A Century After His Birth, Errol Flynn Is In Again

Sigh -- our hero: Flynn with his schnauzer Moody on the set of
Sigh -- our hero: Flynn with his schnauzer Moody on the set of "Never Say Goodbye" in 1945. (Associated Press)
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By Nick Thomas
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 21, 2009

Movie audiences have always embraced their swashbuckling screen heroes, and this year marks the centenary of arguably the greatest, Errol Flynn. Mostly, Flynn is remembered for portraying a free-spirited adventurer who dispensed swift justice to oppressors, while extending a gentle hand of chivalry to ladies in need. Born on June 20, 1909, in the southern Australian state of Tasmania, Flynn lived life hard off-screen, too. In just 15 short years, from 1935 until his death 50 years ago, he racked up dozens of classic performances and a professional legacy that endures.

These days, swashbucklers are more likely to be called "action heroes," who trade in their sabers for guns, bullwhips or light sabers in franchises such as "Indiana Jones," "The Mummy" or "Star Wars." More recently, after plundering almost $3 billion at the box office worldwide, the success of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy suggests that sword-wielding adventurers have retained their charm. But whatever their title or weaponry, these characters are little more than reincarnations of dashing screen legends, such as Flynn.

He forged the quintessential image of a full-blown action-adventure movie star. "No actor in film history has so successfully played a swashbuckler, a cowboy or a war hero as Errol Flynn," said Thomas McNulty, author of "Errol Flynn: The Life and Career." McNulty claims there is a "Flynnaissance" underway with the Warner Bros. release of several DVD box sets of his films and more to come.

Flynn was a "personality actor" like John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper, says McNulty, playing the same general personality in most of his films. "This style isn't popular with actors today, although Jackie Chan has made it work, and to a certain degree so has Chuck Norris." Later, method acting became the fashion, making the "personality actors" seem one-note. "Personality actors worked just as hard as method actors, and they could show just as much depth, but it was also what led to typecasting."

As a child, Flynn rebelled against authority -- an essential element for any potential cinematic swashbuckler -- and was expelled from several schools for various mischiefs. Later, in his 20s and itching for adventure, he sailed with friends up the east coast of Australia to New Guinea where he searched for gold, eluded headhunters, smuggled diamonds and raised coconuts.

"This early period of his life formed who he was," Flynn's daughter, Rory, said before heading to Tasmania for centenary celebrations. "By the time he got to Hollywood, he was that 'Tasmanian Devil,' and he brought that to his films. Acting was really just another adventure in his life. Dad always did what he wanted, when he wanted. And when he didn't like something, he took off on his boat. There wasn't a man alive who didn't envy that!"

Traveling to England, Flynn worked briefly with a repertory company and appeared in a few mostly forgettable early-1930s films. A virtual unknown when Warner Bros. cast him with newcomer Olivia de Havilland in the 1935 pirate adventure "Captain Blood," he became the original "overnight sensation" and went on to captivate the public on and off the big screen.

Flynn's best films included detailed scripts, exotic costumes, elaborate sets, rich musical scores and light humor -- a recipe still used widely today. When Warner Bros. made "Robin Hood" in 1938 for $2 million, it was the studio's most expensive production.

"Some actors don't look good in period costumes," said Rudy Behlmer, a noted author and film historian, "but Flynn belonged in them. When he strode into Nottingham Castle, it was believable."

Humor in the face of adversity is commonly used in today's action-adventures and was abundant in many Flynn epics. "You speak treason!" gasps de Havilland in a scene from "Robin Hood." "Fluently," Flynn quips.

"That's a great line," Behlmer said. "It's part of the character, but it was part of Flynn's personality, too."

Although Flynn's films lacked the computer graphics commonplace in today's blockbusters, the physical and optical effects were sophisticated for the period, according to Don Staples, professor emeritus of Film and Television at the University of North Texas.

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