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The dashing Errol Flynn certainly had his own bad-boy legal troubles, but his reliability in action programmers made him one of the most popular stars of WW2. Whereas John Wayne's range was limited to All-American Navy, Marine, Army and Air Force roles, Flynn frequently portrayed foreign-born heroes fighting for the allied cause. The five films in the Errol Flynn Adventures collection see Flynn as an Australian flyer, a Norwegian fisherman, a French crook, a Canadian Mountie, and finally a foot soldier for the good old U.S. of A. It was Flynn's bad luck to star in one of the few Hollywood movies that created a diplomatic tiff with our English allies.
Four of the five pictures in the collection were directed by Flynn's good friend Raoul Walsh, a proven master who made almost any script play well. Add solid Warner production values (give and take occasional traces of wartime austerity) and the Errol Flynn Adventures disc set is a showcase collection of our favorite matinee idol in action -- in this case, doing a lot more fighting than kissing.
In the hectic days after Pearl Harbor, it took a few months for Hollywood to figure out how to portray the war on movie screens. With newspapers reporting one bad-news headline after another, the studios were tasked to produce feel-good pictures to raise civilian spirits. Released in September of 1942, Desperate Journey is a preposterous tale of Allied derring-do behind enemy lines, with Flynn and his gung-ho buddies (including his Robin Hood sidekick Alan Hale) making fools of the Nazis in their own back yard.
When their flight commander is killed, co-pilot Terry Forbes (Errol Flynn) crash-lands his bomber deep in the heart of Germany. After escaping from Major Otto Baumeister (Raymond Massey), Forbes and his four surviving comrades flee westward to Holland. They blow up a chemical factory, hitch a ride on Herman Goering's private railroad car and make fools out of every German in their path. Beautiful underground activist Kaethe Brahms (Nancy Coleman) helps them escape from the authorities, and they barely survive a trap set by Gestapo agents. After a breakneck car chase in Holland, the survivors see their chance -- the Germans are preparing a captured Allied bomber for a raid on London. Can our intrepid heroes hijack it and flee back home?
Any comparison to real-life commando action inside Germany will make Desperate Journey seem like total idiocy. But the movie takes itself seriously only when characters pause to deliver $10 morale speeches about the need to win or the sacrifice of "good Germans" resisting their evil leaders. The rest of the time it's a Vaudeville act, with the players telling jokes as they hoodwink the enemy. Alan Hale pesters German guards with spit-wads and laughs himself silly when his appetite is compared to Goering's. Smart aleck Johnny Hammond (Ronald Reagan) confuses the dimwit Major Baumeister with fast-talking word games and smart remarks. Our boys behave like the Dead End Kids, leaving the Germans standing around looking embarrassed. Escaping from these dodos is all too easy. The violence is on a par with gags in a Three Stooges movie, except that some of the straight-man comedy targets get shot dead.
Ex-child star Ronald Sinclair later became an editor for Roger Corman; this is his last movie as an actor. He plays the green recruit among the fugitives, while Arthur Kennedy's Jed Forrest constantly reminds the jolly commandos that they have a serious mission to perform. Star Errol Flynn barely gets to hold hands with Nancy Coleman, and delivers the painful verbal jokes in Arthur T. Horman's original screenplay with a breezy attitude. More than a few punch lines riff on Flynn's personal reputation. Stranded on a roadside, Terry Forbes quips, "This is the first time I ever ran out of gas while I was with two men!
Director Walsh's brisk work keeps the story from dragging, aided by Bert Glennon's glossy camerawork. The budget crunch is seen in various WB studio facilities enlisted to serve as a German chemical factory. Max Steiner's rousing score is almost too refined for this escapist frivolity. Desperate Journey achieved its mission by giving wartime audiences a chance to laugh at the enemy.
The one film in the collection not directed by Raoul Walsh, 1943's Edge of Darkness adopts an entirely different approach to laud the fierce resistance of proud Norwegian patriots. Robert Rossen's unsubtle, humorless screenplay takes every Nazi-imposed hardship in deadly earnest. A peaceful fishing town is oppressed by German occupiers aided by the owner of the local cannery (Charles Dingle), a Quisling who expects to make a profit no matter who rules Norway. Fisherman Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan are brought together by the resistance movement. Sheridan and her doctor father (Walther Huston, in an imposing beard) are distressed when her brother (John Beal), a known collaborator, returns from Oslo. The Quisling easily forces the brother to become an informer. A shipload of guns for the patriots arrives at the same time that the local commandant (Helmut Dantine) plans to execute a hundred hostages. As our heroes are forced to dig their own graves, open rebellion breaks out. The local Pastor (Richard Fraser) fires the first shot from his church tower -- with a machine gun.
The intent of Edge of Darkness is to shock the audience with oppressive Nazi measures. Every family fears for the life of a loved one taken hostage. The class-act cast (Judith Anderson, Ruth Gordon, Roman Bohnen) trembles with fear and simmers with hatred for their occupiers. In a scene that probably tips the film a bit too far, Ann Sheridan's character is raped by a loutish German soldier, in the vestibule of the church, no less. Stoic solidarity is the only response; as the screenplay emphasizes the need for a communal vengeance. The movie would probably have been better without any recognizable stars. None of these great actors is given much to do, and Errol Flynn's character is given little chance for individual expression.
The revolt of the townspeople is very much a fantasy. The Norwegians attack with guns they've never shot, overwhelming outposts until they converge on Dantine's forest headquarters. German soldiers fall like tenpins. Guilty informer John Beal atones by sacrificing himself in the heat of battle. Among the younger female cast members is the beautiful Virginia Christine, who would later become the star of Folger's coffee commercials. Up in the Nazi lair, Nancy Coleman's Polish girl is apparently kept as Helmut Dantine's "guest". She's shocked to find out that the commandant will not let her go home, and that if he tires of her she will be "turned over to the enlisted men". Some wartime propaganda films clearly received a no-questions pass from the Production Code.
Director Lewis Milestone keeps his camera moving, over-using the signature fast-trucking shot he introduced to startling effect in his classic All Quiet on the Western Front. Shot after shot rakes across lines of charging patriots, turning the camera into a machine gun. Cameraman Sid Hickox frequently employs a zoom lens, a gadget that didn't see much use until the 1960s. The technically slick movie employs plenty of unconvincing but dramatic miniatures. Told as a flashback, the story begins as Germans discover that the entire town square is covered with at least 200 dead bodies -- no survivors, no wounded, no blood. Whoever arranged the shot draped these extras around the large outdoor set so decoratively, that the scene now seems laughable.
1943's Northern Pursuit finds a better balance between action escapism and sober war rhetoric. Taking a cue from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 49th Parallel, a Nazi submarine disgorges a group of German spies in Hudson Bay. Thanks to their inflexible, fanatic leader Keller (Helmut Dantine), the intruders die in the frozen wastes. Keller is rescued by Canadian Mountie Steve Wagner (Flynn), but Wagner's behavior soon becomes questionable. Of German descent, Wagner listens to Keller's talk about German repatriation and defies his superiors' demands that he take a less friendly attitude to his prisoner. Wagner soon resigns under a cloud of suspicion. When Keller escapes from an internment camp, Wagner abandons his sweetheart Laura (Julie Bishop) at the altar to join the Nazi on a snowy trek into uncharted territory.
Northern Pursuit is an unpretentious thriller that allows audiences to concentrate on a game of wits in an interesting setting. Flynn's renegade hero can't stop the nefarious German infiltrators from murdering his comrades. His options disappear when his fianceé is brought along as a hostage. The intelligent screenplay shows the nasty villain defeated by his own evil nature. Keller begins with a number of willing allies, all of which soon realize that they're expendable pawns in his fanatic Nazi scheme. Keller murders his loyal aide Gene Lockhart when the man becomes too sick to travel, and likewise alienates his foolish Indian guides. Much like James Bond, Wagner survives to foil a diabolical sabotage scheme organized years before war was even declared.
The movie has suspense and intrigue and some good humor, and establishes a warm relationship between Wagner, Julie Bishop's cute girlfriend and their best buddy Jim Austin (John Ridgely). It's also an impressive production, with lavish, convincing sets representing Northern Manitoba. The avalanche sequence benefits from excellent special effects. Don Siegel is credited with special montages.
1944's Uncertain Glory delves rather awkwardly into a story of the French Occupation, offering a Nazi hostage situation as an opportunity for personal redemption. Thief and murderer Jean Picard (Flynn) escapes from the guillotine when his execution is interrupted by a timely allied bombing raid. He flees to rural France with the girlfriend (Faye Emerson) of another criminal (Sheldon Leonard) but is quickly recaptured by the brilliant, famous Inspector Bonet (Paul Lukas). Picard's return trip to the executioner is delayed by a blown-out bridge. The local Nazis will execute a hundred hostages from a small community unless the saboteur comes forward. Picard convinces Bonet that he'd rather die by a German firing squad than have his head cut off. Thinking of the hostages, Bonet breaks his vows of service and reports that Picard is dead. Amused by the opportunity to become a post-mortem hero, Picard insists that he'll go through with the bargain. But that's before he falls in love with a local girl, the lovely Marianne (Jean Sullivan).
Uncertain Glory is just unusual enough to work. Errol Flynn plays a womanizer who reforms, a choice perhaps influenced by the bad publicity from Flynn's real-life tangles with statutory rape accusations that had put his viability as a movie star in doubt. Jean Picard makes fun of his change of heart from knave to selfless patriot, continually teasing Bonet with the possibility that his conversion is just another dodge. One rather inspired church scene has Picard confessing his past crimes to Bonet. The crook can't resist exaggerating his personal record of villainy.
Laszlo Vadnay and Max Brand's suspenseful story keeps us guessing right up to the end, when it looks certain that Bonet's trust in Picard has been poorly placed. Considering the story device of the interrupted execution, we keep wondering if Uncertain Glory will have an Ambrose Bierce-style ending. Paul Lukas is sympathetic as the skilled detective who arrests Picard only a few hours after his untimely escape. Ex-ballet dancer Jean Sullivan is touching as the innocent Marianne, who seems to intuit that her mystery boyfriend's secret is related to the hostage crisis.
The filmmakers can be commended for not painting all of the French as noble lovers of democracy. When Mme. Maret (Lucile Watson) frames the outsider Picard as the saboteur in an effort to save her son taken as a hostage, the little town forms an impromptu lynch mob. What makes Uncertain Glory interesting is that its hero isn't innocent, but a confessed thief and murderer. He's somewhat comparable to James Cagney's Rocky Sullivan in Angels with Dirty Faces, a bad man not entirely certain why he feels compelled to do the right thing.
The most popular and acclaimed film in the collection is 1945's Objective, Burma!, a combat saga that pretty much wrote the last word on the American attitude toward the enemy in the Pacific Theater. Jungle fighting in Burma is a hellish ordeal in waist-high swamp waters, and contact with the Japanese is a nasty business of ambushes and massacres. Ranald MacDougall and Lester Cole's screenplay, from Alvah Bessie's story, avoids the most obvious of service clichés, giving the exhausted soldiers plenty of dialogue about their miserable condition. Characters aren't wounded in billing order, either. Captain Nelson (Flynn) leads commandos to destroy an enemy communications center, a mission that goes off without a hitch. When their escape route is overrun, the hardy troops must force-march across 200 miles of forbidding, enemy-infested jungle.
The movie stresses the reaction of a cross-section of Americans to the horrors of combat, including an over-aged war correspondent (Henry Hull). The strongest scenes involve the group's discovery of a Japanese atrocity. Although we don't see the corpses, it's evident that the American victims were dismembered and mutilated while alive, in an effort to gain information. The soldiers are sickened at the sight and even Nelson is moved to tears, but the final reaction to the massacre is the formation of an indignant, cold-blooded resolve to "wipe all those Japs off the face of the Earth!" The same fury is communicated to the theater audience, making the film one of the more powerful statements about the nature of warfare.
Directed by Raoul Walsh with his usual expressive economy, Objective, Burma! seems a lot shorter than its 142 minutes. It was nominated for George Amy's editing, Franz Waxman's music score and Alvah Bessie's original story. But it was met with indignation in England, where veterans' groups objected to the portrayal of the Burma campaign as an all-American fight. The controversy was big enough to cause the movie to be pulled from British release for seven years.
Warner Home Entertainment's DVD set Errol Flynn Adventures is a fat package containing excellent new transfers. After years of seeing gray 16mm TV prints, these new restorations revive the films' excellent contrast and sharp focus. Edge of Darkness once existed in damaged prints, often with its flashback bookends removed. Objective, Burma! is the only title in the collection already out on disc, but this pressing is new and not repackaged. A commentary is offered featuring Rudy Behlmer, Jon Burlingame and Frank Thompson.
Each film is on its own disc and has been given the full Warner Night at the Movies treatment, with newsreels, trailers and short subjects from the year of its release. Military Band short subjects share space with novelty music items, and morale building shorts celebrating America's men in uniform. Burgess Meredith plays a dead-shot tail gunner for one patriotic short, and Dane Clark and Ronald Reagan show up several times each. The set also contains seven cartoons, including Robert Clampett's hilarious musical insult to Hitler, Russian Rhapsody, the non-PC classic about "Gremlins from the Kremlin". Frank Tashlin's Abbott & Costello take-off A Tale of Two Mice is here as well.
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