Virginia City (1940)
Before the Warner Bros.’ crew of director Michael Curtiz, writer Howard Koch, composer Max Steiner, producer Hal Wallis, and actor Humphrey Bogart brought us the classic Casablanca (1942), they made this less classic film about another city.
Like Casablanca, this movie is set during a war, takes place in a divided, tense city, concerns a long-ago love affair pitted against new romance, and is populated by spies, criminals, patriots, and pretty ladies. But instead of WWII, we’ve got the Civil War; instead of airplanes, we’ve got wagon trains, and instead of Nazis, we’ve got rough-riding bandits. But don’t look for celebratory anniversaries and books about Virginia City–it’s fun and interesting, but it’s not a timeless masterpiece.
Virginia City has a great cast, though! Even if some of the actors are amusingly miscast.
We’ve got swashbuckling Errol Flynn, feisty Miriam Hopkins, handsome Randolph Scott, and legendary Humphrey Bogart. Bogart is the most miscast of the lot—he plays a bandit whose vaguely Mexican accent fluctuates from sentence to sentence.
Fun fact: Another western, Dodge City (1939), with the same crew of Curtiz, Wallis, Steiner, Flynn, writer Robert Buckner, and cinematographer Sol Polito, had been a huge success and helped prompt the making of Virginia City. But the films are not sequels or even related (though Errol Flynn’s character is ordered to go clean up Virginia City at the end of Dodge City!).
We open with an explanatory title card with the curious statement that the story is true but the characters are fictional!
The “daring adventure” is the story of Confederate sympathizers in Virginia City, Nevada, attempting to smuggle five million dollars worth of gold past the Union Army to the South, but I’m having trouble finding the actual event that this movie is based on. There were numerous attempts to get gold to the Confederacy, but I can’t track down the “73 men, women and children” who set out in December 1864. Do you know?
Anyway, the movie then takes us into the heat of battle with a vague Civil War montage:
Once we know the war is raging, we are introduced to Julia Hayne (Miriam Hopkins), who announces that she is a Southerner as she passes through a Confederate checkpoint on her way to Richmond.
Then we arrive at our first very specific, and nasty, place, though it is far from Virginia City!
That’s Captain Kerry Bradford (Errol Flynn), the leader of a Hogan’s Heroes-esque band of Union POWs digging an escape tunnel out of Libby Prison. As usual, Flynn is handsome, charming, and daring: the type of man women love and men love to follow.
The prisoners execute a tunnel-digging shift change just before the prison’s commandant, Captain Vance Irby (Randolph Scott), shows up for a surprise look-around. (Yes, “Irby” is his name.) All seems quiet and normal until Irby notices some incongruously muddy boots, bootprints leading away from the stove, and the stove-pipe sitting ajar. (The tunnel entrance is beneath the stove).
He pushes the stove aside and descends into the tunnel where he meets Bradford and two of his buddies, Moose (Alan Hale) and Marblehead (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams). Both actors frequently appeared as Flynn’s sidekicks.
The lighting in this film is something special, and it’s most marked on Scott and Flynn. Look at the way cinematographer Sol Polito gets that gorgeous shadow-profile of Scott and that soft light on Flynn’s face!
Polito was filming some of the handsomest men in Hollywood, and he lights their faces just beautifully. Sometimes he uses soft, almost-glamour lighting more typically seen on women; I’ll show you more examples later on. Overall the lighting is low-key (high contrast), a style associated with film noir.
The Yankees’ tunnel escape is quashed, and to make it even worse for Bradford and his men, Captain Irby tells them that he first learned about the tunnel three days after they started digging it! Irby let them continue the terrible work for four months, thinking that the backbreaking work itself would be the best punishment. They never had a chance of escaping! Bradford is crushed and furious. You can watch the scene here.
Fun fact: The Southern officer role was originally written for Errol Flynn, and he was angry when the studio flipped the parts and gave him the Bradford role. But Scott is great in the part. He was raised in Charlotte, NC, so his Southern drawl is authentic! In other casting news, Ann Sheridan was the first choice for the part eventually played by Miriam Hopkins.
Another fun fact: Flynn didn’t particularly like Curtiz, though they worked together twelve times, Bogart didn’t like Flynn or Scott, and Curtiz didn’t care for Flynn or Hopkins (which is nothing new for Hopkins, read about her tumultuous relationships with co-stars and directors in my reviews of Barbary Coast and Old Acquaintance.) It couldn’t have been the most harmonious shoot!
When Irby returns to his office after this tense confrontation, he finds Julia Hayne waiting for him. Turns out that Julia and Vance grew up together and were almost engaged or something (it’s vague, but clearly they were very close) before the war.
Now Julia lives in Virginia City where she uses her classical training as a singer to headline the Sazerac Saloon. She also spies for the South; Virginia City is a Yankee stronghold, but there is a healthy community of Southern sympathizers (“copperheads”) scheming against the North, and Julia is chief among them.
Julia did not come all the way from Nevada just to see her old flame. No, she is there on behalf of the Southerners in Virginia City with a scheme for Vance.
The five biggest mines in Virginia City are owned by Southerners desperate to help out their beleaguered, practically defeated, and just about bankrupt Confederacy. It’s 1864, and the South is on its heels. Without a massive infusion of money, the Confederate Army is bound to fold, and soon.
Julia says that the mine owners have five million dollars stockpiled for the cause. They need someone to get it from Virginia City past the Union army and to the South. She thinks that Vance is the only man for the job. He agrees to take the plan to President Davis.
Next thing we know, we’re in the President’s office, and Vance is presenting the scheme to the South’s top officials.
We learn that Vance is perfect for the job because he used to be a cowboy/scout, and he knows every inch of the West.
Fun fact: Scott was not a cowboy/scout in real life, but he did serve in WWI in France. He went to Hollywood in 1927 and had roles in almost every genre, though now he is best remembered for his westerns, and for being Cary Grant‘s good friend and roommate. Like Joel McCrea, Scott focused almost exclusively on westerns for the second half of his career, beginning in the 1940s. He starred with Joel McCrea in Ride the High Country (1962), the last major film for both actors.
Back to the movie. Vance says that he will take the gold along a difficult, long route through Texas to avoid the Yankees. At Galveston the gold will be loaded on a blockade runner that will get it to Wilmington.
He gets the go-ahead, and the President personally thanks Julia for her service. Then Vance and Julia go for a stroll down memory lane, which includes a trip to Julia’s old family home outside of Richmond. They do the typical Civil War film reminiscences of the halcyon days before the war.
Miriam Hopkins gets that glassy-eyed, manic stare she often sports in especially intense moments, and delivers a monologue about Christmas parties and her father standing proud and tall…
I like Miriam Hopkins, but sometimes when she’s doing intense, dramatic scenes, she crosses into camp and becomes amusing rather than poignant. Here she is in Barbary Coast in a similar scene:
Her performances in these two films are similar; she plays a woman outside of respectability who remains true and pure at heart, but she’s a lot less bitter in Virginia City!
Vance reminds her that when he gets to Virginia City, they will have to pretend not to know each other. This ain’t her first rodeo:
As Vance and Julia talk of the good old days before those pesky Yankees destroyed their perfect lives (there’s not a mention of slavery in the whole movie, by the way!), some extra-pesky Yankees are messing up Vance’s plans. For some reason, Vance didn’t think to block up the tunnel even though it runs just underneath the powder magazine…now that they can’t escape through the tunnel, Kerry and his two pals decide to blow up the magazine, instead.
Vance and Julia see an explosion in the distance and hurry back to Richmond, but it’s too late.
Kerry, Moose, and Marblehead are long gone. Somehow they avoided getting blown up when the magazine exploded, and they somehow manage to escape Richmond. Don’t think about it too much.
They make their way to a Union camp where Kerry tells the General his uncannily accurate prediction of what the Confederacy might be up to. He says that the only place the South can get any money is from the mines out West, and that Virginia City is the best bet. He says that he thinks the Confederacy will try to smuggle the gold to the South and launch another, better-financed wave against the North.
The General scoffs, saying that the South has tried this before, and that since the war is nearly over anyway, he isn’t too concerned about the possibility. Kerry says that he thinks the South will try a really massive shipment this time, enough gold to make a difference in the war. He wants to head West and try to stop it. The General gives him permission.
How does Kerry know all of this? No idea, especially since he has been in Libby Prison for at least four months, and probably a lot longer, as the tunnel was his third escape attempt! Again, don’t think about it. It’s enough that our three main characters are all heading to Virginia City, and that Kerry is out to stop Julia and Vance!
Coincidentally, Julia and Kerry take the same stagecoach! He, obviously, doesn’t mention that he is an escaped Yankee POW now working undercover on a gold shipment scheme, and she, obviously, doesn’t mention that she is a Southerner actively working against the Union. She also neglects to tell him that she is a saloon singer. She lets him think that she is a “lady.”
Notice that man in the corner with the thinnest of mustaches and the oddest of accents? It’s Humphrey Bogart! He says that he is a gun salesman, but he quickly turns his “sample” on his fellow passengers. Fortunately, Kerry became suspicious when he saw how well-used the sample gun was, and he gets the drop on Bogart with his much bigger gun! You can watch the scene here.
Kerry seems to have bested famed outlaw John Murrell (Bogart), but Murrell isn’t the most famous bandit in the West for nothing! He escapes, giving us some great stunt opportunities in the ensuing chaos. Of course, the driver drops the reins, so Kerry and his buddies have to do that great jumping from horse to horse and sliding beneath the stagecoach thing:
Fun fact: One of the best stuntmen in Hollywood, Yakima Canutt, performed these crazy stunts. He’d first done them in Stagecoach (1939).
Murrell gets away, but everybody else is fine. Julia is rather grateful to the stunningly handsome man sitting across from her. He likes her, too.
Their friendship grows into something else on the journey, which was bound to happen with all those canyons and sunsets and strolls.
Their beautiful moments cannot last, though, for soon they are entering the wild Western town of Virginia City. They arrive in the midst of a Yankee celebration at the most recent Southern defeat. Julia scurries away to avoid telling Kerry where she lives and what she does, though of course he’s going to find out!
Meanwhile, in the hidden back room of a blacksmith shop, Southern sympathizers led by Vance pour gold bars, build reinforced wagons with secret compartments, and hide gold in sacks of flour and salt. Vance beat Kerry and Julia to Virginia City, you see, and the plan is already well underway. They hope to leave in just a few days.
Time for some Virginia City atmosphere! First stop: the Sazerac Saloon, where a beautiful blonde sings Yankee songs denouncing the “traitors” and celebrating the North. You’d never guess she was a Confederate spy!
As expected, Kerry and his buds wander into the saloon. He’s rather shocked to see the proper young lady he fell in love with up on stage!
We get the usual “You’re not pure and perfect!” from Kerry and “I knew you wouldn’t understand!” from Julia. You can watch the scene here. It’s worth it to see the Yankee song “Battle Cry of Freedom.”
Fortunately, we don’t have to spend too long with that tedious situation. An ornately framed mirror and a clever bit of camerawork reveal that Vance and Kerry are side by side at the bar. Oh no! The game is up, for surely Kerry will figure out what his old Confederate prison commandant is up to, and Vance will warn everyone that a Yankee spy is in their midst!
They greet each other like old pals, but both are highly suspicious.
Vance explains that he was wounded and discharged, but Kerry doesn’t believe it for a second. It’s a jolt for Julia, too, when Vance whispers to her that Kerry is a Yank!
The chummy threesome disbands. Julia looks dramatically sad in her whimsical black fascinator:
Vance heads straight from the saloon to the blacksmith shop to warn his fellow conspirators. This was perhaps not the best idea, as Kerry follows him and notices the line of light shining underneath a wall of hay bales. The secret room!
It’s a nice echo of the scene in Libby Prison when Vance found clues about Kerry’s secret activities.
A gunfight ensues but Vance and Kerry aren’t hurt. After the smoke has cleared, Kerry enters the secret room, but the gold and wagons are gone, hidden elsewhere in Virginia City. Vance and the other copperheads go into hiding, too.
Kerry works with the Union garrison nearby to shut down all roads out of Virginia City and to round up known Southern sympathizers.
Meanwhile, Vance visits Dr. Cameron, a fellow Southerner, to make new plans. While at the Cameron house, Murrell and some of his men arrive and force the doctor to patch up Murrell’s shoulder. This encounter with the dangerous outlaw gives Vance an idea. It also gives us some more beautiful profile shots.
Vance tells Murrell that he will pay him to attack the Union garrison with his gang, thus drawing away the troops patrolling Virginia City and providing a distraction that will hopefully allow the gold-laden wagon train to escape. Murrell seems interested.
Fun fact: There actually was an outlaw named John Murrell who terrorized the Mississippi River. He would steal slaves and sell them to other slaveowners, and he was also part of the Reverse Underground Railroad, the name given to the practice of kidnapping free black people and selling them into slavery. You may have heard of John Murrell from Mark Twain, who writes about Huck and Tom finding “Murel’s Treasure” in Tom Sawyer. The real John Murrell died in 1844, so Bogart’s character only shares his name.
Back to the film. While Vance is making deals with very unsavory characters, Kerry is searching for and arresting copperheads. But he takes time out from his busy schedule for a quick visit to the Sazerac. He’s forgiven his lady love for being less lady than he thought. Isn’t that big of him?
Fortunately, he doesn’t un-forgive her when he sees her doing the can-can and showing off her ruffled bloomers.
They meet on the staircase to her dressing room and have a charming heart-to-heart ending with a passionate lip-to-lip.
She looks positively angelic standing above him in her white dress with a flower in her hair, doesn’t she? A bit more “ladylike” than her short black costume with the sequined heart on the sheer strap! (Orry-Kelly designed the costumes for this film.)
Julia is still aflutter with love when she enters her dressing room to find Vance inside. Good thing Kerry didn’t come with her! Vance has good and bad news. He thinks the wagons can get out of Virginia City soon, but only if Kerry is out of the way. He asks Julia to help him set a trap.
She doesn’t want to betray her beloved, but she loves the South, too. She agrees.
The next night, she sends for Kerry. She begs him to give up his hunt for the gold, hoping that he will forsake his duty so that she won’t have to betray him.
He refuses, so she has no choice but to go through with her own distasteful duty. She tells him that she knows where Vance is hiding, and that he will give himself up if Kerry comes alone.
Up to this point, Kerry has seemed like a clever man, but he acts pretty dumb now. He goes to the house where Vance is hiding, and tells his two buddies to come in if he isn’t out in fifteen minutes. He steps inside, his gun holstered. Ready for more glorious lighting?
Kerry realizes too late that Vance has no intention of surrendering. Instead, it will be Kerry who is put in custody by Vance’s Southern friends.
I hope Kerry has learned his lesson. Maybe next time he should tell his friends to storm in two minutes later, not fifteen?
He gets another unpleasant shock when he sees that Julia is part of the wagon train. Heart, broken.
That little boy next to Julia is Cobby (Dickie Jones). But with Errol Flynn’s slightly English accent (he was actually Australian), Scott’s soft Southern drawl, and Hopkins’ English/Southern accent (she was from Georgia but picked up that British lilt that so many classic actors had), it sounds more like “Carby” or “Kirby.” I couldn’t figure out the poor kid’s name until it appears onscreen…in a very sad way.
So the whole group sets out while Murrell’s gang attacks the Yankee outpost. The garrison is forced to call back its troops from Virginia City, so the wagon train gets clean away.
Julia tries to talk to Kerry, whose hands are tied to his saddle, but he’s not willing to chat. On and on they ride.
Then a thundering horde descends upon them, but don’t worry, it’s just Murrell coming for his payment. Or maybe do worry? Should Vance be trusting Murrell? It’s generally not good policy to let a known bandit find out you’re transporting millions of dollars in gold.
The journey is tough, but things go well until they reach a U.S. Army outpost. Vance tells the officer that they are settlers heading for California, and the officer waves them through. He watches as men struggle to push the wagons forward, and he gets suspicious. Those wheels sure sank into the sand…what did you say you’re carrying?
Bullets start whizzing by in the wagon train’s first skirmish. The few soldiers at this tiny outpost have no chance against the heavily armed “settlers.”
Vance’s force is victorious, but little Cobby fell in front of one of the wagons and it rolled over him. He’s alive, but very badly hurt.
In all the excitement and violence, Kerry breaks away from the group and takes off across the sand. Vance and his men charge after him, and nearly catch him, too.
They chase him to the edge of a cliff, but Kerry decides to go careening down. It is an insane stunt.
The horse falls and Kerry goes flying. The horse gets right up, I promise, but it’s difficult to watch. Vance and his men gaze down at the Kerry’s unmoving body and declare him dead. They head back to the train. But Kerry isn’t dead! Hurrah!
The cool thing about this movie is that there isn’t a true antagonist (besides Murrell). It’s not an overly-simplified look at the War Between the States with one side as Evil Incarnate and the other side as Goodness and Truth. Both the North and South are full of good people, and both Kerry and Vance are really good guys fighting for what they believe in. You’re rooting for Kerry and for Vance, though you know that if one succeeds the other must fail.
It’s a weird dynamic to hope that the wagon train gets through for Vance and Julia’s sake, and to simultaneously hope that Kerry stops it! It makes this film much more interesting, that’s for sure.
Kerry eventually makes his way back to the Union outpost and uses the tank-based telegraph system to send word of the Confederate gold wagon train to the Army.
His buddies Moose and Marblehead find him at the outpost, and soon the whole Yankee lot is reunited with a detachment of the Union Army. They are on the trail of the wagon train!
Meanwhile, little Cobby doesn’t make it. (This is when I figured out what his name is.) I feel like a bad person, but all I can think of when I watch this scene is the computer game Oregon Trail!
Vance employs some sneaky tricks to fool any following scouts, and it succeeds with the portly Union officer in charge. But Kerry knows better, so he a small group of soldiers proceed along the correct route. They have just sighted the wagon train when they see Murell’s gang attacking Vance’s group!
It was definitely not a good idea to tell Murrell about the gold!
It’s going badly for the Confederates.
But, lo! A small portion of the cavalry has arrived, led by Kerry! Before we know it, Kerry and Vance are fighting side by side, and Julia is bringing them ammunition!
They hold off Murrell’s gang until nightfall, but Vance is badly wounded.
It doesn’t look good. That night, Vance and Kerry have a heart-to-heart, with some more beautiful shots.
I think Vance and Kerry should have gotten together, never mind Julia. Wouldn’t it be fun for Kerry and Vance to ride off together to fight evil?
Anyway, this scene is more than just gorgeous close-ups of gorgeous men. Vance tells Kerry that he knows the gold won’t get to the Confederacy in time to avert defeat, but he doesn’t want it to go to the Union or, even worse, to Murrell. He asks Kerry to remember that the gold belongs to the South; he begs his former enemy to somehow make sure that the money is used to rebuild the burned and battered South after the war.
Kerry was probably intending to turn over the gold to the Union army, but he listens to Vance’s deathbed plea and his mind changes.
First things first, though. They know that Murrell will attack at first light, massacre the people, and steal the gold. So Kerry comes up with a plan. He has all the gold loaded into one wagon and taken into the cliffs. Then he dynamites the (strangely regular) cave walls so that the gold is buried under tons of rock.
Then it’s back to the wagon train to mount a doomed defense against Murrell. We get the typical conversation about the Army’s possible arrival and the anguished suspense of “Will they get here in time?” Kerry tells the desperate group that they could arrive in hours or days, so who knows? (Well, if you’ve ever seen a western, you do…)
The bandits attack and it looks bad. I mean, it looks beautiful against that incredible scenery, but the bandits are winning.
Fun fact: The location shots were filmed near Flagstaff, Arizona, over a period of three weeks, but, oddly enough, it rained two out of those three weeks!
Just to reinforce Kerry’s hero-status, he comforts a young girl whose father gets shot and even pauses in the fight to take her to Julia so he can resume his valiant defense unencumbered.
But lo! Bugles blare in Steiner’s “cavalry” motif and the bandits are driven away.
Fun fact: Max Steiner, one of the greatest film composers ever, took the Wagnerian leitmotif to new heights in his film scores. A leitmotif is a recurring musical phrase that is associated with a character, place, idea, or situation, and in Steiner’s scores just about every character and scene/situation has its own unique melody. In this movie, Steiner took well-known songs and wove them into the score, so it’s fairly easy to pick out the various themes. The most obvious leitmotifs in this film are the cavalry’s bugle song that plays every time they are on screen, and strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie” for Southern characters and the wagon train.
Anyway, the victorious Army takes control of the wagon train and is pretty mad to learn that the gold has “disappeared;” Kerry claims he was wrong and it never existed. The whole group turns around and heads back to Virginia City.
Kerry refuses to say what happened to the gold, so he is court-martialed. Apparently, Vance’s last request made quite an impression on him, because Kerry insists that his duty as a soldier (return the gold) and his duty as a man (use the gold to rebuild the South) were in fundamental conflict.
He tries to explain it to the court, but he is sentenced to death for treason, anyway. Boy, can Errol Flynn wear a frock coat!
His execution date is April 9, 1865. Hmm…
On April 8, Julia gains an audience with President Lincoln to ask him to pardon Kerry. We saw President Davis, but Lincoln appears only as a shadow. He’s portrayed as a mythic, God-like figure, and the shadowy profile only increases that effect. Although Southerners are “heroes” in this movie, it does not suggest that the wrong side won the war by any means!
Lincoln tells Julia that the generals are meeting at Appomatox Court House the next day to sign the surrender, and that it is time to start knitting the country back together. Of course he will pardon Kerry!
Next thing we know, Julia and Kerry are reunited in the midst of a victory/end of war celebration. Julia is appropriately bittersweet: her side lost, but the bloodshed is over and now they can begin re-building, with the help of that five million dollars.
Plus, she’s got her man. At this point, she’s forgiven him for being an enemy spy, and he’s forgiven her for being a saloon girl and an enemy spy! Ain’t love grand?
It’s a very poignant, if propagandistic, ending with a call for national unity couched in Civil War terms but intended for America on the brink of WWII.