By Charles Culbertson
It’s probably safe to say that only diehard Errol Flynn fans are familiar with his 1950 western, Rocky Mountain. It has never been regarded as one of his greater, or even better, movies, which is a pity. Rocky Mountain — while lacking the Technicolor or splash of Dodge City — is a surprisingly good effort. For once, the great screen swashbuckler was given a chance to flex some acting muscles in a gritty, mature role, and his effort has never received the credit it deserves.
Depending on your point of view, Rocky Mountain will receive a very late, or very early, airing on TCM: Friday, Jan. 22 at 4:30 a.m. ET. If you’re awake, see it; if not, record it. This is one of those unheralded movies that will surprise you, particularly if you’ve never thought of Errol Flynn as much of an actor.
Based on a true incident, the story centers on eight Confederate soldiers who ride into California in the waning days of the Civil War to raise an army. Their progress is hindered when they save a stagecoach, its driver and a young woman passenger from an Indian attack. They retreat to the relative safety of a nearby mountain.
The young woman is the fiancé of a Union lieutenant stationed in that region of California. He leads a patrol in search of her, and is captured when his patrol runs squarely into an ambush by the Confederates. Now everyone is trapped on Rocky Mountain, prisoners of the attacking Indians and of each other.
In years to come, the storyline would serve the first episodes of the television serials Cheyenne and Maverick.
A bumpy beginning
Rocky Mountain got its start in 1948 when Ronald Reagan, who was keen to star in a western, brought the property to the attention of Warner Bros. Originally titled Ghost Mountain, the story by Alan Le May (author of The Searchers) was purchased by the studio and Reagan was promised the lead.
Reagan, however, was not a huge box office draw, even though he had performed loyally and admirably for Warner Bros. since 1937. No, for a property like this, the studio needed a big-name draw, and there were a couple of possibilities. Even though Errol Flynn had caroused his way well past his prime, he was always a consideration when a new action film was to be made. But after his drunkenness, tardiness and general bad behavior on Adventures of Don Juan, the studio didn’t leap to put him into Rocky Mountain. Instead, they offered the lead to John Wayne.
Wayne at that time was a mega-star who already was reaching godlike professional status. When you needed an action star, you immediately looked to John Wayne, and no one can blame Warner Bros. for offering him the role and $200,000 as an inducement to take it. Wayne, for whom money was no longer the prime career consideration, turned it down.
But there was always Errol Flynn (who never turned down a role), so in 1950 Reagan was unceremoniously dumped from the project and Flynn was announced as the male lead.
Two people were put off by Warner’s casting decisions for Rocky Mountain. One, understandably, was Ronald Reagan, who — with his agent — had personally negotiated the story’s acquisition for $35,000 by the studio. The studio had essentially stabbed him in the back, and Reagan felt it. He would work exclusively for Warner Brothers only for another year or two.
The second person miffed by Rocky Mountain’s casting was Lauren Bacall, who was offered the role of the Union lieutenant’s fiancé. Her irritation was understandable, also. The role was little more than fluff and she was a big star. She turned down the role of Johanna Carter and later said:
“I turned it down because it’s just not a part. It’s kind of nothing. I’m not angry, I’m just incredulous. I’ve never been offered a role like this before. I don’t want to do it and they shouldn’t have to pay me. I shouldn’t imagine they’ll have any trouble replacing me.”
They didn’t. With Flynn on board as Confederate Capt. Lafe Barstow, willing actresses abounded. In May 1950, Warner Bros. tested Phyllis Thaxter and pretty, pert stage actress Patrice Wymore for the role. Wymore won, and for her it was to become a two-fer. More on that later.
Other interesting casting notes: Former child actor Dickie Jones, 21 at the time of the making of Rocky Mountain, was cast as the youngest member of the Confederate patrol. He has one of the most moving scenes in the film when he relates to Johanna Carter his chance meeting with Gen. Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg. Ten years earlier, the 11-year-old Jones had starred with Flynn in Virginia City, playing the part of youngster Cobby Gill.
Rocky Mountain was also the film debut of three of filmdom’s most popular and enduring character actors: “Slim” Pickens, Sheb Wooley and “Chubby” Johnson. Pickens had actually performed an uncredited part in the 1946 film Smoky, but Rocky Mountain was his first credited performance.
Solid movie, sagging script
After the headaches and cost overruns of Don Juan, Warner Bros. seriously reduced the size and scope of Flynn’s pictures, Rocky Mountain included. Fortunately, the film didn’t need that kind of financial backing. The entire cast and crew were shipped to the wilds near Gallup, N.M., where director of photography Ted D. McCord turned the stark yet majestic scenery into the movie’s real star.
Flynn’s performance was quite unlike anything he had done previously. It was stern, somber and completely lacking any of the grinning, sparkling humor of most of his other movies. Flynn himself looks a bit shopworn, but this works well with the Ansel Adams-like photography of McCord; while still lean and handsome in most shots (in others his growing dissipation can be detected), Flynn appropriately looks like a man who has been beaten down and jaded by war.
Directed by William Keighley (co-director of The Adventures of Robin Hood) and scored by Max Steiner, Rocky Mountain has a number of good scenes. The best include the Indian attack on the stagecoach and the final battle between the Confederates and the Indians. As good as the last stand in They Died With Their Boots On is, the battle scene in Rocky Mountain is perhaps better in some ways. It is fast, dirty and vicious, with men clawing at each other to kill them — the way a real fight would be.
Still, the story sags badly in the middle, turning what might have been a top-notch movie into something a bit less. After it was released in late 1950, the Los Angeles Times said “it comes close to being an exceptional figure that no one could have been sorrier than this reviewer to see it fall short.” And yet, the film was a success. The New York Times said Rocky Mountain was “a good and interestingly made picture,” and the final take for Warner Bros. in worldwide ticket sales was almost $2 million. In France alone more than 1.5 million people went to see it.
“I allow myself to be understood
as a colorful fragment in a prosaic world.”
-- Errol Flynn
Of course, any discussion of a movie starring Errol Flynn has to touch on the antics of the man. He was a rakehell of the first order, and enjoyed taking both physical and personal risks. For example, he didn’t want to be alone during the filming of Rocky Mountain, so he brought his current fiancé, Romanian princess Irene Ghika, to Gallup to be with him. No sooner had filming commenced than inveterate womanizer Flynn began to take an interest in his co-star, Patrice Wymore.
It was a tricky situation. Flynn not only had the proximity of his fiancé to worry about, but other forces were also trying to keep him from doing what he did best. Director Keighley and his wife didn’t want Wymore to succumb to Flynn’s charms, so when the cast stayed in a motel in Gallup, Keighley arranged to have Wymore on one end of the complex and Flynn on the other — with the Keighleys in between.
But Keighley underestimated Flynn, as had so many others through the years. Somehow, with his fiancé and scores of cast and crew people around, Flynn managed to woo and seduce Wymore. In the end, he would dump Princess Ghika and make Patrice Wymore (who got her two-fer) the third Mrs. Flynn.
However, not everything concerning Flynn and Rocky Mountain was scandalous. In October 1950, the Los Angeles Evening Citizen News reported that while Flynn was on location in Gallup, one of the local Navajo Indians asked him to pose for a photograph. Flynn graciously complied, and the Navajo took the photo. Afterwards, he handed Flynn a 50-cent piece.
“That’s what I get when I pose for tourists,” explained the Navajo.
Flynn kept the coin as a memento for the remainder of his life.
Charles Culbertson is a freelance writer with a lifelong interest in the early days of film, television and radio. He has written and published extensively about American history, and has just published his first work of fiction, “Siege at Fort Lyautey and Other Stories.” Culbertson lives in Waynesboro, Virginia, with his wife, Janet.