Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Son of Fury (1942)

Son of Fury is included in the Tyrone Power Collection boxed set but is rather less of a standard swashbuckler than the other featured movies. 

Directed by John Cromwell and released in 1942, Son of Fury certainly has the right setup for a swashbuckler. The setting is England in the 18th century. Power plays a character, Benjamin Blake, who has been cheated of his inheritance by his wicked uncle Sir Arthur Blake. To add insult to injury the wicked uncle, played with relish by George Sanders, has taken young Benjamin on as a bonded servant and the boy soon comes to realise this this is little better than slavery. Benjamin grows to manhood and it’s obvious that sooner or later things are going to get complicated and nasty, especially given that he has fallen in love with Sir Arthur’s daughter Isabel (Frances Farmer). Sir Arthur accuses Benjamin of attempted assault, a hanging offence if you’re a bonded servant. Benjamin comes to the very sensible conclusion that it would be advisable to get out of England for a while.

Benjamin flees England in a merchant ship. He is persuaded by another member of the crew, Caleb Green (John Carradine), to jump ship with him in the South Seas. Caleb has reason to believe that a certain island possesses an extraordinarily rich pearl fishery. The two of them can easily make their fortune there. The only problem is that the island is well off the regular trade routes and is only visited by European shipping at very irregular intervals. They might become rich men in theory but they might also end up spending the rest of their lives on the island. 

After a while being stranded on a South Sea island doesn’t seem quite so bad. Benjamin has settled down with a beautiful native girl (played by Gene Tierney) and life is good. 

This is the point where the movie runs off the rails for quite a while. While Benjamin is on the island the plot comes to a complete standstill. The movie gives us every single South Sea island cliché and things threaten to become terminally boring. John Carradine’s surprisingly sunny performance and Gene Tierney’s beauty are unfortunately not enough to keep things interesting.

Mercifully a Dutch merchantman finally arrives to free Benjamin from his self-imposed exile (and to free the viewer from increasing boredom). Once Benjamin is back in London the movie is back on the rails and, even more welcome, George Sanders is back in the picture. Benjamin is now a rich man, rich enough to employ the services of a certain Bartolomew Pratt (Dudley Digges). Pratt is a barrister and a Member of Parliament and most importantly he is a man whose speciality is using his very considerable influence to serve the interests of those who can afford his fees. If anyone can prove that Benjamin is the rightful heir to the baronetcy and the Blake family estate it is surely Bartolomew Pratt.

There are still a few plot twists left in this movie before the ending. The ending is somewhat over-the-top and I had a few issues with it although it certainly ties up some loose ends.

This movie’s strength is not in its somewhat corny plot but in the performances, especially the two key performances by Tyrone Power and George Sanders. Power is in his element. Power’s particular gift as an actor was his ability to play swashbuckling heroes who were rather more complex and rather more vulnerable than most. Power was a very different swashbuckler from the outrageous self-confident Errol Flynn. Power’s heroes were more fallible and more likely to be assailed by doubts. What keeps our interest is seeing how the hero will resolve his conflicts, which in the case of a Power hero is not necessarily by athletic prowess and fighting skill. Benjamin Blake is the type of hero Power played very well.

George Sanders of course is best remembered for playing cads and bounders. Sir Arthur Blake is more than a mere bounder. He is a vicious, selfish, sadistic, opportunistic bully on the grand scale. Sanders is in magnificent form. The conflict between Benjamin and Sir Arthur is the heart of the movie and this conflict is explosive and memorable. Sir Arthur is a noted amateur boxer and the first time we see him in this movie he is mercilessly pummeling some poor member of the local peasantry. We will later see him dishing out the same treatment to young Benjamin, after which he takes a whip to the boy. Benjamin is left with physical scars but the psychological scars are far worse and we can be sure that if ever Benjamin gets the chance to repay this debt he will do so with interest. Power and Sanders really are superb in their scenes together. This is the most intensely physical performance I can recall seeing from Sanders.

The supporting cast is impressive as well, with Frances Farmer being slightly disturbing as the ambiguous Isabel - we always feel that Isabel will somehow prove to be trouble and we’re not mistaken. John Carradine I’ve already mentioned - this may be the most cheerful performance he ever gave. Dudley Digges makes the most of his brief but vital scenes. Elsa Lanchester is a kind-hearted barmaid who does Benjamin a good turn. Roddy McDowall plays Benjamin as a boy.

The transfer on this movie is excellent and the DVD includes a brief featurette on Powers’ career. This is one of the five movies in the Tyrone Power Collection, a boxed set that I recommend very highly.

Son of Fury is an uneven movie and is by no means a conventional swashbuckler. Despite losing its way for rather too long in the South Seas it’s worth seeing for the extraordinary performances by Powers and Sanders which are enough to earn it highly recommended status.

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