I know this sounds crazy—believe me, I know—but I just saw 19 Errol Flynn movies in a row (from Captain Blood, the 1935 film that made him instantly famous, to 1953’s The Master of Ballantrae, his last decent film and good performance before he died in 1959, only 50 years old), and I just read all three of the books he wrote, and I have read an awful lot written and said about him by other people.
One, Errol Flynn is one of the greatest actors I have ever seen, and I have been utterly absorbed in movies and movie actors since I was five years old when my sister took me to a movie theater for the first time (to see the new hit The Swiss Family Robinson). I am no professional critic, I am no scholar, but anyone who has seen thousands of actors in maybe 2,000 films has an informed opinion beyond his own taste.
Two, Flynn’s colorful life off screen—as dashing lover, epic seducer, irrepressible rake, suave man-about-town, innocent defendant in a spurious rape trial (the charges trumped up by a corrupt Los Angeles Police Department furious at Warner Bros. for not paying the usual bribe), legendary imbiber, and penniless star who lived his last years cruising the world on his boat—overshadows the superb acting he did on screen. In his prime, he could play any role whatsoever (pirate, swordsman, soldier, horseman, detective, novelist, champion boxer) with aplomb, and with the mysterious ability to be the character as written (Robin Hood, fighter pilot, Norwegian resistance fighter, Paris thief, Indian spy for the Raj) while also being patently, obviously, happily, ineluctably, Errol Flynn.
Three, Flynn was, to a degree, what he said several times he most wanted to be—a fine writer. His memoir My Wicked, Wicked Ways is a trifle, not worth the paper it was printed on, but his romantic adventure novel Showdown is very good, and Beam Ends, published in 1937, when he was only 28, is a rollicking, entertaining, and deeply sad account of a sea voyage with three friends. What, Errol Flynn wrote a fine book? Yes, he did, and he did so while he was the most famous movie star in the world. How easy it would have been to capitalize on that fame with a ghostwritten autobiography, a dashed-off argle-bargle of fluff composed by a studio marketing man. Beam Ends, however, is a witty, personal, graceful book, a very pleasant surprise indeed.
But let us focus on the actor on screen, for there he had, in his best films, a thorough and unparalleled lightness. Lightness of body—he leapt, swung, danced, fought with swords with the light unconscious grace of a very good athlete, which by all accounts he was. Lightness of tone—even (and especially) in romantic moments, he smiles, he teases, he banters, he jokes gently, surely more than the script and director called for. (Only Bette Davis seemed not to enjoy being courted on screen by Flynn, reportedly put out that he was more famous, as she considered herself much the better artist; many years later, she confessed to Olivia de Havilland that she had been wrong, and that he was a terrific actor.) His lightness of tone extends to his easy humorous byplay with fellow Warner players Alan Hale and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, and to his on-screen enemies; many a villain was startled to find Flynn grinning at him before a battle began.
And the lightness with which he carries the mantle of his character—he never strains for effect, never delivers a stentorian stemwinder, never eats the scenery, never steals a scene. Even as he must have known and savored his unquestionable status as the star of one film after another, he never lets the movie be a star vehicle. He never preens for the camera, even as he knew full well that the world considered him a film idol. And he takes, as I have suggested, a real companionable pleasure in working with his costars. He likes playing with others. The perfect example of this is the haunting scene at the end of Gentleman Jim, when Ward Bond as the vanquished boxer John L. Sullivan walks through a victory party to present Flynn’s Gentleman Jim Corbett, the bank teller turned boxer, with the championship belt. Flynn doesn’t move a muscle, almost refusing the camera, which tracks Bond’s long, weary, brave, dignified voyage; and even as Flynn accepts the belt, he does so with humility, with real affection and respect for the older boxer—and perhaps the older actor.
It’s not physical beauty that makes a great actor, as Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart and any number of stunningly beautiful yet terrible actresses and handsome wooden actors have proved. Neither is it merely the ability to remember lines and utter them with conviction, but rather that quality I mentioned earlier, what seems to me to be the mark of the very finest actors. It has to do with that quicksilver quality of believability, of being the person you are playing, of knowing you are the person you are playing. And, very often, some other mysterious alchemy of ease and wit and humor and dash, some barely subterranean pleasure in the delightful silliness and lovely suspension of reality of the craft. Brad Pitt and George Clooney have that; Kate Winslet and Judi Dench have that; Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly had it; Cary Grant had it, in spades. Cary Grant was always Cary Grant, no matter what his part; but he was also at the same time absolutely the socialite C. K. Dexter Haven, or the cat burglar John Robie, or the mild advertising executive Roger Thornhill, sucked into a terrifying espionage plot in North by Northwest. The greatest actors keep those two inhabitances in the finest balance, and somehow draw you into the trick with a wink.
In all of Flynn’s best movies (for my money, in rough order, The Sea Hawk, Gentleman Jim, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Dawn Patrol, Santa Fe Trail, Captain Blood, Edge of Darkness, Uncertain Glory, and Objective, Burma! ), Errol Flynn is, in a word, irresistible. You would follow him anywhere, not because he is handsome, not because he plays, and is, a captain or a rebel leader, but because it would be immense fun. In the end, what made him a wonderful actor was what made him by all accounts a wonderful and dangerous friend and companion away from the set: dash, verve, brio, humor, a constant aura of why not? Probably that burned him out, making him wearier and wearier on screen, such that by his last films he has irredeemably lost his light. But for a time—the 10 years between 1935 and 1945, let’s say—he was not only one of the most skilled and popular actors in the world, but also a unique one. Many fine actors can be reprised and updated (think of Gregory Peck as a later Henry Fonda), but though hints of Flynn appear in cool Steve McQueen and sprightly Tom Cruise, in suave Pierce Brosnan and bantering Will Smith, Flynn is, like Cary Grant, sui generis—a package of grace, wit, athleticism, looks, humor, and obvious joy in the work and workmates that makes going back to a film you have not seen in many years, like The Sea Hawk or Gentleman Jim, a real and lasting pleasure.
Listen to Brian Doyle talk about his favorite Errol Flynn movies (with appearances from John Wayne and Audrey Hepburn!) on our Smarty Pants podcast.
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