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.
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.