Judge Dylan Charles gave up his plans to start a sheep ranch in Montana. It's emu now.
"You once liked the blissful mobility, but then you wonder, who's the real you? And who's the chap on the screen? You know, I catch myself acting out my life like a goddamn script."—Errol Flynn
Errol Flynn is perhaps best known for his swashbuckling roles. At least, that's what I knew of him. However, as his career progressed, Flynn moved from those roles to do great things in war pictures and, of course, Westerns. Flynn's career in Westerns was at least as successful as his swashbuckling days and Warner Bros. has thoughtfully collected four of these films spanning a ten-year period.
Facts of the Case
• In Montana, Flynn is Morgan Lane, a sheep herder from Australia who's trying to start a new life in Big Sky Country. Unfortunately for him, Montana is cattle land, and, as everyone knows, sheep and cattle just don't mix. He faces stiff operation from the ranchers and everything comes to an explosive head in glorious Technicolor.
• Captain Lafe Barstow (Flynn) is on a risky mission for the Confederacy to stir up trouble in Union-allied California in Rocky Mountain. His efforts are hampered by the war-bent Shoshone and the fiancé of a Union lieutenant.
• Flynn's Clay Hardin is bound and determined to carry out his revenge against the man who shot him up and stole his land and cattle. But everyone in San Antonio says this is a suicide mission. Can Hardin get his revenge and his land back, or will he end up shot dead in a saloon brawl?
• With the Confederacy losing the Civil War, the South decides on a risky plan to bring in gold from Virginia City to supply their efforts. Kerry Bradford (Flynn) of the Union Army is primed and ready to stop them, and he might just get a chance to avenge his cruel imprisonment at the hands of Confederate Vance Irby (Randolph Scott).
My grandfather has a hard and fast rule about Westerns: The best Westerns were black-and-white.
While I might normally disagree with him on movies like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Unforgiven, his rule very much applies for this collection. The two black-and-white Westerns, Virginia City and Rocky Mountain are both head and shoulders above their companions and a greater level of depth as well.
Rocky Mountain has an extremely focused plot, with nearly all the action taking place within one small canyon, where Flynn and his band of rebs are holed up. This makes for a very tight and controlled film, where the audience is allowed to linger on the limited characters and setting, instead of being almost drowned in the Technicolor flamboyancy of San Antonio and Montana. So often in the larger, more extravagant films, characters would get lost in the shuffle, never to be seen again. This is especially noticeable in Montana for Flynn's companion Otto (S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall). One moment he's there and then he's gone, never to be seen or heard from again.
Instead, in Rocky Mountain we get to know each character well and as their plight worsens and worsens, our anxieties grow with theirs. This is almost a deadly serious movie. Where the others are slightly more lighthearted, with Flynn indulging in his wry, cheeky side, Rocky Mountains dispenses with cornball humor and cheap romance and plays it straight.
Even the potential for romance is only hinted at, as Patrice Wymore and Flynn share a mutual respect, and only the suggestion of possibility hangs in the air while they're together.
The stark landscape of New Mexico, where this was filmed, adds to the drama and adds to the bleakness of the plight of the Confederate soldiers as the Shoshone close in.
While Virginia City is more epic in scale than Rocky Mountain and sprawls out from one end of the country to the other, its depiction of both the Confederacy and Union characters gives it a depth lacking from its conventional, colorful cousins. Scott and Flynn are enemies, but neither is cast in the role of mustache-twirling villain. The Confederates aren't portrayed as villains, just people who are fighting for a cause they believe in. When they happen to be on the side opposite of Flynn, it is, of course, the wrong side.
It almost feels like the filmmakers felt that the lack of an obviously evil villain would hurt the picture, so they threw in a sinister Mexican bandit played by Humphrey Bogart. I should probably repeat that: Humphrey Bogart plays a Mexican bandit. And he's good at it, too.
Virginia City and Rocky Mountain are the more serious films of the set, giving Flynn a chance to play characters who were a little more worn around the edges. He looks close to defeat in Rocky Mountain, worn down and laconic. There's an edge there that's lacking in Montana and San Antonio.
This is even odder in San Antonio when he's playing a man who's been shot, beaten, and broken. But when we see him, he's making wry comments and apparently shakes off disasters like a dog shakes off water. This grinning, cheerful fellow is not who I would have expected to see.
And Montana obviously belongs to a different era, where any misunderstanding between a manly man and a fiery woman can be solved with a hearty kiss. The ending is so out of left field that it left me with a feeling of "huh?" It's bright, colorful, and bursting with energy, though. It's hard to poke too much fun at it; while it's not a great film, it's extremely entertaining.
Montana and San Antonio are both loaded with action and are both fun to watch. They balance out the dark undertones of the other two films very well. Depressed by Rocky Mountain? Then take a gander at Montana and see the lighter side of Flynn. It's worth noting that Flynn is capable of playing both serious and humorous roles with such ability that his characters are believable no matter how unbelievable the tales.
All four movies showcase some of the more colorful character actors of the time, with S.Z. Sakall's thick Hungarian accent appearing not once, but twice, and Charles Middleton, Slim Pickens, and Alan Hale all showing up.
This collection is part of the Warner Night at the Movies series. Each disc comes packed with vintage newsreels, shorts and cartoons from the same year each film was released. In addition, Montana and Rocky Mountain come packaged with three bonus "Santa Fe Trail" shorts, all Western themed. These vary wildly in quality. The newsreels are always an interesting little slice from that year, like the one news clip honoring General Patton, who had just died.
But the shorts are sometimes cringeworthy in their awfulness. The worst of these is "Cinderella's Feller," a musical production telling the story of Cinderella completely acted out by children. It lent a very creepy air to the whole ordeal with vaguely pedophilic undertones coursing through the whole thing, leading up to Cinderella and her 10-year-old groom walking down the aisle at the end. Even ignoring those undertones, it's an atrocious little musical with awful songs and even worse acting. This is one of those time capsules that should have remained buried—along with the cartoon where Porky Pig shoulders the "white man's burden" and does battle with Super Chief, a super-powered American Indian whose extremely brief loincloth caused me to grimace.
Despite that scarring experience, Warner Night at the Movies is always fun, allowing modern viewers a chance to see what going to the movies would have been like in days gone by.
There are also two commentaries, one by Thomas McNulty for Rocky Mountain and one by Frank Thompson for Virginia City. They're both informative and entertaining, but I'll have to give the edge to Thompson. He tends to stick more to the movie at hand than McNulty, who has a tendency to drift toward Flynn facts in general. But they're both worth listening to for any fan of the films or Flynn.
Warner Bros. has also put together some decent pictures with great sound. There's nothing that struck me as terrible, and they all got the treatment they deserve.
Warner Bros. has put together a decent collection of films that showcases a good range of Flynn's Westerns. They, of course, leave out some of his bigger pictures, but such is the way with box sets. Warner Night at the Movies is a great companion for those who are not just fans of the genre, but of the era.
Errol Flynn is found not guilty. There ain't gonna be any hangin's today—except for "Cinderella's Feller," which will swing at dawn.
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Scales of Justice, Virginia City
Perp Profile, Virginia City
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Virginia City
• Audio Commentary by Historian Frank Thompson
Scales of Justice, San Antonio
Perp Profile, San Antonio
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, San Antonio
• Warner Night at the Movies (1945)
Scales of Justice, Montana
Perp Profile, Montana
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Montana
• Warner Night at the Movies (1950)
Scales of Justice, Rocky Mountain
Perp Profile, Rocky Mountain
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Rocky Mountain
• Commentary by Errol Flynn Biographer Thomas McNulty
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