It’s easy to contemplate Errol Flynn as a centennial figure. After all, it was 1935 when he emerged as a heroically precocious movie star in one fell swoop, when cast as the title character of “Captain Blood,” a gallant physician-turned-buccaneer.
Born in Hobart, Tasmania, on June 20, 1909, Mr. Flynn had appeared in only four previous films, one an obscure production made in his native Australia and the others minor titles from America’s Warner Bros., that thought him photogenic and promising enough to be hired as a prospect.
The top choice for Peter Blood had been English actor Robert Donat. He was unavailable, so the studio took a chance on a newcomer. Errol Flynn thrived so handsomely on the opportunity that he became the most plausible swashbuckler since the heyday of Douglas Fairbanks, who had retired in 1934, at age 51. The moviegoing public was so ready for a young successor that they embraced not only Errol Flynn in 1935 but also Tyrone Power two years later.
The downside for Mr. Flynn, despite epitomizing high adventure for the next several years in “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “The Dawn Patrol,” “Dodge City,” “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” “The Sea Hawk,” “The Santa Fe Trail,” “Dive Bomber” and “They Died With Their Boots On,” is that Warners found it so lucrative to typecast him as heroic figures that his appeals for a variety of roles were disregarded. There are many variations on the following lament in a posthumous, ghost-written autobiography titled “My Wicked, Wicked Ways”: “As the months, the years, rollicked on … the stereotyped roles I played stamped out of me my ambition to do finer things or expect to be able to do them in Hollywood. … I do not know to what extent this stereotyping… this handing me a sword and a horse… led to my rebellions, high jinks and horseplay over the globe, but I think it had plenty to do with it.”
Evidently, he failed to notice that colleagues at Warners were willing to risk suspensions in order to bargain for better roles and terms: James Cagney, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Olivia de Havilland, Mr. Flynn’s demure leading lady in eight movies. David Niven, a close friend (and Malibu housemate for a time during the late 1930s), surmised that Mr. Flynn’s pride was decisively wounded by his failure to be accepted for military service in World War II. He had a history of tuberculosis and malaria that accounted for a 4-F status, but the rejection itself must have aggravated the disparity between his Hollywood image and private aspirations.
Mr. Flynn had gone looking for adventure as a Hearst correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, accompanied by a pal later revealed to be a covert Soviet agent. At one point, there were hasty newspaper reports that the actor had been killed. Toward the end of 1942, he provided a distraction from war news by becoming the defendant in a statutory rape case. His adroit attorney, Jerry Giesler, secured an acquittal, but not before the catchphrase “In like Flynn” had become a national joke.
The most shocking thing about Errol Flynn’s life in retrospect is the speed of his physical decline. It’s still difficult to accept the fact that he was only 50 when he died in October 1959, a fatalistic hostage to dissipation. By that point, chronic drinking, smoking and drug abuse had taken such a toll of heart, liver and kidneys that the coroner professed to be astonished that he had reached 50. There were deceptive signs of life in a couple of his late performances, both as prodigious drinkers: Mike Campbell in the film version of “The Sun Also Rises” and John Barrymore, a Flynn idol, in “Too Much, Too Soon.” At the time it seemed possible that he might still be capable of using the premature wreckage of his once enviable visage for powerful and stirring effects. In truth, it was a struggle for him to remember one line for a single take.
If a self-loathing side of Errol Flynn was intent on contradicting the valor and decency he projected in his most popular early roles, the effort succeeded with a vengeance. Ironically, the abiding joke is on the victim, since the admirable works of fiction will endure long beyond the unsavory reality that doomed the performer.
Perhaps Mr. Flynn underrated the subtleties that he was capable of while embodying heroic young men. Peter Blood and Robin Hood may qualify as overwhelming and irresistible paragons, but the Flynn repertoire also included brave men of clouded temperaments and troubled thoughts. For example, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” has so little to do with the Crimean War that the title seems a misnomer until the concluding sequence. But if you observe the emotional betrayals that confront Mr. Flynn’s character, particularly when isolated in some of the most beautiful close-ups ever preserved of an actor, the rattletrap historical framework is almost dignified by the nature of one officer’s disenchantment. For this man, the fatal charge becomes a kind of sacrificial deliverance.
These undercurrents were evoked in a more systematic way by director Edmund Goulding in his 1938 remake of “The Dawn Patrol,” much improved from the Howard Hawks version of 1930 by the rapport of Errol Flynn and David Niven as daredevil combat pilots in World War I. Mr. Flynn does justice to a stirring range of emotions in this role, initially reflected in the contrast between his guarded sorrow, when recalling the apparent death of the Niven character during a dogfight, and his amazement when his friend suddenly reappears among the living.
If it means something to have command of such characterizations, and historically that form of mastery is a thing of beauty in motion pictures, Errol Flynn had the aptitude persuasively in his grasp for the better part of a decade. Maybe it came so easily when he was young that squandering it was also an easy form of neglect or self-reproach. There was definitely something trivializing about “My Wicked, Wicked Ways,” especially when it appeared so soon after the subject’s premature demise. The double “wicked” seemed to mock the idea that anything valuable had been lost by Errol Flynn’s self-destructive tendencies. On the contrary, something rather exalted had run to ruin.