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While comedy short subject impresario Hal Roach's Hollywood legend has been chiefly established by the enduring wealth of silent and sound farces crafted under his watch by Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, and many others, he had several flirtations with feature film production over his long career. While diverse efforts like Topper (1937), Of Mice and Men (1939) and One Million B.C. (1940) come quickly to mind, comparative obscurity has been the fate of Captain Fury (1939), a historical actioner on which Roach also assumed the directing duties. It's a shame as it's an entertaining, crisply-paced tale that rises above its obviously modest budget, thanks in no small part to its very able assemblage of players.
The scenario is set in late 19th century Australia, where the latest of a series of convict ships has put in with its unwanted human cargo. Counted amongst the freight are the Irishman Michael Fury (Brian Aherne), a once-celebrated military officer whose fall to his present circumstances is never really explained, and his contemplative, consumptive cellmate, the compassionately-nicknamed Roger "Coughy" Bradford (John Carradine). Once ashore, the convicts are promptly bound over for hard labor in the service of the local gentry, with Fury and Coughy assigned to one of the cruelest, the grasping land baron Arnold Trist (George Zucco). When he's not enforcing the inhumane conditions he maintains for his involuntary staffing, Trist seeks to expand his empire by pursuing less than legal designs on the properties of his impoverished settler neighbors.
Once placed in Trist's tender care, it isn't long before Fury is called out by Blackie (Victor McLaglen), the labor camp's alpha male; the good captain wins the respect of all when he bare-knuckles the beefier man to a standstill. Rather than suffer a whipping at the hands of Trist's thugs for a minor insubordination, Fury goes over the wall; Trist is confident that a settler will return him for the standard escapee bounty. The fleeing Fury makes the acquaintance of one such opportunist, the attractive young Jeanette Dupre (June Lang). While under her watch, Fury gets to see firsthand the bullying and exploitation the locals suffer from Trist, and resolves to put an end to it. Brazenly returning to Trist's camp, he engineers a breakout for Blackie, Coughy and a handful of other trustworthy inmates. Fury enlists their help in forming a Merry Men-like pack of vigilantes that will likely ride to the rescue when the settlers are being strong-armed by Trist's forces.
And ride in they do, taking the conflict to its conclusion in a more than serviceable swashbuckler that plays out like a Western with the occasional antipodal trappings, like the small packs of kangaroos and emus that Roach loosed on the Malibu location. It also helped that Roach coached energetic work out of a capable cast. McLaglen doled out his trademark macho bluster to good effect, and Carradine seemed to have had fun with the unaccustomedly sympathetic role of Coughy. Period ingnue Lang made a winsome heroine, and Paul Lukas registered well as her pride-bound, puritanical father. Zucco reliably delivered the preening villainy, as did Douglass Dumbrille and Charles "Ming the Merciless" Middleton as his chief lieutenants.
Cast in the lead, the handsome British actor Brian Aherne took on the assignment to finish out a two-picture pact with Roach that started with the comedy Merrily We Live (1938). In his 1969 autobiography A Proper Job (Houghton Mifflin), Aherne asserted that Roach's original intent had been to adapt Marcus Clark's 1874 novel For the Rest of his Natural Life, a grueling account of the horrors of the Australian penal existence. After failing to procure the rights, Roach had a tale with similar elements crafted. Aherne admittedly didn't quite know what to make of Roach's on-the-fly approach to filmmaking, as he recounted Roach's response to a take that ended with Fury riding off to catch up with Jeanette. "'Brian,' he whispers, 'you smiled when you went out of the shot. That's not right.' 'Oh?...But you told me I saw the girl over there.' 'Yes, that's right--but you're mad at her!' 'Am I? Why?' Hal reflects for a moment and then he gives me a charming Irish wink. 'I'll tell you tomorrow!'"
Aherne came to Captain Fury directly after the assignment that's generally regarded as his career high spot, his Oscar®-nominated turn as the Emperor Maximilian in Juarez (1939). "Captain Fury seemed like such a farrago of nonsense to me that I was very happy to know that Juarez would rescue me by coming out at about the same time," the actor recounted in his autobiography. "Well, Juarez turned out to be a highly respected box-office flop while Captain Fury cleaned up and went on playing all over the world for many years with countless television runs." The film wound up receiving an Oscar® nomination for Charles D. Hall's art direction.
Producer: Hal Roach
Director: Hal Roach
Screenplay: William C. de Mille, Jack Jevne, Grover Jones
Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Film Editing: William H. Ziegler
Art Direction: Charles D. Hall
Music: Marvin Hatley
Cast: Brian Aherne (Capt. Michael Fury), Victor McLaglen (Blackie), Paul Lukas (Francois Dupre), June Lang (Jeanette Dupre), John Carradine (Coughy), George Zucco (Arnold Trist).
by Jay S. Steinberg