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Uncertain Glory (1944) is one of the least known films of Errol Flynn's career, but offers a glimpse of the swashbuckling star at a turning point in his career, as he tried to live down his off-screen adventures and take his cinematic persona into uncharted territory. While the Second World War was cresting, this fifth collaboration between Flynn and director Raoul Walsh attempted to blend action with ruminations on the true nature of honor, loyalty to a cause and individual conscience, as well as the differences between public images and private actions--issues that may have been uppermost in Errol Flynn's mind at the time.
Instead of delighting audiences with the vicarious thrill of eliminating Nazis en masse and striking blows for freedom loving Frenchmen, Flynn and his co-star Paul Lukas pursued more elusive prey, such as the true nature of heroism and honor in the face of overwhelming evil. The best scenes in the film include the unlikely pair debating the ethics of wartime resistance. Their discussions of the moral compromises inherent in their parallel lives as a thief and a policeman living in a captive society often veer from the serious into comic areas. The irreverent Flynn character goads his strait-laced companion further when he speculates on the likelihood of spontaneous combustion while accompanying Lukas to Mass. Despite a sometimes awkward storyline and a slower pacing than usual for a Flynn film in the Warner years, today's audiences may still find themselves intrigued by the quality of acting in this story. Directed by action master Raoul Walsh, who regarded the movie as "a quickie,"
Uncertain Glory was a propaganda piece with an unusual philosophical undercurrent, telling the story of a criminal whose last gesture was an unacknowledged bid to find meaning in his life.
Years later, in his posthumously published memoir, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Flynn claimed that "the stereotyped roles I played stamped out of me my ambition to do finer things or expect to be able to do them in Hollywood....I do not know to what extent this stereotyping... this handing me a sword and a horse... led to my rebellions, high jinks and horseplay over the globe, but I think it had plenty to do with it." When he made Uncertain Glory Flynn seemed to be more willing to take responsibility for his public image for a time, though he was unable to arrest his own self-destructive tendencies for long. This film was made just after he had signed a new seven year contract at Warner Brothers that granted him more power over the choice of story, casting and directors--as well as a share of the profits via the actor's newly formed production company. Uncertain Glory, the story of a furtive journey across Nazi-occupied France, was the first project chosen by Errol Flynn under this new arrangement. Evidence that Uncertain Glory had some personal significance for the actor came when the leading man told an interviewer that the role was "the best I've ever had."
The title of the movie, taken from Shakespeare's lines in Two Gentleman of Verona: "O, how this spring of love resembleth/ The uncertain glory of an April day; / Which now shows all the beauty of the sun, / And by and by a cloud takes all away," indicated a romantic earnestness and a certain wistful quality that appealed to the actor in the timely screenplay written by the prolific Max Brand and Hungarian-born Lszl Vadnay, with Joe May also credited for the sometimes meandering story. Privately, a demoralized Flynn, was momentarily chastened by the lurid off-screen publicity surrounding his indictment and acquittal on statutory rape charges in 1942-1943, especially since it occurred in one of the grimmest years of the Second World War, when the course of the war seesawed precariously between the Axis and Allied powers. The scandal, which may have ended the career of most actors and that may have been rooted in internecine political fights in Los Angeles between studios and the political establishment, did increase Flynn's desire to re-establish himself as a more mature presence on screen; it also led him to play the role of a criminal whose nihilistic life is ennobled by his ultimate self-sacrifice in this movie. The results, perhaps in part because the star had more input than usual on the ever-changing script, occasionally departs from formulaic wartime propaganda, and offered some opportunities for good acting and unexpected moments of reflection from the actor. As one perceptive Flynn biographer, Thomas McNulty, noted in Errol Flynn: The Life and Career, there were moments in the movie when Flynn's "own personal troubles and the knowledge of what he was doing to himself at this point must surely have coloured his performance. Some of the scenes in the latter half of the film, where he is confronted with the ugliness of his actions and the prospect of abandonment, really ring true and one can read the resignation and despair in his eyes."
The opening scene of Uncertain Glory is set in a grim prison in Nazi-held France. An unrepentant criminal and master thief, Jean Picard (Errol Flynn), is removed from his cell and brought to the courtyard to pay the ultimate price under the blade of the guillotine for a lifetime of transgressions, including the murder of a night watchman who had been killed during his last theft. Just as Picard is about to be beheaded, a contingent of British bombers descends on the city. Miraculously, in the chaos and mayhem that ensues, the lifelong reprobate escapes from justice, fleeing through the surrounding rubble.
Picard is indifferent to which government he escapes from--the French authorities or the occupying German army--it's all the same to him. In these early scenes, the actor's own real cynicism adds to the character of Picard as he blithely places his self-interest and irreverence for all sentiment above all other considerations. The character's nihilistic attitude is evident as he disregards all the turmoil that he passes by outside the prison, intent only on avoiding detection and seeking refuge among his underworld contacts. Two of those contacts are Henri Duval (Sheldon Leonard), and Louise (Faye Emerson), a woman of easy virtue who was involved with Picard in the past. It is evident that Louise, despite her jaded manner, actually harbors stronger feelings for this beguiling if unscrupulous man. Faye Emerson, whose private life, which included a wartime marriage to FDR's son, Elliot Roosevelt, often overshadowed her acting, was then relegated to small roles at this stage of her career at Warner Brothers.
was seen as a step up for her, prompting the contract player to tell the press that playing a woman who is romanced and then jilted by the star in this movie wasn't so bad and compared to her previous bits, "Even that is an improvement."
In some of the publicity for Uncertain Glory, Errol Flynn anxiously pointed out that he had made suggestions to the screenwriters and the director about his part; adding touches to his characterization that were meant to convey Picard's duplicity and inner turmoil. While filming scenes together with Errol Flynn, utility actor Sheldon Leonard found that all the tension in the movie was not reserved for the screen. In his irreverent memoir, And the Show Goes On: Broadway and Hollywood Adventures, Leonard described Errol Flynn as "a pain in the ass."
The character actor, who had played everything from a "Mexican jailer to psychotic killers," liked to find some bit of business during rehearsal to keep his hands occupied in a scene and to add some life to his often one-dimensional roles. In one moment when sharing the frame with Flynn, Leonard had chosen to "idly tie and re-tie a long telephone cord. "While lighting was being adjusted before filming, director Raoul Walsh sidled up to Leonard and speaking softly, said "'Shel...that piece of business you've got with the telephone cord...Don't do it.'" Thinking it might have looked phony the stage-trained actor asked the director "'Why?'"
"'Errol's going to do it.'" Chagrined but acquiescent to this direction, Leonard later twirled a string of beads around his finger while delivering dialogue. Again, Leonard was quietly told that the bit was out, and informed that "'Errol's going to do it.'" Finally, after Walsh was compelled to broach this subject more than a few times with the resourceful supporting player, Sheldon Leonard wrote that he began to keep his hands firmly in his pockets from then on.
On-screen, Flynn's Picard is soon captured by Sret Inspector Marcel Bonet, played by character actor Paul Lukas. The role played by the Hungarian-born Lukas might initially appear to be a variation on Javert in the classic French novel, Les Misrables. Unlike that rigid fictional creation from Victor Hugo, Bonet's determination to bring his man to justice is leavened with a strong streak of French patriotism and a nuanced understanding of human nature.
The scenes between Lukas and Flynn are among the most entertaining in the dialogue-heavy film. Their bantering almost nonsensically but pointedly touch on justice, the nature of evil, self-sacrifice, and one's obligation to conscience and country. Lukas' Bonet brings a warm gravitas to his role as he enjoyed a brief co-star status with Flynn after the character actor's Oscar® winning performance as an anti-fascist in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine (1943). Lukas had earlier achieved some success in early talkies as a cosmopolitan leading man , but his supporting parts as sympathetic figures or as rous, in films such as Little Women (1933) and Dodsworth (1936), were more customary for him, and he wisely divided his time between movies and the Broadway stage.
As the pair begin their trek back to Paris by train, the captor and prisoner are compelled to pick their way through the French countryside after the French Underground bombs a bridge in their path. After 100 French hostages are threatened with death unless the saboteurs come forward, the wily Picard offers Lukas a bargain that might serve the interests of France, poetic justice, and the condemned man, who prefers a firing squad to the guillotine. Posing as the saboteur, Flynn suggests to Bonet that he turn himself in, surrendering his "fairly worthless life" for that of a French hero and saving many innocent civilian lives. All that Picard wants in exchange are a few days of freedom before the Nazi deadline passes; a prospect that is far more appealing to the gambler in Flynn's character, especially since he would like to tarry for awhile with an innocent young French country girl (Jean Sullivan) before accepting his fate.
Understandably skeptical, Lukas' character hesitates before taking a chance on the word of the criminal, whose sincerity seems so highly unlikely. Indeed, Raoul Walsh develops considerable tension during these sequences, as audiences could never be entirely sure if Flynn's restless conscience and cynicism could be transformed through exposure to the injustice of French life under the Nazis or the rather subdued love offered by Jean Sullivan as an innocent French country girl who broadens Flynn's world view a bit more. The comely Sullivan, a former UCLA student who was making her film debut in Uncertain Glory, was at her winsome best in the film when her wide-eyed purity of emotion and devotion to God and country were seen as a spur to the worldly criminal's awareness of his impact on others.
Uncertain Glory also touched on the uneasy balance between French citizens and their conquerors, showing instances when characters make personal choices that reveal their true worth, even showing some of the collaboration that existed in France as well as the compromises that survival required under the Nazis. In one example, a Frenchwoman (played by the exemplary Lucile Watson, who specialized in formidable dowager parts), betrays her avowed French loyalty when her son is under a death threat, demonstrating the frailty of human beings when faced with the moral choices involved in everyday living under the Nazis.
Uncertain Glory arrived in movie theaters just weeks before D-Day began Europe's liberation, but, unlike the raucous combat adventures shown in previous World War II collaborations between director Raoul Walsh and Errol Flynn, such as Desperate Journey (1942) and Northern Pursuit (1943), Uncertain Glory took the normally extroverted Flynn persona in a different direction that audiences and critics were not expecting. While this movie appears to have made a modest profit for Warner Brothers, Uncertain Glory received a tepid or sarcastic response from most critics, who were struck by the fact that the film's opening premise bore a striking resemblance to The Imposter (1944), an American-made Jean Gabin film about a criminal whose liberation from death in a prison and his former life also begins precisely at the moment of a convenient air raid.
Writing in The New York Times and The Pittsburgh Press respectively, both Bosley Crowther and Kaspar Monahan saw a movie formula emerging, based on viewing Passage to Marseilles (1944), The Imposter and the Flynn picture, as "once again the movies come up with the idea that the worst criminal in times of war is likely to turn noble and give up his life in behalf of his country." To the influential Crowther, Flynn remained "his boyish self, as usual, and quite remote from a faithful criminal type" while "Director Raoul Walsh has keyed it to a subdued, suspenseful pace which is suggestive of explosive tension, even if it never explodes." Other critics at the time also found that the film had a promising if underdeveloped premise, but scant attention was paid to the efforts by Flynn to attempt a fresh character. Most felt that his innate charm and inability to mask that "he is a dashing sort of fellow who plays the villain only to tease the sober-sided detective" played by Lukas. Time magazine claimed that Uncertain Glory "indulges Warner Bros.' pet delusion that Errol Flynn may play the hero, but that he is even more appealing as a heel."
What laurels were handed out for the film were awarded to Paul Lukas and for the banter between Flynn and the policeman, leading up to what was described as an "ethical problem...solved and the picture ended in what readers of A Tale of Two Cities will recognize as a brisk burst of Sydney Carton." Seen today, this Hollywood product avoids addressing the moral complexities of French life under the Vichy government and the thin line between duty and collaboration for the French, but Uncertain Glory does offer some emotional respite for the viewer, as it may have for the star, whose character struggled to believe that, as his character says, "there is a time in a man's life when he can find something bigger than himself and be ready to die for it.
Producer: Robert Buckner
Director: Raoul Walsh
Screenplay: Max Brand; Laszlo Vadnay (screenplay and original story), Joe May (original story)
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Art Direction: Robert Haas
Film Editing: George Amy
Cast: Errol Flynn (Jean Picard), Paul Lukas (Inspector Marcel Bonet), Lucile Watson (Mme. Maret), Faye Emerson (Louise), James Flavin (Captain of Mobile Guard), Douglas Dumbrille (Police Commissioner LaFarge), Dennis Hoey (Father Le Clerc), Sheldon Leonard (Henri Duval), Odette Myrtil (Mme. Bonet), Francis Pierlot (Father La Borde - Prison Priest), Jean Sullivan (Marianne).
BW-103m. Closed Captioning
by Moira Finnie
Crowther, Bosley, Uncertain Glory, April 8, 1944, The New York Times.
Flynn, Errol, (with Earl Conrad), My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Buccaneer Books, 1983.
Herzberg, Bob, Shooting Scripts: From Pulp Westerns to Film, McFarland, 2005.
Leonard, Sheldon, And the Show Goes On: Broadway and Hollywood Adventures, Hal Leonard Corp., 1995.
McNulty, Thomas, Errol Flynn: The Life and Career, McFarland, 2004.
Monahan, Kaspar, "Errol Flynn Playing Criminal at Penn," The Pittsburgh Press, May 12, 1944.
"Even Getting Jilted Is an Improvement," Pittsburgh-Post Gazette, Feb. 23, 1944.
"Cinema: The New Pictures, Apr. 17, 1944," Time Magazine, Monday, April 17, 1944.
Walsh, Raoul, Each Man in His Time: The Life Story of a Director, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974.