This Western is fun in a 1945 kind of way. Produced by Robert Buckner, it was nominally directed by non-Western director David Butler but swashbuckling Raoul Walsh is also said to have worked on it. It has some Walsh get up and go all right.
Errol Flynn did eight Westerns and I think he was quite good in them. He started in an Earpish role in the energetic Dodge City in 1939, did two in 1940, Santa Fe Trail (with Ronald Reagan as Custer) and Virginia City, and all these first three were directed by Michael Curtiz. Curtiz was not a great Western director, really, but Flynn carried the pictures along with gusto. He liked Westerns. He described himself as “a rich man’s Roy Rogers.” Then in 1941 came the rip-roaring They Died With Their Boots On (Walsh again) and it was Flynn’s turn to be Custer. San Antonio was his fifth. I must admit, they did go downhill from there on.
In San Antonio Errol is Clay Hardin, not a badman gunslinger as his portmanteau name might suggest, although he is on the run. He’s a cattleman whose cows have all been stolen by slimy villain Paul Kelly. Errol’s pal Charlie Bell (John Litel in red and white check pants) helps him get back to San Antonio to brace Kelly and put him in jail. There’s loads of skullduggery, and the skullduggers fall out among themselves so then there’s even more.
The screenplay was by WR Burnett (The Westerner, Yellow Sky, Dark Command) and Alan LeMay (The Searchers, The Unforgiven), so real pedigree there.
The picture might well be described as rip-roaring. It has action and pzazz. The Bella Union saloon is really impressive, as is the gunfight that happens in it in the final reel. Acrobatic stuntmen fall from balconies to crush tables and a piano rolls down the stairs. Quiet it ain’t. There’s some very nice Bert Glennon photography in glorious Technicolor (Calabasas, Cal standing in for Texas). The music by Max Steiner is high-octane, melodramatic stuff. There’s shootin’ and gallopin’. The whole movie rattles along at a cracking pace.
Flynn was very dashing with his pistol on his belt and an elegant frock coat. The inevitable lerve interest is provided not this time by Flynn’s great co-star Olivia De Havilland as in Dodge, Santa Fe and Boots, but by Canadian Alexis Smith as actress Jeanne (rather than Belle) Starr, incredibly 1940s looking in hairstyle and make-up.
The fat comic relief is provided by SZ ‘Cuddles’ Sakall (I kid you not) who does the standard English language-mangling foreigner act. The partner baddy, just as caddish as Kelly (for this a two-villain picture), is Belgian Victor Francen as a New Orleans crook, Laguerre, with suspiciously black hair and make-up applied with a trowel. His hat’s great, though.
Good old Monte Blue is there and if you don’t blink you won’t miss Francis Ford and Chris-Pin Martin.
There are two pretty grim songs by la Smith to sit through (one, incredibly, Oscar-nominated). Most of the music, though, is based on the Max Steiner Dodge City score. There’s a drunken cat. There’s a cowboy gang backing Kelly up called The Wild Bunch. There are one or two good lines. “This town is full of men,” opines Jeanne, “who look as though they’d step on baby chickens.” And in a way it’s The Alamo II because Errol tells Jeanne how brave Texans didn’t die there for later ones like him to give up. The Bella Union gunfight spills out onto the plaza and finally ends in the ruined Alamo.
No one would pretend that this is a great Western. It’s a fast-moving, commercial oater with no art pretensions whatever. But it’s a lot of fun.