Saturday, November 23, 2013

Desperate Journey (1942)

Director: Raoul Walsh                                        Writer: Arthur T. Horman
Film Score: Max Steiner                                    Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Starring: Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan, Alan Hale and Arthur Kennedy

In the early days of World War II the only way Americans could get into the war fighting the Germans was with the Royal Air Force. This was also the route for eager Canadians and Australians as well. Desperate Journey a very nice war film that manages to capture a lot of the danger and suspense in the bombing missions carried out prior to the full onslaught of the Allied Forces. One of the interesting aspects of the film early on is the way it lets the viewer inside the operations of a bomber, seeing exactly how many men each plane needed to carry out it’s objective, and the need to make those bombing runs over enemy territory without air support from fighter planes. There’s an extreme vulnerability and the high number of planes shot down accounts for the numbers of RAF personnel imprisoned in POW camps that wound up generating stories like Stalag 17 and The Great Escape.

The story begins with a railroad crossing in Northern Germany being bombed by a Polish saboteur. To keep the rail line from being repaired too quickly, however, the RAF makes the decision to send a bomber over to destroy more of the rail yard. Errol Flynn plays the gung ho bomber pilot, an Australian, while his bomb sighter is American Ronald Reagan. Arthur Kennedy, as the navigator of the plane, is playing a Canadian, and Alan Hale, with his hair darkened to make him less Germanic, is onboard as comedy relief. While the crew achieves their objective, the plane is hit and forced to land, and it’s there that the “desperate journey” really begins. The objective was near the Polish border, east of Berlin, and with information on secret German munitions plants they discovered, it’s imperative that they make it back to England. But it’s not going to be easy, especially with attempting as much sabotage as they can along the way.

One of the things I really like about this film is that, throughout, the Germans speak German. Flynn is the only one of the five who survived the crash who knows the language and he winds up interpreting for the rest--as well as for the audience. If there’s one misstep it’s in casting Raymond Massey as the German Major. With all of the great German émigrés in Hollywood at the time, like Conrad Veidt, it would have been nice to see a German in the role. The special effects during the flying sequence are also not very realistic, but in this case it doesn’t diminish the final product and works rather well, so much so that they were nominated for an Oscar. Actual war footage is also used when appropriate and this adds a nice touch of verisimilitude. Max Steiner’s score is magnificent, as always, and is reminiscent of what he would do in places for Casablanca a few months later.

Director Raoul Walsh was one of the greats, and in this film he shows why. There is a supreme confidence in his style, at times intimate but always moving forward. The pacing is nice, the parallel narratives work well together, and he has some terrific shots, such as the overhead shot of the train as the plane with Massey is flying overhead. Flynn and Reagan are teamed after Reagan's magnificent performance in King’s Row. As good as Patric Knowles was with Flynn, I think Reagan was even better. He makes a great foil for Flynn and both of them are a joy to watch. Unfortunately, that puts Hale as the odd man out. Still, it’s an ensemble piece and the five men do a terrific job. The humor in the piece is not for everyone, but at that early stage in the war it was felt that audiences needed something to lift their spirits, not only the invulnerability of the Allied cause, but a few laughs as well. Desperate Journey is a classic forties war picture and one of the great ones at that.

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