What a difference a director makes. One of my gripes with San Antonio was the fact that it was made by a man who didn’t seem to be in touch with the genre. The western is one kind of film where such a lack of association is especially damaging. Despite the fact that it encompasses so many themes and types of story, the western has its own look, rhythm and ethos – that’s what makes it unique, in my eyes anyway. Silver River (1948) is an odd mix of western and slightly soapy melodrama but, at heart, it’s really an old-fashioned morality play. Raoul Walsh was very much at home making oaters and his steady hand on the tiller ensures that this movie holds true to its course.
Silver River is a tale of one man’s rise, fall and ultimate redemption. It opens towards the end of the Civil War, when Mike McComb (Errol Flynn) deliberately disobeys an order, for the best of reasons, and is subsequently court martialled and cashiered. This has the effect of hardening his resolve to succeed at all costs in civilian life, and look out solely for number one. The first half of the movie charts his seemingly unstoppable rise both socially and financially, as he acquires capital, transport, a gambling house, interests in the mining business, and another man’s wife in rapid succession. As we follow each step of McComb’s progress, the script throws in one reference to the classical world after another (ranging from Julius Caesar to King David) to draw parallels with the character’s actions. McComb’s ruthless pursuit of power and glory drives him right to the brink of moral bankruptcy, but results in the financial bankruptcy that is necessary if he is to avoid slipping into the abyss. The aptly named Plato Beck (Thomas Mitchell) is on hand all the while to act as the voice of conscience. The drunken lawyer first assists McComb in his meteoric rise and then presides over his downfall, knowing that he must destroy his friend in order to save him.
Silver River is one of those movies that was almost perfectly cast. Flynn, nearing forty and with a few rough years behind him, is fine as the man still young enough for grandiose dreams but tinged with the kind of realism that comes from having lost a few rounds. His own personal troubles and the knowledge of what he was doing to himself at this point must surely have coloured his performance. Some of the scenes in the latter half of the film, where he is confronted with the ugliness of his actions and the prospect of abandonment, really ring true and one can read the resignation and despair in his eyes. Ann Sheridan is wholly believable playing the tough as nails frontier woman who first rails against Flynn before finally succumbing. Sheridan was one of those actresses who brought a lot of honesty to her playing and I thought she was especially convincing in the early scenes where she eschewed all of the usual Hollywood glamour to portray a woman who was the equal of any of the men around her. I always enjoy seeing Thomas Mitchell in anything and, although some may have a problem with his admittedly hammy style, find he brings an enormous amount of pathos and humanity to every part. His role in Silver River is a pivotal one and it’s entirely to his credit that it would be hard to imagine anyone else playing it. As I said earlier, Raoul Walsh holds everything together expertly and succeeds in preventing the melodrama from becoming too suffocating. The outdoor scenes and the action are everything you would expect from a director of Walsh’s calibre, and the more dramatic indoor confrontations are well shot with plenty of emphasis on the actors’ faces – something of a characteristic with this director.
Silver River was a surprise omission from Warners Errol Flynn western package, but it is freely available on DVD from them in France. The image quality looked pretty good to my eyes, save for a little softness in the first ten minutes or so. Thereafter the picture remains clean, sharp and quite consistent. The disc has removable French subs and is completely barebones but, on the positive side, it’s not all that expensive. I think this is a bit of an undervalued film that deserves to be rediscovered, so I’d recommend it. I’ll be looking at Montana next.