing a riderless horse, he slips in a sly dig at fellow English language-mangler Michael Curtiz by announcing: “There goes an empty horse!” Unfortunately, the exact same gag is repeated at the end, just in case the audience were too dumb to catch it first time round. Generally, I’m not one to grouse about the injection of humour in a western, Ford, Walsh, Hawks and others managed to do it effortlessly and successfully. The problem with the jokes in San Antonio is that they come at the wrong time and verge on the surreal – a lime green parrot with a southern drawl and a whisky-drinking cat being conspicuous examples. When you get a script from Alan Le May and W.R. Burnett, it’s not unreasonable to expect something better, so I’d lay the blame at the feet of director David Butler. His western credentials are nearly non-existent and I have to say it shows up in the final result here.

San Antonio was clearly an expensive production and that’s apparent in the technicolor renditions of the lavish sets. Warner’s DVD shows these production values off to good effect, but the clean, sharp picture also highlights a few dodgy painted backdrops for exteriors. Nevertheless, the colours are strong and really pop off the screen, especially some of Alexis Smith’s costumes. All in all, this is an excellent looking DVD that I couldn’t fault – it’s just a pity that the movie itself doesn’t measure up. It’s part of the Flynn western collection but if it were available separately I couldn’t, in all good faith, recommend it. Coming up – Silver River.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1940s, Errol Flynn, Westerns

 

They Died with Their Boots On

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“What do you Yankees think you are? The only real Americans in this merry old parish are on the other side of that hill with feathers in their hair”

If most old movie fans were asked to name their favourite Errol Flynn picture I think that a significant majority would probably plump for The Adventures of Robin Hood. I couldn’t really fault that choice as it comes in near the top with me too, but it’s still not my favourite. That honour would have to be reserved for They Died with Their Boots On (1941). I don’t know if it’s Flynn’s best film but it is up there and must surely be seen as one of the high points of his career. The character of George Armstrong Custer is one that Tasmania’s most famous son must have seemed ideally suited to playing. When the film was made Custer’s reputation as one of America’s greatest military heroes was only beginning to be reassessed, so there’s no axe-grinding revisionism to be found. Judged as a faithful biopic or character study, the movie is open to all sorts of criticism; but that’s not really what They Died with Their Boots On is all about, and it would be doing it a great disservice to treat it too harshly on those grounds. No, this is a Boys’ Own adventure of romance and daring, of guts and glory – and taken as such, it works perfectly.

There have been numerous portrayals of Custer on screen, dating back to Francis Ford in 1912, but I doubt if any have imbued the man with the glamour that Flynn brought to the part. The film traces his life and career from his entry into West Point up to his final moments at the Little Big Horn. Custer’s arrival at the US military academy, in all his gold-braided glory with a pack of hunting dogs in tow, is largely played for laughs, although it does set up a simmering rivalry with fellow cadet Ned Sharp (Arthur Kennedy) that’s crucial to the plot’s development. In fact, this is a film of two distinct parts; the first hour or so is mostly lighthearted knockabout stuff with only the occasional foray into more serious matters, while the second half takes on a decidedly darker and moodier tone. Therefore, we get to see Cadet Custer as a kind of fun-loving prankster who liked to ride his luck and chance his arm with authority, which, by all accounts, wasn’t too far from the truth. When the Civil War intervenes and necessitates his early graduation, Custer finds himself torn between pursuing his interest in the love of his life, Libby (Olivia De Havilland), and his enthusiasm to get into the thick of the action. Naturally, the pursuit of glory and honours wins out, and this leads to a nice little scene in Washington with General Winfield Scott (Sydney Greenstreet). Interestingly, Custer did have a fortuitous meeting with the Union commander on arrival at the Adjutant General’s office which led to his first active posting – albeit without the business with the creamed onions. The war, which ironically brought enormous fame to Custer, is given only minimal attention but it does show his rapid rise through the ranks. While all this is presented in a highly entertaining fashion, you still get the sense that we’re only marking time until we get to the real meaty stuff – the move west and the Indian Wars.

Last man standing - Errol Flynn as Custer

With the action shifting to Dakota, the whole feel of the film changes and raises it up to a different level. There’s still time for the odd lighter moment but it’s quickly apparent that this new war is no gentleman’s affair. Custer almost immediately clashes with his old foe Sharp who’s running a saloon and trading rifles with friendly Indians from within the fort. The first order of business is to end the drinking and whip the drunken recruits into some sort of fighting force. This is achieved via a wonderful sequence whereby Custer adopts the old Irish drinking song Garryowen and uses it as a means of instilling a sense of pride and unity into his ragtag 7th Cavalry. There’s also the first view of the red men, and in particular their chief Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn). One notable aspect of this movie is the respect afforded to the Sioux; at no point are they portrayed as anything less than a disciplined fighting force with legitimate grievances. The real villains of the piece are the corrupt officials and their businessmen backers from the east. The point is made very clear that the Sioux are left with no choice but to rise against the whites when treaties are broken and their shrinking homeland is further encroached upon. When Custer leads out his last fateful expedition he does so in the hope of earning more personal glory of course, but it’s also obvious that his political masters and their moneyed allies have left him with no other option. So, he leads his 7th to the Little Big Horn – to hell…or to glory, depending on one’s point of view.

Flynn gave one of his better performances in They Died wth Their Boots On, particularly in the second half. You can see the character gradually mature as the story moves along, his youthful optimism giving way first to disillusionment and then, finally, to a perversely jaunty death wish. If you wanted to stretch a point, it’s possible to see parallels in the course of Flynn’s own life. There’s also much more maturity in the relationship between the characters of Flynn an Olivia De Havilland; this would be their last film together and that fact adds considerable poignancy to their farewell scene, which is pitch perfect in its playing. However, even though the film marked the end of one partnership, it would signal the beginning of another – this was the first movie that Flynn made with director Raoul Walsh. If the star’s relationship with Michael Curtiz was a less than happy one, his collaboration with Walsh was much more congenial. These were two men who were much closer in temperament and Flynn seems to have felt a lot more comfortable in the company of the buccaneering old director. Walsh was one of those directors who was always in his element shooting outdoors on location. I’ve already made the point that when the film switches to the west it moves up a gear, and I think that’s due, in part, to Walsh’s affinity with the outdoors. The last half hour or so has a dreamy, poetic quality that’s the equal of some of John Ford’s best work – and that’s no mean feat. It should also be pointed out that the movie benefits enormously from one of Max Steiner’s finest and most memorable scores, which is built around the rousing yet vaguely melancholy Garryowen.

Warner’s R1 DVD (I believe the R2 is the same transfer) of They Died with Their Boots On is quite fabulous, clean and sharp with barely a damage mark in sight. It has a good selection of extras though it lacks a commentary, which I feel this movie deserves. OK, maybe this isn’t the best western you’ll ever see but it’s right up there among my all time favourites – one of those films that unfailingly pushes all the right buttons on every viewing. Next up, San Antonio.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2009 in 1940s, Anthony Quinn, Errol Flynn, Raoul Walsh, Westerns

 

Santa Fe Trail

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If you’re the kind of person who gets hot under the collar when movies play fast and loose with historical facts, or if you find the political undertones of times gone by to be unbearably offensive then Santa Fe Trail (1940) is most assuredly not the film for you. This is the kind of movie that’s awfully easy to criticise and denigrate, and it’s probably a simple task to find lots of sites on the web that have done just that. Well, I’m not going to indulge in that kind of shot-taking. I can live with a movie twisting history for dramatic effect as it seems foolish to expect what is essentially an entertainment medium to stick only to the facts. As for politics, there are always going to be positions that we either agree or disagree with. If I were to limit myself to those movies that conform to my personal views I would in all likelihood be looking at a very small pool of titles. So, while I can acknowledge that Santa Fe Trail has some shortcomings, I’d still say it ranks as an enjoyable movie experience.

The story is a fairly straightforward good guys versus bad guys tale, with the role of the heroes being assumed by the army, and the new West Point graduates in particular. So, we are presented with the fanciful notion of Jeb Stuart, George Custer, Phil Sheridan and other famous military figures all graduating the same year. That’s all nonsense of course, but it does allow the point to be made that the Civil War was an event that was to set former friends and allies at one another’s throats. The focus remains firmly on Stuart (Errol Flynn) and, to a lesser extent, Custer (Ronald Reagan) as they strive to run to ground the abolitionists in Kansas led by John Brown (Raymond Massey). This is the point that most people object to; namely the fact that the film seems to demonise the anti-slavery activists. Now, while there can be no doubt that these characters are portrayed as the villains of the piece, it’s not that simple. The movie actually takes pains to keep to a middle line and actually shows the pro-slavery crowd (albeit in far fewer scenes) to be no better. As I said, the viewers perspective is that of the army in the middle. There are numerous occasions where the characters all voice sympathy for the ultimate aims of, if not the tactics employed by, the abolitionists. If anything, this is the source of the issues many have with the film – it fails to come right out and condemn the southern states advocacy of slavery. Personally, I’m not sure if this should be seen as a weakness. The fact that it doesn’t take the easy route gives it a unique quality. There’s always a certain satisfaction and reassurance that a viewer feels when a movie follows the line that he himself believes to be right. However, there’s also a different satisfaction to be derived from those rare movies whose message remains more ambiguous. Santa Fe Trail is such a film, it never really takes sides clearly and saves its condemnation for the kind of murderous zeal that that can tarnish even the noblest of causes. 

Errol Flynn and Raymond Massey fight over the fate of the Union.

Flynn again gives another variation of his laughing cavalier character. He must surely rank as the most swashbuckling cowboy ever to ride the frontier, and the script offers him ample opportunity to do so here. He was still in his athletic prime at this point, and is in his element whether chasing gun-runners on horseback at breakneck speed across the prairie or storming Harper’s Ferry with sabre drawn. After his unconvincing pairing with Miriam Hopkins in Virginia City, it’s good to see Olivia De Havilland cast opposite him once more – the obligatory love story seems much smoother and more comfortable with these two. Ronald Reagan seems an odd choice for the role of Custer for he possessed neither a physical resemblance to the man nor any of that driving ambition that characterized him. Instead, we get a slightly  comedic figure who’s relegated to playing second fiddle to Flynn’s more Custer-like lead. Raymond Massey’s John Brown is all fiery passion and outrage. His wild-eyed reformer borders on parody but, despite chewing up the scenery, stops just short of that. He still invests his role with a sense of credibility and even manages to bring some humanity to what could easily have become a caricature. A word also for Van Heflin who gives solid support as the mercenary Rader who finds redemption at the end.

This would be the last western collaboration for Flynn and Michael Curtiz, and their penultimate film. By all accounts there was no love lost between them despite the fact they made a dozen movies together. Curtiz again makes good use of both locations and studio, and his handling of the action scenes is exemplary. There’s also a memorable little interlude before the climax, when the group of soon to be famous soldiers all gather round an old indian squaw and have their collective fortunes told. As the old woman sits drawing pictures in the dirt, she tells them that they will all achieve honours and rank but in the process become bitter enemies. This is pure Hollywood fantasy but it’s beautifully filmed and quite poignant in view of the historical context.

Santa Fe Trail has long been a staple of various PD companies on DVD. There has yet to be an official release in either the UK or the US, but there is a Warners DVD of the movie out in France. The disc is a barebones affair but it does present the film better than I’ve seen before. The print used is a little soft in places and a little too bright in others but it is remarkably clean and free of damage. The audio is generally strong although I did notice a momentary dropout on two occasions. If anyone’s looking to get their hands on the best extant version of this interesting and frequently overlooked film I would suggest seeking out this French copy, which has the Warners logo intact at the beginning, and mercifully removable subs. Next time – They Died with Their Boots On.

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2009 in 1940s, Errol Flynn, Michael Curtiz, Van Heflin, Westerns

 

Virginia City

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When Errol Flynn’s first stab at a western, Dodge City, proved to be a financial hit Warners wasted no time in casting him in another. They reassembled as many of the cast and crew from the previous movie as possible and threw in a few more stars for good measure. The result was Virginia City (1940), and although this one wasn’t in technicolor the sweep of the narrative was every bit as epic as its predecessor. It’s not quite the movie of Dodge City but it does come close, only let down by a couple of questionable casting decisions which I’ll look at later.

The story of Virginia City takes place towards the end of the Civil War, and deals primarily with a last ditch attempt by the Confederacy to secure a bullion shipment which would allow them to fight on. Four years of warfare, and the accompanying blockade, have left the South on the verge of bankruptcy and staring defeat in the face. Their one chance of survival hangs on obtaining the necessary funds to keep them afloat. Virginia City was the site of some of the richest mines in the country and provided the Union with untold wealth. Of course some of those same mines were owned by Confederate sympathisers who had managed to raise $5 million to aid the cause. The difficulty for the South was to get that money out of Nevada and safely into their own territory. Enter Vance Irby (Randolph Scott), a Confederate officer who has the requisite knowledge of the territory to head up an expedition to bring the contraband through. In the film’s opening scenes Irby is in charge of a military prison which counts a certain Captain Kerry Bradford (Errol Flynn) among its inmates. When Irby foils Bradford’s attempt to escape it sets up a personal rivalry between the two men that is added to later on when they meet again in Nevada and find themselves competing for the attentions of saloon singer Julia Hayne (Miriam Hopkins). Although both Bradford and Irby find themselves on opposing sides in the war they have a good deal in common, and indeed end up fighting shoulder to shoulder against a mutual threat in the closing stages. Since both of the leads were cast in essentially heroic roles it meant that another, more obvious, villain was needed. That’s where Humphrey Bogart comes in, playing the mustachioed Mexican bandit John Murrell.

Randolph Scott & Errol Flynn going toe to toe in Virginia City

Flynn and Scott both play their parts well and it’s hard not to find yourself rooting for both. However, it has to be said that Scott comes off the best. He was the better actor but that’s not the only reason; his mission was also more romantic, and the fact you know it’s doomed from the outset lends more pathos to his character. In fact, the northerners of the film (with the exception of Flynn and perennial sidekicks Hale and Williams) are generally an unpleasant bunch who are difficult to sympathise with. Douglass Dumbrille’s Major is a straight-backed martinet and other pro-Union characters are shown in a highly unfavorable light. It’s notable that many films of this period tended to side with the Confederacy and painted the Yankees as the villains. Only in the closing moments, when Lincoln (appearing as no more than a shadow cast on a document) makes an appeal for national reconciliation, does the film show the Union in a positive way. If Flynn and Scott give a good account of themselves the same cannot be said for Bogart and Miss Hopkins. Bogie just didn’t belong in westerns; he was too eastern and urban, and he gives a stiff and unconvincing performance that borders on pantomime. Miriam Hopkins also looks all at sea belting out old standards in a can-can dress in a rough saloon. There is a bit of back-story for her character to show that she came from an altogether higher class of family, but it still fails to hide the fact that she was a poor choice for the part. Most of the time she appears uncomfortable and too old for her role. It’s a pity Olivia De Havilland couldn’t have been given the part for, although she wasn’t exactly the saloon girl type either, she at least had chemistry on the screen with Flynn.

Michael Curtiz did another fine job of directing and every shot is professional and well framed. The movie benefits a lot from the extended use of locations that are especially important for westerns. He created plenty of excitement in the action scenes, in particular the sequence where Bogart escapes from the runaway stagecoach. That scene also features a repeat of master stuntman Yakima Canutt’s patented under-a-moving-vehicle manouevre that he first used in John Ford’s Stagecoach. It’s also worth mentioning that Max Steiner provided another thundering score to match the on-screen action, and it adds a great deal to the film’s atmosphere.

Virginia City is available on DVD from Warners in R1 in their set of Flynn westerns. The transfer is excellent and Sol Polito’s black & white photography positively glows. There’s the usual array of extra features, including a commentary track by Frank Thompson that provides plenty of detail on the film’s production. Warners have also released a set of Flynn’s westerns in the UK, but omitted this title. I’m not sure why this happened but I have to wonder if it may not have something to do with some of the horsefalls; there’s one particularly brutal shot that would surely cause a problem with the BBFC. I would rate this film at just a notch below Dodge City, but it’s still pretty good. The plot is strong and Flynn and Scott’s characters have enough depth to keep you watching, but the miscasting of Hopkins and Bogart does damage the picture. Coming next, Santa Fe Trail.

 

Dodge City

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OK, time for a new series. Over the coming weeks I’m going to be covering the westerns of Errol Flynn. He made a total of eight oaters between 1939 and 1950, and I’ll be looking at each in turn. Flynn may not have been the most natural choice as a western hero but he managed to adapt to the genre reasonably successfully. While some of these films are undeniable classics, others are more mediocre. However, they all remain entertaining and this is due, in no small part, to the presence of Flynn. His first venture into the west was Dodge City (1939), when he was still at the top of his game, and his name was box-office gold. This, of course, was the year when the western was making its comeback as an entertainment for adults. It seemed like every big Hollywood star was heading for the frontier, and so it’s only natural that Flynn should follow suit.

The film begins in the expansionist, nation-building years that came after the Civil War. Wade Hatton (Flynn) has been earning a living as a buffalo hunter in the employ of the railroad. The opening scenes highlight the unstoppable drive towards progress as the new steam locomotive races, and beats, the overland stage into Kansas. When the iron horse pounds its way into the fledgling Dodge City it signals a new and dangerous future. The railhead will allow Dodge to grow into a major hub for the shipment of cattle. However, the boundaries of civilisation will always be home to those who hope to make a quick profit and take advantage of the fact that the law invariably trails along as a distant second in the wake of a sprinting capitalism. So, while Dodge City becomes a thriving commercial centre, it also gains the reputation of being an anarchic, ungovernable place. The lawless element of the town is represented by Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his hired gun Yancey (Victor Jory). These men have all the illegal activities sewn up and have no hesitation in removing anybody who threatens their interests. Although Hatton and Surrett clash early on, it’s not until the rampant disregard for the law causes the death of a child that matters come to a head. Hatton accepts the position of sheriff and is set on a collision course with Surrett. Along the way, the hero finds the time to romance Abbie Irving (Olivia De Havilland), although it’s a relationship that gets off to a bad start when her wastrel brother dies in an accident after fighting with Hatton.  

Dodge City is a movie where the action never lets up and it moves along at such a brisk pace that it rewards repeat viewings. So many of the themes and elements that would later become staples of the western genre are given their first exposure here. The massive and memorable bar room brawl that forms the centrepiece of the picture is the template for just about every cowboy scrap that followed. Director Michael Curtiz handles this sequence masterfully, the scale of the fight is always obvious and it’s so well choreographed that the viewer is never left feeling confused or lost. In fact, it’s almost an object lesson in how to film a big action set-piece with excitement and still retain clarity. Curtiz was nothing if not versatile, and was at home with pretty much every setting and style of film making. Throughout Dodge City he manages to move effortlessly from comedy to drama, to action, and on to romance, without once missing a beat – a model of smooth, professional direction.  

On the trail to Dodge City

One of the biggest obstacles for Errol Flynn when he started playing western roles was the fact that he didn’t sound like cowboy. However, Hollywood was always clever at circumventing such inconveniences, and the writers got around the issue by providing a backstory for Hatton’s character and making him an Irish adventurer who’d travelled extensively. Anyway, as I said, the story moves along at such a lick that minor inconsistencies are soon forgotten as you get drawn into the plot. Flynn manages reasonably well and the man’s natural charm helps a lot. Olivia de Havilland was certainly the finest leading lady Flynn ever had, and the films they made together were always worth watching for their on-screen chemistry. I couldn’t honestly fault any of the performances in Dodge City; Cabot and Jory make a fine pair of villains, and there’s the inevitable comic relief from Alan Hale, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, and Frank McHugh. One of the nice things about the movie is the way more serious points manage to get slipped in amid the humour. For example, Hale and Williams’ clowning around and bemoaning of the fact that Hatton’s brand of law and order is turning Dodge into a genteel, sissy town, and their consequent need to push on deeper into the west, makes the point about the feminine nature of civilization as eloquently as many a more serious and heavy-handed film.

The R1 DVD (and I guess also the R2) of Dodge City from Warners is generally a pleasing transfer, but it’s not without its problems. There’s no damage to speak of, but there are technicolor registration issues which cause a blurry image with some fringing from time to time. Having said that, the problem is not one that should spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the film. There are a number of extras including Warners Night at the Movies and a short featurette on the film. All told, Dodge City may not be Errol Flynn’s finest western performance but it is still a fine western. Next up – Virginia City

 
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Posted by on March 8, 2009 in 1930s, Errol Flynn, Michael Curtiz, Westerns

 
 
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