I admit, freely, that I am not terribly well versed in older cinema. Sure, I have seen some of the big ones, but my film knowledge is woefully undernourished in this area. Yes, there are a lot of films out there and actors I want to experience and hopefully, one day, I will be able to get to them all.
For a long time Errol Flynn has been one of those actors that I wanted to get to. The only film of his that I had seen was the excellent The Adventures of Robin Hood. Back when it came out, I picked up the first volume of this series with the intention of diving into classics Captain Blood and The Seahawk. Unfortunately, that has not happened yet. However, this set is getting that desire built back up again – let’s take a look at it.
Adventures of Don Juan (1948)
From what I have read, this was a return to swashbucklers for Flynn who had left the genre nine years prior. In addition to that, it was his last hurrah for the big lavish swashbucklers that he had been known for. Whatever the truth to that is, there is no one who can buckle swash like Errol Flynn, and that is my opinion based on this and Robin Hood (is that considered a swashbuckler? Probably not, but I stand by my opinion).
He’s a little older than the last time I saw him and a little less sprightly, but no less cool. He has this easy going charm that seems to be irresistible to all except for the villain of the piece. From his humor, to his persistent standing up for those who can’t, to his brandishing of a fencing foil, it is nearly impossible not to enjoy watching him on the screen.
This story finds Don Juan romancing a young woman when her husband comes home to break up the tryst. Don is sent packing, right into the arms of another woman whose arranged marriage is broken up by the legendary lover. This one lands him in big trouble, as he is captured and sent before the King and Queen of Spain, where is assigned to teach at a fencing school. While stationed here, he uncovers a plot against the crown by the King’s puppet master, Duke de Lorca.
In true hero fashion, Don Juan has to fend off everyone as he is determined to put a stop to de Lorca’s plan. This involves plenty of swordplay, culminating in a climactic duel on a grand staircase.
I enjoyed the heck out of this movie. It is briskly paced, humorous, and exciting. If it lacks anything, it would be Don Juan’s romantic side. Sure, there are a couple of moments between Don and the Queen, but this Don Juan is much more centered on protecting the crown than wooing it. It has some wonderful sets, and the Technicolor looks great.
The disk has its share of extras as well. Warner’s does a nice job of creating a “Night at the Movies,” replicating the experience of going to the movies during the year of the feature’s release. This includes a movie trailer, a cartoon, a newsreel, and a live action short. You have the option of watching them separately, or together with the feature. There is also a commentary track with director Vincent Sherman and historian Rudy Behlmer.
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)
Made hot on the heels of Flynn’s hit Captain Blood, The Charge of the Light Brigade capitalized on Flynn’s rising star. It may not have been another swashbuckler, but it does feature Flynn as the leader of the 600 British soldiers who perished in their attempt to hold back the oncoming Russian offensive. Flynn was a considerable talent, one that I am more able to appreciate with each of the movies I have seen thus far. Now this may not be one of favorites, but there is no denying the charisma and talent that Flynn has on display.
The Charge of the Light Brigade falls right in with the time honored Hollywood tradition of taking real world events and fictionalizing them for dramatic purposes. The story as told here did not happen, it is true that the small cadre of British troops took on the forces of Russia, but the love story plot was fictionalized. I presume the story was created to appeal to the mass audience who may not have been interested in a more straight up war film, sounds a lot like today’s films doesn’t it? I’m looking at you Titanic and Pearl Harbor.
The story follows Flynn as Major Geoffrey Vickers, stationed in India where he fulfills his duties to the crown and to his fiancee (Olivia de Havilland), who secretly loves his brother. While this story serves to create some emotional attachments, the main story is that of Vickers and Surat Khan, an Indian ruler who despises the British. Khan stages an attack on an undefended British outpost, costing the lives of countless women and children. Vickers vows to get his revenge, to the point of countermanding orders and leading troops against Khan and the Russians he has teamed with.
Not my favorite Flynn, but still a good film, and one that features the spectacular charge sequence in the final twenty minutes with hundreds of men on horses charging forward while taking fire from Russian cannons. This is a large scale, rousing sequence that features no CGI embellishments. However, it did lead to the putting down of a large number of horses injured by explosives and tripwires. That led to an outcry, which Flynn himself joined, leading to animal cruelty rules that carry through to this day. Still, it is an absolutely incredibly staged sequence.
This disk also features the Night at the Movies feature like on The Adventures of Don Juan.
The Dawn Patrol (1938)
Third film, and the third different character I have seen from Flynn, all played with equal aplomb. This film bests The Charge of the Light Brigade for me. While Light Brigade was an intriguing tale, capped by an impressively staged charge into death valley, The Dawn Patrol just had a bigger impact on me.
It’s funny, when I watch this film, I see the impact, or at least the impact of films like this, that played across the whole of Flyboys (2006). The recent film was about Americans who left the US for a variety of reasons and headed to France to join the escadrille during WWI. Sure, the newer film adds in a love story that doesn’t exist here, but there are many of the same elements especially when it comes to the short lifespans of young pilots, and the troubles that some have when it comes to flying these neat suicide missions.
Errol Flynn stars as Courtney, the flight commander who leads flights into the dangerous skies to take on the Germans in broken down planes manned with young pilots with very little experience. He is a man who is frustrated by these incessant flights that are costing so many young lives. He takes out his frustration on his commander, Major Brand (Basil Rathbone). Eventually, he is named as Brand’s successor and finds himself in a similar position to Brand.
This is a very good film, except for the awful songs that get sung (I found it easy to accept them in context). It is a powerful film that speaks to the futility of war and the burden that can weigh on those that are in charge. Flynn puts on a great performance that is far from the swashbuckler that we know him mainly for. The Dawn Patrol keeps a good pace with its sequencing of flying, drinking, and character development.
I just really liked this movie, it is a war film with characters that feel genuine, as if this is how some of the actual events went down. The combination of Flynn, Rathbone, and David Niven is formidable. If you are a fan of war films, or Flynn, this is a must see. It should also be noted that some of the flying footage was taken from the film that this remakes, Howard Hawks 1930 film Dawn Patrol.
This disk also contains Warner’s Night at the Movies features.
Dive Bomber (1941)
This fourth of five is, so far, the weakest of the bunch. That isn’t to mean that it is a bad film, it is just that the subject makes for less than exciting drama and it runs a little too long. On the plus side, it does feature Flynn with another star that would seem an unlikely match, Fred McMurray, on load from Paramount Studios. Dive Bomber was the twelfth and final pairing of director Michael Curtiz and star Errol Flynn.
The story is set during the buildup to America’s entrance into World War II, and featured a production that was given unprecedented access to Naval bases and ships. This includes many scenes that were shot upon the USS Enterprise, which would go on to be the most decorated ship of the war.
Flynn stars as Lt. Doug Lee, MD, a medical researcher. McMurray portrays Lt. Cmdr. Joe Blake, the squadron commander who has some personal differences with Lee that must be overcome in order for them to succeed. The two are working towards finding a solution to black outs and altitude sickness, two issues that afflict dive bomber pilots. In this prewar period they were serious concerns with World War II looming on the horizon. It is an interesting subject for a film, as I don’t think that it is a common type of subject to cover in a film which is made for entertainment.
Still, while the story did not hold my attention, the two stars went about their business in a good way. Both Flynn and McMurray are good actors and they perform well, but they really are not the stars of the film. The true star of the film is the Technicolor photography. There are some truly exceptional shots, lots of flying planes, lots of colors, and it is all gorgeous.
Gentleman Jim (1942)
Rounding out the set is a biopic centering on boxing champion James C. “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. It is said to be one of Flynn’s personal favorites. It is a good movie, but considering how little I really care about boxing, it is not one of my favorites from the set. However, Flynn puts on a great show as the charismatic character.
Like any true life tale converted to the big screen by Hollywood, it is not entirely accurate. It has the big events correct, but things are changed in the name of entertainment. This includes the fact that the real life Corbett was not quite as cocky as he is portrayed here. I am sure there are other differences, but I do not know that much about Corbett’s history.
The movie traces Corbett’s rise up the boxing ranks, from his entrance to the sport in 1887 to his winning of the world championship in 1892. He was a bank clerk who became enamored by a young woman (played by Alexis Smith, who was also in Dive Bomber). He follows her to the Olympic Club, where he gets his first taste of boxing, as he passes through their gym. He quickly hangs up the bank visor and dons the boxing gloves that would carry him to fame.
Corbett played a big part in legitimizing boxing, which had been relegated to backroom, underground fights. Flynn portrays Corbett with a roguish charm, a man of intelligence and drive, a man who wanted the world to know that he was on top. The film follows him as he travels, winning fight after fight, until he has the 21 round match with John L. Sullivan for the championship.
The movie is good, it features another great Flynn performance, and is a genuinely involving story. I said I am not a big boxing fan, so that lessons the overall impact, but this is still a good movie, and a fine way to close out the set.
Audio/Video. All of the disks look and sound good. The worst of the bunch being Dive Bomber, which I read was transferred as interlaced. Fortunately, it is the weakest film of the bunch to get the mistaken transfer. Still, all of them look very good considering their age. The same thing applies to the audio tracks, which are all good.
Extras. I love the Warner Night at the Movies features. I love the attempt to recreate the movie-going experience from said years. All of the films include this, except for Dive Bomber, which features a seven minute featurette on the Navy planes.
Bottomline. This is a fantastic set, pleanty of films, all transferred with respest by Warner Brothers. This is a must for Flynn fans, and recommended for those who are unfamiliar with him, like me.