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By Scott D. O'Reilly

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Errol Flynn Standard Oil PremiumErrol Flynn Quaker Oats StandeeOf all the cinema's swashbucklers no one has ever surpassed Errol Flynn.  Possessing a tall, robust frame, a 'devil may care' attitude, and voice that could make even the most pedestrian lines seem like poetry, Flynn swept audiences off their feet, carrying them away on one adventure after another, nearly always with a happy ending.

Born in Tasmania, Australia in 1909, Errol Leslie Thomas Flynn was the son of the esteemed Irish biologist Theodore Thomas Flynn and a fierce tempered Australian woman named Marrelle Young.  In Flynn's autobiography he includes a description of a Tasmanian Devil: a carnivorous marsupial known for its extreme ferocity.  It was an apt description for Flynn himself as a rebellious youngster perpetually at odds with his parents, authority, or civilizing influences.  Flynn gave every indication of admiring his father's professorial achievements, but he displayed a youthful aversion to academic studies, particularly algebra.  It seems Flynn wasn't content unless he was cavorting out of doors, seeking adventure, or learning more about the opposite sex.  He was, as he confesses, absolutely committed to a life in search of sensations.

Flynn spent his early adulthood in the outback and jungles of New Guinea.  While seeking his fortune Errol led a hand to mouth existence as a government sanitation officer, a gold prospector, tobacco farmer, fisherman, jewel thief, and prizefighter.  He survived more than one near fatal encounter with a cuckolded husband, and even stood trial for murder, though it seems that his only offense was self-defense against New Guinea headhunter.

Flynn also had to contend with sharks, man-eating crocodiles, and malaria bearing mosquitoes.  This kind of life was more than an education for Flynn, but during this time he acquired a ravenous appetite for books too, reading Russian literature, Greek philosophy, and French poetry.  He was determined to make up for his past avoidance of learning, and to make something of himself in the world.  He earnestly contemplated becoming a lawyer or writer in the hopes that he might make a contribution to civilization.  Flynn received a bit of good luck when he was asked by a former business acquaintance to appear as Fletcher Christian in an Australian film production entitled "In the Wake of the Bounty."  Interestingly, Flynn's mother had been a descendant of a Midshipman named Richmond Young, an aide to Fletcher Christian of the infamous HMS Bounty.   Neither Flynn's performance, however, or the film itself was particularly noteworthy, though the experience left an indelible impression on the future star.  Acting, Flynn recognized, afforded him an opportunity to make his mark, to create something that could even be considered art.

Flynn's film debut did little to alter his financial circumstances.  Over the ensuing 18 months Flynn had to contend with malaria, venereal disease, and a serious knife wound while on his way to London via Shanghai, Calcutta, and Africa.  Flynn finally arrived in England, but with only three shillings to his name.  He was determined to become an actor.  He eventually landed regular work at the Northampton Repertory Club, receiving three pounds a week for playing small parts.  Flynn finally landed the plum role of Shakespeare's "Othello" in London's prestigious West End district, where many of England's leading actors - like Lawrence Olivier and Robert Donat - got their start.  Flynn described his interpretation of Othello as possibly "the worst Othello in the history of the English stage."  Apparently, in the famous death scene the young thespian had manage to get his dagger snarled in his robe, and as a result he decided to feign a heart attack - before an astonished audience -- rather than stabbing himself as the script required.

Success was just around the corner for the struggling actor, however.  As shaky as his performances sometimes were, a talent scout for Warner Brothers notices his good looks and exuberant energy.  He was quickly offered a contract to come out to Hollywood.  His first role was as a corpse in a forgettable B film - many critics suggested it was his best role according to Flynn - and several more undistinguished B films followed.  In 1935, however, the relatively unknown Flynn was brought in to replace Robert Donat as the lead in "Captain Blood," a film that would propel Flynn to worldwide stardom.

Directed by the famed Michael Curtiz "Captain Blood" was a stunning box office and critical success that is still is recognized as one of the greatest swashbucklers ever made.  Featuring one of the most rousing and beautiful scores in cinematic history (Eric Wolfgang Korngold) Captain Blood is the story of a 17th century physician turned pirate whose gallant exploits lead from false imprisonment to naval glory.  Flynn was teamed with co-star Olivia de Havilland and the screen chemistry was so terrific that the two ended up starring in eight movies together.

Flynn, Warner Brothers recognized, was bona fide star material.  In the ensuing decade Flynn began the most productive phase of his career starring in adventure classics such as: "The Charge of the Light Brigade," "The Prince and the Pauper, "The Adventures of Robin Hood," Dawn Patrol," "Dodge City," "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex," Virginia City," "The Sea Hawk," and "Santa Fe Trail."  Flynn headed casts with some of the biggest names in Hollywood including: Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Claude Raines, Randolph Scott, Basil Rathbone, David Niven, and an up and coming actor named Ronald Reagan.

By the forties Flynn had established himself as the quintessential adventure hero in the mind of the movie going public.  It was only natural, with the outbreak of WWII, that Flynn would do his part for the war effort by starring several combat films.  "Dive Bomber" a film released shortly before Pearl Harbor, afforded Flynn an opportunity to play against type -- with Fred McMurray playing the 'devil may care' bomber pilot, while Flynn played the serious minded physician.  It was a well-received turn for Flynn who was used to playing larger than life characters.  Restraint wasn't a word usually associated with Flynn, or his performances, but it served him well in "Objective Burma" also, a documentary style film, and one off the grittiest and most authentic WW II films of its day.  Flynn plays a commander who must lead his men on a jungle raid against a Japanese radar station.  The raid is successful, but when their escape route is cut off Flynn and his platoon must travel hundreds of miles through the Burmese jungle in a diversionary mission.  Undoubtedly Flynn's real life experience in New Guinea - and briefly as a soldier in the Sino/Japanese war during the early 30' -- helped prepare him 1959 R778-1 Errol Flynn Maple Leaf Playing Cardfor a role that remains one his most understated and critically praised.  It was also Errol Flynn as Robin Hood on 1970's pinback buttonhis personal favorite performance.

Flynn soon found himself back in more outsized roles including the improbable but entertaining WWII thrillers "Desperate Journey" and "Northern Pursuit."  After the war the quality of Flynn's material became more uneven.  He was effective in Rudyard Kipling's adventure yarn "Kim," and he once again recaptured some of the swashbuckling magic in "The Master of Ballantree" and "Against All Flags" with Maureen O'Hara.  But the golden age of the swashbuckler was beginning to wane.  After 1952 Flynn appeared I a string of lackluster films.  An independent production financed by Flynn himself, a film of "William Tell," fell through and Flynn was nearly bankrupted.  Already drinking heavily Flynn found himself out of work, unemployable, and quickly gaining a reputation as a declining has been.  He spent many of his days as a beachcomber, retreating to the comfort of his beloved yacht the Zaca.  But when Flynn's movie career seemed all but lost he was approached to appear in the film version of Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises."  Featuring an all-star cast including: Tyrone Power, Ava Gardner, Mel Ferrer, and Eddie Albert, Flynn drew critical applause, somewhat ironically, for his performance as a washed up alcoholic.

He would reprise a variation on this theme in the movie autobiography of his friend the famed actor John Barrymore entitled "Too Much, Too Soon."  The film was aptly titled, as the effects of hard and fast living had taken its toll on Flynn (as it had on Barrymore too).  Flynn had often said that he didn't care much for what happened to him in the second half of life, so long as he got to live fully in the first half.  He got his wish.  After three failed marriages, years of heaving drinking, trouble with the tax authorities, the law, and a roller coaster career in Hollywood fate finally caught up with Flynn.  Shortly after completing his autobiography, the tongue-in-cheek titled "My Wicked, Wicked Ways" Flynn suffered a fatal attack at the age of fifty.  The portrait that emerges in his autobiography is of a man ferociously dedicated exploring every possible sensation life had to offer.  But Flynn also conveys a ferocious passion for artistic truth. 

Flynn was a far more complex man than the characters he portrayed on screen.  He often comes across by his own account as an amoral hedonist, but it is evident that he was also a man capable of deep empathy and unusual intelligence.  He was gifted athletically -- indeed he was almost good enough to make it as an Olympic diver -- but he was also a man of thought.  He was, in short,  a man of tremendous contradictions.  As a youth in New Guinea he once ran of with his lover's jewels.  But after achieving stardom he went to great lengths to try and make amends with his victim.  He was, it seems, a man as much a mystery to himself as to others, and one who remains a legend both on and off the screen. 
Scott D. O'Reilly is an independent writer with degrees in philosophy and psychology.  His work has been published in The Humanist, Philosophy Now, Intervention Magazine, Think, and The Philosopher's Magazine. He is a contributor to the book The Great Thinkers A-Z (Continium, 2004) and is working on Deconstructing Demagogues, a book which examines how politicians use and misuse language.  Contact:( Watch for profiles like this one in each issue of The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.

Other Errol Flynn Pages:

A Tribute to Errol Flynn He received no formal recognition from his peers during his career, and even today the Academy has yet to recognize his achievements, but this prodigal son of Hollywood was one of the original action heroes, and lived a life offscreen that was often more flamboyant than those of his famous characters.