TCM Spotlight: Errol Flynn Adventures
Desperate Journey (1942), Edge of Darkness (1943), Northern Pursuit (1943), Uncertain Glory (1944), Objective, Burma! (1945)
| Studio: Warner Bros. |
Aspect Ratio: 4:3
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Release Date: August 3, 2010
Iconic Warner action star Errol Flynn has already been celebrated in three DVD box sets including two "Signature Collections" with five films each and one Western box set with four. In this latest set, Warner focuses on his World War II era action films including four new to DVD titles as well as the previously released Objective, Burma!. Every film in the set is a World War II propaganda film to some extent, and yet all of them have a unique setting in which their pro-Ally/Anti-Axis message is nested.
Desperate Journey (Warner Bros. - 1942 - 108 Minutes) ***½
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Starring: Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Coleman, Raymond Massey, Alan Hale, Arthur Kennedy, Ronald Sinclair
In Desperate Journey, a British Bomber with an international crew including Australians, Americans, and Canadians, is shot down in occupied Poland after an otherwise successful attack on an important rail line. Under the leadership of ranking officer Terry Forbes (Flynn), the surviving crew, consisting of Lieutenants Johnny Hammon (Reagan) and Jed Forrest (Kennedy) and Sergeants Kirk Edwards (Hale) and Lloyd Hollis (Sinclair), are captured by Nazi officer Major Otto Baumeister (Massey). The resourceful fliers quickly manage to escape from Baumeister's clutches while also acquiring some valuable intelligence about underground Nazi fighter plane manufacturing. They attempt to make their way through the enemy countryside, and are aided by some sympathetic Germans inclusive of Kaethe Brahms (Coleman), who conceals them and offers some much needed medical attention. Over the protestations of the conservative Forrest, the somewhat reckless Forbes cannot resist participating in a little sabotage along the way, which ultimately makes their attempt to escape and deliver the captured intelligence to the Allied commanders significantly more difficult.
Desperate Journey is pure propagandistic action fantasy, which would be a cause for dismissal were it not so darn entertaining. Warner action maestro Raoul Walsh keeps things moving at such a breakneck pace that viewers are barely given any time to ponder the sheer implausibility of the events unfolding before their eyes. With the exception of Arthur Kennedy who is saddled with the thankless "voice of reason" role, the cast of protagonists is uniformly charismatic, keeping up a plucky and/or wisecracking demeanor for most of the film's running time. The filmmakers prevent this from going over the top by inserting a few scenes where the men must mourn their dead as well as a thread where Flynn's Forbes begins to question his reckless decisions and fitness for command. Despite these moments of self-reflection, the film ultimately plays out exactly the way that action-oriented audiences would want, with a series of narrow escapes and bravura chase scenes with state of the art circa 1942 camera and special effects work by Walsh and his crew.
Edge of Darkness (1943 - Warner Bros. - 119 Minutes) ****½
Directed by: Lewis Milestone
Starring: Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Walter Huston, Nancy Coleman, Judith Anderson, Ruth Gordon, Helmut Dantine, Judith Anderson, Ruth Gordon, John Beal, and Charles Dingle
In Edge of Darkness, Errol Flynn plays a fisherman turned underground resistance leader named Gunnar Brogge in a Nazi-occupied Norwegian fishing town. The town of 800 or so is held by a group of 150 Nazi soldiers led by the ambitious and sadistic Captain Koenig (Dantine). Gunnar is romantically involved with a fervent resistance supporter named Karen Stensgard who is the daughter of a pacifist doctor (Huston) and a somewhat affected mother (Gordon) who the family feels compelled to protect from unsettling news. Efforts by the British to arm resistance fighters along the Norwegian coast offer hope, but constant pressure from the German military contingent, uncertain loyalties, loose lips within the resistance, and the efforts of collaborators of both the overt and weak-minded variety threaten to expose their efforts and destroy their organization before the coordinated action planned by the British can take place.
Lewis Milestone's Edge of Darkness is a fine ensemble drama about the effect of military occupation on a community. The cast of actors playing the Norwegians is top-notch, and the screenplay from Robert Rossen does a good job of fleshing out the characters and giving the actors something with which to work. The Nazi's are not too surprisingly played as one-dimensional sadists who underestimate their ability to keep things under control. Fortunately, this aspect does not really harm the drama since the focus is on the Norwegian characters, it reflects how they would likely perceive their occupiers, and Helmut Dantine knows how to play sadistic and evil very well.
The bravura opening scene of Nazis arriving at an abandoned town with the streets seemingly paved with corpses is very effective at setting the tone. These images linger in the viewer's mind long after the film is over, and create a sense of dread and suspense that hang over the entire film. The sequence is on par with other signature images from Milestone's body of work such as the trench tracking shots from All Quiet on the Western Front and the crane shot following Harold Lloyd as he climbs a tree in The Kid Brother.
Due to the impossibility of shooting in Europe in the middle of a War, the film creates its Norwegian town with a combination of location work in and around Monterey, California and some very elaborate modeling and matte work by the art and special effects departments. While viewers unaccustomed to watching vintage films may dismiss them as "fake looking", the level of craftsmanship that went into these elements of the film is pretty impressive for its era.
Northern Pursuit (1943 - Warner Bros. - 94 Minutes)**½
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Starring; Errol Flynn, Julie Bishop, Helmut Dantine, John Ridgely, Gene Lockhart
In Northern Pursuit, Errol Flynn plays Canadian Mountie Steve Wagner who is patrolling the North Country with his partner, Jim Austin (Ridgely), when he stumbles across injured German Luftwaffe Officer Colonel Hugo von Keller lying in the snow. Wagner's collegial treatment of von Keller, his delay in transporting him to prison, and his German heritage make his superior Inspector Barnett (Tully) question his loyalty. Resentful of his superior's suspicions, Wagner resigns his commission with the Mounties and signs up with the Canadian Army. When von Keller later escapes from a POW camp, Wagner is arrested for questioning and resisting arrest from his former colleagues on what was supposed to be his wedding day. He is bailed out by a mysterious fifth columnist named Ernst (Lockhart) who turns out to be working on behalf of von Keller. Von Keller and Ernst want Wagner to use his knowledge of the North Country to guide them through some rough terrain towards an unspecified location. Since they do not completely trust him, they bring his fiancee Laura (Bishop) along on the trek as a hostage.
Northern Pursuit is a somewhat underrated piece of action propaganda. Its flaws are easy to spot, chief among them the unconvincing romantic pairing of Flynn's Corporal Wagner with Bishop's Laura McBain and the implausibly elaborate Nazi plot fueling the action revealed in the film's final act. If one accepts the former as a plot device intended to fuel hostage drama and the latter as an inconsequential "MacGuffin", the film plays out as an entertaining piece of action espionage. This also allows one to appreciate some of the film's easier pleasures such as Flynn's characterization of a pragmatic Mountie, Helmut Dantine's clever and murderous Luftwaffe Officer, and Gene Lockhart's duplicitous fifth columnist who finds himself increasingly terrified of the man whose activities he is facilitating. At the time of its release, it also suffered by comparison to the The 49th Parallel, and is clearly not in the same league as that Powell and Pressburger classic tale of Nazis in Canada.
Uncertain Glory (1944 - Warner Bros. -102 Minutes) ****½
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Starring: Errol Flynn, Paul Lukas, Jean Sullivan, Faye Emerson, Lucile Watson, Jean Sullivan, Douglass Dumbrille
In Uncertain Glory, Errol Flynn plays a death row convict named Jean Picard in occupied France. He narrowly escapes execution when a stray Allied bomb blows up the prison yard as he is being led to the guillotine. With the help of a former criminal associate, he flees for the countryside while being pursued by Sûreté Inspector Marcel Bonet (Lukas), the same man who originally arrested him. Bonet quickly catches up to Picard and brings him back into custody. On the way back to Paris, they hear news of a bridge destroyed by an act of sabotage. Outraged Nazis demand that the Free French resistance fighters responsible for the bombing be identified and turned over to them. They threaten to execute 100 "suspects" rounded up in the nearby countryside within three days if this does not occur. Picard proposes to Bonet that he allow him to take the rap for the bombing since he would prefer a firing squad to the guillotine and will be just as dead either way. Bonet agrees for the sake of the 100 innocent hostages, but remains highly suspicious of the career criminal. In order to provide a plausible confession, Bonet takes Picard to the village near the bridge so they can canvass the site for details. While staying in the village, complications ensue involving a romance between Picard and a naive shop girl named Marianne (Sullivan), an encounter with one of the actual saboteurs, the machinations of Madame Maret (Watson), a distraught mother of a hostage cold-bloodedly seeking a scapegoat for the bombing, the continued investigation by local Vichy Police Comissioner LaFarge (Dumbrille), and Bonet's well founded suspicions concerning Picard's true intentions.
Errol Flynn's status as a "movie star" is rarely disputed, but anyone inclined to dismiss his credentials as an actor would be well advised to view Uncertain Glory first. Flynn shares the screen and top billing with Paul Lukas, fresh off of his Oscar win for Watch on the Rhine, and both actors give as good as they get. Flynn plays largely against type as a convicted murderer, and the filmmakers cleverly subvert the Production Code's policy against murderers as protagonists by having him refuse to ever admit that he is guilty of the crime. Rather than being a frustrating nod to censorship, this never resolved ambiguity becomes a defining characteristic of his character. Establishing that he is an accomplished liar keeps the audience off-balance to the extent that they are as nervous as Lukas' character about whether he will go through with their plan or not. It is possible that the filmmakers were trading on Flynn's sullied reputation from his recent trial and acquittal on rape charges, but it is to Flynn's credit that he accepted such a morally ambiguous role and acquitted himself so well.
The film is also somewhat against type for Director Walsh, relying on dramatic suspense with minimal action. His reputation for being hands-off with actors sometimes created a perception that he did not care as much about performance as he did about imagery and action, but the fallacy of that assumption is laid bare by the uniformly excellent performances he elicits from the cast. In addition to the outstanding dual lead performances by Flynn and Lukas, relative newcomer Jean Sullivan strikes just the right tone of naiveté to sell the improbably quick romance with Flynn's Picard. Veteran actress Lucile Watson, also just coming off of Watch on the Rhine, takes her trademark imperious mother role and raises it to a "Madame De Farge" level of scheming. The film was not a commercial success, possibly due to Flynn and Walsh defying expectations of audiences and critics, but has gained in critical reputation over ensuing years.
Objective, Burma! (1945 - Warner Bros. - 142 Minutes) ****
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
Starring Errol Flynn, William Prince, James Brown, George Tobias, Henry Hull, Warner Anderson, Dick Erdman
Objective, Burma! is an ensemble action film following a group of commandos led by US Army Captain Nelson (Flynn) on a mission to parachute into occupied Burma under cover of darkness and a diversionary bombing in order to locate and destroy a Japanese communication station. In addition to Nelson's crew of paratroopers and demolition experts, he is accompanied by two Ghurka guides, a Chinese interpreter, and Mark Williams (Hull), an embedded journalist with a pacifist streak who is considerably older than anyone else on the mission. They destroy the communications station with relative ease, but when they attempt to rendezvous with a transport plane at an abandoned air field, they are cut-off by Japanese forces and must scramble into the thick jungle to avoid capture. Nelson's team, inclusive of resourceful young officer Lieutenant Jacobs (Prince), capable Sergeant Treacy (Brown), and sardonic Corporal "Gabby" Gordon (Tobias), must fend their way through hostile terrain infested with even more hostile enemy forces with only occasional contact with planes making supply drops. Meanwhile, India-based Colonel Carter (Anderson) attempts to develop a plan to return the men to safety despite being separated by hundreds of miles of jungle with no available air strips.
Director Raoul Walsh sometimes defies easy analysis by auteurist film critics since his cinematic style did not leave heavy fingerprints in the way that the films of Howard Hawks, John Ford, or Alfred Hitchcock did. That being said, one aspect of Walsh as a filmmaker that achieves nearly unanimous consensus among film historians is his facility for action, and Objective, Burma! is about as close to a pure action film as one is likely to find in his filmography. After the initial set-up, the film's protagonists are literally dropped from the sky into over two hours of near constant action and life or death suspense. While there are some nods to the standard war film clichés such as having soldiers fall into certain personality archetypes, they are handled with a light hand, with the lasting impression being of the soldiers as a unified group rather than a collection of quirky individuals. By way of example, George Tobias' character of "Gabby" is something like the wisecracking enlisted man "type" one sees in other movies, but not to the degree of insubordination that is typical. The elements of propaganda are generally kept within the realm of reason, with the expected dehumanization of the Japanese enemy (who are frequently referred to as "monkeys"), but only a limited amount of pro-Ally/anti-Axis speeches by men who should be focusing on the job at hand. The one notable exception is when Henry Hull's generally pacifist newspaper correspondent loses his head after witnessing the aftermath of some Japanese torture and goes on a "They're inhuman/kill 'em all" tirade. For the most part, the film focuses on nothing more than soldiers attempting to do their jobs under extreme circumstances.
The sense of realism puts it in stark contrast to films such as Desperate Journey, which by comparison seems like a boy's adventure with Nazis and a body count (on the commentary accompanying this release of Objective, Burma!, historian Rudy Behlmer with tongue firmly in cheek likens Desperate Journey to "The Rover Boys" in Europe). The entire production is designed with an eye toward authenticity. Props and wardrobe are almost entirely accurate, stock footage from real military action in Burma is used frequently, and footage from various locations around Southern California is used cleverly to create the illusion of a Burmese jungle. There are only a handful of studio interiors in the entire film. Flynn, by far the most recognizable face in the entire cast, dials down his movie star charisma just enough to blend in with the ensemble.
Note: One aspect of the film that was criticized for being inauthentic was its exaggeration of the American military contribution to the re-taking of Burma. Media outcry in the UK was so overwhelmingly negative on this point that the studio actually pulled the film from release, although it was successful in most other markets. It was released in the UK six years later with a reconciliatory prologue acknowledging the heroic actions of British forces in Burma. The criticism itself may have been a bit exaggerated. While the fictional events in the film are dramatized in such a way to inaccurately suggest that the US military was a much larger presence in the Burmese theater than they were, the film does acknowledge the coordinated efforts of British, Indian, and Chinese forces in the area. That being said, the loss of Burma to the Japanese was a stinging blow to the morale of the UK and Indian militaries, and its re-taking two years later a corresponding morale boost and well-justified point of pride. It is easy to see how fudging the facts for a Hollywood film while the events were still in the forefront of people's memories would be perceived as disrespectful.
The Video ****All titles are presented in black and white 4:3 video appropriate for their original theatrical presentations. Desperate Journey has the most pristine video presentation of the bunch, with natural film grain, an even range of contrast with no crushed blacks or blooming whites, and only minor and infrequent source flaws. Edge of Darkness and Northern Pursuit have some occasional source element issues making them not quite as consistent as Desperate Journey, but they still are outstanding and appear to have come from elements close to the original negative for most of their running time. Uncertain Glory exhibits a bit more contrast build-up than the previously mentioned films, suggesting a source a generation or two of film beyond the others, but is otherwise of similar quality. Objective, Burma! looks essentially the same as the previous stand-alone DVD release of the film, which is not a bad thing since it appears to have been transferred from a high quality source with excellent detail and range of contrast, but it does display more scratches and more positive and negative element damage than the others, suggesting less touching up of the image in the digital video realm.
Note: when discussing the picture quality of Objective, Burma! I set aside the source issues associated with stock footage from the Army Signal Corps. The first four minutes of the film are entirely composed of optical titles and stock footage, and numerous pieces of stock footage appear throughout the film after that. There are a handful of scenes where the quality of the production footage in a scene adjacent to the stock footage seems to drop a bit compared to the rest of the film. I am not sure if this was done intentionally, but I found that this "intermediate step" makes the transition between the two different film stocks less jarring.
The Audio ***All films are presented with English Dolby Digital 1.0 mono tracks. As with the video, Objective, Burma! again seems to be the least processed, but in this case, I think the lighter hand with noise reduction actually enhances the fidelity compared to the other films in the collection at the cost of just a small amount of background hiss. Alternate French Dolby Digital 1.0 dubs are available on Desperate Journey, Northern Pursuit, and Uncertain Glory. Alternate Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 dubs are available on Desperate Journey, Edge of Darkness, Northern Pursuit, and Objective, Burma!.
The Extras***½Each film comes with its own "Warner Night at the Movies" set of contemporaneous vintage trailers, newsreel footage, and shorts. These can be selected individually or viewed via a "Play All" option that will run through them and then start the feature presentation, just like the old days. Additionally, each film also has its own theatrical trailer. Desperate Journey contains an additional vintage featurette outside the "Warner Night at the Movies" format and Objective, Burma! has a newly recorded commentary for this release. A break down of the features on each disc follows:
Warner Night at the Movies (32:25 w/"Play All")
- Murder in the Big House Theatrical Trailer (1:45) is a promo for the B. Reeves Eason directed crime drama starring Van Johnson.
- Newsreel (2:32) "Nazi Disaster in the Snows of Russia" shows footage of Russian bombers blasting German tanks and artillery.
- Borrah Minnevitch and His Harmonica School (8:51) is a comic musical one-reeler directed by Jean Negulesco. A high energy orchestra of harmonica playing "students" wearing matching sweaters is led by Minnevitch dressed in a top hat and goofy jacket. Occasional vocals and dancing contributions add to the fun. Songs include Glenn Miller ballad "Always in My Heart" as well as Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine"
- The United States Army Air Force Band (10:16) is a one-reeler from Director Jean Negulesco with the titular band performing patriotic songs at a Washington DC location near the US Capitol Building intercut with troop and plane footage.
- The Dover Boys at Pimento University (8:55) is a classic Technicolor "Merrie Melodies" short from Director Chuck Jones. It is a wild, heavily stylized parody of "Gay '90s" melodramas in general and the "Rover Boys" series of juvenile books in particular. Animation historians frequently point to this as a key short in the development of Jones as a director, and it clearly signaled his breaking away from the heavily Disney-influenced style of his early directorial efforts. The full title is: The Dover Boys at Pimento University or The Rivals of Rocquefort Hall.
Theatrical Trailer (3:00) Has a moment of suspense built in where it trumpets "Errol Flynn as a soldier who knew but one command:" followed by an audio drop out meaning we will never know what it is. The narrator also pronounces the second lead actor's name as Ronald "Ree-gun".
Edge of Darkness
Warner Night at the Movies (28:33 w/"Play All")
- The Hard Way Theatrical Trailer (2:11) is a promo for the Vincent Sherman melodrama starring Ida Lupino, Dennis Morgan, and Joan Leslie.
- Newsreel (1:34) "Convoy Fights Way Through to Russia" shows footage of ships providing supplies to Russian allies making their way across the sea north of Scandanavia.
- The United States Service Band (10:06) is a one-reeler from director Jean Negulesco edited together from previous patriotic "Service Band" shorts featuring the US Army Air Force Band, the US Navy Band, the US Marine Band, and the US Army Band.
- Hiss and Make Up (8:02) is a Technicolor "Merrie Melodies" cartoon from director Friz Freleng in which a dog and cat each try to get the other kicked out of their house by their elderly owner while a canary watches on in disgust.
- To Duck or Not to Duck (6:38) is a Technicolor "Looney Tunes" cartoon from director Chuck Jones in which Daffy Duck convinces hunter Elmer Fudd to drop his rifle and face him in a boxing ring with a predominantly pro-duck crowd, ... and referee. It does not go well for Elmer. For reasons difficult to understand, this short has been encoded in 16:9 enhanced video windowboxed to 4:3 rather than in regular 4:3 video like the rest of the material on this disc.
Warner Night at the Movies (1:01:03 w/"Play All")
- The Constant Nymph Theatrical Trailer (3:33) includes unique footage of director Edmund Goulding.
- Newsreel (1:23) "Liquor Famine Brings Crop of Bootleggers" shows state agents raid a bootlegger's facility in New Jersey reminiscent of the prohibition era. Closing words come from New jersey Commissioner of Alcoholic Control.
- All-Star Melody Masters (7:38) is a Jean Negulesco musical one-reeler that strings together four musical performances from previous "Melody Masters" shorts from the late 30s and early '40s. It features Hal Kemp and His Orchestra playing "Begin the Beguine", Emil Coleman and His Orchestra playing "Just One of Those Things", Skinnay Ennis and His Orchestra performing "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)", and David Rubinoff leading an orchestra and soloing on the violin.
- Over the Wall (20:48) is a Jean Negulesco -directed two-reeler Starring Dane Clark and Tom Tully. Clark is a hardened prisoner named Benny Vigo who escapes. Tully plays Father Darcy, a former Prison Chaplin recent assigned to a new post who (somewhat improbably) tracks him down, resulting in a tense stand-off.
- The Rear Gunner (20:25) is a Ray Enright-directed two-reel propaganda short promoting military recruitment starring Burgess Meredith, Ronald Reagan, and Dane Clark. Meredith plays Air Force Private "Pee Wee" Williams, a shy stuttering Kansas farm boy training to be a tail-gunner in a B-24 (actually a B-17 playing the "role" of a B-24). Ronald Reagan plays Lieutenant Ames, the pilot of the bomber and Dane Clark plays a fellow gunnery trainee from Brooklyn. The short follows the course of Pee Wee's five-week training, giving a quasi-documentary look behind the scenes at the process, through to a couple of his combat missions, including one where his bomber is forced down. This short was included on the previous standalone release of Objective, Burma!, but has been coupled with Northern Pursuit in this box set to align with their mutual 1943 release dates.
- Hop and Go (7:13) is a Norman McCabe directed Looney Tune cartoon featuring Kangaroo Claude Hopper (voiced by Pinto Colvig, better known as the voice of "Goofy" in Disney shorts) whose claim to be a "World Champion Hopper" is tested by a couple of mischievous Scottish rabbits. The surprise ending qualifies it as a "war time" short.
Warner Night at the Movies (28:40 w/ "Play All")
- The Mask of Dimitros Theatrical Trailer (2:14) with unique introduction from Sydney Greenstreet.
- Newsreel (2:28) "Nazi Disaster in the Snows of Russia" is identical to the newsreel footage on Desperate Journey
- United States Coast Guard Band (9:39) is a one-reeler in which the titular band plays patriotic concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and the Naval Auxiliary Canteen under the direction of Lieutenant (and popular singer) Rudy Vallee. The concert footage is accompanied by footage of various branches of US Naval service in action.
- Brother Brat (7:13) is a Technicolor "Looney Tune" Cartoon directed by Frank Tashlin in which a woman who works as a welder at the "Blockheed" military manufacturing facility in need of a babysitter tags Porky Pig with the job. Porky proves comically inept at caring for the tough and obnoxious "Baby Butch", and his advice book is anything but helpful.
- Russian Rhapsody (7:04) is a wild Technicolor Looney Tune cartoon in which "gremlins from the Kremlin" continuously disrupt Adolph ("Silly, Isn't He?") Hitler's attempt to personally bomb Moscow. Hardcore Warner animation fans will enjoy the fact that many of the gremlins are caricatures of Warner directors and producers.
Warner Night at the Movies (24:50 w/ "Play All")
- Pride of the Marines Theatrical Trailer (2:13) Trailer for the Delmer Daves directed John Garfield biopic of Sergeant Al Schmidt
- Newsreel (3:59) "Men of Bataan Rescued from Prison Camp!" Covers the liberation of over 500 American prisoners, many of whom participated in the Bataan death march, by a joint American and Filipino force including testimonials from a few of the former prisoners.
- So You Think You're Allergic (11:08) is a one-reeler from the Joe McDoakes series starring George O'Hanlon in which George suffers from seasonal allergies complicated by hypochondria. It includes some comic faux history in an early flashback where Scottish scientist "MacGregor McDoakes" conducts pioneering allergy research. Mixed in with the comedy are some commonly held beliefs about allergies. Look for a cameo from future "Mrs. Cleaver" Barbara Billingsley as a woman who scratches her itches behind closed doors.
- A Tale of Two Mice (7:29) is a Technicolor Merrie Melodies cartoon directed by Frank Tashlin in which Abbot and Costello mice caricatures "Babbit and Catstello" try various attempts to steal cheese guarded by a cat, most of them failing at Catstello's expense.
Theatrical Trailer (2:15) Begins with a shot of a hand opening a "Diary of a War Correspondent" which provides the premise behind the trailer's voice-over hook before highlighting the film's many action scenes and promising "The most heroic adventure ever hurled from the screen!"