Ohhh Errol I would give everything just to be like him. — Australian Crawl, “Errol” (1981)
There are certain iconic, cinematic images from my childhood that have lingered long and indissoluble throughout my entire life. Random words or phrases in conversation, or in a book, or on TV, will trigger the most disparate and seemingly non sequitur of memories, bringing them to the fore uncontrollably, a crazy-quilt, modern-art-installation of my filmic experience in my brain. We all have this inner clip show, of course, and one of the things that makes us sentient, unique, not-pod-people beings is that none of them could possibly ever be the identical to anyone else’s. We are children of the visual medium, we are the sum of our viewings, and no viewing affects us all in the same way.
I write this from Tasmania, my country’s smallest state, an island below the much larger island that is mainland Australia and home to, among other things, Errol Flynn.
I am currently in Hobart, which is the state capital, largest city, and Flynn’s birthplace, and so I have had visions of the actor, as Captain Blood, as Don Juan and – of course – as Robin Hood hovering prominently in my subconscious for days now, all brought about not by statues erected in his memory or city-wide “Errol Slept Here” plaques but by, of all things, a dog park the bears his name. Small enough memorial, one might think, but at least it’s down by the beach and has a gorgeous view out to sea, which feels to me very Flynnian somehow.
Of those childhood images I referenced earlier, many of those currently holding thematic sway are of this Hollywood studio star, sword in hand and clad in breeches as he rode the deck of a ship like he was born to it and swept sundry spirited ladies (mostly played by Olivia de Havilland) into his arms. His movies were, for me, Sunday afternoon fare, and along with the adventures of Andy Hardy, Ma and Pa Kettle and the assorted adorable orphans played by Shirley Temple, they provided a big chunk of my formative pop culture experience.
But where Flynn’s films differed from those others was that he was a hero to me, an object worthy of admiration and worship. Perhaps not a crush, since I believe I was too young at this time to really understand what that meant – it would be a couple of years yet until I encountered Danny Zuko – but certainly a personage of wit, valor and extreme derring-do that I considered then (and, in part, consider still) the very personification of all that it was to be a, well, man. Certainly, a man of ye olde English times, anyway.
Think back to his Robin Hood: so suave and debonair as he breached the evil Prince John’s defenses, flung down that illicitly slain deer and then spectacularly battled his way past half the king’s garrison to further rob from the rich and give to the poor. Think of his Captain Blood, who surely set the benchmark for piratical sexiness as he escaped from an unjust slavery and eventually won back the respect that he was due. Think of his Earl of Essex, as he fought his baser instincts and his love for his queen. Think of his Captain Thorpe in Sea Hawk, a privateer helping defend England while at the same time winning the hand of the proud Castilian beauty he has taken prisoner. And think of his Don Juan, secretly pining for yet another queen while nevertheless thwarting the treasonous plans of a cunning courtier who could well have made her available. Honor, duty, sacrifice and a handy skill with a blade characterized almost all of Flynn’s roles; throw in his insouciant air, the irrepressible twinkle in his eyes and the tenor thrum of his clipped, precise accent and it was probably no wonder that even as a youngster I understood some measure of his timeless appeal.
Of course, now I know that off screen, Flynn was something of a questionable figure. Between all of his dalliances – in particular, with underage girls – the allegations of fascist and/or communist leanings, his reportedly difficult temperament and his willful decadence, it is hard to think of his work without thinking of his more scandalous legacy. The phrase “in like Flynn” has lost some of its sordid undertone, I think, but biopics and biographies of the actor continue to suggest other, increasingly damning, foibles on his part. Maybe I should care about this, but I don’t. In his private life, he could have been the very devil incarnate, but on screen, he was compelling, magnetic, and above all, decent, and that really is good enough for me. (I mean hell, say whatever you want about Michael Jackson and I’ll probably believe it, but Thriller is still an awesome album.)
The fact is, to me Errol Flynn arrayed in some period costume or another remains the image of heroism, of persuasive, chaste seduction and loyalty to King and country that I have carried with me from my childhood to the present day. No one could buckle a swash quite like him, and while I have enjoyed various piratical antics in both written and visual form in the years since I first saw Captain Blood sweep the invading French before him in an artistic display of lighthearted rapier-wielding, it is against his formidable, flamboyant example that all are judged.
I mean, he does have his own dog park. Can Johnny Depp say that?
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.