Britain and her Empire, sorry, Commonwealth, declared war on Germany in September 1939, causing much uncertainty among those subjects of the Queen then living in Hollywood. Some rushed off to enlist, like David Niven and John Farrow; others rationalised “I could probably do more useful work here making propaganda films where there’s less chance I could get shot at” like Alfred Hitchcock and Laurence Olivier. Errol Flynn didn’t seem to particularly care. Oh, I’m sure he cared on some level, even if it was just annoyance that travel opportunities to Europe were now limited, but his attachment to the British Empire was never too strong; by this stage he probably felt himself to be more of a citizen of the world, which he was, really. He was also extremely self-centred… and busy. The number one male star at Warner Brothers had a lot of projects lined up to appear in.
Before the war, Warners had announced Flynn would star in an adaptation of CS Forester’s Captain Horatio Hornblower, or Flynn’s own The White Rajah or Rafael Sabatini’s The Sea Hawk. But such films involved expensive things like sailing ships, water tanks, and period detail, and relied on the British market for profitability – and who knew how the Brits were going to go in this war thing? So, a cautious studio instead put swashbuckler plans on hold and placed Flynn in another Western, Virginia City (1940).
The ending of Dodge City had Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and company head off to clean up Virginia City… but this wasn’t a sequel, not really – it was a sort of spiritual follow up, set years earlier, during the Civil War, and involved entirely new characters.
The plot has Flynn as a Union officer who is sent out to the title city during the Civil War to investigate a plan by a Confederate officer (Randolph Scott) to raise money for the slave-owning cause. Flynn’s loyalties are tested when he falls for a Confederate spy (Miriam Hopkins), but fortunately some Mexican bandits turn up (led by Humphrey Bogart) to remind all Americans that no matter their differences over little things like slavery, when the chips are down they will always unite to beat up its poorer neighbour. Just the ticket for an anxious, neutral America in a time of war. (There are no black characters in the movie, BTW – there rarely were in Golden Years of Hollywood Civil War Westerns.)
Virginia City a big, expensive, noisy movie which aims for size and spectacle over, say, suspense and thrills – I don’t think director Michael Curtiz was any more excited by Westerns than Flynn, but both do professional jobs, as does Scott (who contrasts nicely with Flynn, incidentally – it’s a shame this was their only collaboration).
The major flaw of this picture is the casting of Miriam Hopkins as the love interest – she is given large billing, below Errol’s with just as big a font – and I know she has her fans, but she is a poor actor and does not match well with Flynn at all, who needed a bit of spunk in his female co-stars, not bland sandpaper. I mean, it’s a great part – you get to be a spy, act the Southern belle, sing in a dance hall, romance Errol Flynn and be pursued by Randolph Scott, shoot marauding bandits, and plea to Abraham Lincoln at the end – but Hopkins stuffs it. Olivia de Havilland must have looked on with annoyance – all those times her talent was wasted quivering in a corner watching sword fights with a handkerchief in her mouth, and when there’s finally a decent female role – perhaps the best in any Errol Flynn Western – they give it to a second-rater.
Humphrey Bogart is fun as a Mexican, if you can handle the fact that he’s playing a Mexican in the first place; he was only a year away from The Maltese Falcon and stardom, but still had to take assignments like these – he doesn’t phone it in, it has to be said, chewing the scenery in a style that’s entirely appropriate to the spirit of the story.
The film has plenty of action and there is always something going on – Civil War history buffs will enjoy cameos from Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, plus the opening sequence at Libby Prison. Flynn was at his peak handsome heroic-ness; the film doesn’t explain away his accent this time, and no one seemed to care. Contemporary audiences loved it (in America at least, I’m not sure about Mexico).
A clip from the movie below.
The Sea Hawk
Flynn returned to swashbucklers with The Sea Hawk (1940) which, like Captain Blood was based on a Rafael Sabatini novel that had previously been filmed during the silent era. Unlike Blood, however, this time the source material was basically thrown out and replaced with a new story inspired by the real-life adventures of Sir Francis Drake leading up to the Spanish Armada (Warners kept Sabatini’s title because it had some name recognition).
Sabatini’s novel is fine, but what writers Seton I Miller and Howard Koch came up with is even better, a terrific story that parallels what England was about to go through – the little island standing alone (well, alone if you ignore its colonies and dominions, as people who recall this period routinely do) against an encroaching European superpower. The comparison was deliberate – of all the major Hollywood studios, Warners were easily the most actively and noisily anti-Nazi, even if America was neutral until December 1941.
This movie is pretty close to perfection as these things go. Alright, I will admit to two gripes: it isn’t in colour (the black and white photography is excellent but after watching The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and Dodge City you can’t help wishing for colour), and Brenda Marshall is flat as the female lead (she’s passable but no Olivia de Havilland – it doesn’t help that her character is a ninny, saying things like “If you believe in it, it must be right”).
That aside, there is so much to admire: the story flows beautifully and is very well structured (it sort of combines Captain Blood with Robin Hood and sets it to the background of Elizabeth and Essex); the production values are spectacular (a fantastic sea battle, a hellish swamp, the Elizabethan Court, the Tilbury address); the support cast is superb (Flora Robson as Queen Bess, Alan Hale as a sidekick, Claude Rains and Henry Daniell make for incredible villains) as is Michael Curtiz’s direction (plenty of shadows and compositions – he was clearly a lot more engaged when doing swashbucklers); Eric Wolfgang Korngold’s score is perhaps his finest; and there is an all-time classic final duel (I prefer it to the one in Captain Blood even if Daniell couldn’t fence in real life – there’s more action, with shadows on the wall and candles being sliced by rapiers).
The Spanish are no one-dimensional villains: Phillip II wants world domination and the Panama officers are obviously cruel, but Claude Rains’ ambassador still loves his niece and Gilbert Roland’s captain is engaging, brave and likeable; the Spanish are also very smart, even the scummy spy (the way they figure out Flynn is going to Panama is genuinely clever). In his book Hollywood History of the World, George MacDonald Fraser said he wished the film had gone on to include the entire Spanish Armada, and I’m totally with him on that point, but the ending as it stands is satisfying.
Flynn is very strong in the lead role – he turns in a different type of swashbuckler performance here, a more tight-lipped schoolboy type, awkward with women, and is totally believable, a tribute to the star’s acting skill, and shows how versatile he could be.
The Sea Hawk is fabulous – absolutely fabulous. It made buckets of money, as it deserved to, and Winston Churchill adored it, as he should.
The final duel is below.
Santa Fe Trail
As receipts for Virginia City poured in, Warners decided to put Flynn in another production-value-heavy-Civil-War-linked Western named after a famous place in the old West: Santa Fe Trail (1941). Michael Curtiz returned as director, as did Bob Buckner as writer, and Alan Hale and Guinn Big Boy Williams as the comic relief; Olivia de Havilland came back as the romantic interest.
This would be the least highly regarded of the “Dodge City” trilogy. Warners had a strong track record when it came to illustrating the dangers of Nazism, but they were not crash hot on the topic of African-American history. No studio was in 1940 but Santa Fe Trail is especially dodgy.
Flynn plays Jeb Stuart, a real-life Confederate officer in the Civil War – but this is not a biopic so much as a dramatisation of the pre-war violence of Bleeding Kansas and Raid on Harpers Ferry. Stuart is sent to Kansas in the 1850s to fight the trouble-making abolitionist, John Brown (Raymond Massey); he is helped by his best friend George Custer (Ronald Reagan), the girl they both love (De Havilland) and two wacky sidekicks (Hale and Williams) but are hindered by an abolitionist (Van Heflin).
On one hand it is fascinating to see a Hollywood movie about John Brown, the white slave-hating, white-killing terrorist/freedom fighter who is Quentin Tarantino’s favourite person in American history – but it is disconcerting to see Flynn’s character, the hero in a big budget studio movie, going so easily on slavery (he clearly owns slaves, he is always arguing for peaceful reform, he argues Virginia were going to consider a referendum stopping slavery, he tells abolitionist Heflin to shut up talking about anti-slave stuff at West Point).
Every now and then, a potentially legitimate discussion point sneaks into the screenplay – like slaves wondering what will happen after they are free, the possibility that there might have been a way to end slavery that didn’t involve war, the dangers of extremism and of blindly following charismatic leaders – but they are constantly undermined by things like depicting slave-owning characters far more sympathetically than abolitionists, and showing all the black characters as simple-minded creatures, some of whom are so spooked by the fighting they feel betrayed by Brown and want to run back to their old plantations (there’s even a Mammy who lovingly patches up Flynn’s wound).
Flynn’s love scenes with Olivia de Havilland seem perfunctory; while she is enchanting as ever, she is wasted in a nothing part (Reagan is never a threat for the main romance, so you wonder why they even bothered to have a love triangle subplot). I wish she’d swapped with Brenda Marshall for The Sea Hawk – Marshall’s blandness wouldn’t have mattered here. Reagan isn’t much but then he doesn’t have much to do (John Wayne turned down this role and you can’t blame him, even though he wasn’t firmly established as a star at the time).
Raymond Massey, however, is superb as Brown, all blazing eyes and grand gestures, while Van Heflin is equally fine as the seemingly principled anti-slaver, who turns out to be a money-hungry rat (mind you, it is still Heflin’s character who warns the Union that Brown is going to attach Harpers Ferry… he technically does more than Flynn/Stuart to stop the slave uprising in its tracks).
There is a surprisingly moving scene where Stuart, Custer and his mates are told by an Indian fortune teller they will all fight each other in a few years, and plenty of action and movement – like Flynn’s first two westerns, it is overproduced and noisy with high production value – but at heart this is a MAGA movie, and it’s simply not fun to watch. The public of 1940 had no problem with it, though – it made as much at the box office as Dodge City.
Below is the final raid, though the whole movie is in the public domain: https://archive.org/details/SantaFeTrail1940
Footsteps in the Dark
After a series of very expensive costume pictures, Flynn was keen to try something set in the modern day, preferably a comedy. Remembering Four’s a Crowd, Warners would have been reluctant, but they probably rationalised that at least any such venture would be inexpensive, and so Flynn found himself in Footsteps in the Dark (1941), playing an investment consultant who moonlights as a detective, a part originally conceived for Edward G Robinson. The director was Lloyd Bacon, a reliable old studio hand.
Flynn was clearly delighted to be out of tights and chaps – he goes at the comedy boots and all; full of energy and spark – he even tries a Texan accent. He’s not entirely comfortable as a comic actor but it’s a very endearing performance, and he has that charisma and charm to compensate for his lack of technique.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t do its star justice. The plot is a mess and doesn’t exploit the double life aspect as well as it should. Brenda Marshall, playing Errol’s wife, is less bland than in The Sea Hawk (her dopey eyes suit a character who doesn’t notice her husband leading a double life) but you wish she’d had more spark. Occasionally the movie perks into life, like when Errol tries to charm his mother or banters with detective Alan Hale or when Errol confronts the killer at the end, but as a whole it doesn’t work.
It was a box office disappointment and a proposed sequel, Ghosts Don’t Leave Footprints, never eventuated; Warners kept Flynn away from comedies until after the war. It was a bit unfair for them to blame him – the script was wonky and movies about rich investment consultants with a butler and chauffeur who do about five minutes work before running off to write mystery books might have worked in the 1930s (the heyday of The Thin Man) but probably didn’t go down as well as the world tumbled into war.
In the days immediately before Pearl Harbor, Hollywood turned out a number of movies that promoted America’s military – not war films per se, but stories with a peacetime military background that reassured the public if push came to shove, America was prepared for any fighting. Flynn’s contribution to the genre was Dive Bomber (1941), a weird, overlong present-day melodrama where the star plays a flight surgeon who, along with pilot Fred MacMurray, tries to discover a cure for pilot black out.
For a while, this is surprisingly engrossing, with all the technical jargon (it feels real), Technicolour photography (though you wish they’d used that on The Sea Hawk instead), serious treatment of a serious subject, production values (Navy co-operation) – but it eventually gets boring. You start wishing they’d stop stuffing around with medical experiments and go fight Nazis instead.
It feels wrong to see Errol Flynn as a flight surgeon in a flier movie when the war was on, even if America was neutral during production. Errol’s journey – from cocky, self-assured and not very popular brat to noble and accepted by the men – is similar to Tom Cruise in Top Gun (1986) but not as much fun since Errol spends most of his time on the ground. He flirts a bit with Alexis Smith (a potentially really fun character, a divorcee who chases Flynn) but no way near enough – the film needed more romance, and less comic interludes from Allen Jenkins as a wacky serviceman whose wife – hahahahahaha – is a money grabber.
Fred MacMurray’s conflict with Flynn feels contrived – after a while you go “shut up, pilot, stop being annoying”. (He has two friends at the beginning and when Fred says “we’ve been together forever” you know they’re not likely to make it to the end of the movie, and they don’t.) Ralph Bellamy has a Ralph Bellamy role as a curmudgeonly surgeon. Everyone smokes all the time – especially the doctors. Oh, and at the end Errol chucks a cigarette case out of a plane – what if it lands on someone’s head? It could kill someone!
There’s not a lot of action, comedy or romance, and it’s not a very good movie, but it was in colour with two big stars and American audiences were keen to see films about their military at the time – it was a smash. Seriously, Dive Bomber was Warners’ most popular film of the year, one of the most successful Flynn ever appeared in, making far more than actually good pictures like The Letter or High Sierra. Clearly, Flynn’s popularity could not do much for a weak comedy, but it could help propel a dull military tale to big grosses.
Incidentally, this was the last movie Flynn made with Michael Curtiz – by now the two men could not stand each other. Truth be told, the energy was running out of their collaborations and a break between them wasn’t the worst thing in the world – it’s just a shame they couldn’t have patched things up later in their careers, especially in the 1950s when both could have used the reunion. Curtiz was replaced as main-director-of-Errol-Flynn-movies by Raoul Walsh, who made the star’s next movie.
The trailer, which makes the movie seem more exciting than it is, is below.
They Died With Their Boots On
Ronald Reagan played George Custer in Santa Fe Trail, but when Warners decided to make the General the subject of a biopic in They Died with Their Boots On (1942), they gave the role to Flynn.
Box office considerations aside, Flynn was far better casting than Reagan as the General, being handsome, swashbuckling and erratic. The screenwriters play fast and loose with history, mainly by turning incidents from Custer’s life into cute (fictional) “bits”: he arrives in West Point with dogs and a new uniform, he meets his future wife without being able to talk to her, he is promoted to General accidentally, gets off to a bad start with his future father in law by singing “Garryowen” too loudly – indeed, the first half of this film is mostly played for comedy, even scenes set in the Civil War.
Then things get progressively more serious, and the movie improves: Custer becomes a drinker, gets off it, redeems himself through fighting Indians, tackles corruption, goes to his death. All of which has some basis in reality – it also shows Custer was a big headed cocky kid prone to going his own way, which was true, too, so the film is not without some historical interest – although in real life Custer remained cocky and idiotic til the end, but here he sort of grows up (though there is still a maniacal glint in his eye at Little Big Horn).
Flynn gives one of his finest performances, taking Custer on a genuine emotional journey from silly boy to grown man. Just like Essex was in Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Custer is let off the hook here: it was corrupt Indian agents who caused all the trouble, you see, by creating a false rumour about gold in the Black Hills and selling them guns (the film is quite sympathetic to Indians – they are brave and shown to be betrayed by the whites; Custer admits if he was an Indian he’d fight, too – while still not presenting any three-dimensional Indian characters); Custer’s final assault is not shown as the blunder it was but as a way of “rescuing neighbouring towns” and – in one of the most memorable twistings of the law by a Hollywood screenwriter – as a way of insuring the legal admissibility of some hearsay evidence! (Hearsay is admissible in court if it’s a dying declaration – Custer, dude, it’s not worth it just to get something past a judge in a courtroom).
On the negative side, the final battle is disappointingly flat – just stuntmen galloping across a plain shooting at each other, when doing something closer to the truth would have been far more exciting. It’s also a bit too much of a coincidence that the two soldiers who clashed with Custer at West Point turn out to be bad (shades of Santa Fe Trail!).
Olivia de Havilland is excellent as Custer’s wife Libby – de Havilland could do this sort of part in her sleep by now, but she does have a bit more meat to work with here, playing someone more mature; and watching their final parting has special resonance, knowing that they would no longer act together. They were a magical screen couple, even if only half their teamings were worthy of De Havilland.
Robert Matzen wrote a fine book on their relationship, Errol and Olivia: Ego and Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood which paints an extremely believable picture of what the actors must have been like in real life: two massively attractive kids who became famous together, were overwhelmed by what it brought them, who loved flirting and squabbling with each other, and were never really serious about being in a romantic relationship, but liked the idea of it. Interestingly, when things almost got serious between them, Flynn freaked out and dumped her – and de Havilland went running off after another hard-drinking womaniser, John Huston. Post-Flynn De Havilland had a very long, successful career, winning an Oscar, and leading the charge to break the Hollywood contract system. As of writing she is still alive, which is pretty amazing.
Commercially, her association with Flynn ended on a high – Boots was the studio’s most popular movie of the year after Sergeant York and King’s Row.
Watch a clip of the ending battle below.
The USA joined the war after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Many Hollywood male stars promptly (or relatively promptly) enlisted. Some tried but were turned down – including Flynn, who did attempt to sign up, despite having alimony obligations, a baby son, a new house on Mulholland Drive full of staff, and a thriving career.
Flynn’s experience with boats and travelling throughout New Guinea meant he could have made a genuine contribution to the armed forces during the Pacific war. However, he was rejected in February 1942 due to recurrent malaria (contracted in New Guinea), a heart murmur, various venereal diseases and latent pulmonary tuberculosis. Warners would have been relieved and most likely so was Flynn; his war service would be limited to making movies and the occasional performance for the troops.
He was meant to do a biopic about boxer Gentleman Jim Corbett but that was postponed so the studio could rush him into a war movie, Desperate Journey (1942) where he played an Australian for the first time in his career. (Spoilers: there would only be one more time.) He’s part of a bombing crew that is shot down over occupied Europe and has a jolly good lark blowing things up on their way home
There is fun to be had with this film – the central idea is very strong, it is cute watching Flynn play an Australian (at the beginning he sings a section from “Waltzing Matilda” and says “Australians are fighting men”), and he has a classic last line, “And now for Australia and a crack at those Japs”. Director Raoul Walsh handles it with plenty of pace, and there are decent sequences.
It’s all done very much in Biggles mode, making the war seem like a game (several of the crew die, but it’s similar to losing points in a video game). No one really seems to take it seriously, least of all Raymond Massey as a screaming Nazi, casual Errol or jokey Ronald Reagan, as one of the flight crew. Actually, come to think of it, serious Arthur Kennedy (playing a Canadian accountant) does – his clash with the more laid-back Errol forms the basis of the inter-crew drama (a post-King’s Row Reagan was billed with Errol above the title but his role doesn’t have the same meat on it as Kennedy’s). I enjoyed this a lot as a kid, but it holds up less well over the years. Audiences loved it.
Watch a clip below.
Flynn then went into his third biopic, Gentleman Jim (1942), which is about as historically accurate as Elisabeth and Essex and They Died with Their Boots On but no one cares. It’s terrific fun and Flynn is splendid – he rarely acted with such infectious enjoyment and is obviously having the time of his life in the title role, a part which obviously was close to his real life personality: big headed, cocky, a bit of a prat, the sort of person who has himself paged all the time at a gym just for the thrill of hearing his name spoken out loud, but with a likeable sheen (I do have the feeling real-life Errol was more of a prick).
The whole film is made with immense love and affection – from the recreation of the “gay ‘90s” (Olympic Clubs, banks, fight scenes, boardwalks, etc) and the fights (all the boxing sequences are excellent – some take place in gyms, tents, stadiums and a memorable one on a pontoon), the rich parade of character actors (Alan Hale as Flynn’s dad, Jack Carson as his mate, Ward Bond as John Sullivan and many more).
The top-notch script is full of memorable one-liners, clever exposition, and scenes. The best moment, apart from the fights and the Smith-Flynn verbal jousting, is the ending, where Ward Bond (playing John L Sullivan) passes the belt over to Flynn and there is a moment of sadness, the end of an era inevitable in all sport (Danny Peary pointed out this is a rare pro-boxing film) – followed by the wonderful final kiss with the line “in that case, I’m no lady”.
Most of all there is Alexis Smith, looking like, as Pauline Kael wrote, a ship in full sail; she’s feisty, smart and fun, and up for a bit of nooky, too – watch how she gropes John L Sullivan’s muscles. She was Flynn’s best partner since de Havilland. This was Flynn’s favourite of his movies, and no wonder.
Watch a scene below.
Edge of Darkness (1943)
It was back to war with Edge of Darkness (1943), a tale of villagers trying to defy the Germans in occupied Norway. It’s not an Errol Flynn vehicle, really, but rather an ensemble piece with Errol in it.
When I first saw the film, I thought his casting threw the whole piece off, but watching it again I got used to him. It’s definitely Errol’s most communist (ish) movie, with an excellent script by later blacklistee Robert Rossen, and director Lewis Milestone using images that seem straight out of the Soviet Union – the masses marching together with their rifles a la Eisenstein, the oppressive Nazis, the quisling who works at the factory (one Nazi says one of the villagers “is for us”, another asks “The owner?”, and the Nazi replies “Of course”), the prominence given to women (several are leaders and take part in the fighting), the fanatical glint in the eye of the resistance.
Most of all, there is the film’s theme, best espoused with some dialogue at the end: “I can’t walk by myself”. “You don’t have to”. While Errol is a leader, he’s more first among equals – there’s none of the solo dictatorial orders of, say, Robin Hood, Captain Blood or Custer; the Norwegian fighters here work on the basis of teamwork – indeed, whenever someone does an action by themselves, it’s shown to be totally ineffective (a school teacher telling off a Nazi, a Nazi mistress telling off a Nazi) or dangerous to the whole group (a man attacks his daughter’s rapist). There is a great scene where Errol has to force himself not to avenge his girlfriend’s rape so as not to endanger the whole resistance.
Edge of Darkness is full of wonderful scenes: the “Beau Geste”-like opening sequence, the resistance meeting in the church (with everyone facing forward as they have their discussion), the school teacher’s futile protest, Ann Sheridan’s post-rape scene (where we focus on the reaction of her boyfriend Errol Flynn and forget about her dad Walter Huston – this is good writing), the scene in the town square where the priest and women start blowing people away (Milestone effectively using zooms here – though he does overuse his patented “tracking shot of charging troops” method from All Quiet on the Western Front a bit too often).
It is also a film full of strong characterisations: Judith Anderson’s Nazi hater who nonetheless becomes affectionate towards a nice-ish Nazi, Huston’s decent doctor and his everything is-all-right dotty wife (Ruth Gordon), their quisling son and tough-as-guts daughter (Sheridan), the old school teacher, the pacifist priest, the mistress (Nancy Olson) to the head Nazi. Helmut Dantine’s bad guy is a bit too scenery-chewing and the film does go over the top on occasion, but it holds up extremely well. I’m not sure why it’s not better known/regarded – maybe critics were unable to get past the notion of such a determinedly non-Norwegian cast playing Norwegians. It made some money, though not as much as Flynn’s previous blockbusters.
Flynn tried something different in Warners’ all-star musical comedy fund-raiser-for-the-troops, Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943); he appears in one scene, singing “That’s What You Jolly Well Get”. Warners did not make many musicals during Flynn’s heyday and this was as close to that genre as he got until the following decade. In September 1942 Flynn signed a new contract with Warners to make four films a year, one of which he would be able to produce.
Watch a clip from Edge of Darkness below.
The rape trial
By 1942 Errol Flynn was a single man, his tempestuous marriage to Lily Daminta having finally ended after several separations. He lived a swinging bachelor life at his dream house in Mulholland Drive, a residence which became so famous/notorious it was the subject of its own biography, Errol Flynn Slept Here: The Flynns, the Hamblens, Rick Nelson, and the Most Notorious House in Hollywood by Robert Metzen.
Flynn designed the house himself, so it demonstrated several aspects to the man: it was high up on a mountain, had great view and lots of privacy, featured a study to write, a swimming pool and tennis court to play sport, a separate hut for cockfights, gambling and orgies, a guest bathroom for visiting ladies… with a two-way mirror (observed behind the bar – with seats for two people, so you could watch with your friends), another two-way mirror in the ceiling of the guest bedroom (viewable from the attic), an escape stairway from his bedroom (why would you need that from your own house?), no specific front door. Flynn was clearly a man who loved a good time (parties, sex), and had a strong kinky/voyeuristic streak, but who also liked peace and quiet.
The house at Mulholland Drive was where police came to arrest him in late 1942 on two separate charges of statutory rape; the complainants were Peggy Satterlee and Betty Hensen. The matter went to trial in late January 1943, and was a media sensation – one of the legendary scandals of old Hollywood, up there with the suicide of Jean Harlow’s husband, the mysterious death of Thomas Ince, or pretty much anything Elizabeth Taylor ever did.
Flynn’s attorney, Jerry Giesler, ensured there was a majority of women on the jury and proceeded to exploit their institutionalised misogyny by slut-shaming the two complainants, bringing up their previous affairs (and, for one of them, abortion), and implied that the girls had cooperated with prosecutors. The tactics worked, helped by Flynn’s excellent performance on the stand. He was found not guilty.
I would argue that there’s little doubt Flynn slept with the girls – sex with teenage females was one of the great consistent passions of his life, along with boats, adventuring, alcohol and literature. As if to prove the point he began a relationship during the trial with 19-year-old Nora Eddington, who worked at a snack bar in the court complex; they began an affair – just to emphasise, he was having sex with a barely legal girl while on trial for having sex with under-age girls – she fell pregnant and Flynn married her, probably to avoid another scandal. In 1950 Flynn was arrested in Monaco for raping a 15-year-old on his yacht the previous year (the charges were dropped). Flynn’s last girlfriend, Beverly Aadland claimed the first time they slept together was when she was 15 and he date raped her. I’d like to think that at least Peggy and Betty consented to the sex, notwithstanding their age – there’s a chance they didn’t. Still, the jury didn’t think so.
Scandals can wreck a star’s career if the star is accused of something that doesn’t fit their persona – like cheerful chubby-cheeked comic Fatty Arbuckle being accused of rape and murder, or virginal-seeming Ingrid Bergman falling pregnant to man who was not her husband. However, if the scandal is “in character”, it can be survivable, and can even help broaden the star’s appeal: look at bad boy Robert Mitchum’s arrest for marijuana possession, or siren-looking Elizabeth Taylor stealing Eddie Fisher off Debbie Reynolds. Errol Flynn was already known as a womanising bad boy in a male-dominated culture, so charges of statutory rape were not fatal to his career. The experience did affect him badly on a personal level – his drinking increased steadily and would soon blossom into full blown alcoholism. Mind you, I think Flynn would have self-destructed regardless – it was simply in his nature to do so.
Following the trial, Warners sent Flynn back to war in Northern Pursuit (1943) with the star playing a mountie pursuing a German (Helumt Dantine) in snowy Canada. Despite brisk direction from Raoul Walsh, this would be one of Errol’s lesser war films and was far closer to the silliness of Desperate Journey than the more serious Edge of Darkness
Julie Bishop is a bland leading lady, the script takes forever to get going (Nazis land in Canada, Errol busts them, then pretends to be a Nazi to find out what Nazis are up to) and Flynn is passive most of the time – even when he goes undercover the Nazis are never really fooled by him, and he spends most of the film just watching what the Nazis do. Only at the end does he kick butt.
This is one of those war films where the most interesting and compelling characters are the Nazis – Helmut Dantine is brave and clever and runs around enemy territory doing his mission. That’s the Errol Flynn role. It’s clear from this movie that the only reason we beat the Nazis was that they kept shooting their own men all the time.
Northern Pursuit made money – less than Flynn’s earlier war movies, but that was more likely due to the film’s poor quality and war movie fatigue than rape trial fall out; for instance, Gentleman Jim earned most of its box office post-rape arrest.
A clip of Northern Pursuit below.
Flynn’s contract allowed him to produce one film a year, so he formed his own company, Thomson Productions, to make pictures through Warners. Its first effort was Uncertain Glory (1944), a drama set in occupied France with Flynn excellently cast as a career criminal who pretends to seek redemption during the war before becoming (inevitably) a genuine hero. The credited producer was Robert Buckner but Flynn had considerable behind-the-scenes creative control.
The story gets off to a terrific start: Errol refusing to have his neck shaved at the guillotine, escaping due to an Allied bombing raid, being recaptured by detective Paul Lukas (a quasi-name at the time, coming off Watch on the Rhine (1943)), coming up with the idea to pretend to sacrifice himself on behalf of the French Resistance in order to buy more time so he can escape, the complicating factor of the village dowager determined to have someone swing in order to save her son.
Then about a third of the way in, it all goes haywire – Errol becomes passive and just sort of hangs around romancing a local girl (Jean Sullivan, very bland and too uncomfortably young) waiting for stuff to happen, and sub-plots involving the local dowager and Germans don’t really go anywhere. Then Lukas gets sick and becomes passive too and the romance between Errol and Sullivan is dull. So, despite some typical vigorous Raoul Walsh direction it isn’t interesting at all til the end, which is actually quite emotional.
If they’d nutted out the script problems, Uncertain Glory could have been something really special, maybe even a classic. But they didn’t and it isn’t. The movie performed poorly at the box office, damaging Flynn’s producing aspirations.
A clip below.
Objective Burma (1945)
A more conventional bang-bang war film about a long-range patrol by American troops in the Burma Campaign. It was produced by the legendary Jerry Wald, directed by Walsh and co-written by some later members of the Hollywood Ten, Lesley Cole and Alvah Bessie.
If you want to trace the development of the Hollywood war film from the tongue-in-cheek frivolity of 1942 to the verisimilitude of 1945, you couldn’t do much better than comparing this with Desperate Journey. Unlike that film, Objective Burma is serious, hard and lacks any sort of female interest – the enemy are ruthless and clever and the soldiers still wisecrack, but they are professional, no-nonsense killers who follow orders and get along with each other (unless really stressed) i.e. there is no contrived in-fighting. It has far more in common with The Dawn Patrol.
Apart from Errol, the only really well-known member of the cast is Henry Hull, who is a bit too bombastic as a war correspondent; the other actors are pretty much unknowns, which makes it hard to tell who is who at times (so when they die it lessens the impact as you can’t really remember or care who they were) – but it does add to tension since you’re only sure Errol is going to make it home alive.
Objective Burma is notorious for racism: soldiers including Errol casually refer to the Japanese as “slope-eyed” and “monkeys”, Americans mow down Japanese like fish in a barrel, and Hull gives a talk after finding the Japanese have mutilated and killed some captured American soldiers where he says “wipe them all out I say” (Errol is silent during this but he doesn’t say Hull is wrong). I would regard this as another example of the film making a greater attempt to reflect with more accuracy the values of its time.
The movie also became notorious for being banned in Britain, for slighting that country’s contribution to the Burma campaign – which, to be honest, it does: the opening spiel which sets the scene barely mentions the British, making the whole thing seem like General Stillwell fulfilling an “I will return” like promise; we do see one British solider (who assigns two Gurkhas to the expedition), but after that the British are only mentioned as having outposts and the invasion at the end seems like an American operation. It didn’t deserve to be banned, but it was insensitive of Warner Bros not to change the intro and outro to mention the Brits more, especially as it needn’t have affected any of the guts of the film. George MacDonald Fraser, who served in the British army in Burma, argued the response in England was likely an overreaction due to guilt feelings in the British media about their neglect of the Burma campaign (which was extensive – how many British films can you recall about Burma made during the war?); Fraser added that he and his fellow soldiers would have loved to have seen the film, especially as Flynn was very popular with the troops, who admired his lifestyle and “wish they’d had half his bother”.
Some writers such as David Shipman rank Objective Burma as one of the best war movies; I wouldn’t go that far – it is too long (eg. the invasion sequence at the end goes on and on), has the aforementioned problems of indistinguishable characters, etc. But it is definitely above average: stunning James Wong Howe photography, a pleasing aura of reality (including documentary footage, emphasis on sweat and discomfort while fighting in the jungle), and many memorable sequences: the parachute jump (one of the reasons the film runs so long is it lingers over what is rushed by in other combat movies but in this case it provides an exciting moment), the arrival at a temple to find the tortured soldiers (a friend of Errol’s asks to kill him – he dies before our star has the chance, obviously they didn’t want to go too hardcore), the death of Hull – the audience surrogate, the final attack by the Japanese at night, Errol handing over the dog tags at the end.
Flynn gives a fine, restrained performance – but really, any star could have been in this film. His character is buttoned down, a former architect who smokes a lot, a good leader of men, but not Captain Blood – which makes the movie’s harsh reception in Britain all the more ironic.
After the box office wobble of Uncertain Glory, Warners returned Flynn to Westerns named after towns, with San Antonio (1945) produced by Robert Buckner and co-starring Alexis Smith. This is an entertaining, unpretentious Western with Flynn seeming to enjoy himself hugely.
The weirdest thing about this movie is Flynn’s lack of chemistry with Smith, despite coming so soon after Gentleman Jim; I couldn’t put my finger on the reason why – maybe in the earlier film he was such an egotist that it was easier for her to bounce off him? Smith does spend half the movie whining that she didn’t have anything to do with his friend’s death, which is boring. Apparently, writer W.R. Burnett wanted Marlene Dietrich to co-star and knowing that was a possibility makes it harder to watch Flynn and Smith. (Ann Sheridan would have been better.)
Still, there is plenty of colour, production value and action – Warner Bros splashed the cash, constructing a huge set and providing plenty of extras. Director David Butler normally did musicals and handles it with an easy, light touch.
I admit there is something anonymous about the film – none of the sequences reach the delirious excesses found in the Dodge City trilogy, for instance; it’s less silly than anything in those movies but also less memorable. I’ve seen it several times, always enjoy it, but struggle to remember anything about it, except maybe the climactic shoot-out at the Alamo.
The movie was a huge hit, Warner Bros’ third biggest of the year after Saratoga Trunk and Night and Day. After everything that had happened, Flynn was still a major draw with the public.
A clip from San Antonio below.
By the end of the war, Flynn’s career remained in reasonable shape. He had survived a divorce, a rape trial, several dodgy scripts and condemnation from the British media, and emerged with a new wife, children, drinking habit and a vague reputation as a war coward. He was working on a second novel, still had ambitions to try different sorts of roles and go on new adventures.
Things were about to get tougher, though.
A lot tougher.
Appendix Box Office figures of Flynn’s films 1940-45
Virginia City – cost $1,179,000 earnings $2,120,000
The Sea Hawk – cost $1,701,000 earnings $2,678,000
Santa Fe Trail – cost $1,115,000 earnings $2,533,000
Dive Bomber – cost $1,204,000 earnings $2,613,000
They Died with Their Boots On – cost $1,358,000 earnings $4,014,000
Desperate Journey – cost $1,209,000 earnings $3,980,000
Gentleman Jim – cost $972,000 earnings $3,842,000
Edge of Darkness – cost $1,653,000 earnings $3,669,000
Northern Pursuit – cost $1,290,000 earnings $3,252,000
Thank Your Lucky Stars – cost $1,560,000 earnings $3,621,000
Objective Burma – cost $1,592,000 earnings $3,961,000
San Antonio – cost $2,232,000 earnings $5,899,000
No figures available for Footsteps in the Dark, Uncertain Glory
Source: Warner Bros Financial Data, The William Shaefer Ledger.