A SURPRISING REVELATION — OR MAYBE NOT
“I came out here because I wanted to be here, ’cause I wanted to do what I could so the people back home would know a little better what war is all about.”
— War correspondent Mark Williams (Henry Hull) in Objective, Burma!
If the new five-disc set of Errol Flynn World War II films from Warner Bros./TCM is any gauge, there’s the implication that the “in like Flynn” guy had a large part in the Allied victory, heretofore uncredited. In four of the five movies—Desperate Journey, Edge of Darkness, Northern Pursuit and Objective, Burma!—he is the stalwart defender of democracy and an ardent anti-Nazi, usually leading a group of compatriots; in Uncertain Glory, a man alone, he sacrifices himself for that democracy. In the five films, he traverses Germany, Norway, Canada, Burma and France, respectively. Apparently Flynn could—and did—do it all.
Already reviewed on this website please see the separate reviews of Desperate Journey(1942) and Northern Pursuit (1943). These are quite different in purpose and execution. The first is a jovial romp, with great jabs at Hitler and Nazism, and quite well done for what it is, with Ronald Reagan, Raymond Massey, Alan Hale and Arthur Kennedy.
Northern Pursuit, possibly the weakest of these five, though Uncertain Glory (more shortly) is a serious challenge, reflects the lack of confidence Warner Bros. had in the film, the first after Flynn’s rape trial in November 1942. The actor’s romantic interest in Northern Pursuit is a lovely but second-string actress, Julie Bishop, who had been in films since 1923. The enterprise is only ninety-four minutes.
Although doing so will shift the remaining three films out of chronological order, let’s take Uncertain Glory (1944) next, since it has little in common with the other two, which are related in more ways than one. After twelve films together, director Michael Curtiz and Flynn mutually agreed to part, and the actor turned to a somewhat less demanding director, Raoul Walsh, who directs all but one of the five movies. Flynn liked their first collaboration, They Died with Their Boots On (1942), and after four more films together were reunited in Uncertain Glory.
Which was the first film under Flynn’s new, revised contract with Warners. The arrangement gave him a wider control over his films, but he selected poorly in this instance. Besides the mediocre script that makes a schizophrenic of Flynn’s characterization, the only other big-name star is Paul Lukas. Flynn’s brief love interest is Jean Sullivan, here making her film début; she would make only a handful of films. His few scenes with Faye Emerson, who briefly married Elliott Roosevelt and was better known as a socialite and fashion-setter, are platonic in nature. Some of the other supporting players include Lucile Watson, Dennis Hoey, Sheldon Leonard and Douglass Dumbrille, all doing their best with what they are given. Dumbrille especially is wasted.
Flynn, a French criminal about to be guillotined, is saved by a German bombing raid on Paris. Er—what? The Gestapo is running around Paris, therefore the Germans are presumed to have taken over the city, post-May 1940, and, besides, the French are sabotaging German trains, so—? Nor was I aware Paris was bombed during WWII! Anyway, Flynn escapes the guillotine, but is quickly recaptured by detective Lukas who professes to know everything about him, even his thoughts. The two spend some “quality time” in a little village, where Flynn meets the shop girl Sullivan.
The Nazi are holding a hundred hostages, who will be executed unless the saboteur of a German troop train steps forward. Flynn does an about-face in character. Instead of the cunning criminal, he acquires patriotic zeal and tells Lukas, who is holding him prisoner until they can return to Paris, that he is turning himself in. Surely, Flynn says, one guilty criminal is a fair exchange for a hundred innocent people. Upon Flynn’s request, Lukas accompanies him to Gestapo headquarters. Huh?! Yes, I know!
Composer Adolph Deutsch does a fine job in setting the mood, which the screen conveys reasonably well on its own—one of the few pluses of the film—though the temptation is too great and behind the main title he quotes the obvious, the “Marseillaise.”
Much as Franz Waxman quotes “Ein’ fest Burg,” the great Luther hymn, in the main title of Edge of Darkness (1943), varying the tune throughout the score. This is the only film of the five not directed by Raoul Walsh, who presumably would have set a snappier pace than the rather sluggish one adopted by Lewis Milestone, though moving any faster might have been difficult with the present script.
Surprisingly, this is not particularly a Flynn movie. It’s more concerned with a multi-character study of the inhabitants of a Norwegian village occupied by the Germans. The actor is straightforward as a fisherman, subordinating his usual nonchalance and charm to fit amicably with other members of the serious cast. There are Ann Sheridan, Walter Huston, Judith Anderson and Ruth Gordon in, for her, an unusual role as a shy wife. Helmut Dantine, who plays Nazis in so many films, including three in this box set, is the commandant of the town. He is, remember, the downed Luftwaffe pilot who threatens Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver (1942), she proving the stronger of the two.
Edge of Darkness is a highly sober affair, with little lightness. All the screen drama, already quite weighty, is reinforced by Waxman’s score, often underlining things unnecessarily, as if the composer believes the script needs help, which it doesn’t. Maybe Waxman, who was assaulted by Nazi thugs before he left Germany in 1934, feels compelled to bolster the evil on screen with his own experience with evil. In any case, the very nature of his musical style is highly Teutonic, more so than either Steiner’s or Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s.
Much the same could be said of Waxman’s score for Objective, Burma! (1945). It is heavy and, always a weakness of much film music, often telegraphs emotions and actions. For example, two survivors of a second party of soldiers ambushed by the Japanese stagger upon Flynn’s men. One dies, another relates desperate news. Flynn saunters away by himself, head bowed. It’s obvious he has to make a crucial decision regarding his men and their safety. Before he can turn and say anything, Waxman has already, during the walk, spoken first with his heavy, ominous orchestra.
This is a Flynn film to be sure. He is the only major star, and he dominates the screen as he dominates the men he leads, though with compassion and calm intelligence. The plot is simple: a group of American paratroopers are dropped into the jungles of Burma, must hike many miles through Japanese-infested undergrowth and streams to destroy a radar station. Things don’t evolve as happily as expected and many setbacks ensue.
Much has been made of the uproar the film’s première caused in England. Following only a week’s showing in London, there was such protest about the implication of a single-handed American victory in Burma, omitting much reference to what was historically a joint British-Australian campaign, that Warners withdrew the movie. After an appropriate change in the prologue, it returned to England in 1952.