Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Errol Flynn, by Lincoln Hurst

Errol Flynn: The True Adventures of a Real-Life Rogue, by Lincoln Hurst. Hardcover, $35.00. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010. ISBN 0-81-08639-9.

In contemporary clothes, he looked like anyone else, albeit more handsome. But put him in a period costume, and he grew incomparably heroic, so much so that no one since has ever satisfiedly filled his pirate’s boots. Not even Antonio Banderas’s self-conscious smolder or Johnny Depp’s eye-shadow can make us forget the presence of a Hollywood set with cappucinos and air-conditioned trailers awaiting them. Not so with him; he was so convincingly Elizabethean that not even the unedited shot of a 1937 car mistakenly parked in a Sherwood Forest scene could spoil the illusion

For Errol Leslie Thomson Flynn, this achievement must have been so effortless as to be suspect. How else to explain the self-destructive tendencies? He must have regarded his animal grace with a sword (Basil Rathbone worked overtime at fencing, could have bested Flynn in a competitive bout, but still looked ham-handed against him when the cameras rolled), and the charismatic air of adventure he projected (he had an embarrassing background in slave-trading, gold-prospecting, and whoring with both the native victims of British imperialism and the bejeweled women who benefitted from it) as something unearned. He instead longed to be a writer, or at least a serious actor. His efforts at both were denigrated in his lifetime; his memoirs of his adventurous youth were hardly best-sellers, and it was only after his death that his autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, penned by a ghost-writer, was widely read, more for his notoriety than any prose style. Reviewers in his lifetime routinely ridiculed his non-swashbuckling efforts, but even his rapier-wielding epics reveal an actor underneath the tights. Plagued by bad health (he suffered a heart attack at the age of 33), he nevertheless was able to create the impression of animal vitality. Today, method actors such as Joanne Woodward commend his acting ability in straight roles. And he is convincing in contemporary garb, particularly as a Norweign resistance leader in Edge of Darkness (1943) and as a French criminal during the Occupation in Uncertain Glory (1944)

Flynn is a serviceable image even today, and not just as the swashbuckler no one has been able to replace. He pops up in the guise of Peter O’Toole’s boozy doomed charmer in My Favorite Year (1982) and of Guy Pearce in the 1996 Flynn, a no-holds-barred look at Flynn’s early years. Thanks to the pulpy, gossipy efforts of author Charles Higham, who dubiously outed Flynn as a fascist spy, he is fodder for stock villainy as Timothy Dalton’s movie star/Nazi agent in The Rocketeer (1991).

In this latest biography, Lincoln Hurst dispenses with the Nazi sympathies pretty early and effectively (Flynn tried to enlist in the OSS in 1942 and was put under surveillance by the voyeuristic J. Edgar Hoover for his pecadilloes; plenty of casual sex but nothing subversive was reported back). Unlike other Flynn biographers, he doesn’t dilate on the vices: alcoholism, cocaine use (not just for his nose but for the end of his undependable penis), orgies, morphine addiction, but instead seeks the serious man beneath the roisterer. Through use of his Spanish Civil War diary (Flynn adventurously went there in 1937 hoping, half-seriously, to take a bullet), we see a budding writer and philosopher. He is instinctively a good reporter, skipping the lines for press releases and generals at lecterns and instead talking to those really in the know, the bystanders.

But we also see a figure familiar to our times: the actor as dupe. Like Oliver Stone or Sean Penn, whether it be Iraq or Cuba or any of the other regimes that show business folk project their fantasies onto, Flynn and his celebrity were used for political purposes. In this particular case, the manipulator was his self-described best friend Dr. Herman Erben, a Jewish physician whom Flynn met on one of his pre-Hollywood murky jungle adventures. Erben was also a Nazi agent. Flynn unknowingly posed beside Loyalist installations of value to the Franco side while Erben eagerly snapped away. We’ll never know if any of these photos were of use to the fascist side but they were sent nonetheless.

Flynn nevertheless emerges in the diaries — and in this excellent biography that makes full use of them — as he did on the screen: charming, self-effacing. But he also is revealed as questioning of everything. It is a pity for both his appetites and his philosophy that he was a young man in the 1930s rather than the 1960s. It is easy to see him at love-ins, but now thanks to Hurst, it is also easy to see him at teach-ins as well.

Ron Capshaw is a writer living in Midlothian, Va. He has published in Partisan Review, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Times, and National Review.