Before becoming one of the U.S.'s most popular presidents, Ronald Reagan made quite a name for himself in the 1930s and 1940s as a movie star. Makes that whole 'Star Wars' idea a little funnier if you ask me. He was usually limited to B-movies, but as an actor he had an easy-going, likable way about him on the screen. Reagan often played second banana to the main star of the movie and made a career -- a movie career at least -- at playing the funny sidekick.
By 1942, Reagan had already teamed once with Errol Flynn in 1940's Santa Fe Trail when they teamed up again for a WWII adventure, 1942's Desperate Journey, that is pretty blatant propaganda watching it now over 70 years later. It's not subtle in the least, and why should it be? Released in September 1942, the U.S. was only a few months removed from entering the war in the North African campaign, and maybe the home front needed some boosting. That propaganda borders on the painfully unfunny at times, but the movie itself is interesting enough to recommend.
Flying a dangerous mission to take out a German railroad yard, Flight Lieutenant Terry Forbes (Flynn) is forced to take command when the commander is killed. Forbes' bomber is able to take out the objective, but the plane is shot down in the process, and it's not long before German forces have scooped them up. The five crew survivors are interrogated by an SS major (Raymond Massey), but they manage to escape with key information about underground Messerschmidt factories. Among the group is a Scottish veteran of WWI (Alan Hale), a cocky American navigator (Reagan), an American flight officer (Arthur Kennedy), and a young British officer (Ronald Sinclair) trying to live up to his father's reputation. Can the five somehow get back to England with their news before the Germans catch them again?
The whole premise is pretty ridiculous and far-fetched in itself but it's entertaining enough. Flynn's Forbes is pretty gung-ho as the flight lieutenant who wants to take the war right at the German war effort. He's a leader who questions himself because the actions he undertook ended up taking the lives of some of his crew, but Flynn is also Joe America (even though he was Australian), the ideal soldier to lead the fight against the Nazis. With his gung-ho attitude, Flynn isn't content with just getting the news back to England, wanting to sabotage anything he can on the way back.
A reviewer at IMDB does point out that the Germans are rather cartoonish or particularly evil with little middle ground, asking where are Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz? Hogan's Heroes reference there for you. Their efforts are pretty clumsy in capturing the prisoners as it seems Massey's German major is the only one actually taking part in the chase. For five prisoners with news that could cripple the Germans, wouldn't more people join in the effort? Flynn and Co. even make it across Germany and into the Dutch countryside with little issue or much in the way of danger...and in German uniforms at that, even boarding Goerring's private train at one point.
Now all that said, the movie is incredibly entertaining, a good old-fashioned popcorn movie. The action is exciting -- especially the last half hour as the Germans close in -- including a car chase across the empty Dutch countryside with some boats of cars chugging along. Credit for making it so damn entertaining is the casting, especially Flynn as a WWII version of a swashbuckler who even manages to flirt some with a comely resistance fighter (Nancy Coleman). Reagan and Hale go for the laughs, hamming it up in some scenes that are hard to watch they feel so out of place. Kennedy is the straight man trying to keep the mission on the others' minds.
As for the propaganda, there's several scenes of dialogue where the cast is talking directly to the viewer. Coleman's resistance fighter tells Flynn (and American) to tell everyone that there's people fighting back against the Axis powers and don't forget about them. Flynn's final line is almost laughable "Now for Australia and a crack at those Japs!" but at the time I'm sure it probably drew some cheers from audiences. It's all part of this ridiculously over the top, far-fetched action adventure that is entertaining almost in spite of itself.
Desperate Journey <-----trailer (1942): ***/***