Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: I swear, the worst thing about doing this feature every year is coming up with something, anything to riff on the first weekend in May when yet another damn Marvel movie opens. Anyway, Captain America: Civil War. Hey, "Civil War" is right there in the title. We'll go with it.

Virginia City, from 1940, was Errol Flynn's second time in the span of a year making a Western, a genre he hated, and his third consecutive film under director Michael Curtiz (their eighth overall), a director he hated, and who hated him in return. This is the recipe for an unhappy set. I do not know that it was or wasn't, but the net result has the clear feeling of a movie made on an unhappy set. Nothing about it is bad as such, but it very much lacks the "snap" of the previous year's Curtiz/Flynn Western, Dodge City, with Flynn allowing himself to coast to a degree that I've almost never seen him do, while Curtiz, stuck with an all-time legendary set of miscast leads, doesn't seem to have cared about anything but keeping the Virginia City sets in full view and letting the second unit do all the heavy lifting (which they do: the film's action sequences are honestly pretty great, and there is some terrific desert location photography, particularly one high angle shot of a straggling wagon train that emphasises the scary inhuman scale of the American Southwest more than in the great majority of Westerns).

That's all too bad, because with a little more investment and energy from the people making it, Virginia City feels like it could have been something pretty terrific. It's a weird sort of Civil War caper film cut with an Old West action extravaganza, and until its shift to an increasingly arbitrary and absurd finale, it plays in both those sandboxes with ample creativity. The basic ingredients of the screenplay, credited to Robert Buckner (another holdover from Dodge City) include Kerry Bradford (Flynn), a Union spy currently being held captive at a Confederate prison run by Vance Irby (Randolph Scott). Bradford has been working for months on an escape plan, and manages to execute it - impressively, he manages to execute it despite Irby knowing all about it - and with fellow Union soldiers Moose Swenson (Alan Hale) and Marblehead (Guinn "Big Boy" Williams) is able to scramble his way to Union army headquarters, with an astonishing report. Irby, he's learned, has been contacted by a Confederate sympathiser from the Nevada Territory, with $5 million in gold to donate to the Southern cause. We know, because we were there when this offer was made, that the Nevadan in question is Julia Hayne (Miriam Hopkins), herself a rebel spy. Bradford does not know this, and so he doesn't know not to fall head over heels in love with her when the two of them ride the same stagecoach out to Virginia City, focal point of all the gold and silver mining in Nevada.

The rest of the film is a bit polymorphic. There's a love triangle going on - Julia and Irby have already been lovers - and there's also a Mexican bandit sniffing around for the gold, John Murrell (Humphrey Bogart), and he was also on that stagecoach, though what in God's name he was doing out east to begin with is anybody's guess. Meanwhile, there are two entirely different modes in which the plot operates: at times we share Bradford's perspective as he hunts through Virginia City, at times we share Julia and Irby's as they work to throw him off the trail (there is not, however, a single moment where the film invites us to think that Julia and Irby are in the right). Basically, there are a lot of moving parts, and that's clearly a situation where a director who kind of obviously doesn't give a shit can be absolutely deadly to the film. Curtiz, at least, had a thoroughly reliable sense of brutal efficiency, augmented by Virginia City's great creative team: George Amy, a whiz at editing action films, pushes things along and handles the jumps between the Union and Confederate plotlines admirably; Max Steiner's score, mostly variations on "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Dixie", parades its way in and out of the movie in a manner most exciting. The film is 121 minutes long, and until the last ten, it feels nothing like it.

Moving quickly, and arriving with regularity at exciting action setpieces, do not inherently make the film interesting, though. Which is too bad, because a cat-and-cat thriller between Union and Confederate spies in a neutral Western territory sounds like it should be at least interesting. But it comes down to the characters, and the way that they're just not all in the same place, emotionally or dramatically. Flynn, awful human being that he was, was still enough of a pro that he'd never just give up on a film, but he comes as close to doing that here as anyplace, adopting a nonchalant pose for many of his scenes that practically shrieks, "please note, I am incredibly sexy, and the camera worships me, and I don't have to put any effort into proving that". Like I said, coasting. But at least coasting in a way that suits the quiet, observational Bradford, and coasting in a way that Curtiz had some sense of what to do with.

There is also the matter to deal with of the film's two spectacularly misjudged pieces of casting. Let us start with Julia, a role written for Olivia de Havilland, who had been in six of the the Curtiz/Flynn pictures, and was, at the time of Virginia City's premiere, 23 years old. Miriam Hopkins, at the time of the film's premiere, was 37 years old - let no-one think that I am slighting Miriam Hopkins! She is one of my favorites, and I've watched more than one film for the solitary reason that she was in it. She is not, however, somebody who can slide right into a role meant for de Havilland, not least because she's old enough to be de Havilland's aunt (and would play exactly that role nine years later, in The Heiress). At this point in her career, de Havilland was still being pitched roles that heavily traded on her freshly scrubbed youthfulness - in fact, it was in part a protest against such roles that led her to say "fuck you Hal Wallis, I am not making Virginia City" in the first place - and there's a very clear sense in which Julia is meant to be, on the outside at least, a fragile china doll version of limped Southern femininity.

Hopkins does not do that; I wonder if in fact Hopkins cannot do that. The single expression and emotion I most associate with Hopkins, in almost all of her roles, is hunger. Sexual hunger for sure, but also something more basic than that. She is a natural-born predator. When she looks around a room, she always appears to be sizing it up: seeing who will be her natural enemy, seeing who she can turn into her next mark. And the thing is, she does that here, and it's amazing. When we see her as the star of a dancing girl show (and singing, I must add, quite terribly), she immediately exudes an aura of knowingness, a sense that this rowdy, smelly, boozy saloon is her empire, and she holds the lives of everyone in it in the palm of her hand, whether or not they know it (and especially if they don't). It's captivating, it's weird, it's definitely more thrillingly tense than what de Havilland would ever have done with the part. But the deeper into the script we go, the more it constrains her choices and forces her to be just the concerned, Bradford-leaning fulcrum of a love triangle. It doesn't land - at no point has Hopkins's Julia regarded Flynn's Bradford with anything but the wary respect of a shark swimming too close to a member of a different species of shark. "Romantic ingenue" is an ugly look for Hopkins, and in the moments that Virginia City demands her to fill that role, it's pretty rough going.

Attentive readers already spotted the other piece of miscasting right around the time I mentioned the film's villain, a Mexican - named John Murrell, no less - played by Humphrey Bogart. It's amazing. We're talking John-Wayne-is-Genghis-Khan-in-The-Conqueror levels of "what are you fucking on about?" ethnic miscasting. Think of Bogart's characteristic cigarettes 'n gravel voice. Now try to imagine that voice dealing with a cartoon Hispanic "ay caramba, see, seen-yoore" accent. Also, Bogart is wearing a pencil mustache and an awkward smirk that make him an absolute dead ringer for John Carradine. To his credit, Bogart seems quite humiliated to be a part of it all, but that doesn't keep the movie from imploding a tiny bit every time he's onscreen.

The only one of the four stars to acquit himself genuinely well is Scott, playing his Confederate officer as a smart man of principles and no apparent Southern heritage. But even so, the way he plays the role is satisfyingly sad: he knows his side is losing, he knows that history is going to judge his side to be wrong, and he knows his actions won't matter, but he does them because he cannot imagine the person he'd be if he didn't. It's an excellent piece of solid character building in a film where that's in remarkably small supply. Anyway, it's fairly unusual to be able to say "Randolph Scott is definitely the best thing about that movie", so I'm glad to have a chance to do so.

Ultimately, Virginia City devolves into mealy-mouthed homilies about the need to unify and rebuild, complete with a corny-as-shit cameo from Abraham Lincoln (Victor Kilian), but it's got enough good bits and pieces prior to that jump off a cliff to get by. The action is solid, the sense of suffering is rare for a Western of this vintage - the reality that in the Wild West, you could die is never more present than when we discover that a gaudily peppy kid named Cobby (Dickie Jones), who has been annoying us on and off all movie, died horribly offscreen - Sol Polito's cinematography is excitingly rough and realistic, bringing the sets to life in a particularly appealing manner. It is not a very good film, and the wheels were starting to come off the Curtiz and Flynn collaboration in particularly visible ways by this point, but there's just enough going on here and there to make Virginia City a worthwhile curio, at the very least.