The American Civil War is nearing its end, and the South is running out of funds. In order to continue the fight, they need gold, and fast.
Luckily for them, Julia Hayne (Miriam Hopkins) is willing to help. She travels from Virginia City, Nevada to Libby Prison to meet with commander Vance Irby (Randolph Scott), offering $5,000,000 in gold if someone can help her move it from Virginia City to Richmond.
Kerry Bradford (Errol Flynn), a Union intelligence offer, manages to escape Libby just in time to hear news of the gold shipment. He and his fellow escapees Marblehead (Guinn Williams) and Moose (Alan Hale) head to Nevada to stop the shipment.
Kerry isn’t the only outsider interested in the shipment, though. John Murrell (Humphrey Bogart) and his band of outlaws want to get their hands on the gold. On top of that, on the way to Virginia City, Kerry and Julia meet, complicating everything.
Michael Curtiz directs 1940’s Virginia City, a tale of “the richest, roughest town on the face of the earth.” This film is one of twelve collaborations between the director and Errol Flynn.
Despite the fact that they worked together so many times, TCM reports that Curtiz and Flynn butted heads on the set of this film, one of many behind-the-scenes problems to plague the picture. Two further Curtiz/Flynn pictures, The Sea Hawk and Sante Fe Trail, were released in the same year as Virginia City… but the men just couldn’t get along. Shooting began with an unfinished script, and Randolph Scott took over the role originally intended for Flynn, adding to the on-set tensions.
Considering the last-minute character swapping, Scott and Flynn both do well in their roles here. Scott is wholly believable as a confederate prison commander plotting with his Southern belle to further his cause. Errol is smooth as well and very charming, as usual, in his role of Union spy.
The same praise can’t be heaped on the whole cast, however. I’m sure you can see the problem simply by looking at the credited actors in the plot synopsis above. One of these things is not like the other, and that thing is Humphrey Bogart! Randolph Scott is probably best known for his Westerns, and Flynn was certainly no stranger to adventurous stories or period films. But when you put Bogie in a thin mustache and a 19th-century get-up… it just doesn’t work. He looks out of place and he sounds it, too, despite the fact that his character is not much different from many of the gangsters he played — an outlaw leading a band of thieves, on horseback rather than in cars.
Still, there’s plenty to enjoy about the film. The photography is very nice, crisp and high in contrast. Though Virginia City offers no serious exploration of the war and its driving causes, the film has plenty of tension, including several great scenes shared by Flynn and Scott. For those tuning in for the Western elements, there’s a fair bit of gun slingin’ action.
For all of its on-set issues and the laughable miscasting of Bogart, Virginia City is still an enjoyable watch, not a great film but a fine time-passer.