So exciting to see so many previously-rare Hal Roach short subjects and features come to Blu-ray and DVD recently from VCI/The Sprocket Vault; One Million B.C. and Topper were both exceptional Blu-ray releases of two of Roach’s better films, and this DVD-only release is certainly entertaining, if not as thrill-and-laugh-studded as those two.
Brian Aherne and John Carradine are British political prisoners shipped off to Australia for indentured servitude, where they find themselves under the yoke of one of the screen’s great villains, George Zucco’s unscrupulous landowner. Zucco and his henchmen, Charles Middleton and Douglass Dumbrille (how’s THAT for an unholy trio?!?) are intent on terrorizing local homesteaders and driving them off the land, so Aherne and fellow prisoner/sworn enemy Victor McLaglen decide to bury the hatchet and rob from the rich (Zucco) to give to the poor (“poor” defined as “the homesteaders” by Aherne and “McLaglen” by McLaglen) in this quite agreeable historical action film.
We talk more about Hal Roach’s turn with United Artists (1938-1941), which practically destroyed the Roach enterprise, in our review of the Forgotten Comedies disc; suffice to say here that Roach envisioned he was joining the “major” independent producers but with tough financing, the closing of foreign markets during wartime, and booking problems (unlike his previous MGM distribution deal, United Artists didn’t block book, meaning each film release had to be sold on its own merits) box-office returns were invariably disappointing. Worse, Roach was forced to step in and direct many of the films himself, and while he certainly was competent in that role, he wasn’t exactly Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, or George Cukor, some of the guys he was competing with for audiences. Captain Fury is a fun matinee movie but you feel it’s aspiring to be more; Aherne tries his best to be Errol Flynn (but doesn’t make it) and leading lady June Lang is pretty but no threat to Carole Lombard (or even Rosina Lawrence). McLaglen steals every scene he’s in, and our trio of villains steal the rest of the picture. It’s also worth mentioning that, while laudable that Roach set a film in Australia, filming it at the familiar Southern California shooting locations (including Malibu!) is another puncture in the film’s lofty ambitions, although footage of a few native Australian animals are sprinkled in for “realism.”
Assistant to the Governor: “I STILL insist that it’s preposterous for you, the most important personage in the colony, to travel through this everlasting dust just to hang one man!”
Governor: “Hanging is also important, Hamilton. Especially to the man who’s being hanged.”
The print of the film is okay, but won’t knock you out; great materials of most of the Roach films simply no longer exist, so we’re certain this is the best print you’re likely to see. About 10 minutes of Hal Roach trailers and film clips is the only bonus material.
Pop some corn and keep expectations turned down just a little bit and you’ll find an entertaining feature but don’t expect The Adventures of Robin Hood, folks.