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Against All Flags
Nevermind that Brian Hawke (Errol Flynn) washes ashore the pirate stronghold of Libertatia disheveled, half-starved, and bearing the scars of a recent, savage flogging. Captain "Spitfire" Stevens (Maureen O'Hara) may be charmed by this former lieutenant who's now chosen a life of piracy, but not Captain Brasiliano (Anthony Quinn), who's dead certain he's staring into the eyes of a British spy.
And he's right. Libertatia's hidden fortifications have made it impenetrable by even the mightiest of pursuing ships. The British Royal Navy knows all too where the Captains of the Coast and their men are headquartered, but they as yet have been unable to do much of anything about it. Enter Hawke, who schemes to infiltrate their ranks, figure out precisely where the cannons are located, and sneak a map to a waiting man-o'-war. That's easier said than done, especially since Hawke is expected to prove himself as a pirate, and their latest plunder – a young princess (Alice Kelley) whose royal upbringing is, for now, a secret – threatens to spark a war between India and Britain were anything to happen to her.
Against All Flags delivers everything I could ever hope for from a star-studded swashbucker. Whether it's with a cutlass or a cannon, there's no shortage of dazzling battles royale. The snap decisions that must be made, betrayals, and just plain old bad luck keep things from ever settling into too comfortable a groove, constantly delivering twists and well-earned surprises along the way.
And maybe you read the summary above and figure that there has to be some sort of love triangle. Anticipating that, screenwriters Joseph Hoffman and Aeneas MacKenzie instead opt for more of a love quadrilateral. Brasiliano's passions for Spitfire burn as brightly as his mistrust of Hawke. Princess Patma's doe-eyed infatuation with her savior Hawke – only the third man she's ever met! – keeps threatening to expose her secret. Hawke's attempts to shield Patma from exploitation at the hands of these beastly pirates don't sit well with Spitfire, who'd been nursing enough of a crush herself to begin to letting down some of the barriers she'd erected.
Better still, a good bit of characterization is woven in with all that fun. The always impressive Maureen O'Hara could never portray just another damsel in distress, and her Spitfire is as much of a force to be reckoned with as her nickname suggests. Despite having inherited her captaincy, she's earned her wealth and power, having steeled herself into a warrior who can stand toe-to-toe and blade-to-blade against any man. Much the same can be said about O'Hara herself, who fields her own stuntwork and swordplay. Hers is such a wonderful performance: her physicality, her strength, her vulnerability, her heart, and her impassioned delivery of such well-written dialogue.
"Oh, I was a fool to think that you might be different from the others: swaggering, misbegotten bullies who think that a girl is without pride of her own. Just something to satisfy their selfish lusts and vanities because she's weaker. Well, I'm not weaker! I go after what I want, just like they do. And I can defend my own self-respect. And if any man dares to damage it, I'll shoot the eyes out of his head. Both of them, Brian Hawke! Both of them!"
The moral struggles that Hawke is pitted against make him a far more interesting hero, as the nature of his assignment prevents him from being a pure, gallant white knight. Difficult decisions must be made, and it's not always easy or even possible to do the right thing without risking the entire endeavor. Errol Flynn's best days were behind him by this point in his career, but he still proves a charismatic and capable lead. And Anthony Quinn crafts an antagonist who's equal parts loathsome and likeable. To some extent I found myself even rooting for Brasiliano, who by any measure is the villain but one who doesn't settle for evil-for-the-sake-of-evil. He is, after all, a pirate! And a damned good one at that.
And, sure, Against All Flags is a product of its time, and some elements aren't in-step with more modern sensibilities, such as a Moghul princess being played by a white beauty queen and the film's indifference about the less-royal young women sold into sexual servitude. If that sort of thing might get under your skin, consider yourself warned. For my money, anyway, none of that got in the way of Against All Flags standing strong as one of the most thrilling and unapologetically fun movies I've had the pleasure of experiencing this year. Highly Recommended.
I'm not sure when Against All Flags was last remastered – not recently enough to warrant a mention on the flipside of the case, at least. It is, at times, quite striking:
And yet the 1.37:1 image isn't as detailed nor the sheen of grain as fine or organic as the Universal films that KL Studio Classics has remastered themselves, such as Doctor Cyclops. Especially noticeable with fleshtones, colors often don't match from one shot to the next. There can be a good bit of fluctuation within the same shot as well; even my wife, who isn't cursed with the sort of eye that comes with twenty years of reviewing home media, groused that "these colors are all over the place." And this extends beyond the types of variations you'd expect to see on, say, either side of a lap dissolve. The two examples below are part of the same battle yet look as if they're set at unrecognizably different times of day:
Colors aren't always aligned properly either. Note the green fringe around Errol Flynn below, for instance:
There's one very noticeable stain just before the half-hour mark, although I didn't spot anything remotely like that elsewhere throughout Against All Flags' 83 minute runtime. There is some mild speckling, and it seemed as if the aberrations were blue more often than not. This admittedly isn't a particularly glaring example:
And, for what it's worth, this isn't some sort of screenshot scientist nitpicking, where the disc is paused and I'm perched punishingly close to the screen looking for something to complain about. Everything mentioned above is very apparent in-motion and from a reasonable viewing distance. But at the same time, you can also see where this review says 'Highly Recommended' in bold and italics in the sidebar.
Yes, this presentation is showing its age, and I do wish that a shiny, new 4K remaster from the original camera negative had been in the cards, but I'd still say that Against All Flags rates at least as good enough in HD. It's by any measure a massive improvement over what's streaming on Prime Video as of this writing. And it's further appreciated, despite the short length of the film and its extras, that KL Studio Classics opted for a BD-50 disc even though things only just barely creep over onto the second layer. The master itself may be far from perfect, but its AVC encode is given all the headroom it needs to present things as faithfully as possible just the same.
Presented in 16-bit, two-channel mono, Against All Flags' lossless audio is similarly alright. Frequency response is limited to a greater extent than I went in expecting. The reproduction of dialogue is a little dull and noisy but remains consistently, effortlessly intelligible:
When the score by Hans J. Salter is roaring its loudest, the strain is unmistakable:
And those sorts of limitations are the worst of it, with this DTS-HD Master Audio track free from any truly intrusive or jarring flaws. Also aboard are an audio commentary and a set of English subtitles.
- Audio Commentary: I had nearly as wonderful a time listening to film historian Stephen Vagg as I did watching Against All Flags on its own. His extensive research into pirates – real, imagined, and the legends in-between – is consistently compelling. Vagg can not only tell you precisely when and where Against All Flags was filmed but recommend a book about nothing but men being whipped in movies, compare and contrast pirate traditions throughout the world, and note which of the film's characters and scenarios are grounded at least in part in reality. He charts the history of pirates in cinema, notes that Douglas Sirk was sitting in the director's chair for a time, lists some of the other actresses originally considered for the role of Spitfire, and touches on its remake the following decade as The King's Pirate.
But my favorite comments tended to revolve around the actors and filmmakers themselves, especially their other collaborations together and at times tumultuous relationships – whether it's Flynn being a useless drunk after 4 PM or O'Hara and Quinn rekindling their on-again-off-again affair on the set. Clearly a labor of love, this commentary is a rewarding and engaging listen.
- Trailer (2 min.; SD): Along with a standard definition trailer for Against All Flags, the disc also highlights The World in His Arms, Buccaneer's Girl, and The Rare Breed.
The Final Word
Adventure! Deception! Romance! Against All Flags is a thrilling, infectiously fun swashbuckler with Errol Flynn, Maureen O'Hara, and Anthony Quinn on the bill; how much more of a review do you really need than that? Though the presentation isn't quite what I'd hoped it would be, the film itself is so terrific – and, I suspect, eminently rewatchable – that I can't fathom rating KL Studio Classics' Blu-ray release as anything less than Highly Recommended.