Saturday, June 20, 2009

Remembering Errol Flynn, at 100

Errol Flynn, one of the great movie stars of all time, was born 100 years ago today. He defined the classic movie action hero -- daring and dashing, a leader of men; honorable and purposeful, but devil-may-care and quick to laugh. His roles may not have been unduly complex, but they were bold and heroic. His pictures were often run and much watched, years ago, before movie heroes changed forever.

His signature “swashbucklers” defined the genre and are, at least to this fan, his greatest roles: Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Sea Hawk. All were directed by Michael Curtiz and featured rousing theme music by Erich Korngold. Flynn’s co-star in the first two, and in six other of his movies, was the great Oliva de Havilland, and character actor pal Alan Hale had roles in 11 of Flynn’s movies by my count. Captain Blood, as good as any he made, was his first lead and his break out film.

Another favorite of mine, and of one of my sons, is the WWII action picture Objective Burma. Same character type – a bold, determined leader with an important mission. He made many other films, of course, including many Westerns, most notably They Died with Their Boots On and Virginia City. He was a great actor, but remarkably, though perhaps not inexplicably for Hollywood given its pseudo-sophistication borne of a collective intellectual inferiority complex and its love of self-absorbed drama, he was never nominated for an Academy Award. Flynn would be much more appreciated today by the Hollywood intelligentsia if he had played notably unheroic self-destructive substance abusers on the screen instead of just becoming one in later life.

Flynn was born of Irish and British descent in Tasmania, of all places, where his father was a professor of biology. Expelled from a number of schools for rowdy behavior and perhaps also for inappropriate romantic adventures, after some failed ventures he eventually turned to acting, where his natural charm, good looks, and athleticism led to quick success. He was quite the womanizer, apparently, whose exploits led to the quip “In Like Flynn.” The fast living and drinking prematurely aged him, and his career slowed down. In his later years he lived in Jamaica, and died at age 50 in Vancouver while traveling on personal business. His autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, was published shortly after his death.

The lasting image – Flynn standing on his ship’s gunwale amidst the clamor and confusion of a great sea battle, one hand on the rigging and one brandishing a sword, shouting “Over the side men, follow me.”

His daughter Rory Flynn maintains an interesting website dedicated to memories of his career (link).

Richard Balsamo

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