Errol Flynn, the centenary of whose birth it is this year, was carried to movie superstardom in the 1930s by the best pair of male legs in the history of cinema, though that may seem an odd thing to mention in an era more attuned to the erotic possibilities of the male upper body.
To be sure, in his prime Flynn looked pretty good all over. Though in symmetry and proportion his physical features seem flawless, in other ways Flynn loomed as a man, or rather male sex symbol, of his time, not least in his thin moustache, his extreme recklessness and in the misogyny he could casually exhibit both on and off screen. Before satellite communications and the Internet, global celebrity was much more elusive but it lasted longer.
Flynn’s background made him an unlikely candidate for fame’s innermost circle. A wild colonial boy from Tasmania with a genuine taste for adventure, Flynn could not conceivably have become famous throughout the world without Hollywood, yet his most popular films were costume dramas set in periods of history that had passed before the cinema, or indeed Australia itself, was invented. Repackaged by the film studio publicity department, Flynn became an Irishman, a descendent of Fletcher Christian and a member of the Australian Olympic boxing team.
An actual descendent on his mother’s side of another Bounty mutineer, Midshipman Edmund Young, Flynn had played Christian in the Australian film In the Wake of the Bounty (1933). Flynn indulged in some mythmaking of his own, often telling tall stories about his origins. The studio fixed his hair and teeth, but didn’t change his name, unlike John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe and the many other Hollywood stars for whom names were invented.
To borrow a line from the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, Errol Flynn was a man in tights physically and mentally, especially physically. No man has worn tights (or any other close-fitting period costume) on the big screen with greater confidence and easy charm than Flynn playing Robin Hood in one of the very few films that seem destined never to date.
Clive James, in his history of 20th century fame, is dismissive of Flynn’s acting ability, writing that he appeared “in throwback movies that were essentially silent swashbucklers plus words”. Flynn’s on-screen appeal was due to what James sardonically calls “the physical perfection common to Australian males”.
James is wrong about Flynn being seen but not really heard. In Flynn’s mouth, heroic speeches have a rousing effect difficult to resist even now. Who else could have convincingly delivered this famous line from Captain Blood (1935), when Flynn and the men under his command have just liberated themselves from slavery on a 17th century plantation in Jamaica and commandeered a ship:
Up that rigging, you monkeys! Aloft! There are no chains to hold you now. Break out those sails and watch them fill with the wind that's carrying us all to freedom!
Certainly no other figure in popular culture has ever made piracy appear such a noble, ethical undertaking.
Handsome, clean-limbed and charismatic as Flynn was in his 20s and 30s, he drank and drugged himself to death. After an immense run of success in a series of films from Captain Blood to Gentleman Jim (1942), Flynn began the long and ever accelerating physical and psychological decline that resulted in financial ruin, abjection and mediocrity.
Dead at 50, Flynn succumbed to a heart attack after decades of chronic alcohol and drug abuse. All the major organs were found to be diseased and the pathology report noted the near absence of liver and kidneys. The only medical question arising from his death was how Flynn, a sufferer in adult life from malaria, tuberculosis, hepatitis and gonorrhea in addition to gargantuan chemical addictions, could possibly have maintained a pulse for as long as he did.
Even in his physical prime, there were recurring health problems. The malaria was picked up during Flynn’s youthful adventuring in New Guinea. In Gentlemen Jim, Flynn displays a fine physique and genuine boxing prowess, yet while filming a climactic fight scene he collapsed from a mild heart attack. Off camera Flynn was desperately trying to enlist in the American military only to be rejected as medically unfit.