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.
Like John Wayne, another notable Hollywood non-combatant, Flynn won World War II in his movies, again never looking less than capable than when in uniform. In the propaganda war film Desperate Journey (1942), Flynn plays an Australian airman whose bomber is shot down deep in enemy territory. Flynn’s last line in Desperate Journey, having made an impossible escape from the heart of the Reich, is “Now for Australia and a crack at the Japs”. In Objective, Burma! (1945), the Flynn character does get to fight the Japanese, albeit in the guise of an American paratrooper dropped into the Burmese jungle behind enemy lines. Leading a small group of soldiers, he succeeds in paving the way for a full-scale invasion of Burma.
Throughout the war, the studio continued to maintain the fiction of the rude health and virility of their major star. Suspicious of the real reason for Flynn’s absence from the military, FBI boss J.Edgar Hoover commissioned a secret report which revealed that he had an enlarged heart.
Ultimately the camera does not lie. Indeed rarely, if ever, have the movies tracked with such precision the dissipation of a star so natural, so uninhibited, so artless, and, as it turned out, so vulnerable to the moral and physical diseases associated with celebrity.
Viewed chronologically, Flynn’s film career suggests that movie stardom has nothing to do with acting, and for Flynn the tights soon became more mental than physical. Flynn was in his Hollywood heyday one of the most lusted-after and admired people on earth, but within he soon developed a self-loathing that knew no bounds.
Though Flynn would have never have been permitted to play an outright villain, the studio was happy to exploit his well-deserved notoriety as a roué. In Gentleman Jim, there is one such exploitative scene. After being kissed by Corbett, his girlfriend teases: “Fine way for a gentleman to behave.” He replies: “Oh, darling, that gentleman stuff never fooled you, did it? I'm no gentleman.” “In that case,” she responds saucily, “I'm no lady”.
When it came time for Flynn to play Don Juan in 1949, the script became an ironic commentary on Flynn himself. In one scene, a crowd of women gathers just to admire his physique, thus disrupting a serious fencing lesson being given by the master swordsman. Don’s international reputation as a rake precedes him wherever he goes, leading one fellow Spaniard to comment: “Columbus extended the world but for you it grows smaller”.
True to the Hollywood formula, Don Juan wins the climactic sword fight at the end of the film against a less than athletic opponent but this time the hero collapses in exhaustion, the first sign in an Errol Flynn film of vitality on the wane. In the scene where Don parts from the Queen of Spain, who like Elisabeth cannot resist his manly charms, Flynn reveals that he is tired of the whole business of being a fantasy figure. “You’ve become a hero of the people,” the Queen assures him. “Have I? Well then it must be easy to become a hero.” When he says he must leave her, she asks him where he will go. “Who knows?” he shrugs. “Into oblivion I suppose, where most legends go”.
Flynn was already well on the way to oblivion when he uttered those lines, having being drunk throughout the filming of The Adventures of Don Juan. But the dark side of heroism, that readiness on the part of the hero to collude in his own destruction, was part of the Flynn persona even in the early, relatively sober days.
Flynn once wrote: “I have a zest for living, yet twice an urge to die”. So do several of his characters. Even the all-action Captain Blood, in a rare moment of reflection, wonders why he took all those risks in becoming a pirate: “I never quite knew. Some urge that drove me on”. The petulant Earl of Essex refuses to save himself from execution as a traitor to Bette Davis’s Elizabeth, despite being given the chance to live, simply because he can’t have his way and be king.
Even the more conventionally heroic self-sacrificing deaths in films such as The Dawn Patrol (1938) and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) manifest suicidal tendencies. In Charge he can’t get the girl he wants so is happy to ride towards a certain death. In The Dawn Patrol, Flynn tells a raw new recruit who has just joined his World War I fighter squadron about the madness of war:
Do you remember my father used to be professor of biology at Queen’s? He always used to say, man is a savage animal, who periodically, to relieve his nervous tension, tries to destroy himself.
There is a surprising biographical resonance in these lines, not just because Flynn’s own father had for a time been a professor at Queen’s University, Belfast. Flynn’s character takes the parental injunction literally when he abandons his command and takes the place of his best friend on what he knows to be a suicidal solo bombing mission.
After The Adventures of Don Juan, and as his physical decline could no longer be concealed, Flynn in the late swashbucklers Against All Flags (1952) and The Master of Ballantrae (1953) is grim faced, desperate and no longer invincible. In Against All Flags, the tights have been swapped for corduroys, in Master for a comfortable tartan.
Such victories as the Flynn character has in these films are hard won at considerable physical cost. Prematurely middle-aged in these films, Flynn’s frame and face have thickened, his eyes have become dull and suspicious and his movements are weary. The rousing speeches are gone. In The Master of Ballantrae, Flynn takes charge of a pirate vessel without ceremony, and certainly no rhetoric about patriotism or the brotherhood of buccaneers: “Alright men, get aloft and shake the wrinkles out of those sails. Get ’em up, come on. I said get aloft!” The crew is unmoved by the order and only starts obeying after Flynn strikes one of them with the flat of his sword.
Captain Blood could sweet talk his men into anything, no matter how risky, and emerges on the winning side in the wider conflict in English politics, but in The Master of Ballantrae Flynn’s character backs the loser in a doomed Scottish rebellion and in the end he must simply run away into exile.
After The Master of Ballantrae, there were no more Hollywood action films for Flynn and not many Hollywood films of any kind. In his last big budget Hollywood film, The Sun Also Rises (1957), Flynn gained a measure of critical respect - he had long since ceased to be good box office - simply for being what he was by then, a sad drunk. At one point Flynn’s character Mike Campbell, a bankrupt Scottish aristocrat and faded war hero, wonders aloud why the drink waiters ignore him. “The service around this town is getting worse and worse every night. Perhaps it's me. As a matter of fact, I'm afraid it is me. Nobody seems to pay much attention to me anymore.”
I have been suggesting that Flynn didn’t need to act like a hero, lover or indeed drunk in order to be convincing on the big screen. Flynn’s singularity as a screen presence is marked by the fact that his accent hardly wavered. Flynn left Australia in 1932 and never returned, taking American citizenship in 1942. He played characters identified as Australian only twice in more than 50 films but nevertheless is recognisably Australian in every role he took, whether he is playing the Earl of Essex, General George Armstrong Custer in They Died With Their Boots On (1942), Mahibub Ali in Kim (1951) or the fugitive French pickpocket Jean Picard in Uncertain Glory (1944).
And despite the stubborn accent, Flynn is the only non-American actor to become a major success appearing in Westerns. “Wouldn’t you like to be protected, just a little?” importunes Flynn as roguish cattleman Clay Hardin, when commencing to woo saloon singer Alexis Smith in San Antonio (1945). “Is it a Western custom to push yourself in on other people?” she replies. The response is suitably matter-of-fact. “Yes ma’am. That’s how the West was settled.”
Perhaps Flynn wasn’t identified as an Australian, despite the accent, simply because the vast majority among the audience for his films really didn’t know what an Australian sounded like. Flynn’s persona still exerts an influence over the cultural perception of Australian masculinity as physical rather than intellectual, rebellious and devil-may-care.
It is an image that in Flynn moreover is highly sexualised. When Hugh Jackman, playing the larrikin drover, strips to the waist and soaps himself by an outback fireside in the up-market chick flick Australia, it is an entirely Flynn-like gesture. Self-consciously retro in its obeisance to Hollywood’s golden age, Australia itself could easily have been a Flynn vehicle.
Flynn remains the greatest screen swashbuckler, partly because he is also in many ways the most troubling. He defies comparison except with the characters he portrayed. A hundred years after his birth, what movie lovers remember most fondly about Errol Flynn can be summed up in the words of Captain Blood: “Heroic, was it? Bedad, it was epic!”