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No smoke without ire: Errol Flynn's centenary has been overshadowed by claims of bisexuality and Nazi sympathies

No smoke without ire: Errol Flynn's centenary has been overshadowed by claims of bisexuality and Nazi sympathies

No smoke without ire: Errol Flynn's centenary has been overshadowed by claims of bisexuality and Nazi sympathies

Last month's celebrations of the centenary of Tasmania's most famous son were disrupted somewhat by an unseemly row.

Errol Leslie Flynn was born on the Australian island state on June 20, 1909, but even as the locals were unfurling the bunting and cracking open the tinnies in the great man's honour, a dissenting voice emerged from Hollywood.

Charles Higham, a self-styled Flynn expert who wrote a highly contentious biography of the star in 1980, suggested that the festivities were inappropriate given the actor's nefarious wartime activities.

Flynn, Higham has claimed, was a secret Nazi sympathiser and anti-Semite who spied for the Germans during the Spanish Civil War and later fed information to the Gestapo. "There is no doubt whatsoever that Flynn had Nazi sympathies and worked as a Nazi operative if not an actual agent," Higham told reporters on the eve of the movie idol's centenary. "He was first noticed for his violently anti-British and pro-Nazi views as early as 1934 and there is little doubt his work for the Nazis resulted in people being killed."

Case closed, then, except that it's hard to find a single historian or biographer who agrees with Higham. His claims, which are based on analysis of declassified CIA files, have been widely refuted as ridiculous, and Higham hasn't helped matters by also alleging that Flynn was a bisexual. This notion seems a bridge too far: Errol Flynn was one of Hollywood's most notorious and prodigious womanisers.

And other biographers such as Tony Thomas and Buster Wyles (who actually knew him) have suggested that the idea of his being pro-Nazi is about as likely as his having slept with men. According to them, Flynn's politics were staunchly left-wing, and he was a vocal supporter of both the leftists in the Spanish Civil War and the Cuban Revolution.

If Charles Higham's claims are far-fetched (though there is at least some evidence to back the anti-Semitic claim), he would not be the first film biographer to attempt to boost book sales with outrageous assertions. But it seems a bit daft in this case because if there's one life that does not need embellishment, it's Errol Flynn's.

It was not a long life -- he was only 50 when he collapsed and died in Vancouver, Canada -- but it was one so packed with incident and adventure that it's hard to know when the man found time to sleep.

It all started out quietly enough, in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1909. Errol's father, Theodore Thompson Flynn, was a respected biology professor, his mother, Lily Mary Young, the spirited descendent of a long line of seafarers. Young Master Flynn seemed all set for a quiet and comfortable middle-class life, but from very early on it was obvious he had other ideas.

Sent as a teenager to board at the exclusive Sydney Church of England Grammar School, he was expelled for fighting and, if his own memoir is to be believed, having sex with a school laundress. More expulsions followed.

At the age of 20, having failed to settle on an occupation, he moved to New Guinea where he purchased a tobacco plantation. It failed, as did a subsequent mining venture, and he spent several years thereafter knocking about the South Seas sailing and smuggling -- experiences he later fictionalised into an adventure novel.

In 1933 Flynn pitched up in England, where he somehow talked his way into an acting gig with the Northampton Repertory Company. With his imposing physique and square-jawed good looks, he certainly looked the part, and he was soon being offered film roles.

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When he was shooting his second film, Murder at Monte Carlo in London, a Warner Brothers executive spotted him and offered him a Hollywood contract. Errol Flynn was not and would never be much of an actor, but give him a sabre to rattle and a pair of tights to fill and you were in business. A natural athlete, Flynn was an unparalleled swashbuckler, and shot to fame on the back of his very first starring role, playing an Irish pirate in Captain Blood (1935).

In fact, Warners had decided to sell him as an Irishman, and invented a cod biography about him being an Abbey actor, but such subterfuge seemed unnecessary as hit followed hit through the 1930s.

In films like Robin Hood (1938) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1938) he excelled as an action hero, alongside regular co-star Olivia de Havilland, who has always denied strong rumours that they were more than friends.

Flynn met long-time friend David Niven making The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), and the pair became keen members of the Hollywood Cricket club.

Flynn settled right into the Hollywood lifestyle, but nothing interfered with his enthusiastic pursuit of his three great loves -- drinking, fighting and women. Today's paparazzi might not have been so brave if they'd been trailing Flynn, who punched hard and often. In his Hollywood memoir The Moon's a Balloon, David Niven remembered Flynn and John Huston meeting up at a Hollywood party and agreeing to liven things up by going outside for an amiable fist fight.

Marriage for Flynn always seemed at best a notional concept, and though he did it three times there was always room for extracurricular activities. In 1942 two underage girls accused the star of statutory rape, and it was during the subsequent trial that the phrase "in like Flynn" was coined. He was acquitted, but the scandal didn't exactly help his career.

Neither did his prodigious drinking, which by the mid-1940s was beginning to affect his looks. But perhaps the biggest reason why Flynn's star began to fade was the fact that he was something of a one-trick pony, a curiously wooden actor who was all at sea when separated from the swashbuckling.

In the 1950s he moved to Jamaica, and his presence helped popularise the island as a tourist resort. In 1959 he fell in love with a 15-year-old schoolgirl called Beverly Aadland, whom he apparently intended to marry.

But when they were on a trip together in Vancouver he fell ill. When rushed to a friend's apartment in the city, he rallied, and began drinking and regaling the assembled company with stories.

Feeling ill again, he decided to retire for a rest saying "I shall return". But he never did -- his heart gave out while he was asleep, though it could just as easily have been his liver.

He was buried in Hollywood alongside six bottles of his favourite whiskey, a parting gift from his many drinking buddies. I wonder if they're still full.

pwhitington@independent.ie


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