SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR VIRGINIA CITY.
When this blogathon was announced, people jumped in right away and grabbed up Miriam Hopkins’ best-known films. Even though the rules of the event said duplicates were O.K., I wanted to pick a film a bit outside the box.
When I looked up the 1940 Western Virginia City, I found out Miriam’s co-stars were Errol Flynn and Randolph Scott, and the movie was directed by Michael Curtiz. As a huge fan of Westerns all my life, I couldn’t believe this one had never found its way onto my radar. So I chose it as my topic.
I was a little concerned, though. With two power-house male stars, I was afraid Miriam was consigned to the role of The Girl the Men Fight Over, with a minimal impact on the film’s story.
I’m happy to report that’s not the case at all.
In fact, I found her character, Julia Hayne, remarkably complex and flawed. Not only that, she instigates the major action of the plot.
The story opens at Libby prison near the end of the Civil War. Union officer Kerry Bradford (Flynn) and his two cohorts Olaf (Alan Hale) and “Marblehead” (Guinn Williams) escape. The prison’s commander Vance Irby (Scott) is pleased when his old friend (and perhaps one-time sweetheart?) Julia (Hopkins) comes to see him.
It’s not just a social visit. Julia, who has been living in Virginia City, Nevada and working as a performer in a saloon, has also been spying for the Confederacy. She informs Irby that owners of some of the richest mines in Virginia City, who are Southerners, want to send a shipment of gold to the Confederacy to help turn around the direction of the war. She persuades him to lead an expedition through rough territory with the gold.
Meanwhile, Bradford, who worked in intelligence before his capture, is sent on a mission to stop gold from leaving Virginia City and ending up in the South. On a stagecoach ride, he meets Julia. During their journey they are attacked by bandits lead by John Murrell (Humphrey Bogart). Bradford and his men save the stagecoach from being robbed. By the time it arrives safely in Nevada, Bradford is madly in love with Julia.
Julia uses Bradford’s feelings for her to get information to help Irby and their mission. Irby makes a deal with Murrell, now in town and injured, to use his bandit crew to distract the Union soldiers so the wagon train with the gold can leave town. Julia sets up a meeting between Bradford and Irby, which in reality is a trap. Irby takes Bradford prisoner, but he manages to escape. After a long pursuit, Bradford’s horse tumbles down a deep ravine and he is presumed dead.
In fact, Bradford is alive and sends a message to the Union cavalry. Unfortunately, the commanding officer is a dunderhead who won’t listen to his warnings that the tracks left by Irby are false. He manages to persuade the commander to let him follow his hunch and take a small detachment.
By now the rebel caravan is suffering from thirst and starvation. Worse, Murrell has decided to betray them and attack the caravan to take all the gold for himself. When Bradford arrives, he helps them fend off the bandits. He buries the gold so Murrell can’t get it.
Irby is injured during the fight. Just as all seems lost, the Union soldiers arrive and defeat the bandits. Bradford refuses to give away the location of the gold. He believes it belongs to the South and should be used to help them rebuild after the war. For this, he is arrested and tried for high treason. He is found guilty and sentenced to death.
Julia, seeing what an honorable man he is and realizing she truly loves him, manages to get an interview with President Lincoln and pleads for his life. Since it is the day before the end of the war, Lincoln pardons Bradford. Julia and Bradford reunite in Virginia City and celebrate the end of the war with the other citizens of the town.
Miriam Hopkins was once believed to be a front-runner to play Scarlett O’Hara and was disappointed when she did not win the role. Here she plays another Southern woman whose life is torn apart by war. So why do I call Julia the “anti-Scarlett”? Because she is not preoccupied with male validation.
She is a woman on a mission that she believes in and will do anything to achieve. (Yes, even use her feminine wiles.) I find it utterly refreshing that she doesn’t fall for Bradford right away. And poor Irby–he’s obviously been occupying the “friend zone” for most of their relationship. But again, I find it refreshing that the men aren’t in a macho pissing contest over who will win the girl. All three characters believe in what they’re fighting for, and deep down, respect each other for it.
I love that Julia stays in the thick of all the action. She’s not a super-woman, but one willing to fight for her cause. Hopkins does an amazing job of conveying her conflicting emotions–her sorrow that she can never return Irby’s feelings, her guilt over having to betray a good man who is also her enemy, and resentment that circumstances force her to live her life in a way so different from where she originated.
The direction by Curtiz is fantastic, and there are some rousing action scenes. I love the chemistry between Miriam and Errol Flynn. The humorous banter exchanged by Flynn, Hale and Williams keeps things from getting too morbid. Randolph Scott gives a fatalistic performance as Irby, as if he knows he will never get any of the things he really wants: Julia or an independent South.
The ending IS slightly preposterous. (Really? Abraham Lincoln had time to listen to women plead for the lives of their lovers the day before the war ended? I kind of doubt it.) But at the same time, it is gratifying.
So why isn’t this movie a classic?
I’m going to have to blame this guy:
Well, not really. It’s not really HIS fault. Before he achieved mega-stardom, Bogart did end up in some unfortunate supporting roles. Obviously, Hollywood had a hard time figuring out what to do with him. This one is a real head-scratcher. For one thing, Murrell was a real-life outlaw, but he had also been dead for around twenty years by 1864. He was American, but for some reason they make him–I don’t know exactly what. My best guess is he’s supposed to be a Mexican bandito, with that pencil-thin mustache, dark make-up and–there’s just no other way to say this–REALLY weird accent.
It’s kind of hard not to burst out laughing every time he shows up and starts talking. I’m pretty sure this is the reason the movie is not more highly regarded.
It’s a terrible shame, because after last week’s article devoted to a Southern belle with an obsession over an unworthy man it’s SO nice to watch a story featuring one who is smart, brave, passionate, and concerned with more than just herself and her own fate.
And Miriam was the perfect actress to play her.