The most atypical of Flynn’s WWII propaganda films, Uncertain Gory begins as a crime thriller about a crook who miraculously escapes the guillotine and seeks aide from a partner in crime, morphs into the latter half of Les Miserables where a an escaped convict is hunted down by a ruthless detective, and concludes with the last act of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities wherein a rogue considers a noble act of redemption by offering to exchange his life to save many innocents from execution.
Amazingly, this hodge-podge works because screenwriters Laszlo Vadnay and Max Brand (based on a story by Vadnay and Teutonic pariah Joe May) never sway attention from the uneasy relationship between rogue Jean Picard/Emil DuPont (Flynn) and Inspector Marcel Bonet (Paul Lukas, fresh from his 1943 Oscar win for the propaganda film Watch on the Rhine).
Picard flees Paris and heads for a small town, only to be snatched by Bonet, one of France’s top cops – a man so familiar with Picard’s antics that he manages to out-guess his maneuvers to escape the law in a small town. The story takes a fascinating turn when 100 local men are poised to be executed for blowing up a bridge necessary for Nazi activities unless the French resistance saboteur turns himself in. Picard makes a bargain Bonet simply can’t dismiss: Picard will offer himself up to save the 100, and enjoy a few days of freedom, as well as dying by firing squad instead of the nasty guillotine.
Picard has 3 days to learn enough details in order to convince the Nazis he’s their wanted man, and the screenwriters throw in some clever plot twists that constantly challenge Bonet’s wayward sensibilities. We’re never quite sure whether he’ll follow through, as it’s clear he’s constantly looking for an opportunity to escape – a desire that intensifies when he falls for a pretty local girl whose brother is part of the doomed 100.
Uncertain Glory is primarily about the battling wits and moral choices made by two sworn enemies, and their need to maintain a lie for their own safety when things become increasingly hairy. Whether it’s due to Lukas’ superb performance, Raoul Walsh’s taut direction, or a script that embraces Flynn’s inner rogue, Flynn gives a solid performance that’s convincing, charming, and sympathetic – the polar opposite of the more serious role he walked through in Edge of Darkness a year earlier.
Brand and Vadnay’s dialogue sparkles with wit and economy, and the propagandistic elements are more subtextural; aside from France being occupied by Nazis, the story could be transposed to any country and time period, and we’re spared heavy-handed speeches about glory and obligations. (Even the local priest isn’t an intrusive moral force, making the character a no-nonsense realist instead of a filmic cliché.)
Picard in many ways is an ordinary man, because he’s constantly weighing his options, and struggling with increasingly selfless decisions that weren’t part of his DNA prior to his bargain with Bonet. Picard’s flirting with women is in tune with his disregard for social mores, and the most offensive characters aren’t the Nazis, but a group of townsfolk who decide to handpick a lamb to save the 100. The girl Picard tries to woo – Marianne (Jean Sullivan) – can never have him because the life of her brother complicates things, and in order for Picard and Marianne to live happily, the brother must die.
While the film’s finale isn’t a shock, it’s handled without melodrama, and Lukas’s simple end credit utterance is more affective than any of the wordy paragraphs studios grafted at the end of their propaganda vehicles.
Warner Home Video’s DVD includes a theatrical trailer, and the popular Warner Night at the Movies programme, packing vintage shorts and cartoons to evoke the entertainment one would’ve enjoyed alongside the main feature.
The vintage newsreel covering the Russian front is also present on Edge of Darkness, and the “United States Coast Guard Band” musical short, with songs “under the direction of Lieutenant Rudy Vallee” and a marching/song program at the iconic Hollywood Bowl. Of the music montages, “Anchors Away” is the most amusing, with sound and footage of battleship salvos synchronized to the song’s percussive finale. Other montages are a bit surreal, combining submarine footage with a related lyrics, and combat footage with singing troops and the live band back in Hollywood, inferring that war is heroic, jovial, collegial, and kinda fun.
In addition to trailers for Uncertain Glory and Jean Negulesco’s 1944 feature film debut, The Mask of Dimitrios, there’s two of the funniest wartime cartoons every made. “Brother Brat” (1944) has Elmer Fudd doing babysitting for Rosie the Riveter. Fudd’s efforts to control a monstrously disobedient child prove futile, and one wonders if the book Rosie left him – “Child Psychology” by Pistol P. Momma – were written by a twisted little pervert. When the kid dumps an anvil on Porky’s little cranium, the author’s next suggestion reads “Give baby a cat and watch his little puss light up,” so he does, and tells the brat “Here Butch, play with this c-ca-ca… pussy… uh pet!” The cartoon’s highlight comes when Butch chases Porky around the house with a freakin’ hatchet!
The other work of pure genius is Bob Clampett’s “Russian Rhapsody” (1944), where Adolph Hitler decides to fly a bomber to Moscow all by his little self because every other effort disappears or crashes. We soon learn that those Nazi bombers get devoured by ‘Gremlins from the Kremlin’ – bizarro caricatures of weird fantasy creatures (er, members of the Warner animation department) who saw off, tear, and spread “termiteskis” that chew metal (followed by plenty of burps).
Adolph’s pre-flight speech to fellow Nazis is a tirade of words kinds sounding like “sauerbraten,” “Zoot! Zoot,” “hasenpfeffer,” “Friz Frieling,” and “Da Chattanooga Choo-Choo!’ The entire in-flight assault on uncle Adolph is done to the tune of “Song of the Volga Boatman” (with smooth jazzy vibes), and a version of “Dark Eyes” focuses on a gremlin who tries real hard to jump high enough so the tack on his head will poke Adolph square in the ass, and another who smashes dashboard dials with a giant mallet, pausing briefly to tell the audience “I’m only tree and a half years old!” (For further details on the cartoon’s in-jokes, click HERE.)
These cartoons are painfully funny, and it’s about time they’ve found a home on DVD, and within the context of propaganda features. A real treat.
A year after Uncertain Glory, Flynn would reteam with director Walsh for his final WWII propaganda effort, Objective, Burma! whereas newcomer Jean Sullivan would make two more studio films – Roughly Speaking and Escape in the Desert (both 1945) before retiring from the movies until the cult shocker Squirm (1976).
Paul Lukas’ other wartime thrillers include the infamous Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) and Address Unknown (1944). The actor would also appear in the postwar unification thriller Berlin Express (1948) before concentrating on the stage and TV, with occasional film appearances.
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