Friday, May 9, 2008

Errol Flynn in Uncertain Glory (1944)

I admit it. I'm pretty much of a dyed in the wool Errol Flynn fan and, if you are a bit of one too, you might just want to tune into TCM on Tuesday, May 11th at the ungodly hour of 6am EDT. Uncertain Glory (1944) is interesting because it is almost as though the actor was taking a breath and trying to be something other than an apparition out of a N.C. Wyeth illustration.

Errol Flynn, whose name is synonymous with action of all sorts in movies from Captain Blood onward, found himself increasingly compelled to remain "relevant" in a world roiling with real action during WWII. His studio was loathe to tell the world that he was 4-F due to a bum ticker & recurrent malaria. When some of the less savory details of his private pursuits spilled over into the world at large in 1943 with his statutory rape indictment, (for the record, he was acquitted), they and he were pretty embarrassed. Still, to Flynn's credit, in a way, he soldiered on, determined to fulfill his contract, despite his new status as equal parts locker room joke as well as movie star.

More bizarre and desperate perhaps than the knowing wink that Errol Flynn gave the camera in the hootworthy but brisk entertainment of Northern Pursuit (1943) was the more entertaining but wholly preposterous Desperate Journey (1942) made the year before. In that rousing flick, he took his audience across Germany in the company of Alan Hale, Arthur Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Above: Errol Flynn, Jean Sullivan and Paul Lukas in Uncertain Glory (1944)
Yet, amid all this foolish tumult there is this odd but interesting Flynn movie directed by Flynn pal Raoul Walsh as a bit of a "quickie". Uncertain Glory (1944) is one of those propaganda features that shines a light on a question of loyalty and the differences between public images and private actions--both of which were all too relevant for Errol Flynn at the time.

Perhaps Warners was trying to feel out the public sentiment (or resentment of) their leading man after the public relations debacle of his previous year's trial and humiliation made him seem a less than sterling fellow to some audience members. Northern Pursuit brought up similar questions by casting Flynn as a Canadian Mountie who was the son of German immigrants to Canada seemingly accused of being untrustworthy. In director Raoul Walsh's next feature with him, Flynn played a condemned French criminal--the kind of guy Jean Gabin might play--who's saved from the guillotine by a handy RAF attack in occupied France. To Flynn it seems an opportunity to get away from the authorities. His character really doesn't care if he's escaping the French govt. or the occupying German army, it's all the same to him. His amorality is nicely outlined in several scenes, and especially in his relationship with a character played by Faye Emerson (another decent actor under contract at WB whose personal life overshadowed her professional one).

The best scenes, however, pair Flynn with Paul Lukas, an actor Hollywood thought it knew well since the early '30s, when, after a flurry of leads in B pictures, the actor had largely been relegated to good supporting parts calling for a slightly ominous continental manner. The success of Lukas in the Broadway play of Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, (and his Oscar winning part as Best Actor in the film of the play) made him seem a viable co-lead once again--at least for a time. The sparring between Flynn & Lukas, their philosophical longueurs, and the nip and tuck aspects of the plot are diverting as Lukas, an Inspector Javert who's also a proud Frenchman, seeks to prick Flynn's selfish conscience, causing him to examine the consequences of his actions for the first time.

Jean Sullivan as an innocent French countrygirl broadens Flynn's world view a bit more, though their love affair is not entirely convincing. It is Flynn's restless conscience and cynicism that engaged me when I first saw this odd duck of a movie. You're not entirely sure how his character really feels or what he thinks throughout the film, and I think that's the movie's strength and weakness. Flynn the struggling, earnest actor is still glimpsed here inside Flynn the movie star. Glimpses of the actor wouldn't really reappear again until late in his career in Too Much, Too Soon, The Sun Also Rises and The Roots of Heaven. By then the rollicking boy had left him for good, but something a bit darker and occasionally deeper was left in his place.

An in-depth article written by me for TCM about this movie appears here.


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