TCM Spotlight :: Errol Flynn Adventures
When conjuring up the names of the very greatest of screen idols, Errol Flynn’s does not come instantly to mind. His star has been partially eclipsed by the earthy machismo of Clark Gable and the suave charisma of Cary Grant.
Stereotypically tall, dark and handsome, Flynn possessed a honeyed voice with a hint of Australian brogue. This, combined with a facile, somewhat flatter histrionic style, qualified him as a top-notch swashbuckler. Hollywood immediately exploited this potential in his first film here, the 1935 Captain Blood. For the next twenty years, he would remain the dashing hero of numerous costume epics, the most notable being the 1938 Technicolor The Adventures of Robin Hood. The subsequent decline in popularity of this sort of film - in favor of such genres as the screwball comedy and the film noir - has certainly contributed to the diminishing of Flynn’s popularity. Yet, is his day, he was a veritable sensation.
He was also one of Hollywood’s most controversial and enigmatic figures. Some accounts paint him as being genteel and somewhat shy, while others portray him as a drunken hooligan. Some swear he was a rabid womanizer, while others claim he was bisexual, and had a lengthy affair with closeted Tyrone Power, his swashbuckling successor. Recently, evidence was uncovered which indicated that Flynn may have been an anti-Semitic, Nazi sympathizer, in fact, a spy for Hitler. Judging from the patriotic passion he brings to his roles in the five films included in TCM’s wonderful new new DVD compilation entitled Errol Flynn Adventures, one would find that most difficult to swallow; unless Flynn was a far greater actor than we ever realized.
The set is designed to restore the luster of this great film star while paying homage to the classic action film. In equal measure, this new collection could be viewed as a tribute to director Raoul Walsh, the rugged action specialist responsible for four out of the five films included. The movies are all in black and white, and are presented in an appropriate full-screen format. The copious special features on each disc are compiled under the title "Warner Night at the Movies," a tradition that hearkens back to the days of VHS. Each film is preceded by assorted newsreels, comic, dramatic or musical shorts, and cartoons of the period - the sort of presentation one might expect on any given evening in a 1940’s movie palace. Many of the films are making their debut on the DVD format, and, fortunately, TCM has provided uniformly excellent transfers for all.
The films chosen for the set are thematically, as well as chronologically, linked. In them, Flynn departs Sherwood Forest long enough to take on the Nazis during WWII. All the films date from 1942-45, a period in which the actor was enjoying his new American citizenship, and attempting repeatedly to join the military. He was continually rejected on the basis of heart problems, tuberculosis and other assorted health issues. So, during the war years, he opted to do battle with the Germans and the Japanese solely on the silver screen.
A daring escape
And he reports for active duty pronto, in Desperate Journey, a lively actioner in which Flynn dashes off the same brand of bravura heroics he had in The Sea Wolf, but this time in an Allied uniform. He is clearly in his element as a fearless, Australian bomber pilot who is captured along with his valiant crew by wonderfully evil Nazi general Raymond Massey. His mates include a cocky Yank in the RAF, Ronald Reagan, Arthur Kennedy as an ardent, young navigator, and the ubiquitous character actor, Alan Hale, providing comic relief as a gluttonous rascal. The crew makes a daring escape into enemy territory with a bunch of growling, stentorian Nazis in close pursuit. Our heroes never appear to be in mortal danger since the German soldiers are pictured as a bungling lot, right out of some Three Stooges slapstick short. The valiant quartet goes on to attempt several brazen acts of sabotage, leading up to their exciting, final retreat in a stolen German aircraft. Having handily dispatched the entire German army, Flynn vows, en route back to England, "Now for a crack at those Japs." (He actually gets that opportunity in the final film of the set, Objective Burma!.) Walsh’s incisive direction makes for a tautly paced and enjoyable film. When viewing the special features, be sure not to miss the campy musical short entitled "Borrah Minnevitch and His Harmonica School," a relic from a more innocent age of popular entertainment.
Poetic anti-war statement
The next film in the set is the one not directed by Raoul Walsh. Coincidentally it is the best of the lot. Edge of Darkness is a profound, poetic anti-war statement, beautifully directed by Lewis Milestone. He had been at the helm of such films such as All Quiet on the Western Front; therefore the futility of war was a theme to which he was keenly attuned. Borrowing stylistically from German and Russian cinema, he created a work that was both visually stunning and emotionally staggering. The plot concerns a Nazi envoy which arrives in a Norwegian fishing village that had been massacred by German soldiers, many of whose bodies were mingled with those of the Norwegians. The entire film is an elaborate flashback which chronicles the events leading up to the final slaughter. The scenes of the envoy dispersing thousands of sea birds from rooftops with their rifle fire, and trampling over endless bodies on the village streets, are unforgettable. Short striking scenes, artistic camerawork, and montages by future director Don Siegel contribute enormously to the overall effect.
Amid a cast of some of Hollywood’s greatest acting talent, Errol Flynn gives an understated performance as the local underground leader. The 40’s Oomph Girl, Ann Sheridan, is a bit too glamorous to impersonate an innocent, Norwegian maiden. Yet she has some moving moments, one of them being the scene following her brutal rape by a German soldier. As her father, the honored town doctor, Walter Huston gives yet another, great screen portrayal. Already being cast in 1943 as slightly imbalanced characters, Ruth Gordon is the neurasthenic doctor’s wife. Cast primarily as film heavies, from Hitchcock’s Mrs. Danvers to Lady Scarface, Judith Anderson changes her pace as a selfless freedom fighter. The remarkable cast also includes the handsome Helmut Dantine as the vicious Nazi commander. Franz Waxman’s effective musical score employs the famous chorale melody "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" for the open credits, then borrows heavily from Wagner’s "Siegfried Funeral Music." In American WWII cinema, one could hardly expect any sympathy in portrayals of the Third Reich, but here, the Nazis are shown as a particularly monstrous lot. The pellucid film print further enhances the visual splendor.
More nasty Nazis
In Walsh’s Northern Pursuit, Flynn and Dantine square off again, this time in the frozen wilds of Canada. Yet another nasty Nazi, Dantine, with his squadron, attempt to infiltrate North America. Their mission is interrupted by an avalanche, and the arrival of strapping Mountie Flynn. His lenient treatment of the German officer shocks his cohorts, but it turns out to be a subterfuge. Branded a traitor, he is then initiated into a German espionage ring, where is able to uncover the true secret behind Dantine’s mission. There are splashes of explicit violence in this tense thriller, which manages to be consistently engaging. Flynn does well in the lead, but Dantine’s "icy" performance is a standout. This disc has the niftiest special features of any in the set. There is a dramatic short about a prison priest and a tough escapee, played to the hilt by newcomer Dane Clark. Titled Over the Wall, it is handsomely directed by Jean Negulesco. Although it sounds like a new Chi Chi La Rue film, The Rear Gunner actually turns out to be an army training film, with Reagan and Burgess Meredith getting their hands on some big artillery - guns of course.
Take some No-Doz!
The weakest film of the collection is Uncertain Glory. This time Errol is a Frenchman - a bitter, convicted criminal. Narrowly escaping the guillotine, he flees, with dedicated detective Paul Lukas hot on his trail. He is captured, but, rather than submitting to immediate execution, he volunteers to turn himself in to the Nazis disguised as a wanted saboteur from the French underground. The two travel to the small town where the Nazis are concentrating their search. He falls in love with an innocent country girl, one of the many reasons he has for reneging on his bargain with Lukas. The basic premise is the question of whether or not he will keep his promise. Ultimately, the viewer, already soundly asleep, does not seem to care. The film is all talk, with absolutely no action whatsoever. This is unfortunate since Flynn gives one of his best performances, and there is some nice, atmospheric cinematography. As Flynn and Lukas spend the entire film chatting, village matriarch Lucille Watson is left to concoct the only plan of action in the movie. Also, Flynn was saddled with an awkward, colorless, leading lady, Jean Sullivan, in her first screen appearance. Certainly Uncertain Glory: is worth a once-through; just down a few No-Doz and hang in there.
All action, no-nonsense
The final selection, Objective Burma!, is the only title previously issued on home video. Also, it is also the only one in which Flynn battles the Japanese, and that features enlisted men in actual combat. He leads his platoon into Burma to blow up a Japanese radar station. The mission is handily accomplished, but the men find themselves stranded in the rough Burmese terrain, with sadistic Japanese soldiers lurking behind every bush. Walsh strips all the sugar coating from this one, and the film is an ideal example of his relentless, no-nonsense style. Flynn is sympathetic as the unswerving Captain Nelson. Veteran stage actor Henry Hull is excellent as a middle-aged, news correspondent who accompanies the maneuver and struggles to survive it. The supporting cast includes two future television personalities: Beaver’s dad, Hugh Beaumont, and George Tobias, the beloved Abner Kravitz of "Bewitched."