Assigned to bomb a German railway, Flight Lt. Terrence Forbes (Errol Flynn) presses home an attack but flies too low and the RAFbomber is shot down near the former Polish border. Along with his crew, consisting of Flying Officer Johnny Hammond (Ronald Reagan), Flight Sergeant Kirk Edwards (Alan Hale, Sr.), Flying Officer Jed Forrest (Arthur Kennedy) and Flight Sergeant Lloyd Hollis (Ronald Sinclair) who is wounded, they are captured by the Germans.
Gestapo Major Otto Baumeister (Raymond Massey) interviews Hammond who gives a baffling account of their bomber's technology and suddenly knocks the major unconscious. Forbes then subdues the other soldiers, the group searches the major's office and find papers showing a hiddenMesserschmitt aircraft factory. Setting out on their dangerous trip across enemy territory, they first obtain German uniforms and board a train heading west. On their route, they attack and destroy a chemical plant but realize they need a doctor for their wounded crew member. With the help of Kaethe Brahms (Nancy Coleman), a member of the underground, they locate a doctor, but it is already too late to save Hollis.
With Baumeister on their trail, the men lose another of their group when Edwards is killed. Driving as far as their stolen car will go across Nazi Germany, the flyers run out of gas but stumble on a concealed bomber in the Netherlands. The captured British aircraft is being prepared for an attack on England. The three remaining flyers overpower the flight crew but Forrest is shot. Blasting their way past the soldiers on the ground, killing many of them, including Baumeister, the trio take off. On their way to the English Channel, Hammond releases the bomb aboard that destroys a German base. As they reach safety, Forbes and Hammond learn that Forrest will recover from his wounds.
L-R: Ronald Reagan and Raymond Massey in a pivotal scene where the Nazis are foiled for the first time==Cast==
The movie was originally known as Forced Landing. It was written by Arthur Horman, who had done some a week's uncredited work on the script for The 49th Parallel (1941), notably scenes between Raymond Massey and Laurence Olivier. While there he came up with the idea for a film about six English pilots escaping through occupied Europe, the reverse situation of The 49th Parallel.
Vincent Sherman was considered to direct; he wrote to Hal Wallis saying he loved the central concept and thought the basic idea was good but "it's greatest weakness was that it didn't have a story... once the men make their first escape you could very easily leave out every following sequence and simply go to the end without losing anything in so far as story is concerned".
Sherman was replaced as director by Raoul Walsh and the title changed to Desperate Journey. Errol Flynn was meant to make Gentleman Jim for the studio but they postponed it so he could star in Desperate Journey instead. The movie was rushed into production in order to take advantage of America's recent entry into the war, which meant the problems in the script identified by Sherman were never really fixed up.
Prior to and during filming, uncredited work on the script was done by Julius and Philip Epstein. Director Raoul Walsh said "they have added a little zip to the script" and asked for them to keep working on it from a memo from Raoul Walsh to Hal Wallis dated February 13, 1942.
Principal photography on Desperate Journey took place from late January-early April 1942, filmed at the Warner Bros. studio, Lake Sherwood (Point Mugu and Point Hueneme) and Warner Ranch, Calabasas, California backlots. Flying scenes were shot at the Van Nuys Metropolitan Airport. Warner Bros. was located in close proximity to the Lockheed aircraft plant, and was able to "borrow" a production Lockheed Hudson bomber for the film that was already destined for RAF use. The other aircraft that is featured prominently in the film, mainly through a mock-up (shot on Warner's Sound Stage 16) and in model work is the contemporary United States and RAF Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber.
Ronald Reagan, an air force reservist before World War II, received his call for active service while the film was in production.[N 2] While Warners lobbied the government for a 30-day extension, the US Army was only willing to offer two weeks, forcing Walsh to shoot scenes with Reagan out of sequence, and to use a double for some scenes.
After beginning his film career, Reagan called himself the "B movie Errol Flynn", but in Desperate Journey, he shared top billing with Flynn.[N 3] He made the most out of the film's showcase scene, his fast-paced doubletalk in the interrogation by Massey. Flynn also lobbied intensely to get the scene but despite a closed-door shouting match with director Walsh, the producer insisted that no changes to the script would be accepted.
Fresh from his acclaimed effort in Kings Row (1942), Reagan was at the high point of his career, making the transition from supporting to lead actor in studio features, and about to sign a seven-year contract with Warner Bros. In post-war years, Reagan's Hollywood career would never regain the same momentum before he was called up for duty.
During production, Flynn's February 1942 draft board physical revealed the presence of tuberculosis in his right lung. Unwilling to face an extended unpaid layoff, Flynn hid his condition from Warners. Between his illness and Walsh's exacting schedule, as the shoot progressed, Flynn dropped to 165 pounds. His wardrobe first was refitted, and then ultimately padded. Due to illness, Flynn was often late.[N 4]
Desperate Journey went on to gross $2 million for Warners Bros., the third Flynn film of that year to reach that coveted mark, according to Variety. Studio bosses were aware the film was being screened during Flynn's rape trial, yet the negative publicity actually enhanced ticket sales.
Despite its popularity at the box office, critical reviews were not positive. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times characterized the plot as basically similar to other, much better recent films, Target for Tonight (1941) and Man Hunt (1941). His review centered on the frenzy of the action. "And such hair-raising, side-splitting adventures as they have in a wild-goose trek across Germany — such slugging of guards and Raymond Massey, such chases and incidental sabotage you'll not see this side of the comics, or possibly an old-time Western film."
Desperate Journey was released on VHS Home Video in 1994. Although it is not available on DVD as a standalone film, the film is issued as part of the TCM Spotlight: Errol Flynn Adventures Collection, Volume 2 (2010). Desperate Journey is not released on Blu-ray.