Northern Pursuit reunited Errol Flynn with director Raoul Walsh, as well as Helmut Dantine, the latter once again playing a Nazi, but this time with even slimmer regard for human life than his base commander in Edge of Darkness.
Whereas Edge was a serious albeit melodramatic tale of Norwegian villages fighting for their existence under the thumb of Nazi occupiers, Pursuit is straight suspense and action, with a little bit of intrigue tossed in when Canadian Mounted policeman (!) Steve Wagner (Flynn!) flees with a Nazi prisoner he originally arrested on the grounds of being an enemy combatant and possible the killer of some local aboriginals while trekking quite mysteriously into Manitoba’s far north.
Steve seems to feel airman Hugo von Keller (Dantine) may be right about Germans being persecuted all around the globe, but it doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out Steve is faking his sympathies to gain von Keller’s trust, and find out why a German pilot is heading into the snow-covered mountains in northern Manitoba.
Worked into the plot is a lame love interest – Laura McBain (Julie Bishop) – who exists for some pretty female scenery, to provide some comedic banter with dad Angus (a staunch dad McBain, perpetually spouting McBainisms - words of Scottish wisdom), and to become a silly hostage after she decides to trek after Steve, determined to bring her new husband home for some explainin’ about taking his German roots too seriously.
There are two worlds presented in the film: the Nazi Germans, filled with chilly brutality; and the Canadians, a nation of tolerant immigrants (co-built with good Germans!) who treat their Nazi prisoners fairly, even when they don’t deserve it.
During his incarceration in a detention camp, von Keller is allowed to cook wurst und bratkartoffeln and converse with fellow Nazis in his native tongue, but he needs to finish his mission, so von Keller mounts an escape, and eventually contacts a few helpful quislings to put him back on the path to said chilly mountains.
During his trek northward, von Keller coolly dispatches one Canadian prisoner after another to Heaven when they’re no longer useful, or become too damn annoying. He either orders the killings or commits them himself, and that includes Steve’s unarmed partner Jim (John Ridgely), the local guide; and Nazi sympathizer Ernst (Gene Lockhart), who acted as a go-between for von Keller, and bailed out Steve and convinced him to head north while out on bail for clocking his superior officer during Steve’s wedding to Laura.
Lockhart, better known for his comedic characterizations in classics like His Girl Friday (1940) is beautifully menacing as a perfectly ordinary businessman/entrepreneur who thinks the Nazi way is swell, and his special task of luring Steve to join von Keller’s trip is a great bit of excitement for the old man that’s far more invigorating than running a business. Lockhart keeps his character ordinary, and he’s far more chilling than von Keller – a cartoon monster we expect to having no emotions nor guilt in using or killing innocents.
Flynn doesn’t have to do much thespian stretching in Pursuit, so his limitations as an actor as less evident than in Edge. He also seems to have enjoyed playing off Dantine’s absolutely ruthless portrayal of von Keller, and both actors manage to sell the film’s ridiculous revelation that the Nazis had planned to conquer North America all along by planting an unassembled bomber in an abandoned mine shaft before 1939. The bomber assembly happens at a fantastic speed, and in spite of being locked up in crates in the chilly north, the engines turn over, the gas flows easily, and the bombs are quickly loaded on so von Keller can begin bombing the heck out of America’s closest geographical ally.
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It’s a fantastical twist befitting old movie serials, and it unsurprisingly concludes with Steve foiling von Keller’s plans, and proving Canada is more than ready to defend the continent’s upper region. Within a 1943 worldview, one can read the film as having two purposes: show Canadians why they need to be vigilant against Nazi spies, and show the American public that Canada doesn’t have a porous defense system.
It’s a set of important points that oddly resonate today because the film’s message is no different than plots of contemporary hot-topic TV shows or prime time news reports designed to show the American public that Canada doesn’t have a porous border, and isn’t a gateway for terrorists to enter the U.S.
The chief difference is that in 1943, Canada was active in WWII with a huge army scattered around Europe and Asia, whereas today the country has taken a beating in its ability to look forceful in the U.S. media.
Had the film been made today as a straight war-on-terror propaganda piece, there would’ve been a greater emphasis on showing Canada as having the will, the manpower, the money, and the smarts to protect the continental U.S. It’s therefore surprising (and creepy) that a 1943 propaganda film is still affective in 2010; one need only substitute Nazi villains and their ideology for global domination as a superior race for the warped mindset of current terrorists wanting to make a similarly explosive statement about their ideology, goals for world dominion, and punishing infidels.
Warner Home Video’s clean transfer is taken from a sharp print, and the music by Adolph Deutsch is less reliant on national anthems, giving the score a less thematically cartoonish structure than Max Steiner’s music for Desperate Journey.
Besides a theatrical trailer, the Warner Night at the Movies includes a trailer for The Constant Nymph (1943), and a newsreel where cameramen filmed a police dragnet swarming around a farmhouse and arresting bootleggers, followed by a statement from New Jersey’s Commissioner of Alcoholic Control on how bootleggers are robbing the country of resources it needs to fight a world war.
Another early effort by Jean Negulesco is the 1943 musical short “All Star Melody Masters” where the director (Three Coins in a Fountain) went to great pains to arrange every frame like a portrait – perhaps inspired by Josef Berne memorable 1942 short “Jam Session.” Both directors emphasized high contrast black & white cinematography, with musicians placed centre or at frame and focal extremes during musical sets. In Negulesco’s short, there’s little attempt to sync music with solos, and most of the time the brass players are blowing notes never heard on the soundtrack (as in the segment “Just One of Those Things,” where a girl in a sheik outfit prances around quite dully). Also included is Negulesco’s 1943 prison drama short “Over the Wall” where Tom Tully stars as a former prison warden hungry to heal more broken prison souls after retiring to the countryside.
The remaining shorts are a 1943 black & white propaganda cartoon “Hop and Go” about a really dumb kangaroo that manages to outsmart a pair of wily rabbits, and beat Emperor Hirohito’s army in the final shot; and .the military short “The Rear Gunner” (previously archived on the first release of Objective, Burma!).
Made for the Department of Defense, "Rear Gunner" follows the recruitment of little guy Pee Wee Williams (Burgess Meredith, adding a sympathetic stutter now and then), who shows he's a grand marksman, enabling him to graduate to rear gunner under the direct command of a swell captain (Ronald Reagan). Like the related short "The Tanks are Coming" (archived on the Desperate Journey DVD) "Gunner" follows our hero through rifle, machine gun and ballistics training, and makes for a fascinating glimpse into army training films in 1943. Naturally the pitch is clear: don't feel left out if you're short - the army has an important role for you!
In addition to a strong performance by Lockhart, Nothern Pursuit features John Forsythe’s film debut in a bit part, after which he appeared in the WWII actioner Destination Tokyo (1943) before enjoying a steady career in TV. Walsh would direct Flynn in two more propaganda films – Uncertain Glory (1944) and Objective, Burma! (1945).
This title is part of Warner Home Video’s TCM Spotlight: Errol Flynn Adventures box, which includes Desperate Journey(1942), Edge of Darkness (1943), Northern Pursuit (1943), Uncertain Glory (1944), and Objective, Burma! (1945).
Flynn’s pre-WWII adventure film, Dive Bomber (1941), is available separately or as part of The Errol Flynn Signature Collection, Vol. 2, which includes The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Dawn Patrol (1938), Dive Bomber (1941), Gentleman Jim (1942), and The Adventures of Don Juan (1948).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan