Flynn, Errol (1909-1959)

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Flynn, Errol (1909-1959)

The facts of Errol Flynn's life and work reveal a pathetic tragedy of self-destruction and wasted gifts. His place in popular culture was assured equally by fame and notoriety. A heroic swashbuckler on screen, seducing audiences with his fresh charm, devil-may-care personality, athleticism, and dazzling good looks, he scandalized the public and his peers with his private exploits. A boon to gossip columnists he undoubtedly was, but while they charted his barroom brawls and questionable boudoir escapades (which gave the English language the expression "In like Flynn"), he steadily disintegrated, dying of drink, drugs, and despair at the age of 50.

From an early age, Flynn's nature—adventurous, reckless, unstable—was evident. Born into a comfortable and well-educated family in Hobart, Tasmania, he was expelled more than once from the good schools to which he was sent and became a shipping clerk at the age of 15. He had an affinity with boats and sailing and, still in his mid-teens, went wandering in search of gold. At 21 he bought a boat in which he made a seven month journey to New Guinea where he worked on a tobacco plantation and was a correspondent for an Australian newspaper. Back in Sydney, his looks brought an offer to play Fletcher Christian in a semi-documentary film (In the Wake of the Bounty, 1932), and he caught the acting bug. He went to England, joined a provincial repertory company, and played the lead in a B-picture which led to a contract with Warner Brothers.

Flynn arrived in Hollywood in 1935, married actress Lily Damita, and made brief appearances in a couple of low budget movies. Before the year was out, he played Captain Blood, surgeon-turned-pirate during the reign of James II, and became a star. This first foray into swashbuckling adventure demonstrated his grace and agility in wielding a sword, notably in a brilliant duel with Basil Rathbone's villain, and the public responded favorably to the combination of Flynn and then relative newcomer Olivia de Havilland. Backed by a stirring score from composer Erich Korngold, Warners' experienced craftsman Michael Curtiz directed with panache.

The studio was quick to grasp that they had found a winning formula and the natural heir to Douglas Fairbanks. De Havilland co-starred with Flynn in another seven films and, more significantly, Curtiz directed him in a further ten, beginning with The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and ending with Dive Bomber (1941). These ten included the actor's first Western, Dodge City and the same year—1939—The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex in which Flynn, bravado substituting for skill and experience, played second fiddle to Bette Davis' awesome Virgin Queen. He was never a great actor and his range was limited, but when the beguiling personality matched well with the vehicle, it did not seem to matter. Such was the case with the most memorable of the Curtiz collaborations, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Indeed, the film endures as a classic in its own right, distinguished by outstanding Technicolor and Academy Award-winning design, a host of marvelous supporting performances, and what David Thomson aptly calls Flynn's "galvanizing energy" and "cheerful gaiety." It is as Robin Hood, handsome, dashing, brave, and humorous that Flynn is, and should be, best remembered.

Many commentators consider that the actor owed much of his success to the good fortune of being assigned first to Curtiz, then to the more serious-minded Raoul Walsh. They made seven films together, beginning with They Died With Their Boots On (1941), in which the star was a sympathetic General Custer, and including what is arguably his best performance, as prizefighter Gentleman Jim (1942). Objective Burma (1945), however, gave much offense to the British for creating the impression that the Americans single-handedly conquered the Japanese in Burma; and Flynn, although winningly portraying the heroic leader of a crucial and life-endangering mission, already looked weary and older than his years.

In truth, his notoriety had been rising in direct proportion to his stardom. He was tried, and eventually acquitted, for the rape of two teenage girls aboard his yacht in 1942, the year he was divorced from Lily Damita (by whom he had a son); in 1943 he married Nora Eddington (they divorced in 1949 and he married the last of his wives, Patrice Wymore, in 1950); his heavy drinking and smoking was on the increase and he began experimenting with drugs.

From the late 1940s on, Flynn's life and career reflected a downward slide. Weary of swashbuckling and looking for new directions in his work, he left Hollywood for Europe in 1952, played in several films probably best forgotten, and bankrupted himself in a failed attempt to finance a production of William Tell. He sailed around aimlessly in his yacht, and returned to Hollywood in 1956, a ravaged shadow of his former self, to face the final irony of his self-destruction: praise for his performance as a drunken wastrel in The Sun Also Rises (1957). He played two more drunks the following year in Too Much Too Soon (as John Barrymore) and in Huston's The Roots of Heaven, and ended his career, shortly before his death, with the nadir of his achievements, a semi-documentary about Fidel Castro called Cuban Rebel Girls which he wrote, co-produced, and narrated.

Movie stars biographer Charles Higham, in Errol Flynn: The Untold Story, suggested that the actor had been a Nazi agent for the Gestapo and a bisexual who had affairs with several famous men. Needless to say, the object of these scurrilous accusations was no longer alive to defend himself, and it is kinder and rather more rewarding to remember him for the considerable pleasure he gave at the height of his popular success.

—Robyn Karney

Further Reading:

Flynn, Errol. My Wicked, Wicked Ways. London, Heinemann, 1960.

Godfrey, Lionel. The Life and Crimes of Errol Flynn. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1977.

Thomas, Tony, et al. The Films of Errol Flynn. New Jersey, Citadel, 1965.

Thomson, David. A Biographical Dictionary of Film. New York, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1994.