Monday, June 14, 2010

Virginia City (1940)

Still in the mood for Westerns (I'll give them a break for a while after this though), I decided to check out this one starring Errol Flynn. I’m a big fan of Flynn’s swashbucklers, but had never seen him in anything else. I had a hard time imagining him as a cowboy with his polished demeanor and English accent, but Virginia City gets around that very nicely. He’s not a cowboy, but a Union spy who was born in Ireland (that’s not an Irish accent, but oh well, none of the Southerners have Southern accents either). The movie opens as Flynn’s character, Captain Kerry Bradford, is trying to escape a Confederate prison with a couple of other Union soldiers (affably played by ubiquitous Flynn co-star Alan Hale and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, who fires a gun like he's flicking a fly-swatter). Unfortunately, their plan is found out by the prison’s commander, Captain Vance Irby (Randolph Scott) who foils it in a rather mean-spirited way.

Bradford and his pals don’t give up though and pull off a second escape attempt. When they return to the Union army, Bradford reports that he’s suspicious about goings on in Virginia City, Nevada. Though a Union town, some of the wealthiest gold miners in Virginia City are Southerners and Bradford is concerned about what a huge influx of their gold will do for the Confederate war effort. Fearing an extension to the violent war that the Confederates are about to lose, Bradford’s commanders approve his plan to go to Virginia City and prevent any gold from making it’s way back South.

After the break: spies, romance, and Humphrey Bogart plays a Mexican.

On the stagecoach out, Bradford and Friends meet a couple of other important characters. John Murrell is an outlaw played by Humphrey Bogart (doing a Mexican accent that’s so ridiculous it’s awesome). He and his men try to rob the stagecoach, but are foiled by Bradford and his. Miriam Hopkins (who was the incredibly seductive Ivy Pierson in Fredric March’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) plays Julia Hayne, a mysterious woman who falls for Bradford (and he for her), but won’t say much about her background. She slips away when the coach arrives in Virginia City and Bradford’s at first unsuccessful when he asks around about her and her family. He eventually finds her though – completely by accident – singing and can-canning at the town’s most popular saloon.

I’ve called Julia “mysterious” because that’s how she is to Bradford, but it’s not how she’s introduced to the audience. I’ve outlined the plot above as I’d have preferred to see it revealed, but in the movie we get to know Julia before we even meet Bradford. She’s a Southerner just returned from out West with a plan to save the Confederate cause by smuggling in a buttload of gold from the Virginia City miners. And the man she brings this plan to is her old friend – and someone who knows well the territory between Nevada and Virginia – Captain Vance Irby. Irby quickly agrees because a) it’s an awesome plan and b) he’s been in love with Julia his entire life.

All this sets the stage for what’s essentially a great spy movie set in the Wild West. Bradford discovers that Irby’s in Virginia City and figures that he has to be after the gold. There’s a great cat-and-mouse game as Irby and the Southerners try to get their shipment out from under the watchful eyes of Bradford and the local Union forces. Julia’s caught in the middle between wanting to help her friends and family back home and not wanting to betray the man she’s fallen in love with. In addition to all the spying, hiding, and double-crossing, it’s some seriously heavy drama.

And it gets more serious and heavy as the story unfolds. I never completely endorsed one side over the other. While it’s easy to like Bradford and his buddies, it’s hard not to root for the underdog Southerners a little bit. Irby’s conniving and deceitful, but he’s an anti-hero; not a villain. He’s loyal to his cause and his people and willing to do what it takes to help both. There’s a lot to admire about that, even as you’re hoping to see Bradford succeed and get the girl. That Bradford also begins to soften in his view of the other side further complicates the story and makes it even smarter. Humphrey Bogart’s hearing about the gold-filled wagon train and wanting it for himself just makes it more exciting.

Four out of five secret convoys of Confederate gold.

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