Pardon my grumpiness, but five Errol Flynn pictures played in succession on Turner Classic Movies U.S. on Tuesday evening, hosted by Robert Osborne and guest programmer Rory Flynn, Errol’s daughter. Here are some things I wish they had discussed:
Objective, Burma!, the first picture shown, is an action drama set in the latter stages of World War II in Burma. Grim and realistic, it presents a fictional account of U.S. paratroopers dropped into the Burmese jungle to raid a Japanese radar station. They wipe out the Japs just fine but then everything goes to hell and they are 200 miles from help.
Objective, Burma! is most notable as a disaster of the first order for Errol Flynn the actor. It was by far the most rugged picture he had ever made, shot mostly in exterior locations—deserts, jungles, swamps—and he worked his ass off. His performance is highly regarded for a particular tone of understatement, and he fit well in an ensemble cast. He did every single thing right in making Objective, Burma! And what was his reward?
The British government protested that Objective, Burma! showed an American operation in Burma when it was in fact the British who were fighting there. British big cheese Lord Earl Mountbatten was furious and went out of his way to slam Flynn for make-believe heroics, saying that Errol was in effect grinding his heel into the graves of British war dead. As a result, Objective, Burma! played in first release, was never reissued, and became a poison pill for Errol Flynn the actor. Soon he was boozing it up through a string of features and then fled to exile in Europe. It’s a picture that hastened his decline and early death.
Another notable talking point is that the plot of Burma was stolen directly from the story of Rogers’ Rangers and a raid during the French and Indian War that was recounted in the historical novel Northwest Passage and depicted in the 1940 motion picture of the same name starring Spencer Tracy as Rogers. The way the studios sometimes operated, scripts were put into a pile and they’d periodically pull a script off the bottom of the pile and redo it. In this way Warner Bros. took the 1945 property Objective, Burma! and adapted it into a 1951 Gary Cooper pic called Distant Drums. This time it’s a pre-Civil War story as Cooper’s men sneak into Florida and destroy a Seminole Indian village before everything goes to hell. Raoul Walsh directed Objective, Burma! Raoul Walsh directed Distant Drums, and used some of the same camera setups in the latter that he had used in the former.
More recently, the same plot was reused in one of my all-time favorite pictures, Predator (1987) starring Arnold Shwarzeneger. This time mercenary commandos go into South America to rescue hostages and wipe out a guerilla stronghold before everything goes to hell, this time because of one nasty alien. The raid is so similar to Errol Flynn’s 1945 radar station incursion that during Objective, Burma! I was quoting Jesse Ventura’s Blain with perfect timing when he says his incredulous, admiring, “What The Fuck?” as Arnold opens the battle in unorthodox fashion. The classic exchange between Poncho and Blain also fit perfectly into the Flynn action:
Poncho: “You’re bleeding!”
Blain: “I ain’t got time to bleed.”
Poncho: “You got time to duck?”
And Poncho launches mortar rounds that blow bad guys out of their machine gun nest overhead. Predator is an homage to Objective, Burma! and the familiarity of this plot through generations of Hollywood filmmaking—good guys stage a raid and then everything goes to hell—is something the TCM hosts might have mentioned on Tuesday.
Second up on Tuesday night was The Adventures of Robin Hood, Errol Flynn’s classic of classics, and I cringed when it was asserted during the intro that tension between Errol and RH director Michael Curtiz resulted from the fact that Curtiz had once been married to Errol’s wife, Lili Damita. Yes, this internet rumor was announced as fact on broadcast television. Unless I have missed some important news, a Curtiz-Damita marriage has never been verified and since so many European paper records were destroyed during World War II, it is doubtful this allegation will ever be confirmed.
The hosts might have talked about any number of interesting angles to Robin Hood. They could have discussed the high cost of the production—highest yet for Warner Bros. There might have been discussion of Olivia de Havilland’s growing distaste for playing Errol Flynn’s girl in picture after picture, especially a character she found as two-dimensional as Maid Marian. Mention of the location shoot in Chico, California might have been made as an epidemic of influenza swept through cast and crew. Or of the fact that Basil Rathbone, playing Errol’s rival, was 17 years older than Errol but just as athletic in the climatic duel. Or that Rathbone, who was run through and killed in that duel, was actually a more accomplished fencer. Or that this was an Academy Award-winning film (it won three), or that it was re-released several times and always successfully, or that Flynn owned a 16mm print of the film and watched it often, or that de Havilland refused to go to the premiere and didn’t condescend to watch Robin Hood until 1959—21 years after its initial run.
The audience for these pictures might have been enlightened, but they weren’t, although props go to Robert Osborne for stressing repeatedly that Errol Flynn was an underrated actor, which was borne out in all the pictures screened (the others were Gentleman Jim, Rocky Mountain, and Never Say Goodbye). Hopefully, the evening billed as “Starring Errol Flynn” will lead a new audience to seek out more information about one of the most enigmatic personalities of the Twentieth Century. There is plenty of information out there waiting to be accessed in, oh, I don’t know, maybe [insert shameless holiday plug] two outstanding hardcover books loaded with information and photos, Errol Flynn Slept Here: The Flynns, the Hamblens, Rick Nelson, and the Most Notorious House in Hollywood and Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood.