That Judge Maurice Cobbs sure does know how to buckle a swash.
Our reviews of Edge of Darkness (2010) (Blu-ray) (published May 11th, 2010), Edge of Darkness (1985): The Complete Series (published November 20th, 2009), and Ronald Reagan Centennial Collection (published March 3rd, 2011) are also available.
"I've made six or seven good films—the others, not so good."—Errol Flynn
If you know anything at all about Errol Flynn, you know that he was, in the truest sense of the word, a man of action. And when the flames of World War II spread to engulf the world, many Hollywood stars stepped up to the plate and went to war: Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Tyrone Power, and Eddie Albert, among others, would all go on to distinguish themselves in the armed forces. And so it will come as no surprise that it troubled the athletic Flynn greatly when he was rejected by every branch of military service as 4-F ("unfit for duty") due to the lingering effects of malaria and tuberculosis, not to mention his bad heart, which had plagued him throughout his movie career—the famous staircase swordfight in The Adventures of Robin Hood had to be filmed in short sequences so as not to overtax Flynn's condition, and the star actually suffered a mild heart attack while filming Gentleman Jim, the 1942 biopic of the boxer James J. Corbett.
Flynn yearned to do his part for the war effort, however, and worked to bolster morale by starring in several thrilling wartime adventures, five of which have been gathered together by Turner Classic Movies and Warner Home Video into the aptly-named Errol Flynn Adventures collection—a particularly exciting set inasmuch as four of these films are herein making their DVD debut. Flynn battles the Ratzis around the world, from the remote snow-blanketed wilderness of Canada to the heart of occupied France, alongside the Resistance…and even finds time to drop in on the sweltering jungles of Burma to give Dai Nippon Teikoku a bloody nose. But while the image of Flynn that many of us hold is of the swashbuckling pirate or the laughing, high-spirited bandit of Sherwood Forest, there is little of that soaring adventure to be found in these films. These adventures are mostly grim, the tone is decidedly dark, and the stakes are unimaginably high…as many of the audiences watching them at the time would have been well aware.
Except for Desperate Journey, that is. Flynn unarguably did some of his finest work under the direction of one-eyed, two-fisted man's man director Raoul Walsh, and this set is a showcase of some of the thrilling adventures that the two collaborated on. Desperate Journey is a super-heroic tale of downed Allied fliers who escape a German prison camp and travel across enemy territory to safety, relentlessly pursued by the vile Nazi Major Baumeister (Raymond Massey A Matter of Life and Death) until they reach safety. Though why the group (Flynn, Ronald Reagan, Alan Hale, Arthur Kennedy, and Ronald Sinclair) bothered to leave is frankly beyond this reviewer; had they stayed a couple of weeks longer they might have single-handedly won the war. This raucous adventure is as much over-the-top fast-paced fun as any modern action flick, brimming over with one-liners and daring heroics set to a rousingly patriotic score…just the sort of roaring yarn that Raoul Walsh excelled at spinning. Of all the selections on offer in this collection, the tone of this film is most like Flynn's earlier swashbuckling hits.
Northern Pursuit, by contrast, is a decidedly darker film, though no less action-packed. In this one, Flynn plays the part of Canadian Mountie Steve Wagner, who is discharged and disgraced when a Nazi operative he's captured, Colonel von Keller (Helmut Dantine, Mission to Moscow) escapes from a POW camp. Suspected of collaboration, and perhaps even outright treason, in part because of his German heritage, Wagner falls in with von Keller and his band of Nazi operatives. But has Wagner really turned traitor? Or is it all part of an elaborate plot to flush out the Nazis and thwart their plot? Suspecting the latter, von Keller kidnaps Wagner's fiancée, Laura (Julie Bishop, The High and the Mighty) to force Wagner's loyalty. This isn't particularly deep entertainment, like Edge of Darkness or Objective, Burma!, but it isn't as breezy as Desperate Journey, either. It's a good mix of suspense, drama and thrills, with an ending chock full of the type of exciting action you've come to expect from Raoul Walsh, such as a breathtaking ski chase sequence that holds its own with anything served up by James Bond in later thrillers.
Of these offerings, 1945's Objective, Burma! is surely the cream of this crop…one of Flynn's finest performances this side of The Adventures of Robin Hood. It's a no-nonsense tale of U.S. paratroopers who are tasked with destroying a Japanese radar station, and must then fight their way through 150 miles of brutal Burmese jungle teeming with Japanese soldiers when their extraction goes awry. In truth, no American paratroopers jumped into Burma, but Walsh affects a semi-documentary style for this fictional account (even mixing in actual combat footage), which plays perfectly to Flynn's crisp, professional attitude as Captain Nelson, commander of the operation stranded deep behind enemy lines. And although the script relies on stale stock stereotypes to fill out the ranks of the Captain's force, the excellent supporting cast—including George Tobias (The Strawberry Blonde), Warner Anderson (Detective Story), and Henry Hull (Werewolf of London)—carries it off well. If I have a complaint about Objective, Burma!, it's that Franz Waxman's distracting score intrudes too often, destroying the tension in some scenes and undermining the tension in others, but all things considered, it's a relatively minor complaint, and Waxman does deliver a stirring march for the film's main theme. This is classic Hollywood filmmaking at its best, and it's definitely one of the best films about WWII made at the time. Unfortunately, public reception to the film was cool; it was pulled from British theaters after only a week, after protests that the film glorified American fighting forces in an area of conflict fought almost exclusively by British and Indian soldiers. And American audiences resented Flynn playing the tough-guy military hero on the screen but not doing his duty overseas, not knowing that Flynn was medically unable to serve; fearing that it would hurt Flynn's box office appeal, the studio kept his condition a secret.
In fact, although Flynn did some of his best work during the wartime years, they also proved to be some of the actor's most difficult, on a personal level. Spurious charges of statutory rape and the humiliating trial that followed made his name a dirty joke, as the arch expression "In like Flynn" gained popularity (though the publicity from the charges had oddly enough improved the box-office performance of Desperate Journey). When the scandal broke, Flynn was filming 1943's Edge of Darkness (which bears no relation to the 2010 Mel Gibson film of the same name), the lone offering in this set not directed by Raoul Walsh; instead, Lewis Milestone stepped behind the camera for this dark, serious story of Norway under Nazi occupation. The film starts off on a shocking scene: Bodies piled upon bodies, bodies literally littering the streets of a small fishing village, now little more than a ghost town, quiet save for the mad ravings of one poor wretch. We learn through flashback what happened to cause this scene of mass slaughter, and we follow the stories of several townspeople as they deal with the specter of the occupying Nazis and their quiet resistance explodes into full-blown armed rebellion. Though Errol Flynn is billed as the star, he shares his screen time equally with an outstanding ensemble cast, a cross-section of some of the finest actors working in Hollywood at the time: Walter Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) as the town doctor reluctant to rebel; Ann Sheridan (They Drive By Night) as his daughter, who's quite eager, by contrast, for an uprising; Helmut Dantine (who also matched wits with Flynn in Northern Pursuit) as the stern, efficient Nazi garrison commander; Richard Fraser (The Picture of Dorian Gray) as the town priest torn between his outrage at the town's suffering and his religious beliefs; and Charles Dingle (The Little Foxes) as the owner of the local fish cannery, who willingly collaborates with the Nazis. Flynn blends well into this cast as the leader of the resistance, a simple fisherman who refuses to submit to Nazi authority, and the film in general is a grim illustration of the choices and dilemmas faced by wartime Norway, and by other lands under Nazi occupation. As they suffer under Nazi rule, any other path but resistance seems unthinkable, and yet, as we see in the explosive climax of the film, even victorious resistance can be costly beyond all reason.
1944's Uncertain Glory is perhaps the weakest offering in the set; it's certainly worth watching, but it's far from being the best thing that Flynn ever did. Maybe it's because Flynn can't seem to make up his mind just who exactly his character is; or maybe it's just that the character—a French criminal who escapes the guillotine only to be presented with an opportunity to die for something greater than himself—isn't particularly well-written. Thief Jean Picard (Flynn) is spared a death sentence for murder when he escapes prison after a Nazi bombing raid; recaptured while fleeing the country by detective Bonet (Paul Lukas, Deadline at Dawn), the two are delayed in a small village on the way back to Paris when a saboteur wrecks the train tracks. When the occupying Nazis threaten to execute 100 hostages from the village in an attempt to force the saboteur to reveal himself, Picard convinces Bonet to let him assume the identity of the saboteur and sacrifice his life to save them. It's a story that has the potential to be the emotionally-rousing tale of sacrifice and redemption that it wants to be, and Walsh does the best he can with what he has to work with, but the movie never really gels. Still, even a mediocre movie from Raoul Walsh is a cut above most other directors' best work, and Errol Flynn's dashing (if confused) performance, is captivating.
High quality is the rule, rather than the exception, with Warner classic DVD releases, and this TCM spotlight set comes through once again with gorgeously crisp picture image on each and every one of the films, as well as sharp, clear mono sound. No hissing, no pops, no crackles; no scratches, no grit, no grain. This is top of the line for classic film video and audio. The set is also crammed full of delectable goodies…it's the return of the "Night at the Movies" format! As such, the collection is chock full of newsreels, short films, classic cartoons, musical and comedy shorts, and trailers. I've always enjoyed it, but we haven't seen the "Night at the Movies" since way back in 2008, and it's good to know the format is still around, giving us access to an array of cinematic odds and ends that might not ever be released anywhere else. It's these extra touches that demonstrate how much Warner Bros. appreciates their classic film audience. Unfortunately, however, the only feature that offers a commentary is Objective, Burma!.
It seems a shame, in retrospect, that Flynn could never appreciate in himself the qualities that dazzled so many; his dashing good looks, lust for life, and graceful elegance on screen have never seen their equal since he first lit up the screen in his starmaking turn in Captain Blood. While these wartime films represent some of Errol Flynn's best work, they also herald the end of his reign in Hollywood as the dashing adventurer. Though more good films would follow, none of them would ever surpass his work on these and earlier films, a slow descent that matched the actor's own slowly sinking personal arc as he embraced the public's perception of him as a cad, and in fact worked to emulate it. Plagued by lawsuits, increasingly unable to secure any good roles, and bearing the cumulative consequences of his hard-drinking, hard-living lifestyle, Flynn—who suffered a fatal heart attack at 50—would nevertheless defiantly declare on his deathbed "I've had a hell of a lot of fun and I've enjoyed every minute of it."
Not Guilty (under the Uniform Code of Military Justice).
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