Even in Fox's CinemaScope...it's still a Monogram cheapie at heart, with Errol donning his knobby, studded pants one last sorry, sad time. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released for the first time on DVD The Warriors (a.k.a. The Dark Avenger), the 1955 Allied Artists Pictures/20th Century-Fox co-production (released here in the States by Allied) shot in CinemaScope. Directed by Henry Levin and starring Errol Flynn (in his last historical action movie), Joanne Dru, Peter Finch, Yvonne Furneaux, Patrick Holt, Michael Hordern, Moultrie Kelsall, Robert Urquhart, Noel Willman, Frances Rowe, Alastair Hunter, and Rupert Davies (with uncredited bits by Patrick McGoohan and Christopher Lee), The Warriors' slow, numbed, overly-familiar tone isn't lifted by a few brief, well-staged action scenes, or Peter Finch's valiant attempt to breathe some life into the thing...and certainly not by the depressing sight of a shaky, boozy, doped-up Flynn barely hanging in there. No extras for this muddy, dark, anamorphically-enhanced widescreen transfer.
Northern French Aquitaine, 1359, during England's and France's Hundred Years War. Having crushed the French forces near Auray, and with the French king imprisoned in London, English monarch Edward III (Michael Hordern) is in a mood to be magnanimous with the remaining French feudal lords: sign a treaty that acknowledges him their King and the Aquitaine British land, and they can return to their vast holdings unharmed. Comte de Ville (Peter Finch) gives the upthrust backwards "V" to that suggestion, and obtains a promise from the other lords to work surreptitiously against British rule in the Aquitaine. Departing for England, the King leaves behind a small military force, with his warrior son, Edward IV (Errol Flynn), in charge of the Aquitaine. Soon, the French peasants come to Edward, complaining that de Ville and the other lords are forcing them to drill, and taking military taxes--acts of defiance that Edward counters with an edict outlawing them. This means open war to de Ville, who mounts an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Edward. Next, de Ville orchestrates the kidnapping of Lady Joan Holland (Joanne Dru), the childhood sweetheart of Edward, and a widow now living in the Aquitaine. Edward's attack on de Ville's superior forces is futile, and he goes underground with Sir John (Rupert Davies). Latching onto the idea of infiltrating de Ville's stronghold, Edward enlists the aid of sexy barmaid Marie (Yvonne Furneaux) to score the black knight's suit of armour that hangs in the tavern. Soon, Edward, the "Black Knight" arrives at de Ville's, ready to give his allegiance to the enemies of England...until he can rescue Lady Joan, and defeat de Ville.
I thought I had seen all of Errol Flynn's swashbucklers, but The Warriors didn't look familiar at all to me (or perhaps, long ago, I did see it on TV once...and promptly forgot the whole dull affair). Flynn's career has always fascinated me; I'm a sucker for any "Oh, how the mighty have fallen" celebrity story. In watching his later movies, there's no doubt that the element of ghoulish morbidity in his rapid on-screen degradation is just as strong an attraction as is his dampened-but-not-extinguished charismatic appeal, still gallantly struggling to get out, regardless of the level of his physical and spiritual dilapidation. You want him to be the old Errol...but you know he simply can't be anymore. He makes for an appealingly "tragic" figure--in the abstract, of course (real tragedy is an innocent kid with cancer, not a millionaire movie star half the world wanted to sleep with, who decided alcohol and drugs were preferable to life itself). So, outside the merits of the movie itself (and they're easily brushed aside here, such are their minimal impact), it's a double-edged sword watching The Warriors. On the one hand, it's incredibly depressing seeing one of your childhood movie idols reduced to a bloated, tremulous, bleary-eyed clown--particularly a handsome, charming, suave, genuinely likable movie star as Flynn had once been, whom men and women could equally venerate without jealousy. And on the other hand...watching The Warriors generates a sick, not at all admirable fascination/pleasure impulse derived from safely watching someone else's slow, inexorable demise--the proverbial car wreck from which you can't look away. If you're into 50s action movies, or sword and shield swashbucklers, you can watch The Warriors for what it is--a negligible actioner that may reasonably pass away the time for you. If you're an Errol Flynn fan, however, and you know anything at all about who he was at this stage of his career--a physically spent, washed-up, financially broke has-been acting out an increasingly pathetic parody of his once potent "world-traveling, womanizing adventurer" lifestyle and image--then you're watching The Warriors for the autopsy photos.
A rare, true co-production between Allied Artists Pictures and 20th Century-Fox, The Warriors was a "deal" picture deemed advantageous to both studios: Fox, at half the financial risk, would get another CinemaScope title in their exhibition pipeline (to keep the money-spinning photographic brand alive during its nascent
expansion stage), and Allied Artists, under the influence of The Warriors' producer Walter Mirisch's desire to substantially upgrade the former Monogram Studio's slate of pictures, would get financial and production aid on a big-budget "near A-level" CinemaScope title, in the Poverty Row studio's continued (and ultimately futile) effort to compete with Hollywood's major players. Well, it didn't work, at least here in the States--The Warriors apparently bombed at the box office (as did AA's other "A-level" efforts). By 1955, CinemaScope wasn't a sure-fire guarantee, regardless of the movie attached, for ticket sales, and certainly Errol Flynn was no longer any kind of a draw for moviegoers, particularly now that he was attached to a Poverty Row studio like Allied Artists (audiences aren't dumb; they can smell a star's career trajectory).
Written by Daniel B. Ullman, who specialized in churning out low-budget Westerns (he had seven other movies out in 1955), The Warriors, with a mere change of costumes and locale, could easily be transformed into a B-cavalry picture. Edward the "Black Knight" becomes Flynn the Union officer left in charge, by the "Great White Chief" Hordern, of an Army fort in the middle of Indian country, who must deal with Chief Peter Finch's refusal to adhere to the latest treaty from Washington. Settler and "widder" Dru and her youngin's are snatched up by the Injuns, and it's up to Flynn to rescue them and get them back to the fort before the final seige. That framework similarity in genres doesn't at all suggest that The Warriors is therefore inferior by association or all-too-readily recognizable familiarity. No, The Warriors is inferior because like so many Bs, it sets its sights on delivering the barest requirements of its genre storytelling, and gives us no more--an unambitious goal that could have been overlooked had we at least had some pithy lines, or exciting direction, or some uniform performances to distract us. Ullman's dialogue is pedantic and plodding in that faux-"historical" style, while direction from always-iffy Henry Levin (something quite effective like Where the Boys Are could be followed by something leaden like The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm) stays discreetly distant, not only framing (no doubt due to everyone worrying about the "CinemaScope mumps"), but also in spirit--for such a supposedly lusty, brawling actioner it sure feels dead (only one or two of the broadsword fights, which look convincingly clumsy and exhausting, make an impression, while the final assault on the castle--very well done and exciting--comes far too late to send us out on a cheery note).
As for the acting, Peter Finch's successful efforts to breath some real life into his character, while admirable in itself, ultimately only serves to show up how enervated everyone else is in the picture. Dru, rather drawn-looking and flat-out bored, has zero to do here, and she responds accordingly (no chemistry, either, with courtly Flynn). As for Flynn, what else can I write? Most of his strenuous work is either done by his stuntman (behind a helmet or with his back turned) or Olympic sabre champion Raymond Paul (in long shots or a helmet), so whenever we actually do discern Flynn's face, we groan at his anemic, exhausted efforts. During the javelin throw, he can barely lift that battle axe (embarrassingly, he throws it like a girl), and when he's supposedly dueling with Christopher Lee, he's ignominiously hopping up and down, rather than darting to and fro, before he puts his sword up high, tiredly waiting for Lee to hit it, rather than him. In a few scenes, he's obviously slurring his words (listen to him when he arrives in the village, undercover, with Sir John), while the director and editor chop up his scenes into a few lines at a time, to cover his precarious command of his instrument. It's all too disheartening to watch...particularly in such a pale, trifling copy of his former, genuine glories.
The Archive framed this at anamorphically enhanced widescreen transfer at 2.4:1--that looks right to me (although I did see a resource put the original premiere ratio at 2.55:1). The quality of the original materials, however, is a problem: colors tend toward pink at times, while the image brightness is muddy and dark during many interior scenes. Image is not as sharp as it should be.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track is a bit muddy, too, with the dialogue sometimes muffled. No subtitles or closed-captions.
Depressing swashbuckler. I wouldn't have cared too much about The Warriors' derivative elements, had it at least been spirited or ballsy...but it's all so dreary and somnambulantly put over. As for the sight of Errol Flynn so severely reduced, it's terrible...and perversely pleasurable. A rental for The Warriors if you can admit you like watching a freak show.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.