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Saturday 21 September 2019

Errol Flynn: Actor's scandalous private life was more spectacular, and darker, than anything he did on screen

A new Robin Hood film looks set to make one pine for the Errol Flynn original but the actor's scandalous private life was more spectacular - and much darker - than anything he ever did on screen

Poison arrow: Flynn was expelled from several schools in Canada before being packed off to boarding school in England
Poison arrow: Flynn was expelled from several schools in Canada before being packed off to boarding school in England
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

A legendary 14th century forest-dwelling outlaw who may never have existed at all, Robin Hood has been the subject of countless movies and TV shows over the years, and next week the trickster of Sherwood returns to your local cinema in a new and garish guise. Robin Hood stars baby-faced Welsh actor Taron Egerton as a hip-hopish, ninja Hood, who battles the odious Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) with the help of his loyal sidekicks Little John (Jamie Foxx), Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin), Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan) and Maid Marian (Bono's daughter, Eve Hewson).

It is what it is, and over the next few years, Egerton will be joined by other Robins: both Sony and Disney have ambitious Hood projects in the works which they hope will become profitable franchises.

But Egerton, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Patrick Bergin and all the other actors who've played the famous outlaw seem like stand-ins for the one true Hood - Errol Flynn. The dashing Australian played the role just once, in Michael Curtiz's 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood, but so successfully nailed the character that anyone else who ever plays him will be an also-ran. Something about that winning smile and uncomplex swagger made Flynn's Hood seem the quintessential unreconstructed male hero, and Errol filled those lurid green tights as no other man ever could. The Adventures of Robin Hood caught Flynn at the height of his powers, just three years after he'd shot to fame in the hit swashbuckler Captain Blood: he was beautiful, bold, a glowing Aryan specimen and the ideal Hollywood action hero.

Contrary to popular belief, he actually wasn't all that bad an actor either, but he was also his own worst enemy, an alcoholic womaniser who did his level best to scupper his own good fortune, and eventually succeeded. He appears to have had some fun along the way, though, and his exploits are the stuff of legend.

Errol was the principal architect of his own myth, and in a ghost-written 1959 memoir, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, he claimed to have indulged in piracy on the South Seas, killed a man in Papua New Guinea, smoked opium in Hong Kong and engaged with the Nazis while smuggling guns to the Spanish Civil War. And all of this before he hit the big time in Hollywood and started merrily sowing his seed. How verifiable all of that is is open to debate, but almost beside the point, because all of Flynn's Hollywood friends attest to the fact that he was a wonderful barroom spinner of tales which, if not exactly true, really ought to have been. And he was a genuinely adventurous soul, destined to live fast and die young.

Though his studio would later claim he was Irish, and an Abbey actor, Errol Leslie Thomson Flynn was born (in June of 1909) on the Australian island of Tasmania, and was trouble from the get go. After being expelled from several schools, Flynn was packed off to a private boarding school in London, where it was hoped he would learn some manners. Results were mixed on that front, but he did pick up a more neutral, British-sounding accent that would later prove handy in Hollywood.

After returning to Tasmania in 1926 to worry the local females, young Errol staggered to the end of his schooling, got a job as a clerk at a Sydney shipping company, was fired due a petty cash irregularity and took off for Papua New Guinea to seek his fortune in gold mining.

That went about as well as you might expect, and in 1933 he was back in Australia kicking his heels when he was offered a part in a film called In the Wake of the Bounty. A dramatised documentary, it recounted the mutiny led by Fletcher Christian (Flynn) and its aftermath. It didn't do very well, but it gave Errol the notion that he might just be able to avoid hard work by taking to the acting game.

He returned to England and joined a repertory company in Northampton, where he worked and trained as an actor before the inevitable row, and dismissal. A female employee at the company had, apparently, been flung down a flight of stairs: not very gentlemanly, and Flynn was given his marching orders. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise when Warners cast him in one of the 'quota quickie' B-movies they were knocking out at Teddington Studios.

Murder at Monte Carlo (1934) has since gone missing, and may have been no great shakes, but producer Irving Asher liked the cut of Errol's gib. Tall (6ft 2in, according to himself), imposing and very handsome, Flynn was one of those actors who made everyone else blend into the background, and while he might not have had the technique to make it as a stage actor, he was a natural-born movie star. Asher wired Warner Brothers in Hollywood to recommend they give Flynn a contract: just months later, he was resident in the town that would make and destroy him.

Robert Donat was originally supposed to play the title role in Captain Blood (1935), but had asthma and worried the relentless action scenes would be too much for him. Flynn was a total unknown, and Warner executives thought it would be too risky to cast him in the lead. But director Michael Curtiz loved his screen tests, and he got the part.

The athleticism and dash of the 25-year-old Australian made him a natural swashbuckler, and another unknown, 19-year-old Olivia de Havilland, was cast opposite him (they would go on to star in seven more films together). The movie was a massive hit, and Errol was declared the natural successor to Douglas Fairbanks.

Life was good, and through the late 1930s he starred in hit after hit - The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. He and David Niven rented a house together on the coast that Niven quickly christened "Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea": wild parties ensued, a high time was had by all.

Niven, who later wrote a series of bestselling memoirs about his time in Hollywood, once said "you can rely on Errol Flynn - he'll always let you down". But in books like The Moon's a Balloon, Niven added to the Flynn myth by lauding his drinking exploits, and describing how Errol and John Huston would bare-knuckle box at dull parties to pass the time.

Errol drank everything, all the time. It was he, apparently, who came up with the cunning plan of injecting vodka into oranges and smuggling them on to dry sets. He also had an opium addiction, and all this hectic excess would soon take a toll on his looks.

Then there were the scandals, which the studio did its best to hush up.

He was romantically linked with, well just about everyone, and his phallus was the stuff of legend, so large that guests at one of Flynn's parties claimed to have seen him play a tune on the piano with it. Some party piece, but the exalted member does not appear to have made him, or anyone else, happy for long.

He was married three times, but never happily, and had a troubling penchant for much younger women. In 1942, he was accused of statutory rape by two teenage girls: Warners wheeled their battery of lawyers into court to defend Flynn, and he was acquitted, but not all observers were convinced by this verdict, and his career never quite recovered.

By the late 1940s, he was looking liverish, and while he enjoyed something of a comeback in the 1950s playing drunks in films like The Sun Also Rises and Too Much, Too Soon, his body could no longer stand the many insults done to it. Years of heavy drinking, drug use and chain-smoking took their toll, and in late 1959, a by-now bankrupt Flynn was in Alaska trying to flog his yacht when he took ill, and died. He was 50, and travelling in the company of an 18-year-old actress called Beverly Aadland.

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