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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48 thoughts on “Northern Pursuit

  1. Nice one, Colin! I have to admit this one left me a bit flat; I thought it was a tad uneven and a bit too convoluted for its own good. Flynn, of course, was perfect as always. Still, it was worth watching…I love my Mountie movies.

    Good to see you on the blogathon action…maybe see you on our British Empire blogathon, hmmmmm? 🙂 I love the blogathon idea; I’m signed on for a bunch, including this one!

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    • Thanks, Clayton. I know what you mean about it being a bit uneven; some parts work far better than others. The plot isn’t actually all that complicated but the script manages to make it seem so.

      I really like the idea of blogathons but worry that my schedule these days won’t let me fulfill obligations.

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  2. Congrats Colin, especially for picking one of the Walsh/Flynn collaborations that tends to get the least love – and I must admit, I have that DVD box and it is perhaps the least viewed one in there, though i will now be remedying that!

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    • It’s a good box set, Sergio, with a nice selection of movies.
      As Clayton mentioned above, the plot appears more convoluted than it is. The whole business of Flynn’s loyalties is mishandled – the writers should have either made it plain from the outset or left the ambiguity in place until the climax. As it stands, we end up (from the perspective of the narrative) with an unsatisfactory and unnecessarily confusing halfway house.
      Still, there’s lots of good stuff to enjoy – Walsh and Hickox ensure everything looks terrific, and the supporting turns are very entertaining.

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  3. Nice pic, it crossed my mind as well when Kristina proposed this subject. And you know I love Errol having done 5 Days of Flynn earlier this year. As you say it’s not one of those hard core propaganda flicks and quite watchable and it’s prime Errol. Did you know Gene Lockhart was born in Canada? About an hour or so from where I’m standing.

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    • Thank you, Mike. I remember your Flynn series and enjoyed it very much.

      Some wartime films can really bludgeon you in their efforts get the message across, but this one tones it down a little and works better as a piece of cinema.

      I didn’t realize Lockhart was Canadian – the contribution Canadians made to the movies is really impressive when you stop and think about it.

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  4. Ooh, this sounds like one not to be missed! Canada + Nazis + Errol Flynn sound like a winning combination to me. Flynn was capable of some great acting, but it’s too bad – as you pointed out – that life events were taking their toll on him.

    Thanks for participating in the O Canada Blogathon! And thanks for the introduction to this film.

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    • I’m pleased I was asked to participate, and happier still to be able to introduce a movie to someone. Also, it’s always a pleasure to have the opportunity to feature Flynn.

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  5. So glad you joined in! Another big Flynn fan chiming in here, always find him great to watch, the true action hero who could act, he and Walsh are fitting for a “big outdoors” picture like this. Thanks Colin for the excellent post.

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    • Delighted to take part, Kristina.
      I’m glad you brought up Flynn’s talent as an actor, something that frequently gets ignored in favor of comments about his swashbuckling both on and off the screen.

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  6. Thanks for an intro to a Flynn movie I’m not familiar with. The beginning of Northern Pursuit sounds a teensy bit like the film I wrote about, 49th Parallel, in that a U-boat crew is sent onto the shores of Canada. They survive a bit longer, but do end up, one by one getting killed or arrested. Wondering what year Walsh made this picture as 49th, a British film, was shot in Canada in 1940.

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    • I’m reasonably sure it was made after Powell’s film as it was released in 1943. The screenplay is based on a story by Leslie T White – I haven’t read that and can’t track down any specific info on it so I don’t know how close the movie follows its structure.

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  7. Nice piece, Colin. Though I agree it’s most interesting in the first part, Walsh’s direction sustains it for me to the end. And Errol Flynn is one of my favorite actors too. I disagree with earlier comment that he was only at his height to 1942. Though I love Michael Curtiz and always enjoy the earlier swashbucklers, I consider Walsh to be Flynn’s best director; and though I realize Cavershamragu is including THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON and GENTLEMAN JIM among the great Flynns, Flynn is wonderful in all his Walsh movies–OBJECTIVE BURMA has as good a performance as Flynn ever gave, one that is very shaded, and in their last, the interesting Western SILVER RIVER,
    Flynn does play a darker character. That Flynn was a great movie actor there can be no doubt–just playing swashbuckling heroes would prove that; they are fantasy figures yet in Flynn’s hands one always completely believes them–how much better can acting really be? But he could certainly do other things if asked, and stole the show as late as THE SUN ALSO RISES (1957, Henry King), with a pathos so poised and quiet that it was heartbreaking and had some genuine trace of the heroic.

    I believe the DVD set referred to is of the four Walsh/Flynn WWII movies. It happens that I got interested to see all of these again when that came out (I knew them all pretty well but it had been awhile) and watched them chronologically over a period of a year or so. For me, they are all good but keep getting better because they do pick up more depth. DESPERATE JOURNEY, the first, is the simplest–a group of heroic men escaping from Germany; it sounds like it could almost be boring but the energy Walsh pours into its realization makes it continually exciting for over two hours. Near the end, I was almost mesmerized how he sustained that kind of momentum so enthrallingly even though nothing really unexpected ever happens. I again disagree with earlier comment about the third film UNCERTAIN GLORY with Flynn as a fascinating, equivocal character and find that one intensely moving–the narrative progresses to exactly what one expects but does so convincingly and is again steadily absorbing. The last OBJECTIVE BURMA is simply one of the best war movies ever made–its James Wong Howe cinematography alone would make it a work of art, but there again he was another good collaborator for Walsh. This was made later in the War, so even with another long, more or less straight line of another desperate journey, the propaganda is loud when it’s on but mostly subordinated to other aspects, all treated with exceptional richness and creativity.

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    • Thanks for the response, Blake. As always, you offer food for thought. It’s interesting to look at the films Flynn made with both Curtiz and Walsh, the two most significant directors in his career.

      By all accounts, Curtiz and Flynn had a strained relationship yet their films together have great vitality, and the star was very much in his prime. He appeared to bond more with Walsh and, as you say, gave some strong and memorable performances in their movies together – some of his best in fact. In their own ways, I think both directors helped Flynn fulfill his potential.

      BTW, it’s good to hear your appreciation of Flynn’s work in The Sun Also Rises. The film is not without its faults but Flynn is extremely affecting in his role and its a first rate piece of screen acting.

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  8. My error re running time of DESPERATE JOURNEY–not over two hours, it’s 107 minutes, still long for that story but those 107 are really packed. I might have added that I had somehow underrated this until the last time. Maybe we’re just further and further away from there being a director like Raoul Walsh who could do the things he did. One of the greatest and he just keeps looking better.

    OBJECTIVE BURMA is long–a whopping 142 minutes but it never wears out.

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    • I think you know I have the highest regard for Walsh – I made a point of including him among my top 10 western directors – and feel he’s yet to receive his full due from critics. His art had a simplicity, which in itself may be a hallmark of all great art, that remains timeless. His ability to draw you into what was sometimes routine material is very impressive.

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  9. Yes, I know you too admire Walsh. One more reason I’m never shy about singing his praises here though I probably would anyway. It is interesting about great art–it does have a simplicity and one of my colleagues I really respect once said of film style “the simpler the better.” Of course, that does not mean some vacant, anonymous style–it’s artfully deliberated and not easy to achieve. And there’s a lot there and it’s highly individual but a great director does not need to be showy about it.

    Re Flynn, Curtiz and Walsh, I think your second paragraph at 7:09 is as fair and apt a statement as could be made about this and what you say there is exactly right.

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  10. Great review as ever Colin. I share your love of Flynn’s swashbucklers, but I am less impressed with his westerns. Northern Pursuit sounds interesting, and I am disappointed that Flynn was not given the opportunity to create a more nuanced character, since he was a better actor than people give him credit.

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    • Thanks, Andrew. Flynn’s westerns are a mixed bag – Dodge City is pure epic entertainment and historically significant for its role (along with a handful of other movies) in reinstating the western as an A picture.
      They Died With Their Boots On is a gem of a movie, one of Flynn’s very best, with a great central performance and top direction by Walsh. I also rate Rocky Mountain highly and feel Silver River has much to recommend it too.

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  11. I was in two minds when I watched this – wasn’t sure if the good start compensated for the flat ending. Perhaps I’d oversold the film’s greatness to myself. I enjoyed reading your review though, so perhaps it’s time to give it a re-watch!

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    • Always pleased if I can persuade someone to give a movie another chance – mission accomplished, I guess.
      The relative weakness of the ending is really down to the script and there’s still the quality of the acting and direction to appreciate.

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  12. Colin, your post, along with Blake’s input, has convinced me I need to finally start digging into my Errol Flynn Adventures set, starting with NORTHERN PURSUIT. It sounds most interesting! Thanks for moving it onto my “radar screen.” Wonderful blogathon entry, so glad you participated.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  13. I was not familiar with this actor so enjoyed reading your post. It sounds like a good movie, and I think I would enjoy it. I appreciate the time you took to talk about the different issues that were presented in the movie. Thanks so much for bringing it to our attention.

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    • Shari, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I find it very gratifying if anything I write helps introduce someone to a performer, director or movie they haven’t been aware of. I hope you get the chance to see the film at some point, and that you enjoy it too.

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  14. Great review as expected but unfortunately I have not seen this. I too am a great fan of Errol Flynn in western and swashbuckling roles. I do not know why you inadvertently left out San Antonio, which was very entertaining. Best regards.

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    • Thanks, Chris. Hopefully, you’ll get to see Northern Pursuit at some point and if you’re a Flynn fan, then I think you’ll enjoy it.

      I haven’t seen San Antonio for some time, not since I featured it in a run of pieces on Flynn’s westerns here anyway. Overall, I found it disappointing and uneven – too many diversions from what I think at heart was a reasonably good story.

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      • Don’t know this one, Colin, so thanks for heads up. I’m in Paris just and have found great DVD shop, Gibert Joseph. Far more vintage discs than in UK.

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        • In that case I’m pleased to have introduced it to you. Paris is a fine city – have a great time. And it’s interesting how much of continental Europe seems to have a more thriving market for vintage titles than the UK.

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  15. I have always liked “NORTHERN PURSUIT” and it is certainly time for a re-watch. Good review, Colin – thanks.

    I agree with the praise for Flynn as an actor. His career was actually quite varied to reflect this. I remember growing up that my parents were pretty scathing about “OBJECTIVE BURMA” because it appears to completely ignore the British contribution to the Burma campaign. They had both taken part in WW2 so their reaction was understandable (different generation). I, on the other hand, view it purely as a movie and, as such, think it, like Blake, one of the finest war movies ever made. Terrific pacing, fine acting, fine movie-making.

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    • Cheers, Jerry.
      Yes, I know Objective Burma came in for a fair bit of, as you say understandable, criticism back in the day based on its selective approach. I think the passage of time has lessened that somewhat – and anyway I never demand or expect historical accuracy from movies since they’re not designed to be history lessons – and it holds up extraordinarily well as a war tale.

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  16. Never saw this one – my library has it, along with the others in that Errol Flynn collection – but after reading this well-written review, I intend to seek it out when I get the chance. I’ve always thought Flynn was a better actor than he was given credit for (even his much-maligned-at-the-time performance in THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX was actually pretty good, though I’m not a fan of the movie in general), and I love the one other film he did with Walsh that I’ve seen (GENTLEMAN JIM), so that’s another reason to watch it.

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    • Sean, I agree on The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, a movie where Flynn did a lot better than some critics might have you believe.
      If you haven’t seen a lot of Flynn/Walsh movies, then there’s plenty of good stuff in store for you. Of those titles mentioned here, I strongly recommend you check out both Objective Burma and They Died With Their Boots On.

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  17. Having been to where this film is meant to be located I can tell you it is way out of line. Another one Hollywood got wrong as to the setting. Other than that, I found it to be a passable timewaster, though i must admit it is nothing I would go back for. On the spot write-up.

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