Tag Archives: Errol Flynn

Santa Fe Trail

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 15, 2015

Santa Fe Trail—Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Ronald Reagan, Van Heflin, Guinn Williams, Alan Hale, Moroni Olsen, Ward Bond (1940; Dir: Michael Curtiz)

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Around 1940, the dashing Errol Flynn was the star of several good westerns:  Dodge City (1939), Virginia City (1940) and They Died With Their Boots On (1941) are the best known.  Two of these were directed by Hungarian Michael Curtiz, the director most closely associated with with Flynn. Olivia de Havilland and Flynn formed one of the greatest romantic on-screen partnerships from the golden age of Hollywood, and this was the seventh of their nine movies together.  And Alan Hale and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (a frequent drinking partner of Flynn’s) had appeared in several movies with Flynn (Robin Hood, Dodge City, Virginia City), mostly as quasi-comic relief.  Clearly Warner Bros. was hoping a formula that had worked before would produce box office gold again.

This one has nothing to do with Santa Fe and little to do with the famous Santa Fe Trail.  It should have been titled “Chasing John Brown.”  In 1854, the arguments over slavery that had led to the new potential state being called “Bleeding Kansas” were also manifest among the cadets at West Point.  Rader (Van Heflin) is taken with the sentiments of the fiery abolitionist John Brown; he is opposed, both personally and politically, to J.E.B. Stuart (Errol Flynn) of Virginia.  Stuart is supported by several other cadets, including George Custer (Ronald Reagan), Phil Sheridan, George Pickett, John Bell Hood and James Longstreet (all names that will become famous as generals in the upcoming Civil War).  When Rader and Stuart are involved in a fight, West Point Superintendent Col. Robert E. Lee (character actor Moroni Olsen) banishes Rader for his divisive political activities.  Stuart and his friends are punished by being sent to the most dangerous duty in the army at that time:  the Second Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.  They don’t mind at all.

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Young lieutenants Stuart (Errol Flynn) and Custer (Ronald Reagan) make the acquaintance of Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia de Havilland).

Leavenworth is the western terminus of the railroad, although stage magnate Cyrus Holliday hopes to build toward Santa Fe when it is safe enough.  It isn’t yet, partly because of Indians but mostly because of John Brown and his strikes against supporters of slavery, such as the notorious raid on Ossawatomie.  Part of the Second Cavalry’s mission is to disband any armed groups, like Brown or his opponents.  Stuart and Custer are both interested in Holliday’s daughter Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia de Havilland), and are detailed to join a detail protecting a Holliday freighting column bound for Santa Fe.  A couple of days out, they encounter a Mr. Smith, who wants to take delivery of eight crates of Bibles.  One of the crates is dropped and breaks open, revealing rifles instead of Bibles.  Mr. Smith is in fact John Brown, and one of his men is the disgraced Rader.  As Brown and his men make their getaway (with some of the rifles), Brown’s young son Jason (Gene Reynolds), driving a wagon, is shot by Rader in the melee.

Back in Leavenworth, Jason reveals the location of Brown’s base in Palmyra before dying.  As Stuart investigates out of uniform, he is captured in Palmyra by Brown’s men.  He is about to be hung by them, when he grads a gun and ducks into the barn where Brown-liberated black former slaves (Negroes, as they were called in 1940) are housed.  Stuart is being blasted from all sides and a lantern is shot, spilling flames all over the barn.  (We can see that Brown apparently doesn’t care what happens to the innocent blacks in his anger at Stuart.)  Stuart is rescued by the appearance of the rest of his detail, led by Custer, and Brown decides his work in Kansas is done, riding off to the east with his men.

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Stuart (Errol Flynn) fights John Brown in a fiery barn; and a still of Custer (Reagan) and Stuart (Flynn) in uniform.

Back in Leavenworth, both Stuart and Custer press their suits with Kit, and Stuart is the winner.  An old Indian woman at the fort makes dark prophecies about the future of the six friends and divisions and battles among them.  Stuart and Custer are both promoted to captain and head off to an assignment in Maryland, where their new commanding officer is Col. Lee again.

In Maryland Rader comes to the army, disillusioned with Brown because he hasn’t been paid for his military expertise as Brown promised.  Rader warns of Brown’s plans to take over the weapons from the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.  Because of the warning, Lee and his men are able to arrive in time to capture Brown in the act.  During a battle in which the army uses artillery to knock holes in the arsenal building, Brown kills Rader as a traitor.  (We knew he was going to die, with his conflicted loyalties).  John Brown is captured and hung, Stuart and Kit are married, and even Custer has a new girl friend.  The army friends ride off to an uncertain future in the Civil War, fighting on opposite sides.

Flynn and De Havilland make their usual charming couple.  De Havilland’s lively attractiveness reminds us that this kind of role usually passes unnoticed, but she does it unusually well.  Ronald Reagan, a perennial best friend to the lead in movies, is adequate if a bit light-weight as a fictional Custer.  The excellent character actor Moroni Olsen brings an appropriate gravitas to his role as Robert E. Lee.  Van Heflin isn’t bad in an early role as a villain who reforms, in the sort of role often played by Arthur Kennedy.  Heflin would graduate to more sympathetic parts eventually.  Ward Bond has a scarcely noticeable role as one of Brown’s men.

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John Brown (Raymond Massey) gives his final speech about the coming apocalypse. He’s not wrong.

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The famous John Steuart Curry mural “Tragic Prelude” in the Kansas Statehouse, 1938-1940.

The most memorable role in the film is Raymond Massey as John Brown, with his appearance and manner reminding us of the famous painting by John Steuart Curry from about the same time.  It was a natural role for Massey, and he would star as John Brown again in Seven Angry Men (1955), the main story of which is also the trial and hanging of the abolitionist.  Kansas slavery politics sound muddled here, although it is clear that John Brown is a bad guy, even if his heart is in the right place about the abolition of slavery.  He’s just too willing to use the sword on anybody who believes differently or crosses him.  Stuart is not all that convincing in his view that all the South needs is time and it will get rid of slavery on its own.  As in William Butler Yeats’ poem The Second Coming,
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

1941’s They Died With Their Boots On was wildly inaccurate historically but enjoyable to watch, with Flynn playing Custer and De Havilland as his wife Libby in their last movie appearance together.  This is even more inaccurate, and slightly less watchable.  Of the six army friends in this film, only Stuart was actually in the West Point class of 1854, although it did include Robert E. Lee’s son George Washington Custis Lee (an eventual Confederate general) and Oliver O. Howard (ultimately a Union general).  Of the six supposed West Point friends depicted in the film, only Stuart did not survive the Civil War, although Custer famously met his own ignominious end at the Little Bighorn in 1876.

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Filmed in black and white, at 110 minutes, although there is a cut of only 93 minutes.  Music is by Max Steiner.

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Rocky Mountain

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 12, 2014

Rocky Mountain—Errol Flynn, Patrice Wymore, Scott Forbes, Guinn Williams, Chubby Johnson, Dickie Jones, Slim Pickens, Sheb Wooley (1950; Dir: William Keighley)

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This was the last of Errol Flynn’s eight westerns, and it is better than the previous one (Montana, his last film with Alexis Smith).  The Rocky Mountain of the title is not in Montana, or Utah or Colorado; it is on the borders of Nevada and California, and is also known as Ghost Mountain.

It is the waning days of the Civil War in March 1865.  A small group of men (eight, in total) led by Capt. Lafe Barstow (Errol Flynn) is sent out west by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in a desperate move, to make contact with outlaw Cole Smith. (The premise is similar to that of Hangman’s Knot, two years later.)  Smith promises to provide 500 men to make a Confederate force out west and divert Union military resources from the war Lee is fighting in the east.

Narration by Capt. Lafe Barstow, describing his motley force:  “Six rattle-headed kids and an old man:  Kip Waterson, the baby-faced heir to a plantation; Pierre Duchesne, from French Louisiana; Pat Dennison [Guinn Williams], an old man, really, but a hard, reckless fighter who never gave ground while he lived; Kay Rawlins [Sheb Wooley] from the Mississippi steamboats, a rough, unfriendly man as the Indians now found out; Jimmy Wheat [Dickie Jones], a little redneck cropper who could fight like a wildcat with hydrophobia, who carried a useless little dog for 2,000 miles; Jonas Weatherby, the Texan, a seasoned plainsman at 18; and Plank [Slim Pickens], another real plainsman, hard and bitter, with chain gang scars on his legs at 22.”

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Lt. Rickey (Scott Forbes) and his patrol are captured by Barstow (Errol Flynn), while his fiance Johanna (Patrice Wymore) looks on.

As Barstow and his men finally arrive at the meeting point in the desert mountains, they find themselves in danger not only from Union cavalry but surrounded by hostile Shoshonis.  They are on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, where they can see the Humboldt River and Battle Mountain.  They find a crashed stage that had been pursued by the Shoshonis and drive off the Indians.  There are two survivors:  the driver Gil Craigie (Chubby Jones) and a passenger, Johanna Carter (Patrice Wymore, in only her second movie), on her way to meet her cavalry fiancé at Fort Churchill.  This complicates matters for Barstow, since he can’t just let them go and draw the cavalry to him, and he can’t leave them to the mercies of the Shoshonis.  Trapped on Rocky Mountain, they run low on water and food.

[Spoilers follow.]  Matters are further complicated when Barstow and his men capture a small cavalry patrol led by Lt. Rickey (Scott Forbes), Johanna’s fiancé, who is searching for her.  The patrol’s Indian scouts turn out to be Man Dog, head Shoshoni chief, and his sons.  The Shoshonis make an escape attempt at night.  Man Dog gets away to lead the Shoshoni uprising, but his sons are killed.  Barstow’s men have connected with the untrustworthy Smith, only to find his horse shortly after his departure, indicating that the Indians got him.  That means his promised semi-army won’t be coming to the rescue   Rickey makes a break for it, but the Confederates figure the Shoshonis got him, too, although matters won’t be much better for them if he got through.  There is some chemistry between Barstow and Johanna, but neither acts on the attraction in the desperate situation.

Johanna Carter:  “I never thought it would end this way.”
Capt. Lafe Barstow:  “There never was any other way.  We just put it off a while.”

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Barstow (Errol Flynn) leads his men in a final charge.

Finally, Barstow leads his men on an attempt to break through the surrounding Indians and draw them away from the driver and Johanna.  It works in the sense that the Shoshonis follow Barstow as he intended, but Barstow’s small group is vastly outnumbered and trapped in a box canyon.  As the Confederates turn to face their pursuers in a desperate last stand (similar to Flynn’s situation as Custer in They Died With Their Boots On), they battle gamely but fall one by one to vastly superior numbers.  Barstow apparently gets Man Dog, but falls with two arrows in his back.  Rickey’s cavalry shows up only in time to rescue Johanna and Craigie and offer Barstow and his men a respectful burial, raising a Confederate battle flag on the stones of Rocky Mountain.

Flynn could play both sides in the Civil War; he was both a Union officer (Virginia CityThey Died With Their Boots On, Silver River) and a Confederate or former Confederate (Dodge City, Rocky Mountain).  Sometimes he was even both, as in Santa Fe Trail, where he plays West Point graduate and future Confederate cavalry commander Jeb Stuart.  Here, a prematurely aging Flynn (at 41) is noble but more subdued than he sometimes played; it makes him seem appropriately war-weary.  His chemistry with co-star Wymore is real.  Three months after shooting wrapped, she became Flynn’s third wife in Monte Carlo.  This is not one of Flynn’s best westerns (Dodge City, Virginia City, They Died With Their Boots On), but it’s worth watching.  It’s better than Santa Fe Trail, San Antonio and Montana, and slightly better than the melodramatic but underrrated Silver River.

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Patrice Wymore and Errol Flynn review the script on the set.

This was the first film for Slim Pickens and Sheb Wooley, both of whom had rodeo backgrounds.  Former child actor Dickie Jones, as the youngest of the Confederates, could ride well, too.  Chubby Johnson is particularly good as the stage driver, who is not overtly hostile to the Confederates. Flynn’s carousing friend Guinn Williams (Dodge City, Virginia City) has a small part as the oldest of the Confederates, and is more restrained than he sometimes played.  Scott Forbes is stiff as the Union cavalry officer fiancé, but he wouldn’t really have a chance against Flynn’s charisma.

This is based on a short story by Alan LeMay (author of the The Searchers), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Winston Miller.  The story goes that In 1949 Ronald Reagan complained to Warner Bros. about some of the films he was assigned to, and asked to do a western.  The studio agreed if he would bring them a good story.  Reagan brought them “Ghost Mountain” by LeMay.  Despite their promise to him, Warner Bros. cast Errol Flynn in the lead.  Shot in black and white by cinematographer Ted McCord (Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Hanging Tree) around Gallup, New Mexico.  The night scenes are quite dark.  Music is by Max Steiner.  Comparatively short, at 83 minutes.

 

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Silver River

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 4, 2014

Silver River—Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Thomas Mitchell, Barton MacLane, Monte Blue, Tom D’Andrea, Bruce Bennett (1948; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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This is one of Errol Flynn’s lesser-known westerns, the sixth of eight that he made.  He and director Raoul Walsh had worked together before on They Died With Their Boots On in 1941 and couple of World War II pictures (Objective Burma and Northern Pursuit) before San Antonio (on which Walsh was uncredited) in 1945.  Instead of Olivia de Havilland or Alexis Smith, Flynn is here paired with Ann Sheridan.  They had actually worked together before, starting with 1939’s Dodge City, but Sheridan’s role there was quite small.  Here she’s the leading lady.

Capt. Mike McComb (Errol Flynn) is part of the Union guard on a pay wagon at Gettysburg during the Civil War.  Ordered to stay put, he is attacked by Jeb Stuart’s cavalry and flees.  When it looks like he’ll be captured, he torches a million dollars in paper money to keep it out of Confederate hands.  He is cashiered for his pains, so he and his junior partner Pistol Porter (Tom D’Andrea) head west, gambling on a river boat (presumably up the Missouri River).  Here, determined to be more ruthless, he runs afoul of Banjo Sweeney (Barton MacLane) and meets Mrs. Georgia Moore (Ann Sheridan), who’s hauling mining equipment to the silver mine she runs with her husband Stanley (Bruce Bennett).

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Mrs. Georgia Moore (Ann Sheridan) views Mike McComb (Errol Flynn) skeptically.

Disembarking from the riverboat, McComb finds that all the freighting capacity has been taken over by the acerbic Mrs. Moore.  Meeting the freighter Sam Slade, McComb wins Slade’s wagons, horses and mules at poker, so his gambling equipment and not the Moores’ mining equipment gets hauled to Silver City.  (There was an actual Silver City in Idaho and one in Nevada, but this one appears to be a fictional town in Nevada.)  Then McComb sells the freighting equipment to Stanley Moore for 6000 shares in his mining company, to the chagrin of Moore’s wife.  McComb also meets alcoholic lawyer Plato Beck (Thomas Mitchell, in one of his patented drunken, classically-educated westerner roles).  When McComb refuses to let the miners gamble in his establishment with mining company scrip, he starts a bank and negotiates a percentage of the silver mines with the mining owners who now need more cash on hand.

The silver empires, McComb’s and everyone else’s, grow ever larger.  He buys land to the horizon and builds a quasi-castle.  He is supported in this by Beck until, when Beck and McComb find Sam Slade dying of Shoshone Indian wounds, McComb fails to warn Stanley Moore fully of the Indian dangers when he heads into the Black Rock Range looking for more silver.  Moore is indeed killed, and Beck accuses McComb of being like the Biblical King David in lusting after another man’s wife and getting him killed.  (The analogy doesn’t seem to fit completely, although McComb isn’t sad when Moore dies.  He has always been interested in Moore’s wife.)  Beck goes his own way, and McComb marries Georgia Moore.  Pres. Ulysses Grant (Joseph Crehan played him eight times, something of a specialty for him) visits Silver City, and McComb and the other mine owners promise to produce ever more silver.

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Plotting at the bar: Plato Beck (Thomas Mitchell), Pistol Porter (Tom D’Andrea), Stanley Moore (Bruce Bennett) and Mike McComb (Errol Flynn).

However, they have a falling out, and there is a silver war by the Western Combine against the McComb interests, with the silver mines shut down.  McComb is inadequately sympathetic to the plight of the miners, and Georgia leaves him.  He has to sell his holdings, there is a run on his bank, and he loses his castle.  Plato Beck runs for the Senate with Georgia’s support and wants McComb to understand his populist position.  As Beck begins to speak to a crowd of miners, he is shot down by Banjo Sweeney, now a henchman of the Western Combine and its leader Buck Chevigee (Monte Blue).

But McComb leads the miners in capturing Sweeney, his men and presumably the Combine leaders in Silver City.  The miners want to lynch them, but McComb insists on due process, and Georgia comes back to him.  Maybe he even takes Plato Beck’s place in running for the Senate.

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Mrs. Moore and McComb finally get together.

So it’s the rise and fall and at least partial redemption of silver king Errol Flynn, both morally and materially.  Flynn could really act; Ann Sheridan looks luscious with her hooded eyes, but Flynn is a better actor.  This was the fourth movie in which they starred together.  Flynn at only 39 was getting toward his last few movies by this time, and his career-long style of hard living, over-the-top drinking and constant debauchery was starting to take its toll on his looks.  But that works in this role, where he is supposedly aging over a period of years.  Tom D’Andrea is good as Pistol Porter, and Thomas Mitchell did what he usually did in alcoholic roles.  Bruce Bennett is decent but bland as the mining-engineer husband, but then he’s supposed to be.  And Barton MacLane chews the scenery as the conscienceless villain Banjo Sweeney.

This isn’t Walsh’s best western (maybe that was Colorado Territory the next year), and it was not a big hit in its time.  But Walsh often (but not infallibly) had a good feel for westerns.  You can sometimes see it in the composition of shots of the wild, mountainous landscapes with riders or wagons moving against them, or in the crane shots of crowds of milling miners with lots of action.  This isn’t often seen any more, but it’s worth watching both for Flynn’s performance and for Walsh’s direction.  And for the lovely Ann Sheridan.  It was the last time Flynn and director Walsh worked together.

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Shot in black and white, at 110 minutes, although there is apparently a slightly longer cut at 114 minutes somewhere.  A movie with this kind of scope in 1948 should have been shot in color, but it was a transitional period for such things in the movies.  It’s not available on DVD at this point.

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San Antonio

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 17, 2014

San Antonio–Errol Flynn, Alexis Smith, S.J. Sakall, John Litel, Paul Kelly, Victor Francen (1945; Dir:  David Butler)

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This is the first of two westerns teaming Errol Flynn, Alexis Smith and S.J. Sakall (the Hungarian character actor best known as Karl the waiter at Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca).  As with other Flynn westerns, this was written by Alan LeMay (author of the novels on which The Searchers and The Unforgiven were based) and W. R. Burnett (Yellow Sky, This Gun for Hire, High Sierra and the novels of Little Caesar and The Asphalt Jungle).

Clay Hardin (played by Flynn; his name could just as easily have been John Wesley Allison) is a San Antonio-based cowboy in post-Civil War Texas.  At the start of the movie, he’s in hiding (more or less) on the Mexico border, where he’s been looking for evidence of Roy Stuart (Paul Kelly) running a large-scale rustling operation.  There he meets Jeanne Starr (Smith), a very attractive musical performer heading for San Antonio.  He uses her for cover to sneak back to San Antonio himself, with the help of his long-time friend Charlie Bell (John Litel). 

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On the stage back to San Antonio.

In San Antonio, Hardin makes clear to Bell and his friends that he has a tally book which shows Stuart’s rustling, and he further develops his relationship with Starr.  Bell is killed and the tally book stolen by Stuart’s partner Miguel Legare (played by sinister Belgian Victor Francen).  As Hardin finds out who killed Bell and as Stuart tries to kill Hardin, there is an improbably large shootout in the Bella Union saloon (bodies falling scenically from balconies and one bad guy is even run over by a piano). 

Hardin’s near-final confrontation with Stuart takes place in the supposed ruins of the Alamo.  And Hardin and Starr get together as expected, although it’s not clear that Stuart is either dead or in jail.

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Worth watching, perhaps, but not as good as Dodge City (1939), Virginia City (1940) or some of the other seven Flynn westerns.  This, Rocky Mountain and Montana are the least seen of them.  Clips are sometimes shown of Flynn walking with a curiously stiff-armed gait toward a shootout; in close-ups he’s starting to show the physical effects of his dissipated lifestyle, and he’s coming to the end of the period of his best work.  Smith is tall and elegant, with excellent 1940s shoulder pads.  Sakall as Starr’s manager and musical director Bozic is less effective here than in other roles.  Flynn, Smith and Sakall would be teamed again five years later in Flynn’s last western, Montana (1950).

The song “Some Sunday Morning,” written for this film, is sung by Alexis Smith and was nominated for an Oscar.  It went on to be a hit for various singers in the 1940s.  On its original release, this was Flynn’s highest-grossing movie.  Music was by Max Steiner, who reuses his theme from Dodge City over the credits here.  In color, with excellent cinematography by Bert Glennon.

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They Died With Their Boots On

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 26, 2013

They Died With Their Boots On—Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Arthur Kennedy, Sidney Greenstreet, Anthony Quinn, John Litel, George Grapewin, Hattie McDaniel, Jim Thorpe (1941; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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From the heyday of the Flynn-de Havilland partnership comes this old-fashioned, adulatory and not-very-factual biopic of George Armstrong Custer, depicting both his Civil War service and his demise at the Little Bighorn.  In fact, it was their eighth film in seven years and their last film together.  Errol Flynn in a mullet is Custer; De Havilland is his wife Libby.  This was clearly a big budget production for its time, and it has a longer-than-average running time, too—140 minutes.  Flynn and De Havilland are watchable, but the plot neither makes much sense nor does it follow history very well. 

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Plebe Custer doesn’t get along with Ned Sharp at West Point.

The first half of the movie shows Custer at West Point, doing badly, making it into the Union army during the Civil War as a cavalry commander, wooing and marrying his wife Elizabeth Bacon, developing a headlong and heedless attacking style and then becoming an Indian fighter after the war.  In the later portion of his career, it shows him fighting on behalf of the Indians against those dishonest whites who would sell them alcohol, not slaughtering them in search of further military acclaim.  And, of course, in the end he dies with his entire Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn.

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Taking a final leave of Libby before heading for the Little Bighorn.  And Custer still doesn’t get along with Ned Sharp.

The historical Custer was a relentless glory hound without much scruple.  This film captures his headstrong quality but makes him out to be much more admirable and somewhat smarter than he actually was.  Flynn was always watchable at this stage of his career, and de Havilland makes an admirable Libby.  A young Arthur Kennedy is Ned Sharp, an unscrupulous Civil War nemesis of Custer and a later an unscrupulous sutler whom Custer tricks into dying with the Seventh Cavalry.  A young Anthony Quinn is Crazy Horse, who was never captured by Custer as this movie depicts.  The plot points about Custer cleaning up Fort Lincoln and fighting a corrupt Indian agent-supply system are fiction.  Here Custer fights supposedly fictional reports of gold in the Black Hills; actually, Custer led the expedition that first found gold there, and he abetted the influx of whites to the area instead of resisting it.  The movie omits the massacre of peaceful Cheyennes that Custer carried out on the Washita.

DiedBootsLastStand2 At his last stand.

DiedBootsRealCusters The real Custers.

Worth watching for Flynn and de Havilland, and to get a sense of how Custer used to be seen 70 years ago after his widow had spent the 50 years after his death publicly tending the flame of his heroic memory.  (The real Libby died in 1933.)  The action is good.  Well made for its time.  Hattie McDaniel is what she usually was, a mammy-type domestic to young Libby—a stereotype that doesn’t play so well now.  George Grapewin is California Joe, a crusty and colorful civilian scout for Custer.  Sidney Greenstreet is Gen. Winfield Scott, who initially advances Custer’s career (although it seems unlikely the two ever really met and the elderly Scott played no active role in the Civil War).  An aging Jim Thorpe was said to have been an uncredited extra on this movie, and he claimed to have decked a belligerent (and typically drunk) Flynn.  Custer was as bad a student at West Point as this movie depicts, however.  The depiction of Indians is fairly sympathetic for 1941.  In colorful black and white.  Music by Max Steiner.

DiedBoots2StarsWalsh Walsh with his stars.

Raoul Walsh was a main-line director from 1913 into the 1960s, today remembered more for gangster movies (The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, White Heat) than for westerns, although he made a number of those, too.  This one goes with his The Big Trail (1931, starring John Wayne in his first leading role) and Colorado Territory (1949, a remake of his High Sierra in an older western setting with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo) as eminently watchable examples of his work in westerns.  One of his earliest films was a quasi-documentary The Life of General Villa (1912 and 1914, both now lost), starring Villa himself.  Walsh, who did some directing with Christy Cabanne, had a bit part playing Villa as a young man, although his career as an actor was largely over by 1915.  The Villa film was made when Walsh was only 19 and Villa was still regularly in the U.S. news in a positive way, two years before his attack on Columbus, New Mexico, provoked a punitive (and largely futile) expedition under Gen. Pershing.  The film has apparently been lost, and its making became the subject of a 2003 HBO film And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself.

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Virginia City

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 9, 2013

Virginia City—Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, Miriam Hopkins, Humphrey Bogart, Alan Hale, Guinn Williams, Moroni Olsen (1940; Dir:  Michael Curtiz)

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Errol Flynn is Irish-born Kerry Bradford, a Yankee captain in Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, in 1864.  Col. Vance Irby (Randolph Scott) is the commander of the prison and is on the verge of spoiling Bradford’s attempt to tunnel out when he is given another assignment—to help Confederate sympathizers in Virginia City smuggle $5 million in gold back to the dying Confederacy.  Meanwhile, Bradford succeeds in his escape, with friends Moose (Alan Hale) and Marblehead (Guinn Williams) and the three of them are sent to foil Irby’s plot in Virginia City. 

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Marblehead, Bradford and Moose

Once in Virginia City, Bradford falls in love with saloon girl Julia Hayne (Miriam Hopkins, usually better in more urban roles) whom he meets on the stagecoach, unaware that she is a Southern agent.  During this period, Scott was often cast as a noble bad guy trying to reform (see Western Union, for example, in which he also named Vance).  The Confederates get away with the gold, taking Bradford as a prisoner with Julia’s connivance.  He escapes and manages to get the Union cavalry on their trail through the desert. 

Miriam Hopkins and Randolph Scott Hopkins and Scott

Meanwhile, the gold-laden Confederates are also running out of water and are pursued by Mexican bandit John Murrell (a badly miscast Humphrey Bogart, just before his breakthrough roles in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon).  Eventually, the cavalry helps the Confederates fight off the Mexican bandits, Bradford hides the gold, Irby and Murrell are killed (although in Irby’s case it’s not clear whether he dies), the South loses the war, Bradford is sentenced to hang at a court martial, and Julia pleads to Pres. Lincoln on the day of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox for Bradford’s sentence to be commuted.  Lincoln agrees and recites parts of his second inaugural address to her.  The plot doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially at the end, but it’s one of Flynn’s better westerns.  (The three to see are Dodge City, Virginia City, and They Died With Their Boots On; maybe Santa Fe Trail.) 

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Williams and Flynn flank the strangely-cast Bogart

In black and white, but apparently with high production values for its time.  Shot in northern Arizona.  Good score by Max Steiner, with threads of “Bonny Blue Flag” and other Civil War tunes.  Hale and Williams are Moose and Marblehead, Bradford’s companions and comic relief, sort of, as in Dodge City the previous year.  In addition to several of the actors, the director, the cinematographer (Sol Polito) and the composer, the writer Robert Buckner is also the same as with Dodge City.  This is not really a sequel to Dodge City, though.  When shooting a pistol, Williams seems to fling it around in a way that would make any accuracy impossible, much like James Stewart in Destry Rides Again the previous year.  This was the ninth of twelve movies that Flynn made with director Curtiz, although they casually loathed each other.  They did well together, though—here as in other efforts.

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Dodge City

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 7, 2013

Dodge City—Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Alan Hale, Bruce Cabot, Ann Sheridan, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Victor Jory (1939; Dir: Michael Curtiz)

Movie stars didn’t get much bigger than the team of Flynn and De Havilland in 1939.  Although this was the fifth of nine Warner Brothers movies they made together, it was also their first and perhaps best western.  It obviously had a big budget, being filmed in Technicolor at a time when most movies, and certainly most westerns, weren’t.  (For purposes of comparison, the other big color movies that year were Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz—pretty heady company.)  The director, the Hungarian Michael Curtiz, had been responsible for Flynn and De Havilland’s most successful movies, such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (also in color the previous year) and, of course, Flynn’s earlier breakthrough, Captain Blood.

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Flynn is Wade Hatton, and the movie explains his accent by saying that he’s an Irishman with wanderlust and a background in the English military in India.  He fought in the Civil War for the South, and as the movie starts he and pals Rusty Hart (Alan Hale) and Tex Baird (Guinn Williams) are finishing a stint as buffalo hunters for the railroad that has just been completed to Dodge City.  After a run-in with Jeff Surrett (a young Bruce Cabot), they return to Texas while Dodge City itself falls into chaos and lawlessness, under the corrupt domination of saloon owner Surrett.  (His saloon is called The Gay Lady, and features Ann Sheridan in a modest role as his presumably eponymous headliner.)  Interestingly enough, the bad guys are Yankees, and the good guys are southerners, a reversal of the usual situation in westernsalthough there have always been some exceptions.

dodgecityFacingDown Facing down bad guys.

A bit later, Hatton is the honcho for a trail herd coming up from Texas to Dodge City along the Chisholm Trail.  Coming along are Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) and her neer-do-well brother, whose parents have died.  The brother is a drunk who is killed when his constant careless shooting causes a stampede, and Abbie blames Hatton for his death.  Obviously, that relationship will be repaired by the end of the movie.  After (a) Surrett is clearly responsible for the death of a competing buyer for Hatton’s cattle, and (b) out-of-control gunfire results in the death of a boy on a Sunday School outing, Hatton agrees to clean up the town and make it safe for decent people, women and the Pure Prairie League.  Abbie goes to work for Joe Clemens (the name an obvious homage to Mark Twain); Clemens is the crusading anti-Surrett newspaper editor of the Dodge City Star (Frank McHugh), the sort of part you can easily see Thomas Mitchell playing if he hadn’t been busy getting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for being Doc Boone in Stagecoach that year.  McHugh is fine, though, until he is whipped and then killed by vile Surrett henchman Yancey (the reptilian Victor Jory).  Ward Bond shows up in an early (and brief) role as Yancey’s unconvincing alibi.  (See him also in a fleeting role in the same year’s Frontier Marshal.) 

When Hatton and Abbie get the goods on Yancey and Surrett for Clemens’ death, the climax of the movie is a shootout on a burning train.  Ultimately, of course, Hatton, Rusty and Tex kill Surrett and his minions in the shootout, saving everybody a lengthy and uncertain trial.  The end of this movie sets up the next western for Flynn and De Havilland, with Col. Grenville Dodge asking Hatton to spend his honeymoon cleaning up the mining town Virginia City which is, if anything, in worse shape than Dodge City had been.

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De Havilland with Flynn as sheriff (smaller hat, baby blue tie).

Hatton’s initial wide-brimmed hat in this movie is unusual.  Note how he changes hats to one with a smaller brim (along with changing all his other attire) when he becomes sheriff.  The baby-blue string tie is a stretch; it probably should have been black.  Flynn, especially the younger Flynn, is always watchable, but some don’t find him very convincing in westerns.  De Havilland makes a lively western female lead and has her usual good chemistry with Flynn on screen.  The accounts say that she had a miserable time making the movie, and would have preferred the Ann Sheridan dance hall floozy role, even though Sheridan didn’t actually have much to do.  Of course, this film hasn’t much to do with the real history of cleaning up Dodge City. 

Written by the young Robert Buckner, who also wrote Virginia City and Santa Fe Trail (both Flynn western vehicles), as well as Jezebel, The Oklahoma Kid, Knute Rockne, All-American, Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Desert SongVirginia City, the follow-on, when it gets made, is not an actual sequel and has Miriam Hopkins instead of Olivia de Havilland as Flynn’s romantic interest.

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