Desperate Journey was among a series of kinetic anti-Nazi actioners produced by Warner Bros. that shamed attempted to Hitler’s regime by portraying acts of heroism, honor, tolerance, democratic ingenuity, and anti-fascist wise-cracks, and the film remains weirdly entertaining today.
Journey is pure propaganda – democratic cooperation Good, fascist Nazism Bad – but this particular entry feels familiar because the concept of dropping present-day archetypes into a period conflict with goofball antics is totally contemporary.
The multi-nation crew packed into a Britsh bomber include Aussie Terry Forbes (Errol Fynn),kick-ass Yankee Johnny Hammond (a wiry and breezily fun Ronald Reagan), Yankee sidekick Kirk Edwards (Alan Hale), bookish Canadian Jed Forrest (a ridiculously wiry and youthful Arthur Kennedy), and green-earned Lloyd Hollis (Ronald Sinclair), wanting desperately to follow his father’s high-kill rate of Germans, and maintain the family’s military honor.
Flynn leads his troupe through Germany’s hinterland after their bomber crashes, and he muscles everyone to finish the job of destroying their second target before the group flees Kraulandt or dies in blaze of bullet-riddled glory. Reagan functions as the bosom buddy who only follows orders if Flynn’s not about to sacrifice himself and leave the troupe leaderless; and Hale is the benevolent muscle who cracks skulls with earthy wit, and gets to speak the funniest lines in the picture.
Two comedic highlights include a sequence where the group awaits security details under a bridge and Hale hopes the next stormtrooper’s uniform will fit his form comfortably; and the group riding in Hermann Goring’s private train car, flicking cigarettes at the fat man’s portrait, and verbally pissing on Nazi honor. That latter scene is illustrative of the film’s smooth balance of propaganda and the ridiculous, which undoubtedly inspired Steven Spielberg’s Indian Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), where Indy is caught in a Nazi rally and has to work his way around fascist caricatures (including Uncle Adolph).
In Journey, Raymond Massey devours the scenery as Major Otto Baumeister, a monocled, anti-American pig whose frustration in constantly being outwitted by the democratic insurgents rises like a brassy musical crescendo. Massey is very careful, though, in making sure his performance isn’t total caricature; while he spouts reams of German invective, he’s still perceived as a dangerous threat.
(It’s also unique that the filmmakers have virtually all German characters speaking in German. Most of the actors are American and manage to phonetically express recognizable German, but those curious of what Warner Bros. felt wasn’t necessary to subtitle can read English translations in the DVD’s subtitle track – a nice bonus, particularly for the scene where a real German actor berates the camouflaged insurgents and kicks them out of Goring’s car for getting so gemütlich with monogrammed Nazi-partei booze and cigars.)
The pro-democratic/anti-totalitarian politics are dated, but they’re treated with such irreverence that Journey feels like a slick pulp novel, whose real focus is on adventure instead of being another voice against fascism. Raoul Walsh’s direction is unbelievably slick and zippy, so there’s no time for characters to stop and give audiences a stilted speech because fists have to keep swinging, guns need to be fired, and a big refinery of something needs to be blown up good.
The most amusing character is the Canadian, because he’s the group’s Voice of Reason. Whether he’s there to keep the troupe politically diverse or support the British and Canadian forces in a post-Dunkirk climate, Jed always does the smart thing; he’s a bookkeeper by trade, so he’s naturally pragmatic and petty. For example: whatever secrets the group discovers, he replicates details on paper to ensure anyone who survives this ‘desperate journey’ will carry the goods back to Allied forces.
When the British soldiers are killed early in the film, the Canuck also becomes the figurative rep of the British Empire, working for the colonial commonwealth in addition to Canada. He’s the moderator, and he’s Flynn’s antithesis - always challenging the Yankee knee-jerk reaction to crack skulls, except when the group needs some deserved payback after losing men along the way.
The allied troupe eventually reach a safe house, and are aided by a pretty German resistance fighter, Kaethe (Nancy Coleman) whose role in the drama isn’t just to save the group from the Nazis, but show the world Not All Germans Are Evil – a stark contrast to the outright vilification of Japanese in related propaganda vehicles.
Warner Bros., as a studio, leapt onto the propaganda stage with Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939, a film that reflected the studio’s disgust at the fascist regime as well as its long-standing tradition of dramatizing and incorporating real-time news events to keep their films hot and topical.
There’s an overt reference to concentration camps that clearly implies people who get shipped there never come back. Weirdly, Jews as an ethnic group aren’t mentioned, and that causes one to conjecture whether the studio wanted to infer the camps as a threat to all faiths and political beliefs, or the omission of any reference to Jews was part of Hollywood’s odd little quirk that Jews aren’t really a part of the global culture; they’re just there, among us, but they’re okay folks. (It’s a weak stance that probably helped fuel screenwriter Ben Hecht’s rage in magazine and newspaper articles, and performance works such as We Will Never Die, a year later, in 1943.)
The production values in Journey are above-average for a topical quickie, with Walsh’s deft handling of action scenes limiting the exposure of obvious indoor sets and models of planes, trains, and blown up targets. (The bombing run, as well as the plane’s eventual crash, however, are brilliantly choreographed, and serve as a perfect example of WB’s in-house, modernistic action style.)
Max Steiner’s score follows the same route of Casablanca (also made in 1942), stitching together national anthems, but with an emphasis on the British anthem (but not the Canadian) to keep reminding audiences of the British losses in the bomber’s crash, and the need to destroy the second target as being particularly vital to Britain’s safety.
Warner Home Video’s extras include a theatrical trailer, and the military propaganda / training film “The Tanks are Coming” (previously archived on the first release of Objective, Burma!), filmed in blazing Technicolor in 1941.
Made for Department of Defense, "The Tanks Are Coming" is a gorgeous 1941 Technicolor featurette, starring Objective co-star George Tobias as a do-good New York City cab driver who volunteers and enters training for tank driving. The humour is broad, the enemy insults overt, but the training film also offers a fascinating glimpse at basic training for tank drivers, and a sample of America's mobilization of industries for war production. (Watch for Gig Young as the geeky radio operator after the Declaration of Independence material at the beginning.)
The Warner Night at the Movies programme also offers up a trailer for 1942’s Born for Trouble (originally named Murder in the Big House), a newsreel covering the Nazi losses on the wintry Russian front, the surreal musical short “Borrah Minevitch and His Harmonica School” (1942), with Jean Negulesco (Boy on a Dolphin) directing a lot of caffeinated harmonica players, a fat guy smacking a midget, and the latter big guy singing a love song while three players stride back and forth popping ping pong balls from their mouths.
Like Negulesco’s short “All Star melody Masters” (archived on Northern Pursuit), the short was an exercise for composition, deep focus photography, and weird homespun humour, as well as a showcase for the smallest and the biggest double-decker, freight-sized harmonicas ever seen. Also included in the programme is Negulesco’s “The United States Air Force Band” (archived on Edge of Darkness), and the goofball cartoon “The Dover Boys at Pimento University,” featuring the song “Old PU,” and the immortal quote by the short’s villain: “A runabout. [yelling] I’LL STEAL IT! NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW!!!”
Errol Flynn would appear in a wave of further WWII actioners, as did Reagan and Massey. Massey would co-star with Helmut Dantine in Hotel Berlin, (1945), whereas Dantine and Flynn would appear in the propagandistic Edge of Darkness and Northern Pursuit (both 1943).
This was Kennedy’s second film with Flynn after the Civil War actioner They Died with Their Boots On (1941), also directed by Walsh. Reagan and Flynn also co-starred in western Santa Fe Trail (1940). Nancy Coleman would also appear in Edge of Darkness a year later.
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