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.
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).
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.