Under my byline

To Errol, divine

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 20 June 2009

Errol Flynn, ca 1940OVERLEAF 34

By the time I closed the book at half past three in the morning and one third of the way through, I was all aglimmer. Partly it may have been sleep deprivation, but mostly it was Errol Flynn. You see, I was reading his memoirs, titled My Wicked, Wicked Ways. And you are reading these words on the centenary of his birth, in Hobart, Tasmania, the large triangular island off the southeastern corner of Australia.

As with most memoirs, you can’t believe every word in it. Flynn did write other books, but this one was ghostwritten, and published posthumously in 1959 — the same year Flynn died, aged just 50, after a lifetime of hard drinking, smoking, drugs and, of course, sex.

Was Flynn really a gold miner, slave trader, coastal shipper and tobacco plantation owner in Papua New Guinea, when he was just in his late teens and early twenties? He was there, for sure, and since at that time the island was a sort of frontier land under the control of the Dutch and Australians and peopled by stone-age tribes, he would have seen or heard of, if he did not himself perform, the many deeds and misdeeds he describes.

Really Flynn seems more like an adventurer from centuries past than a 20th-century movie star. His closest historical parallel may be Benvenuto Cellini, the similarly uninhibited and promiscuous artist, sculptor, soldier and professional exaggerator whose 16th-century autobiography (still and always in print) is one of the most enthralling and absurd books ever concocted.

And then there is the 18th-century Baron Munchausen, a real German baron who fought for the Russians against the Turks, and returned with a headful of tall tales. Flynn himself made this comparison, writing that in later years when he told the story of his youth, he was met with perfect disbelief: one listener “thought I was a magnificent liar, a modern Baron Munchausen, with a wonderful imagination. He would listen and try not to have a spasm.” There is Flynn enjoying, again, making a sensation.

But he had also actually read the Munchausen tales in his bamboo house in the backwoods — and much else, including literature, history, philosophy, even Karl Marx from beginning to end. Flynn may have been the only white man for 50 miles, and spent his days with native workers and Tuperselai, a beautiful girl he purchased from her father, who was his Boss Boy on the plantation, but from the very outset he was a reader.

“Always, wherever I was, nightfall meant books and the chance to try and connect with the ideas of the world… The boys I went to school with were probably still doing their lessons. Now — out of school — an inner need for learning sprang up in me.” He sat next to a hurricane lamp, swatting away “every goddamned bug in the jungle”. His books were shipped to him from Sydney, two weeks away. “I fondled these books as if I were running my hands through a lovely woman’s hair.”

Errol Flynn as Captain Blood, 1935Before Tuperselai, long before he was famous, he had books. “You couldn’t be quite alone with Balzac or de Maupassant, even Robert Louis Stevenson, drumming around in your skull. You couldn’t be lonely with the poems of the English school, nor with the beauty of style of that faggot Baudelaire or the other French writer Rostand.”

Now this is good, serious, plain-spoken stuff. Flynn was, despite appearances, a serious man. Perhaps that’s part of what made him so attractive — it’s a little more, at any rate, than, as someone said, being “A ladies’ man, a man’s man…”

In his few decades, Flynn lived a very full life. Even the imagination needs raw material, after all. As proof of Flynn’s intellectual solidity, please compare his books with the asinine scribbles and pouts of our own allegedly great actor and heartthrob, Amitabh Bachchan.

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2 Responses

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  1. Meg said, on 18 March 2010 at 6:00 am

    October14, 1959 he said goodbye and it is unbelievable that it is 50 years ago. That is quite a milestone, a feat on its own, of still being loved, remembered, and adored by millions of fans around the world! Errol Flynn, he will never be forgotten! Young people of today if introduced to him, via his movies, are becoming fans. A new generation of Errol Flynn admirers is definitely on the way. His movies are fresh as if produced today, played continuously on TCM and are a lot better than seen today in the movies. He was the Best and still is the Best.
    Man like him are only born once in a million years – if ever again!

  2. Rrishi said, on 18 March 2010 at 2:26 pm

    You may be right that a new generation of Flynn fans is forming — after all, who does serious swashbuckling these days? It’s usually cynical and middle-aged (George Clooney) or slapstick (Brendan Fraser) or camp (Johnny Depp). Or something else, but not what Flynn and a few others of his generation could carry off. If he’s in again, good.


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