Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Life and Career of Errol Flynn

Thomas McNulty's The Life and Career of Errol Flynn

 I've read a lot of biographies in my day, and I've read just about everything I could find on actor Errol Flynn. But Thomas McNulty's biography of the screen legend, first published by McFarland in 2004, is one of the finest biographies I've ever read, and certainly it's the best one on the life, legend, career, and legacy of Errol Flynn. McNulty's research is amazing, and the information he provides, the tales of Flynn's youth in Tasmania, his adventures, and film career is not only the story of a very talented, intelligent and complex human being, it's also something of an inside look at Hollywood, and Warner Bros motion picture studio. If Douglas Fairbanks is the very first action hero in silent films, then Flynn is certainly the first action hero in "talkies." I think it's safe to say that Errol Flynn was  the very first "rock star," and that he set the tone for what he never lived to see: the Swinging 1960s. He was a star almost from day one: he appeared in only five films, starting in 1932, before his 1935 role as Captain Blood launched him into the stratosphere. Three years and five pictures later, he became a true screen icon, an immortal celluloid hero, in the glorious The Adventures of Robin Hood. McNulty's book is filled with insight and great compassion for his subject. But he's not an author to shy away from those dark, disturbing corners of his subject's troubled life. This book reads like a novel, a high adventure that picks you up and sweeps you along, taking you on a journey through cinema history, a journey filled with great and mediocre films, battles with directors and studio boss Jack Warner, and battles with the press, the courts, and the FBI. Flynn's story is one of tall tales, booze, babes, drugs, brawls, and a zest for life that was almost Olympian in scope. Flynn was highly intelligent, extremely well read, and a fair hand himself at the typewriter. He was also fearless, truly fearless. In one of the many articles he wrote, titled "Refuse to be Afraid," he says: "All my life I've fought fear, because I believe it is the only real menace to a man's hopes and peace of mind." Sadly, this is true. Sadly, while we may think that Flynn achieved his hopes, he never seemed to achieve peace of mind. And McNulty's book has left me with a feeling of sadness for Errol Flynn. Laugh if you wish, but I have always identified with Flynn -- not the movie star, but the man. More than any other star of Hollywood's Golden Age, I find a kindred spirit in Flynn, though I am nowhere near as fearless, as reckless as he was. There is real emotional depth in McNulty's biography, and this was an emotional journey for me. I think that Errol Flynn, the dashing, elegant, heroic screen icon was very much a lost and lonely little boy at heart. That he lived life to the fullest, led 100 lives in his brief 50 years on this planet, that he conquered Hollywood, women, the admiration and envy of men, and came to be both admired and loathed all over the world, says much about this intense, dark, and troubled soul. Flynn's story is one of great sadness, a tragedy any Greek playwright of old would be proud to call his own. Tragedy even fell upon two of the four children he loved and was totally devoted to: one daughter, Arnella, died young; his son Sean, a young photo-journalist during the Viet Nam war, was captured and killed by the Viet Cong. There are many more such threads in the tapestry that was the life and career of Errol Flynn, and I feel that he was someone I could have been friends with, for the demons he battled are the same demons I battle, and to some degree, still wrestle with every day. He rarely gets the kudos he deserves for his place in film history, and he is a very underrated actor, in my opinion. But don't take my word for it -- watch his films, study his performances. There was, there is more beneath the surface than a first-look reveals. I have long shied away from Flynn's final decade of films, because by then the booze and drugs, his reckless lifestyle had caught up with him, and he no longer looked the part of the dashing hero. But after reading McNulty's biography of Flynn, I plan to get my hands on his later films, The Sun Also Rises, Too Much Too Soon, and The Roots of Heaven, to name three. Allow me now to end my review in Thomas McNulty's own words, from the final chapter of his book, so you may read for yourselves what he has to say about the life and career of Errol Flynn: "His picaresque life as a sailor on the seas of fate; his ability to find adventure amidst the mediocrity of daily life; his courage in facing his adversaries, both on and off the screen, all make for an intriguing portrait of a man who lived life to the fullest." I could not have said it any better.