One hundred years ago today in Hobart Tasmania, legendary film star, author, adventurer and all-around trouble magnet Errol Flynn was born.
I first took notice of Flynn in 1991 with a late-night showing of Desperate Journey on TBS. There I was channel surfing when who should appear but a young Ronald Reagan, climbing from the wreckage of a downed allied bomber deep in Nazi Germany. With him was a dashing fellow with a pencil-thin mustache, and Chief Executive or no Chief Executive, it quickly became obvious who was the real star of the show.
I managed to stay up to the end of the film despite the constant commercial breaks, and was rewarded with a high-octane adventure in which Flynn, Reagan, Arthur Kennedy and Alan Hale repeatedly outsmarted Nazi general Raymond Massey, destroying roughly half of Germany on their way back to England. (Not content with this contribution to the war effort, they fly off at the end of the film saying, “Now for Australia and a crack at those Japs!” ) As a war film, it was about as realistic as Indiana Jones, or maybe “Daffy The Commando“, but there was no denying the fun factor, and suddenly I had a new hero.
Thus began my own “desperate journey” to see Flynn in all his great roles; from noble outlaw Robin Hood to sea-going swashbucklers Peter Blood and Geoffrey Thorpe to Western heroes Wade Hatton and George Custer to the rakish, libidinous and suspiciously autobiographical Don Juan. In each role, Flynn projected all those qualities we fans of heroic fiction so admire; courage, resourcefulness, wit, style, a graceful athleticism and that certain indefinable quality we call leadership. And of course it didn’t hurt that he was impossibly good-looking.
Off-screen, Flynn was a lot more complicated; a rogue, a womanizer and something of a con man, his real-life escapades became almost as legendary as his on-screen adventures, if not nearly so noble. But if the real Flynn was decidedly less valorous than his on-screen alter egos, he was no less fascinating and larger-than-life. He was an accomplished boxer who did his own fighting in Gentleman Jim and a real-life sailor who logged countless miles at sea. Under the tutelage of master archer Howard Hill, he mastered the bow and arrow, and he handled a sword with such elan that most people never realized he wasn’t really a fencer (one nobable exception being Basil Rathbone, who grudingly had to “lose” to Flynn on screen despite his superior skill in real life). Who can say how many generations of little boys were inspired to stage their own backyard swordfights after witnessing amazing fare such as this from 1948’s The Adventures of Don Juan:
Personally, I consider Don Juan the closest we ever came to seeing the real Flynn in a Hollywood production. Like the title character, Flynn at this point in his life is still handsome, still charming, still up to the action, but with a few more lines on the face, a few more pounds on the frame and a few seconds cut off the once lightning-like reflexes. He is a Frankenstein monster of his own creation, enjoying fame and celebrity wherever he goes, but owing that fame (or infamy) to the scandalous reputation he earned as a young man and now finds impossible to move beyond. Women expect romance from him, men a display of swordplay. Weary of it all, but ever willing to please, he obliges gamely. In quieter moments we see he’s realized the pointlessness of his lifestyle, but at the same time he’s having too much fun to ever really give it up. At one point in the film, caught in the act of seducing a powerful man’s wife, Juan is tossed into a jail cell with his faithful companion Leporello (Alan Hale), who notes, “Surely there must be something more important in life than the pursuit of women?” To which Juan replies thoughtfully, “Yes, there must be….But WHAT?”
The film ends with the hero a bit wiser but still unrepentant, still treating life as a party that need never end. Flynn, however, was made of flesh and blood, not celluloid, and thus bound by physical laws; for him the party would only last another ten years. He passed on in 1959, just 50 years old but looking much older thanks to years of booze and drugs and a list of physical ailments longer than his filmography.
Ultimately, though, Flynn lives on, and will as long as there are audiences who appreciate a rousing adventure, a daring hero, a thrilling swordfight and a storybook romance. Just pop in a DVD and he’s back among us as Robin Hood, openly defying Prince John in his own palace (“You speak treason!” “Fluently.”); as Wade Hatton, bringing law and order to Dodge City; as Peter Blood, leading his fellow slaves to freedom on the high seas, and in a half-dozen alternate lives in as many historical eras meeting and falling in love with the heart-breakingly sweet and beautiful Olivia DeHavilland (still around and gorgeous as ever, God bless her) in one of the greatest screen pairings of all time.
Flynn may not have had a lot of years on this world, but he lived every minute of what he had to the fullest, and as he saw fit. And regardless of what condition he was in for his final bow, we fans will always remember him as The Perfect Specimen he was in his heyday. As his old boss Jack Warner said, “To all the Walter Mittys of the world he was all the heroes in one magnificent, sexy, animal package.”
So in honor of Flynn’s centennial, go out and seize the day. Scare up an adventure. Kiss your girl. Share a laugh with your buddies. And remember to laugh like a man: