The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Uncertain Glory

In all the Errol Flynn flicks I've reviewed, I've done my best to avoid saying the same thing repeatedly about him.  He was at his best and most popular when he was the swashbuckler, the pirate, Robin Hood saving Maid Marian.  At the height of his popularity though, Flynn did his best to avoid being typecast although in the process he still typically played pretty heroic characters, just not on the high seas. Somewhere in between is 1944's Uncertain Glory, not quite a villain and not quite a good guy...until the end that is.

Working with a director in Raoul Walsh he worked with a handful of times, Flynn doesn't play the straight as an arrow, charming hero...sort of. It is the 1940s, and Warner Brothers wasn't about to cast one of their biggest stars as a villain.  But in a departure from his typically heroic roles, Flynn gets to play a character that if nothing else is deeply flawed.  His intentions are consistently in question from beginning to end, and his criminal background is mysterious and hinted at more than anything is revealed.  So even though the ending doesn't come as much of a surprise, it is still interesting to see a deviation from the typical Errol Flynn hero character.

It's the middle of WWII, and French prisoner Jean Picard (Flynn) is about to be killed on a guillotine after being caught after years of robbery, heists, and most recently, murder (although we never find out about that).  But at the last possible second as Picard is about to be strapped down an Allied bombing raid flies over, killing everyone involved except the doomed Picard.  Funny how that works, huh?  Given a new lease on life, the crook escapes only to be caught in the days following by detective Marcel Bonet (Paul Lukas), a police officer who doggedly pursued Picard over the years. As they travel back across France to complete Jean's sentence, Picard comes up with a plan.  A saboteur has recently blown up a key bridge held by the Germans, and 100 hostages have been taken prisoner to be shot if the saboteur doesn't reveal himself.  Sentenced to death regardless, Jean wonders, what if he said he was responsible?  

For all his character background, we're never given a crystal clear version of what Flynn's character did in the past.  We hear about crimes that include bank robberies and large-scale heists, even a murder, but never anything specifically.  So in that sense, Flynn's Jean is a bad dude, but the nicest bad dude around.  What worked for the character was his motivation, or lack of in many cases.  At first when the idea of posing as the saboteur is presented, Picard seems genuine, making a noble sacrifice to save 100 hostages.  But as the story develops, you're never quite sure what he is up to.  Does he intend to go through with this honorable plan?  Or given a chance, does he intend to escape for good?  To Flynn's credit, he keeps you guessing until the end.

I'm always a fan of war movies that delve deeper into the war effort than just the front lines and the soldiers.  Besides the cartoonishly evil portrayal of Germans and the Gestapo, this is certainly one of those efforts that gives something different.  But even with this unique story, Walsh struggles with where to take it all, seemingly knowing the end result but not how to get there.  It's more than a little predictable, and at a certain point you assume Flynn is going to go through with it.  Honestly, would Warner Brothers release a movie where heroic Errol Flynn bails on saving 100 innocent people's lives for his own well-being?  I think not.  There was a chance for a great twist in the last 30 minutes involving French villagers setting Jean up for the sabotage, not knowing he's actually going to admit to the deed, but it never materializes into anything.

About midway through the movie, something that had been bothering me finally figured itself out.  This movie is basically a 1940s version of Midnight Run, the 80s comedy starring Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin.  But instead of an odd couple road movie, we get a semi-serious look at WWII France with a police detective and a slippery crook.  There are flaws here that really slow the movie down.  Instead of just turning Jean in, Lukas' Bonet agrees to let him live out the last three days of his life to their fullest.  Granted, the Nazis have set a deadline on the saboteur revealing himself, but it is a stupid decision both in terms of story and the character.  We also get to watch a painfully slow romance with a young French woman (Jean Sullivan) and Jean. Just have Bonet deliver Jean, and you've got a much quicker and better movie.

In a minor complaint, the movie is also about five minutes too long.  Instead of ending it at the logical point, two more scenes come along that needlessly beat home the point that we've been hit over the head with for the last 90 minutes.  It is still a good ending, but cut out those last two scenes and it is much more emotionally effective. This Flynn venture was recently released on DVD for the first time with four other movies -- check it out HERE -- if interested in checking it out.

Uncertain Glory <---TCM trailer (1944): **/****

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