During WWII, Errol Flynn made a string of war related movies. His first one was Desperate Journey, released in 1942 and was finished filming just as America was entering the war. It’s basically a giant escape film, or perhaps a giant chase. Five crew members of a downed bomber attempt to escape Germany. Hot on their trail is Raymond Massey’s Major Baumeister. They roam about Germany, wreaking havoc, commit a little sabotage, conk Nazis on the head, steal cars, meet some German underground members and hop a ride on Göring’s private, though empty, train car. It’s all incredibly coincidental (their car runs out of gas and a gas truck drives by) and highly patriotic, but a fun, if not memorable, ride.
The movie begins by showing a member of the Polish underground give his life to blow up a bridge. Before he dies, though, he manages to send a message by pigeon to the allies in England. Using this information, they believe there will now be a bottleneck of trains waiting for the bridge to be repaired and they intend to bomb those trains. They send out one bomber with a crew of eight. Part of that crew is the second in command, Terry Forbes (Errol Flynn), Johnny Hammond (Ronald Reagan), Kirk Edwards (Alan Hale), Lloyd Hollis (Ronald Sinclair), and Jed Forrest (Arthur Kennedy). The captain is injured when a Nazi plane attacks them and Terry decides to risk going below the cover of the clouds to see if he can see the target. The result is a crash.
They are captured by the Nazis, but manage to escape, ransack Major Baumeister’s office and steal some important documents showing the location of a Messerschmitt factory. And the chase is on. Baumeister is particularly determined to find them because if anyone found out that they had stolen those documents from him, he might be sent to the Russian Front (always a terrifying threat in the movies – spoofed repeatedly and hilariously in the show Hogan’s Heroes).
The crew is somewhat hampered, however, by Hollis, who is very young and tires easily. But on the whole, the crew is pretty harmonious, without any real internal tension. Jed Forrest does try to curb Terry’s penchant for reckless daring-do, but never questions his right to lead.
The crew is puzzlingly multi-national. Aussie Terry (Flynn, unsurprisingly) is his usual high-spirited self as an officer who would really prefer flying fighter planes to bombers, while Canadian Jed ( Kennedy) used to be a bookkeeper and loves facts and figures and certainties. Kirk (Hale – one of at least twelves movies he did with Flynn) fought in the first world war and lied about his age and died his hair so that he could fight in this one after his son died at Dunkirk. But he’s no brooding Lear. He’s very Alan Hale-ish, full of broad humor, practical jokes, and a desire for good food. And the very English Hollis (Sinclair) is still a kid, who’s father was a great WWI hero who shot down 43 Germans.
But oddly enough, the man who stands out the most is Ronald Reagan’s American Johnny. It’s not because the character is a complex one, but he brings an easy-going and street-smart presence to the film. There is a funny scene when Baumeister tries to get him to tell him the secret of how American planes can fly at higher altitudes than Nazi ones and through an incredible patter of gibberish and nonsense words, like thermathrockle, delivered at a tremendous rate, Johnny contrives knock out Baumeister.
It was acknowledged to be the best scene in the film because Flynn desperately wanted it for himself, though the director, Raoul Walsh, refused to give it to him. I was surprised to see that Reagan shared top billing with Errol Flynn. Reagan had just been poised to move into leading roles, apparently. He had received a good deal of attention for his role in Kings Row, but just as his career was about to be boosted, he was called up and spent the rest of the war in the army, though he did not fight overseas. It effectually deflated his career.
Flynn did not fight during WWII. He was not well, though. His draft board physical revealed that he had tuberculosis in one lung and while filming his next movie, Gentleman Jim, he suffered a minor heart attack. He was only thirty-two and tragically had already run his health into the ground.
The score for Desperate Journey is ridiculously sweeping and patriotic. Composed by Max Steiner (not the subtlest of composers: King Kong, Gone With the Wind), he used “God Save the King” (or is it “My Country Tis of Thee”?) as a recurring theme and it is always blowing about, portentously martial, in the background, at odds with the more lighthearted ethos of the actors.
While watching, I had a random thought. Are there any enemy uniforms more readily stolen and worn in movies than Nazi uniforms? The crew spends half the film in Nazi uniforms and this is not unusual for Hollywood films. My theory is that it is because, though representative of an evil ideology and government, they are still by far the coolest uniforms ever (which is a pity). The boots, the nicely fitted jackets, the long coats – though not the helmets, but what helmet doesn’t look faintly ridiculous. Hollywood has always delighted to get their heroes into Nazi uniforms (something that also happens a lot in Hogan’s Heroes).
Below is a clip of Ronald Reagan double-talking Raymond Massey.