Neither director William Keighley nor actor Errol Flynn are remembered as heavy-hitters in the Western genre, but the two collaborated for a low budget, remarkably grim effort in 1950’s Rocky Mountain. Flynn is, of course, remembered for being the king of the sound swashbucklers, even though he did a total of seven westerns. Flynn justifiably felt he was ill-suited to them, and with commendable self-depreciation he referred to himself as “the rich man’s Roy Rogers.” In his earlier westerns, Flynn’s disdain shows in his performances. However, it is in two later films, when the actor was well into personal and professional decline, that he briefly became an interesting, weathered star in the genre.
Flynn’s plasticity as an actor mars many of the films from his first decade, even including his certifiable masterpieces such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Modern audiences understandably have a difficult time with Flynn’s phallic brandishing and thrusting of his chest while he eeks out lines like, “come on men, let’s win one for Her Majesty, the Queen!” One can easily understand Bogart’s dismissal of the young Flynn’s acting as “phony.” Later, in his last three years, Flynn was a too-far-gone, cirrhosis-ravaged caricature in films like The Sun Also Rises (1957) and Too Much, Too Soon (where he played his idol, John Barrymore). Critics of the time praised Flynn’s performances in these films as authentic, but today they register as a final, pathetic stab by an actor who realized that his hedonism had defeated his potential as an artist. In between these two extreme phases, Flynn gave a number of interesting, world-weary performances in mostly mediocre films.
Starting in the late forties, the plasticity in Flynn’s acting diminished in favor of a more subtle realism. He is much more interesting and mature as an actor in The Adventures of Don Juan (1948) than he is in his swashbucklers of the thirties, even if the film, as a whole, is not as good. Critics rightly praised his earthy acting abilities in the war melodrama Objective Burma (1945), but that film offended British with its omission of their contributions to the war effort, and it was yanked off screens after a short run. Likewise, Flynn is far better in the underrated Raoul Walsh directed Silver River (1948), than he is in any of his earlier Westerns, including the lavishly budgeted and decorated Dodge City (1939), in which Flynn’s superficiality is woefully apparent.
As good as Flynn is in the still frustratingly unavailable Silver River, he is equally effective in Keighley’s Rocky Mountain. Keighley is mostly known for being fired as director of the aforementioned Robin Hood. Apart from that, he competently directed a number of routine efforts, but never really showed a vision for any of his projects. Perhaps re-teaming with Flynn for Rocky Mountain was an inspiring chance to make amends for Robin Hood, since this is a cut above Keighley’s normal standard, even though his lack of an imaginative directorial touch is still apparent.
A poor choice was made in the film’s narration, and it is a serious flaw, even if there is a bit of unintentional irony in the movie being narrated by a character who dies. However, the producers made a good choice to omit the usual comic relief found in most of Flynn’s movies. Thankfully, the hammy antics of an Alan Hale are nowhere in sight to disrupt the decidedly downbeat milieu.
Flynn is the grizzled Lafe Barstow, captain of a rag tag Confederate army detachment, sent by his superiors to California to raise a guerrilla force. The New Mexico desert landscape is bleak, barren and strikingly expressionist, echoing the fate in store for Barstow and his unsavory team. Rocky Mountain prefigures the stark, flawed protagonists and character-driven, fatalistic plots that populated the Western genre in its 1950’s jubilee.
Barstow and his men sidetrack their mission to come to the rescue of a stagecoach being attacked by Shoshone warriors. Joanna Carter (Patrice Wymore, who became the third and last Mrs. Flynn shortly after filming) is the lone survivor of the stagecoach. She is also the fiancée of a Union officer who will soon appear to further disrupt plans. One expects a romance to follow between Barstow and Carter but, thankfully, that never materializes. Instead, Carter is taken hostage by the empathetic Barstow.
Wymore is effective in her equally empathetic performance, as is Slim Pickens and Flynn regular Guinn “Big Boy” Williams. Keighley admirably keeps the extroverted antics of those two character actors in check, eliciting surprisingly low-key performances. Keighley may not have been the most assured director in Hollywood, but he was an actor’s director who gave his star and cast well-rounded roles, making one wish Flynn had been able to work with this director more often. Flynn rises to the occasion, proving he could be a hell of an actor when given the opportunity by a director who wanted a bit more than the typical role of merely being “Errol Flynn.”
Rocky Mountain ends on a true blue note, but not before Barstow engages in a last act of heroic gallantry. However, this time Flynn’s on-screen heroism springs not from chest-beating, flashing teeth, or a Captain Blood-styled patriotic call to arms. Instead, his chivalry is a shrug, a final gasp, fully accepting the consequences for choosing a human life over the good of the cause. Barstow’s choices even impress Carter’s sourpuss of a fiancée. Of course, there is nothing more gallant than placing the individual over the movement. It’s downright Biblical.