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December 30, 2008

The World in His Arms

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Raoul Walsh - 1952
Universal Region 1 DVD

Does anyone else think that Raoul Walsh's film age better than those of Howard Hawks or John Ford? It may be revealing that while Hawks and Ford's films in the Fifties became longer, with increasing tendency to make grand statements, Walsh continued to make films pretty much as he always had, which was to have fun and shoot a movie on the side. Except for the fact that his career was based on the invention of the motion picture camera, I'm not sure if Walsh really had much use for the 20th Century. Even the contemporary films often were about characters nostalgic for the past, or acting on outmoded codes of honor. The acting was rooted in the 19th Century stage, transposed to film first by Walsh's mentor, D.W. Griffith. Walsh may have seemed out of his time, especially during the last decade of his career, yet it is that same remove, more than fifty years later, that keeps his films from seeming as dated as a misfire like Hawks' Red Line 7000.

Viewed at a time of animal rights and protection of endangered species, some audience members may be appalled by the attitude towards seals and the seal pelt trade in The World in His Arms. The difference between Gregory Peck, and the Russians who run the fur trade in this 1850 tale, is that Peck is enlightened enough to take "what is needed", while the Russians seem bent on getting every seal to the brink of extinction. What ecological message there is takes a back seat along with the faint Cold War allegory which essentially states that that the Russians are O.K. but for their undemocratic government and the people in charge.

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This may not be among the best of Raoul Walsh's films, but it has almost everything one would want. It's only about two minutes into the film when the first of several fist fights breaks out. Gregory Peck is a sea captain so successful at poaching furs from the Russians that he is able to raise ten million dollars to buy Alaska for himself. His chief competition, aside from the Russians, is Anthony Quinn, a rival captain who will shake hands and steal your watch at the same time. Peck falls in love with chipmunk faced Ann Blyth, a Russian countess who is to marry the much older nephew of the Czar.

The story is less important than watching Quinn try to steal Peck's boat, Blyth, crew and the movie, at one point having an arm wrestling match on a ballroom floor. Being a Walsh film that initially takes place in San Francisco, Peck knows all the "dance hall" girls who show up at the ritzy hotel much to the dismay of fussy proprietor Hans Conried. The one bit of authentic casting involves Eugenie Leontovich as Blyth's aunt among such faux Russians as Carl Esmond and Sig Ruman. There's also a pet seal, first seen in one of the hotel bathtubs. There's even young Bryan Forbes in his first Hollywood role.

One might quibble with what may be a proto-Dixieland jazz band that makes an appearance to liven up a formal dance at the hotel. More difficult to watch is the footage of seals on the Alaskan coast, blown up from 16mm, even more obvious when used as rear projection while Peck is leading his hunting expedition. The boat race between Peck and Quinn looks real enough, though. This may be the only Walsh film where one might gush about the costumes, taking full advantage of beautifully preserved technicolor. And while Peck may not measure up to more frequent Walsh heroes like Flynn and Gable, there is a thrill in watching him burst through a church window to keep Ann Blyth from marrying Carl Esmond. It is fitting for this most classic of action directors that a recurring line from one of the characters is, "We go".

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 30, 2008 12:18 AM