Monday, March 4, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Rocky Mountain" (1950)

By 1950 Errol Flynn had become dissolute, both in his personal life and Hollywood career. Barely 40 years of age, he'd been through two painful divorces, seen his good looks diminish from drink and wanton lifestyle, and watched studio honchos and producers who'd once begged for his services turn the other way.

Having read Flynn's autobiography, "My Wicked, Wicked Ways," I know that he had grown indifferent to the roles he was being offered around this time and considered giving up acting entirely. His performance in "Rocky Mountain" seems to mirror this mindset -- Flynn gives a stern, perfunctory turn as if peeved at having to be there.

(Incidentally, I recently discovered that Guy Pearce played Flynn in an eponymous 1996 movie about Errol's early rapscallion days. And Kevin Kline is set to star in a new biopic about his final years, "The Last of Robin Hood." Look forward to seeing both of them.)

Westerns were not Flynn's preferred cinematic hunting grounds, either. He never looked as comfortable in chaps and holding a six-shooter as he did in a tuxedo or wielding a rapier. But I don't lay the entirety of the blame for the lackluster "Rocky Mountain" at Flynn's feet.

 Ploddingly plotted, indifferently acted and shot in confoundedly a murky palette, "Rocky Mountain" was so certainly no feather in the cap of director William Keighley. He had previously teamed up with Flynn on the phenomenally successful "The Adventures of Robin Hood." The action scenes are clumsily staged, and entire sections of the night sequences are so obscured in inky blackness it's virtually impossible to even tell what's happening.

Screenwriters Alan Le May and Winston Miller, working from Le May's novel "Ghost Mountain," begin the story curiously with a modern (for 1950) car pulling up to a historical marker dedicated to the bravery of a band of Confederate soldiers. Their unlikely mission, undertaken in the dying days of the Civil War, was to raise an army of raiders in California and wreak havoc, forcing the Union to open up a second front.

The transition to 1865 is abrupt and clumsy -- since we already know the mission was a failure, it takes some oomph out of the proceedings. The story is notable, though, for portraying Confederate soldiers in a  heroic light, without making the "bluebellies" the villains. (American Indians get to play that role.)

The plot is simple to the point of spareness, and even at 83 minutes the movie feels stretched out. Captain Lafe Barstow (Flynn) is ordered to meet up with Cole Smith (Howard Petrie), who's supposed to raise an army for the South. But the band of eight soldiers saves a woman, Johanna Carter (Patrice Wymore), from an Indian attack. She's the fiancee of a stalwart Union lieutenant (Scott Forbes) who comes looking for her and gets captured by Barstow's crew. Then the Indians trap them on top of the mountain, a heroic dash is made to divert attention and save the woman, and all the Rebs are killed.

Petrie, who also had a notable career in radio, is an interesting presence as the scurrilous raider, who at first passes himself off as another man so he can assess his new allies. He decides they're much too heroic for his liking. With his icy gaze and condescending demeanor, he's easily the onscreen equal of Flynn's Barstow.

Slim Pickens also shows up as one of the Confederates, a rangy, peevish scout named Plank. As someone whose childhood association with Pickens cemented him in my mind as a clownish, pot-bellied idjit, it's nice to see him as a lean and whip-mean cuss.

Barstow doesn't come across as a particularly crafty or inspiring leader. Once it's clear the Indians have got them cornered, he essentially decides to squat on top of the mountain and hope Cole Smith returns with reinforcements. Not a very good Plan B, or Plan A for that matter. Certainly Flynn's phoning-it-in demeanor doesn't help the audience root for him.

While it isn't a terrible film, "Rocky Mountain" is a prime example of mid-century Hollywood drek, the sort of B-pictures they churned out at an astonishing rate on smaller budgets and even more modest expectations. By 1950, this was the best Errol Flynn could hope for.

2 stars out of four

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