Saturday, January 28, 2012

ERROL FLYNN - The Life & Career

The Life & Career
By Thomas McNulty
McFarland & Company, Inc.
369 pages

Yes, I know the title of this review column is Pulp Fiction and this review is straying off that thematic path.  I beg your indulgences, as this particular subject matter is near and dear to my heart thus influential in my own taste for action adventure literature. It will allow you a small glimpse of what shaped this reviewer in his youth.

Growing up in the 1950s, with the advent of television, I was a fortunate member of that generation that had access to old Hollywood movies in the comfort of my own living room.  Television was pretty much our story telling electronic babysitter and it was before it that I discovered the greatest cinematic swashbuckler of them all, Errol Flynn.
To this day I consider his 1938 “The Adventures of Robin Hood” one the all time great adventure romances ever made.  From the splendor of its Technicolor hues to the fast paced script and direction, the beautiful Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian, the dastardly charming Basil Rathbone as the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham and of course Flynn as the quintessential Robin Hood.  You can imagine a preteen young boy being mesmerized by such a tale of action and adventure all propelled by a brutally handsome rogue who, against all odds, would win both his cause and the hand of the fair lady.  It was heady stuff; the same stuff that all adolescent dreams are made of.

Over those formative years, I would soon come to enjoy and applaud Flynn in his other great swashbuckling sagas such as “Captain Blood”, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, “They Died With Their Boots On” and another personal favorite, “The Sea Hawk.”  That he was the idol of millions of young men around the world should come as no surprise to anyone who loves movies.  But like all fabrications, the older I became, the more fact, as delivered by the gossip rags, began to intrude on fiction and the real person of Tasmanian born Errol Flynn began to emerge in my awareness.  Learning the harsh reality that the actor was but a poor reflection of the heroes he portrayed on the silver screen was one of life’s bitter lessons to be learned.  Yet, despite these “truths” my fascination and admiration of his films never lessened.  After he passed away at a relatively young age in 1959, I often wondered who Errol Flynn really was.  Thanks to biographer Thomas McNulty, we now have the answer to that question in this remarkable, exhaustively researched book.

At last we have a complete telling of the man’s life, from his early days in Tasmania to his struggling school years in England and finally his return to the Land Down Under and the fateful meetings that ultimately led him to a career in action.  And as his personal journey zig-zags across the globe, so did Flynn’s love the sea and traveling.  We learn that throughout both his successes and failures, it was forever the siren call of the horizon that forever propelled him onward, always eager and curious to find that strange and exotic land beyond.  He was a self-taught philosopher, the talented writer and the cold and heartless womanizer all rolled into one complicated psyche.  He would spend his entire life trying to self-analyze and fathom that mystery until, in the end, he was resigned himself to truth that whatever answers exist, they are not revealed to us in this life.

As a biographer, McNulty accepts his responsibility to tell us the entire story of the man, not the screen legend.  He does so unerringly, often times clearly uncomfortable with the facts he is relating such the FBI’s voluminous files on Flynn and J. Edgar Hoover’s personal disdain for Flynn’s immorality.  Here are the stories of his alcoholism and even worst self-destructive drug addiction to heroin.  And yet this same lost soul remains a loving father devoted to his children.  At the same time McNulty dispels the countless myths and fabrications that were created by Flynn’s enemies while also denouncing the actor’s own tall-tales with which he often used as a shield against the ever intruding press reporters.  Here was a man who both desired and then despised his own celebrity.

“Errol Flynn – The Life and Career” is a truly amazing biography worthy of a place in any true film lover’s library.  Errol Flynn was arguably one of the greatest romantic actors ever to shine on that giant silver screen and his place in cinematic history has been shamefully underrated.  McNulty’s book goes a long way in correcting that wrong and argues soundly that more critical attention demands to be focused on this truly unique and talented man. Let’s hope the academic community is listening.


Glen Davis said...

I enjoy Flynn's westerns, especially San Antonio. I wonder about the movies that could have been made had Flynn made it to the era of spagetti westerns.

Ron Fortier said...

How true. One of the elements I was unaware of was the fact that at one time he owned a house in Jamaica and socialized with Ian Fleming at the time Fleming had started to write "Doctor No." One has to wonder how much of Flynn's debonair womanizing influenced Fleming in his portrayal of James Bond?

Unknown said...

Flynn also wrote an autobiography that was brutally frank about many of his shortcomings. The book ends with Flynn being all alone, with no one to share his autumn years.

Ron Fortier said...

That he did, Joel, called "My Wicked, Wicked Ways." Thomas talks about it in great length in this bio and about how only the first publication is unedited. Once the book was out, it caused such a stir, the publisher had it severely cut in future editions. They were really scared of being sued.

Rick said...

The Adventures of Robin Hood has been my all time favorite movie. I saw it while in grammar school and Robin became one of my heroes emulated in bow and arrow obsession. He was a big presence. I'm reminded of the movie My Favorite Year when I read about Errol Flynn. Thanks for the review.

Ron Fortier said...

I recently picked up "Adventures of Robin Hood" on Blu-ray and it was like seeing it again for the first time. It is one of my personal second favorite film of all time. Oh, and "My Favorite Year" is mentioned in the book as well. Thanks for writing, Rick.

Derrick Ferguson said...

Funny how Errol Flynn has been on my mind lately. Last week I watched the dismal Ridley Scott/Rusell Crowe "Robin Hood" and quickly threw in my DVD of Flynn's "The Adventures of Robin Hood" which after all these years is STILL the definitive Robin Hood movie.

Other Flynn movies I watched that day was two of his little known movies but both which are extremely well worth watching: "The Master of Ballantrae" and "The Adventures of Don Juan". I don't care what they say about the man, nobody...and mean nobody could buckle a swash like Mr. Flynn.

Ron Fortier said...

You got it, Derrick. Flynn was Robin Hood period. And like you there are lots of other roles he did that I still enjoy. Beside the two you referred to, I'm a sucker for Captain Blood and the Sea Hawk. He really was a one of a kind. Thanks for stopping by.

Derrick Ferguson said...

And like Mr. Davis, I also enjoyed Errol Flynn's Westerns as well as they were just as huge as his swashbucklers. It always gives me a chuckle in those Westerns when they stop the plot dead to explain how Flynn's character was from Australia or Scotland or Ireland in order to explain his accent. I think that back in the Old West you've have more trouble finding somebody without an accent.

And even though he's never said so, I've convinced Kevin Kline was doing Errol Flynn in SILVERADO.

Ron Fortier said...

Holy smokes, the minuted you said that about Kline, I got it. Of course, that's exactly who he was channeling. Completely. Scott Glen could have easily been Randolf Scott in the same vein. Wow, I don't think I'll ever watch SILVERADO again without that in my head. Good call,

May said...

With this scholarly well-researched biography, one should also read Errol Flynn's fascinating account of his life "My Wicked WIcked Ways" to understand this one-of-a-kind rascal. His life ended sadly but he did live an adventurous life. How many people have the guts to follow his ways? I admire his guts even though he must suffer a great deal. He was a force of nature.

May said...

I admire Errol Flynn regardless of those so-called his vices, maybe because I have the capacity to accept people as who they are, instead of putting them in any type of social or moral code. What Errol Flynn did, in hindsight, is common place after 1970s sexual revolution. How many womanizers Hollywood have had since Flynn? Just to name a few; Warren Beaty, Richard Burton, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson. Yes, he drunk and drugged himself to death because after the statutory rape case (he was acquitted), he lost the will to live and embarked on a deliberate slow death. I have no idea why he had to be singled out. I enjoyed his autobiography immensely; it allows me to peek into an intelligent individual whose soul was vivid, cheerful while sad at the same time. RIP.