Release Date: 26-AUG-2008
Media Type: DVDErrol Flynn is primarily recognized for his swashbuckling roles, but let’s adjust that. As Frank Thompson notes in his characteristically droll and well-informed commentary on Virginia City, Flynn was born to star in period pictures, and that included Westerns. This son of Tasmania slipped into Stetson and six-gun mode without strain, and without having to conceal his somewhere-in-the-British-Empire accent. Which is only fair: the director of his first three Wild West outings was the Hungarian-born, English-language-mauling Michael Curtiz. Not to beat about the sagebrush, the best of Flynn’s Westerns–the Curtiz-directed Dodge City (1939) and Santa Fe Trail (1940), plus Raoul Walsh’s They Died With Their Boots On (1942)–are not included in this set. Of the four films that are, Curtiz’s Virginia City (1940) is much the liveliest, and certainly the most handsome. Set in the closing months of the Civil War, it’s about Confederate loyalists making one last effort to stave off defeat on the battlefields back East by transporting five million dollars in gold from the Nevada mining town of the title. Union spy Flynn spars with Rebel counterpart Randolph Scott, as both also vie for the love of saloon songstress and gold-plot mastermind Miriam Hopkins. Warner Bros. hoped to replicate the Dodge City hit formula, even recycling the same town set (albeit in black and white instead of Technicolor) and re-teaming cinematographer Sol Polito (who was better at black and white anyway), screenwriter Robert Buckner (strewing illogic and coincidence with abandon), and composer Max Steiner, as well as Flynn sidekicks Alan Hale and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams. But who thought of (mis)casting Humphrey Bogart as a Mexican bandito–possibly the nadir of Bogie’s life as a contract player? On the upside, extensive location shooting around Flagstaff, Arizona, gave Virginia City by far the most striking scenery of any Flynn Western.
Flynn spent the WWII years concentrating on war-related films, but 1945 found him saddling up again for San Antonio (or did it?–he’s clearly doubled in horseback longshots). He plays a Texas rancher turned de facto outlaw by virtue of losing his land in a cattle war and being driven into Mexican exile. Never fear, he’s soon finessed his way back across the border and set about undermining those who wronged him and his friends. San Antonio was Flynn’s fifth Western but only the second in Technicolor–bright, bold color, and lots of it. Truth to tell, it’s a bit of a mishmash, with so much skulking around upstairs, downstairs, and backstage at chief villain Paul Kelly’s Bella Union music-hall saloon that it begins to resemble Feydeau farce. The script is credited to Alan Le May (The Searchers) and W.R. Burnett, and the direction to David Butler–though Raoul Walsh is known to have lent a hand (surely “Get that drunken cat off the bar” is a Walsh touch). Leading lady Alexis Smith sings a few songs and her brassy red hair is grand for Technicolor, but her romance with Flynn is a pale shadow of their delightful pairing three years earlier in Gentleman Jim. Warner Home Video has yet to release Walsh’s Silver River (1948), the last Flynn Western to boast grade-A production values and co-stars, so that leaves two virtual B movies from 1950 to round out the set. In the 76-minute Montana, an Australian sheepman ventures into Big Sky country, “where cattle was king,” and overcomes years of bloody resistance to the idea that sheep and cattle can coexist not only peacefully but profitably. Alexis Smith, who had earned her first billing opposite Flynn in 1941’s Dive Bomber and is paired with him for the last time here, inveigles him into a frontier duet.
The somewhat better Rocky Mountain (83 minutes) borrows a leaf from Virginia City to propose another Confederate adventure in the West, an Army patrol attempting to join with Rebel sympathizers in California and foment an armed uprising. The mission gets sidetracked at Ghost Mountain, where the presence of hostile Shoshone Indians urges Rebs and Yankee cavalry to make common cause. Flynn plays it low-key throughout, as though his character, a man of honor in a world that scarcely recalls the notion, had already accepted the lostness of his cause. Each member of Flynn’s small command has enough of a backstory to sit around and philosophize about–a narrative tactic anticipating how 90 percent of screentime in the coming decade of Westerns on TV would be filled. William Keighley (who would direct Flynn’s last Warner film, The Master of Ballantrae, in 1953) breaks things up as best he can with the multi-tiered rockscape setting. Incidentally, Flynn’s leading lady this time is his third and final wife, Patrice Wymore, cast as a Union officer’s fiancée whose stagecoach gets ambushed nearby. Each of the films rates its own disc, with accompanying “Warner Night at the Movies” shorts and trailers from the season when the movie was released. Only two boast a commentary, and of these, only the one on Virginia City is worth the listen. Visual and technical quality is excellent overall. –Richard T. Jameson
Rating: (out of 23 reviews)
List Price: $ 49.98
Price: $ 36.33
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