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Virginia City
part of the Errol Flynn Westerns Collection

Virginia City
Warner DVD
1940 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 121 min. / Street Date August 26, 2008 / 49.98, in the Errol Flynn Westerns Collection set.
Starring Errol Flynn, Miriam Hopkins, Randolph Scott, Humphrey Bogart, Frank McHugh, Alan Hale, Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams, Dickie Jones
Sol Polito
Art Direction Ted Smith
Film Editor George Amy
Original Music Max Steiner
Written by Robert Buckner
Produced by Hal Wallis
Directed by Michael Curtiz

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Australian Errol Flynn was an odd choice to star in westerns, but 1939's Dodge City proved such a success that Warners steered the actor back to the genre six times in the next ten years. Although westerns were less expensive to produce than Flynn's costume epics, 1940's Virginia City is no cheapie. The fanciful story stretches from the Civil War in the East to the Wild West of the Nevada gold strikes. The action includes top-quality stunts by Yakima Canutt as well as clever visual illusions from Warners' special effects department.

Robert Buckner's script makes a claim for authenticity in an up-front title card, but the events of this wooly Civil War tale are pure Hollywood corn, complete with a dashing hero, a Confederate Mata Hari, buffoonish sidekicks and noble North-South sentiments. Randolph Scott is comfortable in a supporting role, while Miriam Hopkins and a woefully miscast Humphrey Bogart were apparently as unhappy with the demanding director Michael Curtiz as was Errol Flynn. Just a year later Flynn would rebel against Curtiz and refuse to work with him again.


Newly escaped from a Confederate prison camp, Union officer Kerry Bradford (Errol Flynn) convinces the Federal Army brass that he needs to depart immediately for Virginia City, Nevada. Although the South would appear to be beaten, Confederate sympathizers in that mining town could change the course of the war by shipping millions in gold to the rebel president Jefferson Davis (Charles Middleton). En route with his lunkish but loyal cohorts Olaf "Moose" Swenson and "Marblehead" (Alan Hale & Guinn "Big Boy" Williams), Kerry repulses an attack by Mexican bandit John Murell (Humphrey Bogart). He also falls for the charming, secretive Julia Hayne (Miriam Hopkins). In Virginia City Kerry discovers that Julia is really a popular dance hall singer. The Confederate agent organizing a shipment of gold bullion is revealed to be Vance Irby (Randolph Scott), the former commandant of the rebel prison camp. Kerry vowed that if they ever met again, he'd make Irby pay for the treatment of the prisoners.

The engaging Virginia City plays fast and loose, with history and simple credibility. Actual Confederate efforts to avail themselves of frontier gold from Colorado were a disaster, and the notion of 'sneaking' a wagon train of Au through 2000 miles of Union territory was never very practical. True, Vance Irby's expedition doesn't get very far, but the whole idea is as fanciful as Auric Goldfinger knocking off Fort Knox.

History aside, this Flynn vehicle shapes up as fast moving, escapist western fare. Official Flynn sidekick Alan Hale and the infantile Guinn "Big Boy" Williams provide hayseed comedy relief, shooting their guns as if swatting flies and tripping over one another while Flynn does the heroic heavy lifting. Familiar Warners player Frank McHugh is in for a couple of scenes as a Donald Meek-like travelling companion.

Miriam Hopkins handles the role of femme fatale well enough, although audiences surely compared her unfavorably with Flynn's presumed ideal costar Olivia de Havilland. An unlikely adventuress-Southern Belle, Hopkins' Julia Hayne seems heavily influenced by the massive success of Gone With the Wind. The princely Randolph Scott need only stand straight and say his lines to make his noble Southerner role work; the movie bends over backwards to pretend that personal honor can heal North-South differences. When the movie should by all rights be finished, it continues with a court-martial scene in which Flynn rather unconvincingly tells his superiors that he was right to let $5 million slip out of Yankee hands. Some things do require a Presidential pardon!

As charming as ever, Errol still seems an odd fit strutting amid the sagebrush, wearing tailored suits and some of the tightest slacks West of the Pecos. He makes remarks about being an Irishman with anti-English sentiments (what? Someone call Charles Higham!), yet also alludes to serving with the Brits in Afghanistan.

Virginia City ultimately takes itself a bit too seriously for its own good. Little Dickie Jones buys the farm when a wagon loaded with tons of gold runs him over. As the desperate rebel gold convoy naturally grabs our sympathy, we never know which side we should be on. Further confusing things is Humphrey Bogart's bizarre Mexican bandit, Murell. Bogart's accent comes and goes in a laughable characterization that's only a little less absurd than his zombie lab assistant in The Return of Dr. X. After seeing these two films, it takes little effort to imagine Bogart staring in a mirror and wondering if his career was doomed. Happily, The Maltese Falcon and major stardom were only a few months away.

Director Curtiz crams plenty of action into the story, giving stuntman Yakima Canutt the opportunity to do his under-the stagecoach trick as well as several murderous-looking horse falls. A tumble down a steep ridge sends one unlucky horse (who may have been tripped) flying end-over-end like a puppy in a clothes dryer. The horse gets up and is apparently unharmed, but we wouldn't be surprised to be told that it dropped dead one frame after the camera cuts away. Michael Curtiz had a reputation for being almost as rough on horses as he was on actors, and ASPCA sympathizers will definitely not be amused.

Warners' DVD of Virginia City far surpasses the quality of old TV prints; a new digital transfer brings out every detail of Fred Koenecamp and Byron Haskin's special effects. Watch the scene where Humphrey Bogart leaps from a bridge into a river, and notice that he transforms from a miniature to live action while crossing behind matte paintings of overhanging tree branches. We also can pick out Ward Bond and George Reeves in bit roles.

The release is given the full "Warner Night at the Movies" treatment, including a newsreel and two cartoons. Garish Technicolor adorns a grating kiddie musical version of Cinderella as well as a tribute to Clara Barton of the American Red Cross. A making-of featurette for The Charge of the Light Brigade is also included.

Virginia City is at this time available only as part of the Errol Flynn Westerns Collection, with Montana, Rocky Mountain and San Antonio.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Virginia City rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by historian Frank Thompson, Newsreel, Technicolor short subjects Cinderella's Feller, The Flag of Humanity, cartoons Cross Country Detours, Confederate Honey, trailers, featurette The Light Brigade Rides Again
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 3, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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