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A textbook example of the rousing, drum-beating fare that Warner Brothers delivered to American movie audiences during the World War II era, the combat adventure Desperate Journey (1942) boasts all the earmarks of the studio's product of the period. From the presence of Warner's contract players to its production gloss to the assured direction from Raoul Walsh, the film promised grade-A entertainment, and while the glorious improbability of the narrative was jaw-dropping even to critics of its day, wartime audiences didn't seem to mind.
The script concerns the RAF Flying Fortress D-for-Danny, which has drawn the assignment of taking out an objective deep behind German lines. The bomber's surprisingly multinational crew includes the headstrong Australian Terrence Forbes (Errol Flynn); the affable American Johnny Hammond (Ronald Reagan); the pragmatic Canadian Jed Forrest (Arthur Kennedy); the blustering, middle-aged Scot Kirk Edwards (Alan Hale); and the fresh-faced Lloyd Hollis (Ronald Sinclair), son of a much-decorated WWI ace. During the course of the run, the ship's captain takes a mortal wound, and while Forbes manages to deliver the payload on target, he's forced to crash-land.
The aforementioned airmen are the sole survivors of the landing, and it isn't long before they're rousted by German troops and dragged before the imperious Major Baumeister (Raymond Massey) for questioning. Chosen for a one-on-one, Hammond plays to the major's arrogance and overpowers him, and presently the prisoners are gleefully tossing his office. They discover documentation showing the locale of a secret Messerschmidt plant that could determine the entire outcome of the air war. All that's required is the simple task of getting to the Netherlands on foot through an all-points alert.
When assigned to Desperate Journey, Reagan was fresh off his acclaimed effort in Kings Row (1942), and his professional star was at its brightest. He made the most out of the film's showcase scene, in which he gulled Massey into being slugged unconscious by releasing a stream of doubletalk. By multiple accounts, Flynn sulked when he wasn't given the scene, and, to Reagan's chagrin, lobbied intensely to get it. Producer Hal B. Wallis was adamant that the scene be shot as written; a closed-door shouting match with director Walsh did nothing to change his mind. "I've always been grateful to Hal for that," Reagan would recall. It was during production that military reservist Reagan got his call for service; while the studio lobbied the government for a 30-day extension, Uncle Sam was only willing to offer a week. In the post-war years, Reagan's Hollywood career would never regain the same level of momentum, and he'd never see the same degree of influence - as an actor, at any rate.
The days surrounding the production of Desperate Journey would be trying for Flynn, as well. His February 1942 draft board physical revealed the presence of tuberculosis in his right lung, and, unwilling to face an extended unpaid layoff, opted to conceal his condition from Warners. "Errol's agony of mind can only be imagined," Charles Higham wrote in his Errol Flynn: The Untold Story. "Knowing that untreated tuberculosis can be a death sentence, he still felt he had to go on and make Desperate Journey." Between his illness and the exacting schedule mandated by the efficient Walsh, Flynn dropped to 165 pounds as the shoot progressed, requiring his wardrobe to be first refitted, and then ultimately padded. Reportedly late for every day of shooting, and demanding not to work past 5 P.M., Flynn's on-set conduct did little to endear him to the studio.
Producer: Hal B. Wallis, Jack Saper
Director: Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: Arthur T. Horman
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Film Editing: Rudi Fehr
Art Direction: Carl Jules Weyl
Music: Max Steiner, Hugo W. Friedhofer
Cast: Errol Flynn (Flight Lt. Terrence Forbes), Ronald Reagan (Flying Officer Johnny Hammond), Raymond Massey (Maj. Otto Baumeister), Arthur Kennedy (Flying Officer Jed Forrest), Sig Ruman (Preuss), Patrick O'Moore (Squadron Leader Lane Ferris).
BW-108m. Closed captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg