Icons / October 2015

Errol Flynn: The Swordsman

Swashbuckling Tasmanian screen idol Errol Flynn’s life of swords, scandals, seduction, sailboats, booze and bravado.

A 2006 biography of Bette Davis christened the oft-married, never-satisfied actress Bette Davis 'The Girl Who Walked Home Alone'. In contrast, Tasmanian-born King of the Swashbucklers Errol Flynn was 'the boy who couldn't say no'. When Flynn leapt onto the screen in 1935 as Captain Blood, his cutlass flashing and pencil moustache quivering playfully on his lip, he seduced the world. There wasn't a woman who didn't want to bed him or a man who didn't want to be him.

The gentleman rogue was, without rival, Hollywood's most dashing, reckless, amorous Adonis in tights both on screen and off. For five golden years, he starred in a string of heroic costume dramas such as The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Dawn Patrol (1938), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), Dodge City (1939), The Sea Hawk (1940) and They Died with Their Boots On (1941). Partnered in eight of his best films by Olivia de Havilland, Flynn dazzled as a master of derring-do who famously performed his own stunts with such panache, studio head Jack Warner called him 'the duelling Fred Astaire'. Had he died in his prime like Rudolph Valentino before him, Flynn would have been immortalised forever young as the cocksure, virile Robin of Sherwood; stag slung casually over his Lincoln green tunic, swooned over by de Havilland and sneered at by an utterly thwarted Basil Rathbone.

But Flynn's antics off-screen far overshadowed his brief but brilliant prime as the biggest box-office star at Warner Brothers. While fellow stars' foibles were shielded by the studio system, Flynn seemed to take delight in developing his reputation as a pugnacious, womanising drunk. In the early days, Flynn was indulged and the smart set celebrated his promiscuity with the catchphrase 'in like Flynn'. Even Mae West drawled, 'When I sin, I'm in like Flynn.' But when booze and dope destroyed both his career and his looks, Flynn's legend became darker as he was brought to trial for statutory rape by two underage girls and effectively cast down from the Hollywood Olympus. In the years since his death in 1959, Flynn has been subject to sleazy whispers about two-way mirrors and sex parties in his Mulholland Drive den, tall tales about degenerate heroin trips, murmurs about bisexuality and even spurious accusations that the poor chap spied for the Nazis during World War II. If Flynn did sin, he has surely made atonement in mountainous purgatorial pages of unauthorised biographies that get more lurid as those who knew the truth become silent forever.

As a rule, the last place to seek the truth of a Hollywood star's life is his autobiography. But Flynn's posthumously published memoir My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1960) is an exception not least because he was born a blunt-talking Aussie (hence his nickname 'Tasmanian devil'). Noël Coward disdainfully recorded in his diary for 1965: 'I have at last got round to Errol Flynn's autobiography which I found as outspoken as it is reputed to be, but with the sort of outspokenness which curdles the blood. Such a wealth of unnecessary vulgarity!' And how!

Flynn with young second wife Nora Flynn, Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles on holiday in Acapulco, Mexico, 1946 Flynn with young second wife Nora Flynn, Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles on holiday in Acapulco, Mexico, 1946

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James Sherwood