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Errol Flynn must score pretty high with DVD fans, as this four-disc Errol Flynn: The Warner Bros. Western Collection marks the Australian actor's third personal boxed set. When Flynn left this world fifty years ago he probably couldn't care less about his career as a movie star on the downgrade, but from the evidence here he has nothing to be ashamed of. Flynn shows a lot more dedication to his acting craft than his playboy reputation would suggest. Although by 1950 he's looking more than a little worse for wear, Flynn still handles dialogue like a master and participates in quite a bit of the action, at least until his stunt double takes over. Even better, we never get the feeling that Flynn considers himself too good for the material, or is bluffing his way through. If you've come to see Errol do his stuff in a cowboy hat, you won't be disappointed.
Speaking of cowboys, after watching these four titles, it's guaranteed that Flynn's smooth accent will no longer sound funny echoing off the cactus. The first film tries to cover for Flynn's presumed unsuitability by dropping hints about an Irish origin, and experience fighting Afghans for the Brits. The last picture just says that Flynn's character went to Australia for a few years. The wise response to the issue is to accept the fact that Flynn's westerns are Warners escapism and star vehicles, and just enjoy the jokes and the gunplay.
1940's Virginia City is a B&W (but expensive-looking) follow-up to the previous year's Technicolor hit Dodge City. Robert Buckner's rather serious original screenplay makes Flynn an escapee from a Confederate prison camp, who goes out West to the title town (in western Nevada) to quash an attempt by rebel sympathizers to smuggle five million in gold to help the South fight the war. Randolph Scott is the Confederate officer charged with the unlikely task of ferreting ten wagons of bullion thousands of miles through Union-held territory. Second-billed Miriam Hopkins is a double-crossing saloon chanteuse who fools both Flynn and his lunkhead sidekicks (Alan Hale & Guinn "Big Boy" Williams). But the main attraction is seeing Humphrey Bogart bizarrely miscast as a quasi-Mexican bandit. We aren't sure what "Murell" is supposed to be, because his accent continually shifts between Guadalajara and Times Square, New York.
The film has plenty of comic relief, which helps on occasions when the adventure bogs down. We naturally root for the Confederate smugglers but our hero Flynn is on the other side. Some kind of national unity theme must have been requested, because the screenplay resolves in such a way to suggest that the Civil War was a gentleman's misunderstanding that could easily be cleared up if noble types like Errol Flynn's officer were in charge.
Michael Curtiz' direction is fine, although we're told that Flynn and other cast members were by this time fed up with Curtiz' generally abusive behavior on the set. Although Curtiz may not have been directly responsible, his action films are unusually rough on horses. This one showcases a horse fall seemingly planned to break every bone in one unlucky steed's body.
San Antonio (1945) is probably the most entertaining of the four westerns in the box. The general look returns to the bright Technicolor of Dodge City and W.R. Burnett and Alan Le May's sprightly script conjures up plenty of amusing dialogue between Flynn and his co-star Alexis Smith. It was Ms. Smith's third pairing with Flynn and their first film together since the highly entertaining Gentleman Jim. Smith's is again a good match for Flynn, playing an actress on tour independent enough to resist his attempts at seduction, at least initially. S. Z. Sakall is a walking malapropism as Smith's manager, but the script gives him more to do than just comedy relief.
The thin story has Flynn's cattlemen sneaking back to San Antone' to match wits with the crooked rustlers who have stolen herds all along the Rio Grande, including Flynn's. Paul Kelly is the brutish villain and Victor Francen a charming one; at the time Francen was five years into his Hollywood career after fleeing the Germans in France. Flynn makes fools of them both, guns down varmints like Tom Tyler's gunslinger and does his best to hang onto a tally book that will prove Kelly & Francen's thievery. (This is the kind of story in which rustlers keep written records of whose cattle they steal.) John Litel is the good guy foolish enough to be Flynn's buddy and have relatively low billing; we'll miss him dearly. The wrap-up includes a midnight shoot-out in the ruins of the Alamo, but the picture is packed with stand-offs, chases on horseback and occasional saloon brawls, all in sparkling Technicolor.
1949's Montana is the weakest picture of the bunch; it's just hard to get worked up about a movie where Flynn (here beginning to show his mileage) is on a solemn mission to bring sheep to Montana. The Technicolor is good but this time something's missing in the chemistry between Flynn and Alexis Smith. She's a mutton-hating cattle queen made furious because Flynn's tricked her into selling a grazing land lease, while disguising the fact that he's a low down no-good sheep man! Their big scene is a fairly painful love duet over a guitar.
S.Z. Sakall is back as a nervous peddler: "Nach! Nach!" His character is mostly just in the way; in the rush to get the picture down to a draggy 76 minutes, "Cuddles" disappears at the beginning of the third act. Douglas Kennedy is Smith's fiancé and fellow cattleman. He's two-timing her on the side, just so we'll know how to feel about him. In the place of horse stunts we get a regulation cattle stampede, complete with a villain's stand-in mannequin (we hope) being trampled to bits under a lot of un-manicured hooves.
A lot of time and effort is expended in arguments between the sheep and cattle factions, over whether or not the beasties can share the same grazing land. It's kind of like Pepsi and Coca-Cola battling for precedence on the supermarket shelves, killing off R.C. Cola in the process. Actually, since the film is obviously shot in some dry area of Southern California, it doesn't look like there's enough greenery out there to feed a pair of goats.
Flynn's last western is Rocky Mountain, a not-bad B&W tale done on a scale more suited to a Budd Boetticher programmer. Flynn is a Confederate officer leading a small band of commandos in the hopes of disrupting the Union's hold on California. Although nobody calls them terrorists, they don't get far on their mission before being stopped by rampaging Indians and a couple of Yankee prisoners, including the beautiful Patrice Wymore. A month after the show opened in 1950, Ms. Wymore would become the third Mrs. Errol Flynn.
William Keighley handles the direction quite well, especially considering that most of the movie was filmed on the same rock outcropping in the Anzo Borrego Mountains. At least half of the picture qualifies as action work, which also accounts for a cast of tough guys who probably could double as stunt men. Guinn Williams is back but only gets a couple of good lines and perhaps a close-up or two. Dick (Dickie) Jones is the baby-faced member of the guerrillas while Peter Coe and Sheb Wooley are a Frenchman and an old-timer, respectively. Scott Forbes is the Union officer captured by Flynn's men, who turns out to be Wymore's fiancé. This may be the first Flynn vehicle in which it doesn't look like he'll get the girl (or three girls). No wonder he looks a bit dejected at all times.
The surprise in Rocky Mountain is Slim Pickens in his very first role. Pickens is a natural with folksy dialogue, body language and horse riding. The funny thing is that he's as skinny as a snake, and looks great in buckskins. In just a few years he'd balloon out into the comic figure we're more familiar with.
The movie has one foot in the older star vehicle traditions but its direction and editing resemble that of much newer action pictures. Alan Le May's story and script expend a lot of talk on Flynn's planned raid on Sacramento, but the story never leaves the one basic location. The film stumbles by not preparing us for its downbeat ending: Flynn and company prove that violent soldiering is noble by sacrificing themselves to save Ms. Wymore's pretty scalp.
Spoiler: Rocky Mountain begins with a brief prologue at a commemorative plaque in the desert, and the first few scenes carry voiceover by Errol Flynn's character in the past tense, indicating that he will survive the narrative to "tell the tale." The joke's on us when we instead get a low-budget replay of the finale of They Died With Their Boots On. 1
The four films in Errol Flynn: The Warner Bros. Western Collection sport good transfers and excellent audio. Max Steiner contributes strong tracks to all save for David Buttolph's Montana. The color on San Antonio and Montana is quite good with the exception of a few transitions that lose perfect registration. I do remember seeing a bit of bad registration on a shot or two of Alexis Smith climbing out of her stagecoach.
All four films carry a Warner Night at the Movies lineup of trailers, newsreels, short subjects and cartoons. Rocky Mountain has a commentary by Thomas McNulty and Frank Thompson does host duty for Virginia City. Rocky Mountain and Montana each carry three B&W mini-westerns dubbed the "Santa Fe Trail Series", something only more savvy B-western fans would know about. Robert Shayne's name appears in most but Nina Foch and the legendary Lupita Tovar grace an episode each.
At the present, the four films in the boxed set are not available separately.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Interesting reader Response from Ray Connole, 9.08.08:
Glen, on your Errol Flynn review of Rocky Mountain, I'll give you a mindblower of trivia. The first episode of TV's Cheyenne lifts big pieces of this movie with minor tweaks shifting the characters. It had James Garner as a cavalry officer and followed the plot from the dog to the last with the Confederate flag at the end. Check it out and you'll wonder how Warners got away with such a blatant reuse of footage. Look closely and you'll catch Flynn in distant shots. It rates up with Atlantis, The Lost Continent when a reviewer asked what part an audience member liked most. The response was the part with Robert Taylor (lifted from Quo Vadis? stock footage). Cheers, I always enjoy your reviews. -- Ray Connole
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