“Just give him a sword and let him do his thing,” was the way Errol Flynn described the studio executive’s opinions of him. In his heyday, Flynn was known as the king of Hollywood Swashbucklers. He’s still best remembered today for his tights-and-fights adventures, such as Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, Don Juan, The Prince & the Pauper and most notably The Adventures of Robin Hood. But there was more to Flynn’s career than that.
From the late 1930s through the mid 1940s, the dashing Flynn was one of the two biggest action film stars in the world (the other being John Wayne). Aside from costumed adventures, he also made Westerns (Dodge City; They Died With Their Boots On) and War movies (Dawn Patrol). Although he may have seemed miscast as a cowboy, people accepted it because it was the beloved Flynn in the white hat. And when it came to war films, Flynn’s heroic screen image was perfectly suited to Nazi fighting.
From the time World War II started in Europe, even before Pearl Harbor, Hollywood began producing war films by the dozen. After the infamous attack, studios began churning out an endless stream of pro-war, propaganda films, designed to heighten the patriotic spirit of the American public. Errol Flynn starred in many of these flag-waving flicks. The TCM Spotlight: the Errol Flynn Adventures features five examples of Flynn’s wartime work. Sadly, only one of these films is representative of a top-notch Flynn outing. The other four are mediocre, B-list efforts.
Desperate Journey (1942) has Flynn co-starring with future US President Ronald Reagan as American pilots who crash land behind enemy lines and accidentally discover some vital info which they must quickly get to their superiors in Washington. The Nazis are hot on their trail while they try to covertly make their way to friendly territory. The film is done in a surprisingly lighthearted tongue-in-cheek manner. The Nazis are portrayed as witless bunglers, as if they just walked out of a Hogan’s Heroes episode. Our heroes easily outsmart the Germans at every turn. At one point, Reagan’s character befuddles a Nazi with double-talk and gibberish. Flynn gets a rare opportunity to flex his comedic muscles as Lt. Forbes, the cunning yet amiable leader of the stranded group. The film is an amusing, lightweight effort, directed by Raoul Walsh, who was a frequent collaborator of Flynn’s. (They would make eight films together in all.)
Edge of Darkness (1943) was a low budget but fairly intense drama, with an excellent cast. The story revolves around the underground movement in Norway during the Nazi occupation. Flynn plays Gunnar, the leader of a band of rebels in a small fishing village who are planning to make a move against the Germans. Anne Sheridan plays his love interest Karen, and Walter Huston is her father, the town Doctor, who feels he and his daughter should stay as far away from the rebellion as possible, but against his better judgment finds himself being drawn into it. Ruth Gordon is excellent as the Doctor’s fearful wife who has retreated into her own little world of pre-war reverie. Charles Dingle is a local businessman named Kasper who collaborates with the invaders. Dame Judith Anderson is a spirited rebel who’s hatred of the Nazis intensifies when they killed her husband.
The film opens with a clever teaser, reminiscent of Beau Geste, where the Nazi troops arrive to find that not a living soul remains in the ravaged town. Flashbacks follow the rebel’s plan until the ultimate battle, which is somewhat exciting but not too well executed. (The sight of a Priest blasting away at the Nazis will bring to mind the gun toting clergyman from Hot Fuzz.)
Interesting, although Flynn is billed as the lead, this is really an ensemble piece, and most of the minor characters are more interesting than stars Flynn and Sheridan. Helmut Dantine could have been more effective as Nazi Captain Koenig if the part had been more than one dimensional. Edge of Darkness was directed by Louis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front; Of Mice and Men). It’s not a bad film but nothing exceptionally memorable.
Northern Pursuit (1943) is the weakest of these five entries. Flynn’s favorite director Raoul Walsh was again at the helm, although with less than impressive results. Flynn plays Canadian Mountie Steve Wagner, who finds an injured man in the snow, only to learn that the man (Helmut Dantine again) is the sole survivor of a Nazi unit sent to Canada on a secret mission (the rest were killed in an avalanche). Wagner is of German descent, so when he makes the well-intentioned but costly decision to allow his Nazi prisoner a few days to recover before turning him in to the authorities, people begin to question where Wagner’s loyalties lie. Wagner is suspected when the German escapes and so he is kicked out of the Mounties. He is hired by an American businessman (who is secretly in league with the Nazis) to lead a small party of men up to the “frozen north” on some sort of expedition. Wagner learns that his party is composed of Nazis and so feigns cooperation to find out their plans.
The concept of a Mountie battling Nazis in the snowy northern hills has a certain appeal but the film is not particularly well written or exciting. Julie Bishop plays Wagner’s love interest Laura, but there is no chemistry between them. When we find out the Nazi’s true objective, it’s quite preposterous. There are some nice scenes between Dantine and Flynn, but otherwise, there isn’t much to recommend here.
Uncertain Glory (1944) again directed by Raoul Walsh, takes place in Nazi occupied France. This is an atypical role for Flynn. Flynn plays French criminal Jean Picard, a gentleman thief whose recent heist caused the death of a night watchman. Picard briefly escapes after an RAF raid against the Nazis destroys the prison, but he is quickly recaptured by French Police Inspector Bonet (Paul Lukas). Bonet has an Inspector Javert-like fixation on capturing Picard, despite the fact that his country has been occupied by Nazis.
Just as Bonet is about to return Picard to the death chamber, they hear about a major sabotage attack by the French resistance against the Germans. The Nazis react in typical fashion. They collect 100 random people and announce that all 100 will be executed unless the real saboteur turns himself in. Picard suddenly has an inspired idea. He will turn himself in as the architect of the sabotage. He fears the guillotine and prefers to face a Nazi firing squad. Also, this will allow him to die as a hero, rather than a thief. Bonet is initially reluctant but he eventually agrees. They go to the town where the incident happened, to find out as much as they can about the area and how the plan was carried out, so Picard can convincingly fool the Nazis. During his last three days, Picard meets a beautiful woman (Lucille Watson) who makes him regret his decision. Can Bonet trust Picard to keep his word?
The best part of the film is the relationship between Picard and Bonet. They begin as enemies and then come to respect each other. Bonet gives such a strong performance that he steals the focus away from Flynn in their scenes together.
The final film of the collection is by far the best. Objective: Burma (1945) is probably Flynn’s greatest war film, and he claimed it was one of his favorite roles. Filmed during WW2 and released just as the war was ending, this is one of the finest films about the Second World War to be produced during the war.
Once more directed by Raoul Walsh, the action-packed story follows a group of paratroopers sent to destroy a Japanese radar station in Burma. They complete their task quickly and efficiently, but then things go south. They miss their scheduled aerial pick-up when they are attacked and diverted by Japanese soldiers. With no chance for a second pick-up, the unit must walk 150 miles over rough terrain, all the while hunted by the enemy. This is one of relatively few WW2 films that feature the Japanese as the main villains, rather than the Nazis.
Flynn is at his heroic best here. He makes his Captain Nelson character very human. Walsh stages some realistic battle sequences. This is a great action film and it shows Flynn on top of his game. It’s a pity the other four films chosen weren’t of the caliber of Objective: Burma. But Flynn is always fun to watch, even in his weaker projects.
DVD Bonus Features
This DVD has some wonderful extras. Each film is complete with "A Warner Night at the Movies" segment, which gives you the same pre-show features that a film of the forties would have had. A cartoon; a newsreel; short subjects and other little treats make each disc a tribute to the golden age of films when they were accompanied by several extras.
"TCM Spotlight: The Errol Flynn Adventures" is on sale August 3, 2010 and is not rated. War. Directed by Lewis Milstone, Raoul Walsh. Written by Robert Rosen and Wiliam Woods. Starring Anne Sheridan, Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan, Walter Huston.