- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 4, 2002

In Inherited Risk: Errol and Sean Flynn in Hollywood and Vietnam by Jeffrey Meyers (Simon & Schuster, $26, 361 pages, illus.) the author, a prolific biographer, tells the stories of Errol Flynn (1909-1959), the handsome, irresponsible movie star of Hollywoods Golden Age, and his doomed son, Sean. Almost all of the book is devoted to Errol Flynn, while his sons life is squeezed into two chapters. Sean Flynn (1941-1971) was an adventurer and photographer who, during the Vietnam War, disappeared in Cambodia and was never found. Mr. Meyers, relying on new evidence, believes young Flynn, captured by the Vietcong and weakened from malaria, died from a lethal injection given in a primitive hospital operated by the North Vietnamese. But it is Errol Flynn, in this biography, as in his life, who is the center of attention, because his life was more exciting than the films in which he starred. Born in Tasmania, Flynn had youthful adventures in the jungles of New Guinea and, during his first great burst of movie fame, left Hollywood to report on the Spanish Civil War. At one time he was best known for being accused, tried, and acquitted on charges of statutory rape. He performed in a few of the best (e.g., "Captain Blood" ) and many of the worst movies made by Warner Brothers from 1935 to 1950.Ridiculed by critics as a terrible actor who got by on his looks, Flynn, athletic and dashing, was in fact perfectly suited to the swashbuckling roles that made him famous. His problem was that Warner Brothers never could quite figure out what to do with him except hand him a sword and a pretty costar and hope for the best. But he could act when he had the motivation and the opportunity, as he showed in his portrayal of Mike Campbell in the slow-moving, bloated 1957 version of "The Sun Also Rises." All of the stars in that film, including Flynn, were too old for their parts, but his portrayal of a broken-down charming boozer was no stretch for Flynn. He gave the performance of his career, but by then it didnt matter very much because he had become a self-parody. Errol Flynn was blessed with intelligence and wit and he was as handsome as the devil. But he was not a serious man. He spent most of his life on a long, meandering journey toward self-destruction, his path littered with the empty bottles and forgotten women he cast aside as he grinned his way to oblivion. His son, who never really knew his father, was haunted by the actors legend. Sean Flynn died because, like his father, he did not know, or care about, the difference between risk-taking and recklessness. Mr. Meyers does a fine job of telling their sad, improbable stories.

A good argument could be made that Gil Evans (1912-1988) was one of the most influential figures in jazz during the last half of the 20th century. But I would be willing to bet that for every 10,000 Americans who recognize names like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, perhaps only one or two know who Evans was. Like Ellington, Evans used an orchestra the way an artist uses a palette, creating tone colors by blending the sounds of different instruments. Unlike Davis, Evans had what amounted to a principled objection to the commercial aspects of music-making. He saw life as a struggle between making good music and making money, and he always chose music.One reason he is not better known is that he was not primarily a performer, although he did play piano, but an arranger and composer. His powerful yet subtle, bop-oriented arrangements for the legendary (if short-lived ) Claude Thornhill band during the 1940s, his major role in developing "cool" jazz, and his work with Davis on three artistically and commercially successful recordings [-] "Miles Ahead," "Porgy and Bess," and "Sketches of Spain" [-] have earned him an honored place in jazz history. In Castles Made of Sound (Da Capo Press, $25, 320 pages) author Larry Hicock, relying on first-hand accounts by those who knew Evans, has produced an exemplary biography, clearly written, well-researched, and informed by a wide-ranging knowledge and love of Evans music. My only fear is that this good book will be consigned to the jazz ghetto in book stores, because in essence it is a book about how art is created, and how an eccentric man can live his life by his own rules without becoming either a bore or a self-indulgent monster.Evans, says the author, was "a nonconformist, an idealist, a left-leaning pacifist and a non-materialist." Like many such people Evans was not above living off the kindness and generosity of people more materialistic than he was. He was for decades a friend of Davis, an incredible feat given the trumpeters notorious propensity for quarrels, misanthropy, and suspicion of white people. Evans was content to work long and hard at his art, search for and nurture new ideas in music, and be a good friend and mentor to many musicians. All in all that is not a bad way to live ones life.

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (1794-1876) was not the most incompetent general in history, and in fact he is best known to Americans for one of his victories, at the Alamo in 1836. But he had a knack, amounting to near-genius, for losing major battles, not to mention thousands of square miles of his nations territory. He was personally brave, usually riding ahead of his main body of troops. He was also incompetent, egomaniacal, and greedy (a statue erected in his honor showed him pointing toward the United States, but also toward the Mexican mint). He was such a successful political opportunist and schemer that despite his losses on the battlefield he managed to become Mexicos president 11 times in 30 years.Santa Anna: A Curse Upon Mexico by Robert L. Scheina (Brasseys, $19.95, 116 pages, illus.), part of a new series of "Military Profiles," is an admirably concise, informative and penetrating look at this Mexican caudillos military leadership and political machinations. Mr. Scheina, professor of history at the National Defense University, does a fine job of presenting relevant information about Mexican social and political realities of the time, giving the reader a background against which Santa Annas various adventures and escapades make sense.During the war with the United States, Santa Anna tried everything, including forced marches, defense of entrenched positions, and flanking movements. He even bilked the Americans out of $10,000 (at least) during secret negotiations. But nothing worked. His strategic and tactical abilities did not match his uncanny ability to get Mexican soldiers — who often fought tenaciously — to follow him into battle. In the American ranks was a young captain named Robert E. Lee who would later show the world how an outnumbered, out-gunned army, brilliantly led, can inflict severe punishment on an invading force. Santa Anna never learned that lesson. His country has been suffering from his failure ever since. I look forward to future books in this new series.

William F. Gavin is a writer in McLean, Va.

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