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Errol Flynn - When Image Clashes With Reality
“My principal director, Mike Curtiz… was a talented man, probably brilliant, but relentless in his demands. I detested him because he was making me into a stereotype. I disliked comparison to the late Douglas Fairbanks. The worst thing that can happen to you is to be typed after or compared with some insurmountable legend which has preceded you.” Errol Flynn (from his memoir “My Wicked, Wicked Ways”)
Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., as the producer and distributor of his own films, was the principal architect of his image. The same cannot be said of Errol Flynn, who spent the majority of his career under contract at Warner Brothers Studio. Flynn was marketed as a romantic hero, a male sex symbol burdened with the tag “glamor boy”. Mike Curtiz called him a “beautiful puppet”, deliberately attacking Flynn’s masculinity and his intelligence.
Flynn detested his image, in part, because it restricted him to mainly one-dimensional roles. The contrast between Flynn’s heroics on-screen and his personal life, however, would cause the greatest damage to his career. In 1942, Flynn was charged with three counts of statutory rape. Although he was acquitted, Flynn was ridiculed in the press and the phrase “in like Flynn” entered the English lexicon. Flynn’s failure to enlist and fight in World War II also was the subject of derision. Again, the contrast between image and reality caused Flynn harm. While he looked supremely healthy, Flynn suffered from recurring bouts of malaria, and had signs of tuberculosis and heart disease. He failed the physical and was rejected by the armed services.
Warner Bros., instead of making these facts public, fudged the truth by saying Flynn was suffering from “exhaustion”. In addition, Warner Bros. chose to mock Flynn’s notoriety on-screen. At the end of “Northern Pursuit” (1943), Laura (Julie Bishop) asks Steve (Flynn) “Am I the only girl you’ve ever loved?” He replies, “Of course you are!” but then adds “what am I saying?” Flynn attempted to counter this hokum in his next film, “Uncertain Glory” (1944). His character, Jean Picard, is a thief to be executed by guillotine. In the opening sequence, an unshaven Flynn rejects the administrations of a priest and spits at the feet of a policeman. This anti-authoritarianism is much closer to Flynn’s off-screen personality. However, “Uncertain Glory” falters by turning Picard into a hero. He offers himself to the Nazis in exchange for one hundred French hostages.
Flynn’s best performance, during this fraught period, is in “Objective, Burma!” (1945). Flynn plays a paratrooper who gets caught behind enemy lines with his men. His character is written realistically, and the only superhuman feat he performs is to survive. The film’s cinematographer James Wong Howe stated in numerous interviews that Flynn, indeed, was a good actor. The scene in which Flynn’s character witnesses the death of one of his soldiers, who has been tortured, is one of Flynn’s finest.
It is one of the ironies of Flynn’s career that he was viciously attacked for what should have been an Oscar-nominated role. The British, who were largely responsible for the Allies’ success in Burma, objected to the film’s portrayal of the Burma invasion as an American operation. The British press published cartoons of Flynn reading a script seated over the graves of British servicemen. Warner Bros. was forced to withdraw the film and add a prologue that emphasized Britain’s involvement in the Burma operation.
Basil Rathbone, Flynn’s co-star in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), wrote that Flynn never took acting (or anything else) seriously. Flynn’s writing proves otherwise. In his autobiography, Flynn states “I don’t know whether I can convey how deep the yearning is of an actor who has been stereotyped, who has that sword and horse wound around him, to prove to himself and to others that he is an actor.”
Note: There are a number of poorly written and inaccurate biographies of Errol Flynn. Charles Higham’s book, in which he asserts (falsely) that Flynn was a Nazi spy, is probably the worst. Flynn’s own writing, the books written or edited by Tony Thomas, and Jeffrey Meyer’s book “Inherited Risk: Errol and Sean Flynn in Hollywood and Vietnam” are among the best.
Content copyright © 2015 by Angela K. Peterson. All rights reserved.
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