Turner Classic Movies and Warner Brothers
have teamed up to issue a new edition of the TCM Spotlight series, this
time a five-film set of WWII-era action pictures starring Errol Flynn.
Although highly propagandistic on the surface, these films are quite
entertaining and admirably made. Four out of the five are directed
by the perennially unsung Raoul Walsh, a filmmaker of great force and
economy who presaged the work of Don Siegel (who did the montages for
a few of these pictures as well as Casablanca before coming
into his own as a director). Walsh had an understated style but
he knew how to capture complex movement and character interaction with
a minimum of set-ups and cuts. His kind of talent was rare
within the studio system, which forced directors to work cheap and fast,
and Walsh's ability to create a fluid narrative within such constraints
is enshrined here in this release just as effectively as Flynn's star
power and unmatched charisma.
Desperate Journey (1942) is
an enjoyable but by-the-numbers flag-waver co-starring none other than
Ronald Reagan. Flynn and Reagan are two members of a bomber crew
shot down over Germany and imprisoned. Of course they escape and
save the day, but they grapple with Nazis galore along the way, including
an evil officer, stiffly played by Raymond Massey.
This is wartime entertainment at its
most phony and most entertaining. Reagan is terribly chipper and
one can't help feeling that he's pleased as punch to be
on the Warner Brothers lot instead of being shot at in Germany or the
Pacific. Flynn is characteristically roguish, of course, and not terribly
believable as the bomber's navigator. But there's some fun
action here and it's all well-shot, incorporating some decent visual
effects for the era.
Edge of Darkness (1943) is one
of the more thoughtful films in the set. Strongly - and oddly
- echoing John Steinbeck's novel The Moon is
Down (published the prior year), the story takes place in a Norwegian
fishing village recently occupied by Nazis, but is purportedly based
on a different novel, by William Woods. Most of the town's citizenry
oppose the Germans' presence, even planning armed resistance.
But those who wish to fight back are afraid of quislings in their midst
who could turn traitor. Flynn plays one of the leaders of the
secret movement, working alongside characters played by Judith Anderson
and Ann Sheridan. The story portrays some interesting shades of
gray in the form of characters with divided, or at least uncertain,
loyalties, such as the town doctor, played by Walter Huston. Although
the film's conclusion isn't exactly unconventional, the plot moves
in some unexpected ways, thanks to complex characterizations and performances.
It's the only non-Walsh picture in
the set. Director Lewis Milestone oversees some great sets, including
a lovely miniature fjord used in wide shots. The climactic battle
is energetically shot and edited. Flynn is not as front-and-center
in Edge of Darkness as a star of his caliber would normally be.
The movie is a genuine ensemble piece, with solid work by Huston, Anderson,
and Sheridan. Sheridan in particular is strikingly forceful and
aggressive as Flynn's compatriot and love interest. The only
misstep in the acting department is Roman Bohnen as shopkeeper Lars
Malken. Malken is a coward, but the role is over-written, and
Bohnen's chattiness renders this tragic character simply annoying.
Overall, however, Edge of Darkness takes its subject matter seriously,
and while a tad overlong, it's probably the most thematically engaged
film in this set.
Northern Pursuit (1943) places
us firmly back in B-picture territory. This action thriller begins
with a well-staged sequence that shows a German U-boat "dropping off"
a group of spies in the Great White North. Flynn is an officer
of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who becomes suspected of collusion
with the Nazis, and must escape to the far north in order to capture
the spies and prove his patriotism. It's a silly story on the
surface made more plausible by Walsh's taut direction and a decent
screenplay by Frank Gruber and Alvah Bessie (Bessie is also responsible
for the scenario of Objective, Burma! - see below).
One of Walsh's strengths is creating
an immersive mise-en-scène out of limited backlot resources,
a talent that is in bold evidence here. Although snowflakes fall
too drily from the shoulders of our icebound characters, the cabins,
sled dogs, trees, and wide shots are right in the details, and it all
works together to create a credible version of Canada's northern wilds.
Tension is high throughout, helped by good supporting work from Helmut
Dantine - who also plays a key role in Edge of Darkness -
as the lead German spy. He has a thin-lipped reptilian quality
and a command of the Nazis' cold, bureaucratic outlook. Northern
Pursuit also features a number of small surprises for those of us
overly-familiar with genre conventions, including a implausibly crackerjack
ending that involves the assembling of a bomber out of parts stored
in wooden crates.
Uncertain Glory (1944) stars
Flynn in one of his more unlikely roles. Here he plays a French
murderer, posing as a resistance leader in order to prevent anti-resistance
retaliation by the Vichy government. His chief ally is a detective
played by Paul Lukas, whose Hungarian accent is as inappropriate as
Flynn's Australian one. While the outcome is hardly unorthodox,
the picture is never exactly by-the-numbers, either.
As in Edge of Darkness, some
interesting questions of national and philosophical allegiance are raised
in ways that suggest some surprisingly gray areas - especially in
view of the jingoistic wartime environment in which this film was produced.
It's another fun thriller from Walsh, who creates a treacherous atmosphere
and strong visuals, including good use of miniatures and stock footage.
(1945) is the longest and most well-known picture in the set.
It's also the only one previously-released on DVD. Here, Flynn
leads an ensemble cast as Captain Nelson, who takes a group of paratroopers
into Burma to destroy a Japanese radar location. The team's
mission is swift and successful, but getting out of Burma proves a far
The movie is a sort of "military
procedural," depicting operations with what would appear to be
an unusual, almost forensic level of detail. Objective, Burma!,
despite its sense of authenticity and other qualities as a well-made
film, is not as reliable as one would like to believe. It was
famously decried - and banned - by Winston Churchill for fictionalizing
a British operation as a largely American one, a matter discussed in
the commentary track. But it's still a highly entertaining adventure
that avoids overly romanticizing combat and instead puts the audience
in the middle of the operation - which is mostly achieved by way of
the character Williams (Henry Hull), a reporter on the mission and our
conduit for information about the way the military works. Walsh's
direction was never more assured or skillful; he uses much more camera
movement and cutting here, to convey action and build suspense.
Each film is presented on its own disc.
The five discs are housed in a nice fold-out digipak, which fits into
a slipcase. It's the same design scheme used on the four-disc
Ben-Hur release, among others.
The full-screen transfers are uniformly excellent. All films
are black-and-white and show excellent contrast and shadow detail.
These films were either well-preserved or given a fairly detailed restoration.
Some of the stock footage shows more age, but that's likely because
it was already beat-up at the time of these films' production.
Warner Brothers maintains their high reputation for presenting classic
library titles in exemplary transfers.
These mono tracks are unflashy but very clear. Balance is
consistently thoughtful. Dialogue is always up front with the
expressive music Steiner, Waxman, and Deutsch woven evenly into the
In a very welcome move that hearkens back to their "golden age"
of releasing library titles that oozed with extras, Warner Brothers
has brought back the Warner Night at the Movies feature.
Viewers have the option of playing each film as it would have been shown
upon its original theatrical release - preceded by newsreels, cartoons,
and live-action shorts. Each of the five films in this set comes
with its own selection of Night at the Movies material:
(52:29 total): Color short The Tanks are Coming, newsreel,
two musical shorts, cartoon The Dover Boys at Pimento University,
or The Rivals of Roquefort Hall, and trailers.
Edge of Darkness (21:56
total): Newsreel, musical short The United States Service Bands,
two cartoons, and trailers.
Northern Pursuit (61:03
total): Newsreel, Ronald Reagan and Burgess Meredith in The Rear
Gunner, musical short All-Star Melody Masters, Over the
Wall directed by Jean Negulesco, cartoon Hop and Go, and
Uncertain Glory (28:40
total): Newsreel, musical short United States Coast Guard Band,
two cartoons, and trailers.
(24:50 total): Newsreel, So You Think You're Allergic with
Joe McDoakes, cartoon A Tale of Two Mice, and trailers.
In addition, Objective, Burma!
includes a spirited, informative commentary track with film historians
Rudy Behlmer, Jon Burlingame, and Frank Thompson.
This robust and highly entertaining
group of thrillers starring Errol Flynn is a miniature lesson in film
history and an indirect tribute to the directorial skill of Raoul Walsh.
At a time of enormously overwrought "patriotism" in American film,
these films by Walsh - and Edge of Darkness, directed by Lewis
Milestone - asks more searching questions about what loyalty should
really be about. Fine transfers and good extra features make this
well worth a purchase. Highly Recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.