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If there’s a special place in hell for biographers who debunk cherished, perfectly entertaining myths about their subjects, Jeffrey Meyers, author of Inherited Risk: Errol and Sean Flynn in Hollywood and Vietnam, is going there.
Meyers set himself an arduous task: to do justice not only to Errol Flynn—who was every bit the charming swashbuckler in real life that he was in the movies, turning Golden Age Tinseltown on its ear—but also to his only son, B-film-actor-turned-combat-photographer-turned-Vietnam’s-most-famous-MIA Sean Flynn. But undertaking a difficult project is no excuse for ruining your readers’ day. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Meyers does by shooting flaming arrows through several favorite Flynn legends.
As it turns out, Errol never played a presentable version of “You Are My Sunshine” on the piano with his penis at a swank Hollywood soiree, never engaged in espionage for the Nazis, was never confronted in his own living room with the seated corpse of John Barrymore, which (popular legend had it) had been set there as a ghoulish practical joke by Flynn’s friends.
Myth-wrecking aside, Meyers—who has written biographies on figures as wide-ranging as D.H. Lawrence and Gary Cooper—does a pretty good job of capturing the sybaritic life and sodden times of the elder Flynn. His tone is sympathetic but never sycophantic; he illuminates Errol’s numerous defects but never descends to Albert Goldman-like character assassination. But Meyers fails, for lack of detail, to do as good a job of fleshing out the character of the actor’s son. (He also had three daughters with his various wives.) Meyers relegates Sean’s story to a couple of thin chapters at the beginning of the book and one at the end, and this treatment—along with his failure to provide a detailed account of Sean’s years in Vietnam, where he truly came of age and made his mark—gives this dual biography a lopsided feel. It’s almost as if Meyers wrote the biography of Errol Flynn, then appended the material on Sean Flynn—which isn’t much longer than an especially long-winded New Yorker article—as an afterthought.
Of course, disparity would have been hard to avoid in any case, because Sean led a sadly abbreviated life. Although he packed a lot of living into his 30 years of existence, he never achieved the level of public notoriety, or garnered the kind of press attention, that his father did. He lived out of the public eye, for the most part; other than a few B-movies, a body of amazing war photography, and a significant role in Michael Herr’s Vietnam memoir Dispatches, the younger Flynn didn’t leave many traces of his passage from the Palm Beach of his childhood to the Viet Cong roadblock in Chi Phou, Cambodia, where on April 6, 1970, he disappeared from view forever, looking, in his “long hair…love beads, shower sandals, shorts, and…GI ‘boonie hat’” like a character out of Easy Rider, according to friend Robert Anson.
By contrast, Errol Flynn, one of the few human beings to whom one can appropriately attach the adjective “rakish,” left plenty of traces of his 50 years on this planet. Captivating, charming, and “disgustingly beautiful,” in director Mike Curtiz’s memorable phrase, Flynn wooed women with startling sensitivity—frequent leading lady Olivia de Havilland called him “a poetic, gentle creature”—and captivated men with what Hollywood stuntman “Iron Eyes” Cody called “the dancing, madman look in his eyes, the…crazy-bent-on-destruction-for-the-fun-of-it look.”
A talented actor and writer—in addition to his autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, he wrote two novels, two plays, and articles for such publications as London’s Sunday Dispatch, Photoplay, and even the Woman’s Home Companion—Errol Flynn dissipated his considerable talents with drink, narcotics, brawling, and womanizing. The son of an Australian professor of marine biology and a despised mother whom he occasionally refered to as “the cunt,” he spent a reckless childhood in Tasmania, then performed various (some quite unsavory) forms of work in the jungles of New Guinea before winning—on the basis of good looks and luck—a job acting in a movie being filmed in Australia. Whereupon he hustled his way from Australia to New Guinea to the Far East to England—supposedly living on the proceeds of some stolen diamonds and 50 ounces of gold dust—before he was again “discovered” while playing bit parts in Warner Bros.’ London studios and given a ticket to Hollywood. There, in 1935, he got the part that was to prove both a boon and a curse: Captain Blood turned Flynn into a star; it also caused him to be typecast in throwaway action flicks—sea yarns, historical dramas, Westerns, war movies. The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Dawn Patrol, and The Sea Hawk were watchable films all, but none of them demanded more of their star than serviceable acting and a great profile.
Indeed, it wasn’t until he’d ruined his health—John Huston, who survived one memorable brawl with the actor to become his friend, said that toward the end of his life Errol’s face “had a slightly disquieting aspect as if a thin layer of spongy tissue had been inserted between the skin and bone”—that he was able to break out of his action-hero niche to make his remarkable comeback films, Too Much, Too Soon and The Sun Also Rises. But those film roles didn’t come until the late ’50s, long after Flynn moved from the Malibu beach house (“Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea”) he shared with friend David Niven (Meyers dismisses rumors of Flynn’s bisexuality, which were put about by, among others, Truman Capote) to a lavish mansion on Mulholland Drive, long after the phrase “in like Flynn” entered the popular vernacular following the star’s 1943 acquittal on charges of statutory rape of two teens, long after Shirley Temple—that totem of American innocence—graduated from L.A.’s Westlake School, where she and classmates used to sing, “Twirl my nightie, tuck me in/Here comes Mr. Errol Flynn.”
Whatever his charms, Errol’s relationships with women were disturbing, to say the least. According to Meyers, he was a multiple rapist; if nothing else, he was a confessed misogynist. In his 1959 autobiography, he wrote, “In one way Lili [Damita, his first wife and Sean’s mother] and I were somewhat alike. She essentially disliked men and I essentially disliked women.” Toward the end of his life, he tended to establish relationships with nymphets such as the 15-year-old Beverly Aadland—a dangerous proclivity for a man who knew J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was hankering to bust him again for statutory rape.
If the elder Flynn turned the family name into a synonym for debauchery, his son did nothing to redefine it. Like his father, Sean Flynn was intelligent but had a flair for trouble. He also shared his father’s implausible good looks, which helped him break into acting. After getting a bit part in 1960’s Where the Boys Are, Sean established himself as a leading man in such European B-films as The Son of Captain Blood and Seven Magnificent Pistols. But also like his father, Sean loathed the stultifying atmosphere of the film set. He wanted bigger thrills, and he sought them first through big-game hunting in Africa and Pakistan—his way paid by his mother—and then, after taking up photography, by chasing down images in some of the nastiest nooks and crannies of Vietnam.
Growing up, the younger Flynn spent very little time with his father, who divorced Damita—the first of three wives—shortly after Sean’s birth. Although Errol and Sean spent some time together during the latter’s teenage years—Errol’s notion of the ideal father-son outing was a tour of some of Europe’s finer brothels—Sean maintained an ambivalent attitude toward his famous father. He told some people that the two of them were friends, others that they were complete strangers.
Meyers argues, quite plausibly, that Sean’s reckless behavior in Vietnam was an attempt to live up to his father’s bad-boy image, only behind the camera instead of in front of it—and with live ammunition. (Following one particularly dangerous Sean Flynn exploit, an amazed GI said, “That boy…do in real life what his daddy do in the movies.”) Sean resented having to live in the shadow of the notorious Captain Blood, and he spent his short life trying to prove something to somebody, if only himself. Tim Page—the English combat photographer who served as the inspiration for Dennis Hopper’s unhinged character in Apocalypse Now—said, “[Sean’s] old man had never put a foot in true combat boots, merely played the role. Sean really wanted to find out what it was all about, grab the experience by the balls and come out alive with some decent images.”
Meyers spends the final chapter of Inherited Risk trying to reconstruct Sean’s fate. This isn’t simple, because many conflicting stories have emerged over the years. Page, for one, believes Sean was beheaded following a hunger strike in a POW camp near Bei Met. Meyers, citing newly discovered Cambodian documents, comes to a different conclusion: that he was murdered with a deliberate overdose of thorazine by the Khmer Rouge as he lay sick with malaria in a North Vietnamese field hospital in Cambodia in June 1971, approximately a year after he was taken prisoner. If so, it marked a pathetic end to a sad father-son saga.
Overall, Meyers does a decent job of proving his premise—namely, that Errol Flynn, who once described himself as a “bright fragment in a dull world,” bequeathed Sean Flynn not just a glamorous name but a fatal predilection for daredevilry. Furthermore, the father established a benchmark that the son must have felt obliged to not only meet, but better. That the son succeeded, but only at the price of his skin, gives Meyers’ narrative a doomed quality. If some of the more outrageous stories that have attached themselves to Errol Flynn turn out to be too good to be true, the honest truth—that his was a life of such reckless intensity that it consumed not only him but also his own son—is certainly more affecting. CP