Issue 3

The King of the Swashbuckler: Errol Flynn and His Early Screen Persona

The dashing, daring Errol Flynn was certainly not Hollywood’s first swashbuckling hero. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. originated the swashbuckler type in the silent era, starring in films such as The Mark of Zorro (1920) and Robin Hood (1922), but Flynn would go on to establish his own distinct and definitive hero, particularly in the historical action films of his early career. While his films are still significant, Errol Flynn as the ailing, troubled figure of his tragic later years pervades the public’s understanding of him today. A common belief posited by actor Christopher Lee in the 2007 documentary Tasmanian Devil: The Fast and Furious Life of Errol Flynn, asserts, “[Flynn’s] films are the least interesting thing about him.” It was his films however, that captured the public’s attention and fascination in the first place; his image and persona augmented by Warner Bros. construction of his real-life adventures.  It was those real life experiences and Flynn’s adventurous spirit that were used to the studio’s advantage to add a larger-than-life air to his films. Were his films not the most interesting thing about him, then?  They were what captivated audiences and established the image of a man that viewers could not imagine as anything but a dashing pirate, rebel, and rogue.

The very outset of his career in movies, his first role as Fletcher Christian in an Australian production of In the Wake of the Bounty (1933), was able to utilize Flynn’s own background to highlight his character and image. The film depicts the mutiny led by Fletcher Christian on the ship the Bounty. Flynn himself was a descendent of a real-life Bounty mutineer, Edward Young, through his mother, but the story was fabricated to instead assert that he was a descendent of his character, Fletcher Christian.[1] This would not be the last time that Flynn’s life was altered to fit his larger-than-life screen persona, nor would he be able to escape what each of his heroic characters continually contributed to the public’s understanding of him. The two most significant examples of the early historical-adventure films that shaped his star persona are Captain Blood[2] and The Adventures of Robin Hood[3], arguably his most well-known and career-defining film. The character of Captain Blood has many similarities to the persona that Warner Brothers would cultivate for Flynn: Irish, anti-authoritarian, and athletic, with an underlying charm and “swaggering arrogance” that captured “the air of high romantic adventure.”[4] The role of Captain Blood catapulted Flynn to stardom; he was an unknown face that was able to carry the film to success because of audiences’ fascination with this new hero. Much of Flynn’s persona then, was sprung from what the public fell in love with from the outset. Captain Blood set the stage for how Warner Brothers would market Flynn and the course that his career would take.

The Adventures of Robin Hood perpetuated this image that had been developed for Flynn, as many of the touchstones of his early career came together for the film: director Michael Curtiz, love interest played by Olivia de Havilland, another antagonist from Basil Rathbone, not to mention the swordfights, charm and tights. In many ways, The Adventures of Robin Hood is a strikingly similar film to Captain Blood, but what sets it apart as Flynn’s defining swashbuckler is the achieved confidence and perceived sincerity of his role, affirming what audiences expected and wanted from their hero.

Captain Blood introduced Errol Flynn to America. Warner Bros. took a chance on the film, letting it ride on two relatively unknown leads: Flynn and his costar Olivia de Havilland. Flynn, then, had a very direct presentation to audiences as a lead role with nowhere to hide. Captain Peter Blood was everything the public had to make sense of this new star and, understandably, it seems Warner Bros. used this as a starting point for developing his image and the way audiences could define him. For instance, Warner Bros. famously sold Flynn as an Irishman, though he grew up in Tasmania. Peter Blood seems particularly loyal to his Irish nationality in the film and mentions it on multiple occasions; he often cites his Irish heritage as an explanation for his behavior, whether honorable or otherwise. One may think this was a way to define Flynn, place him geographically for the audience, but it seems that it was not common understanding at the time of the film’s release that Flynn was “Irish”. A New York Times review of the film just days after its release in December 1935 introduces the “spirited and criminally good-looking Australian Errol Flynn.”[5] It seems then, that the understanding of Flynn’s false “Irishness” did not develop until after the success of Captain Blood, after audiences showed interest in the actor and proved to Warner’s that he was a star to cultivate. A homeland of Tasmania, it seems, did not quite fit the kind of image they were looking for.

Flynn’s adventures within the range of his homeland in the South Pacific were still used to define his image, however. Its purpose was to specify Flynn as the Euro-centric “self” and those down under as the “other,” therefore helping to define Flynn’s Western-ness and relatability. An article in the March 1936 Motion Picture explained that he joined the British constabulary in New Guinea where “it was his job, often alone, to subdue the fierce head-hunters and cannibal savages of that fierce isle which is one of the largest on earth although white men are few.”[6] The studio, then, exploited Flynn’s adventurous life experiences and seemingly exotic birthplace, but by maintaining control over the public’s perception of what those adventures meant and the role he played within them. They highlighted the escapades that could be constructed as the most heroic, that would clearly define him as a man entirely separate from the “savages.” The reality, though, was not quite as black and white as it was painted to be. For instance, while he had indeed worked on ships throughout the South Pacific, he held positions as a gold prospector and slave trader, the latter of which Warner Bros. was probably particularly keen to keep under wraps.[7] It was also the lack of public knowledge about the South Pacific that made it necessary for Warner Bros. to define Flynn as an Irishman and an outsider in the “fierce isle” of “cannibal savages”. This gave Flynn a “one of us” appearance to audiences, while at the same time maintaining a larger-than-life adventurer image that maintained public interest.

The adventurous life in exotic places, sailing the high seas was yet another characteristic of Captain Blood shared by Flynn himself that was, of course, utilized for Flynn’s star image. At the beginning of the film, Doctor Blood states, “Having had adventure enough in six years to last me six lives, I came here, hung up the sword and picked up the lancet.” This is a statement that would pervade Flynn’s image for the years to come, picking up acting rather than Blood’s choice of medicine. Nevertheless, the idea that Hollywood had, at least momentarily, tamed Flynn, was a big concern in fan magazines. The claim that he was a real-life swashbuckler gave Flynn’s portrayals credibility. Even the author of the novel from which Captain Blood is adapted, Rafael Sabatini was used to give Flynn’s performance credibility in Motion Picture: “Sabatini is quoted as remarking that Flynn is the ideal type for Captain Blood and that Flynn’s own adventures equal anything Sabatini’s fictitious captain ever did.”[8] Flynn’s background then, was used to assert that he was more “Captain Blood” than Captain Blood himself; that Flynn was a larger than life figure who could fill the shoes of any swashbuckling hero.

The image of Flynn then became “a high-spirited, anti-authoritarian, non-conformist ship’s captain, shouting commands or inciting rebellion”[9] but the definitive and most singular aspects of his characters had to do with the “restlessness of his motions, his indifference to rules and regulations, a faraway something in his eye.”[10] In short, it was the conflict in Flynn’s characters that enticed interest. He was arrogant yet charming; restless yet unruffled; rebellious yet honorable. These contradictions within his characters seemed to appeal most to audiences, who dictated the Errol Flynn that was seen in the press. (And it was probably these contradictory traits that saved Flynn’s career from his infamous statutory rape trial – whatever negative was revealed about Flynn, the public seemed willing to overlook, believing there was an opposing, positive, and forgivable side to him).

In Captain Blood, Peter Blood is bought at a slave auction by his eventual romantic interest Arabella Bishop (played by Olivia de Havilland.) Before Blood’s escape from the island on which he is enslaved, he meets with Arabella and kisses her forcibly, and her response is to smack him. Blood only smirks and replies, “Your slave is grateful for all marks of favor.” This is the first instance of Flynn’s onscreen deviousness and reflects the reputation he developed in the press as able to charm any female (or male for that matter.) Motion Picture noted this appeal in its August 1936 issue; he was, “Apparently unconscious –or was he?– of  the feminine glances.”[11] There was certainly an almost dangerous appeal to Flynn, particularly when it comes to scenes such as the forced kiss in Captain Blood, but Flynn’s image was that of a romantic, honorable rebel. He might kiss without being asked and be forgiven, but he also stood up staunchly against the unforgivable.  While addressing his pirate crew in Captain Blood, Blood warns his crew that any man will be marooned for stealing treasure or being drunk on duty. The camera then cuts to a close up of Flynn, adding significance to his next statement: “If a man shall molest a woman captive against her will, he too shall receive the same punishment.” This creates an assurance for the female audience of Flynn’s sex-symbol status, that though Flynn’s image is tied closely to “the rebellious, devil-may-care pirate/rebel/outlaw”[12] there is also a part of his image that is protective and safe. Fan magazines also seemed to make excuses for any unsympathetic interaction with female costars, Motion Picture divulges:

            Standing in front of a camera, pretending undying love for a girl, speaking soft words to her, makes him uncomfortable. It isn’t his idea of a he-man’s way of earning a living. That’s why he’s so convincingly reckless in physically difficult scenes.[13]

There were explanations then, for Flynn’s image and his deviation from the typical romantic lead. He did not play the roles of emotional, sympathetic love interests, but brash and “reckless” leads. Articles such as this not only indicate the distinction of Flynn’s roles to the public, but also tie the roles he plays with his own personality, asserting that the cause is only his own discomfort and personal leanings.

Flynn’s career defining role as Robin Hood in the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood fell in line with the image that had been established for him with Captain Blood, but the actor’s established confidence on screen added a new level to his image and screen persona. Robin Hood amplified the confidence, brashness, and charming arrogance of his persona up to that point. The scene in which he is introduced is a perfect example. Robin Hood steps in to save a man from punishment after killing the king’s deer. One of the film’s antagonists, Guy of Gisbourne (played by Basil Rathbone) tells Robin Hood that the punishment for killing the king’s deer is death. “Really?” is Robin’s response before he notches an arrow and aims it at Gisbourne, who is only inches away. “Are there no exceptions?” he asks, before Gisbourne and his men are forced to retreat. It is this fearlessness and nerve, at its height in Robin Hood that distinguishes Flynn’s swashbuckling hero. Not only will he defiantly force his way into a hall full of enemies with a deer carcass on his shoulders, but he’ll respond to any accusations and complaints with quick wit and charm. Fans expect nothing less from the screen hero, as one of the most famous lines from Robin Hood indicates: when accused of speaking treason, Robin replies, “Fluently,” with a characteristic smirk. Robin Hood was also the perfect vehicle to display Flynn’s humor by exploiting his penchant for the double entendre. Leaving the castle with Maid Marian and the king’s permission to wed her, Robin remarks, “May I obey all Your Majesty’s commands with equal pleasure!”[14] Instances such as this one are what indicate the very specific and singular Flynn swashbuckling hero that was not only dedicated to fighting injustice and unfair authority, but did so with humor, wit, charm, and a distinguishing mischievousness.

It was certainly an understanding to audiences of the mid to late 1930s that Flynn lived a life very similar to the men he portrayed on screen. However, that life was fit into the specific mold that Warner Bros. wanted to make of Flynn. There is no doubt that the basic truth was enough to make Flynn the perfect swashbuckler star. Though the athleticism, personality, and larger-than-life adventurous spirit that he brought to his early swashbucklers was enough to cement his place in film history, no matter where his later career would take him.

[1] Phil Hoad, “The Guide: Making Waves…” The Guardian (Aug 2, 2003), 8.

[2] Captain Blood, DVD, directed by Michael Curtiz (1935; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2005).

[3] The Adventures of Robin Hood, BluRay, directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley (1938; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2008).

[4] Andre Sennwald, “A Newcomer Named Errol Flynn in a Handsome Film Version of‘Captain Blood’ at the Strand,” The New York Times (1923-Current File), Dec. 7, 1935 http://search.proquest.com.huaryu.kl.oakland.edu/docview/101242303?accountid=12 924 (accessed April 10, 2016).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Tom Sherwin, “Errol Flynn Takes to Adventure,” Motion Picture (March 1936) Media History Digital Library, http://archive.org/stream/motionpicture51moti #page/n139/ mode/2up

[7] Alan Veitch, “Setting sail with the wicked Errol Flynn,” The Courier Mail (2005), M09.

[8] Sherwin, “Errol Flynn Takes to Adventure.”

[9] Robert de Young, “Errol Flynn: A Life at Sea,” Senses of Cinema, last modified November 2012, http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/tasmania-and-the-cinema/errol-flynn-a-life-at-sea/

[10] Mary Decker, “Taking Everything in Stride,” Motion Picture (January 1937) Media History Digital Library, http://archive.org/stream/motionpicture52moti#page/54/mode /2up

[11] James Reid, “Can Hollywood Hold Errol Flynn?,” Motion Picture (August 1936) Media History Digital Library,  http://archive.org/stream/motionpicture52 moti#page /n41/ mode/2up

[12] de Young, “Errol Flynn.”

[13] Reid, “Can Hollywood Hold Errol Flynn?.”

[14] Mark McGinness, “The Swashbuckler from Hobart: Errol Flynn’s centenary” Quadrant 53, 6 (2009), 38.