Stand-up historians (well…it might be a thing) like to point out that the United States and Australia share a common kinship in that our forefathers emigrated to their respective countries from the United Kingdom. The only difference, of course, is that it was a voluntary deal for Americans; the Aussies, on the other hand, consisted of a hefty percentage of convicts who were persona au gratin in the British Isles.
This is the premise of the 1939 motion picture Captain Fury: in the 1840s, a ship filled with undesirables arrives in New South Wales…and among those passengers is Captain Michael Fury (Brian Aherne), an Irish patriot imprisoned due to his political activities. Fury, his pal Roger “Coughy” Bradford (John Carradine), and the rest of their fellow passengers are placed in the loving care (hee hee) of wealthy land baron Arnold Trist (George Zucco), who makes certain that the convicts are kept occupied with hard labor on his spread.
On his first night at Rancho Trist, Fury crosses paths with an old nemesis, Jerry “Blackie” Black (Victor McLaglen). Blackie and Fury have a bit of a dust-up, but their exchange of blows results in a friendship between the two men. Having Blackie on his side will come in handy; when he’s threatened with a punishment from the whip, Fury executes a daring escape from Trist Penitentiary and seeks sanctuary at the home of Jeanette Dupre (June Lang), the daughter of Mennonite farmer Francois Dupre (Paul Lukas). Fury learns from Jeanette that the only individuals Trist despises more than the convicts in his employ are folks like the Dupres, two of the Australian settlers who Trist (“I am the law!”) hopes to drive from their land and claim it as his own.
Fury cuts a deal with the settlers: if they don’t turn him in for the £100 reward, he’ll help them in their struggle against Trist. Having secured their trust, he returns to Trist’s estate to help Blackie, Coughy, and several others crash out to assist him in the battle. Jeanette starts to fall hard for this man dedicated to fighting repression, but her father has other ideas.
Directed by Hal Roach—the producer of some of the finest two-reel comedies in the history of the movies—Captain Fury is an entertaining cinematic adventure that may remind classic movie mavens of Captain Blood, an Errol Flynn swashbuckler released four years earlier. Roach commissioned the original story and screenplay from Grover Jones, Jack Jevne, and William C. deMille (Cecil’s bro) after an attempt to obtain the rights to adapt Marcus Clark’s 1874 novel For the Rest of His Natural Life failed. Captain Fury was the second of two pictures that star Brian Aherne made for Roach (the other being 1938’s Merrily We Live), and in his 1969 autobiography A Proper Job Aherne described the film as “a farrago of nonsense.” The actor was convinced that he would receive far more critical acclaim for his turn as Maximilian I in Juarez (1939), which was released at the same time as Fury…and while his Juarez role was the one for which he would receive his only Academy Award nomination, Captain Fury did far better at the box office. (Fury did, however, receive an Oscar nod for Charles D. Hall’s art direction.)
Considered by more than a few critics to be “the poor man’s Ronald Colman” (I confess I’ve even used this description a time or two), Brian Aherne was a most underrated screen actor, and several of the movies he graced are among my favorites: What Every Woman Knows (1934), Sylvia Scarlett (1935), and A Night to Remember (1943) are the ones that immediately come to mind. He’s most effective as the dashing Fury and enjoys a nice chemistry with leading lady June Lang—herself no stranger to working on “The Lot of Fun” (she appears with Laurel & Hardy in Bonnie Scotland  …and Hardy solo in Zenobia ).
Victor McLaglen is also a major plus in Captain Fury as Blackie, excelling as the film’s comic relief; I liked how Blackie makes amends with Cap after their fistfight, and then later becomes a valuable ally in the squaring-off against the villainous Trist (Blackie seems a bit overwhelmed by the idea of “resistance” …and hilariously has difficulty shedding his larcenous nature). The acting in Fury is the movie’s chief asset, particularly in the triumvirate of character villains represented by George Zucco (as Trist), Douglass Dumbrille (as Trist’s “brains” henchman Preston), and Charles “Ming the Merciless” Middleton (as head lackey Mergon). Zucco is particularly at his diabolical best; when informed by Dumbrille that Doug had to administer a dozen lashes to a prisoner who punched a guard, George scoffs and admonishes his henchie that he’s “getting soft.”
John Carradine plays a good guy in this one; they don’t come right out and say it, but the fact that his character is nicknamed “Coughy” would indicate he’s got a tubercular condition. Other favorites in the cast include Lumsden Hare, Mary “Mrs. Hudson” Gordon, and native Aussie (and silent comedy clown) Billy Bevan. Malibu Beach and Santa Cruz Island stand in for the Land Down Under, though in one sequence—as Fury and his men ride to the settlers’ rescue—you’ll find a few kangaroos hopping about to help maintain the illusion of accuracy.
Captain Fury is one of several titles from the Hal Roach Studios that has finally made its way to DVD courtesy of the fine people from The Sprocket Vault and Kit Parker Films. Extras on this release include trailers from films produced at that studio—including two I’ve previously reviewed in this space, Topper (1937) and One Million B.C. (1940). Fury is a fun, underrated romp that does a swell job of blending comedic and dramatic elements…and is really what loving classic movies is all about.