Invaded by Mights

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:

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Objective, Burma! should have been one of Flynn’s most popular pictures, but it wasn’t.

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.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen and Michael Mazzone

Well, boys, this is going to be a big success. What could possibly go wrong?

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.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen and Michael Mazzone

“I ain’t got time to bleed!” No, wait, that’s from a different (albeit similar) picture.

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.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen and Michael Mazzone

Flynn’s most physically demanding picture included this scene shot at Lucky Baldwin’s Ranch in Arcadia, CA.

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.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

After you are dead, Errol, I am going to tell everyone how–even at 17 years your senior–I was the better swordsman and could have kicked your ass in a real duel anytime I wanted to, except the script would never let me.

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.

3 comments

  1. Robert, I also watched Rory Flynn’s appearance on TCM this week. It’s great to see that she is so proud of her father and wants to promote his name, not to mention the exasperation that she shares with fans of him as to his having always been so underrated as a talent.

    When I look at the skill of his performances in so many films – not just this week’s Objective Burma and Gentleman Jim, both prime illustrations, but also They Died With Their Boots On Dawn Patrol, Uncertain Glory, Adventures of Don Juan, the little known Silver River, among others – it, well, just makes my blood boil more than a little that critics at the time tended to dismiss him as an actor. As many others have said, including Robert Osborne this week, Flynn just made it look so easy. And perhaps that was the problem in receiving the proper acknowledgement.

    But, like you, I was also surprised to hear Rory refer to the Curtiz-Damita “marriage.” That’s a loose rumour that has been making the internet rounds for a few years now but one that has never been proven to be a fact, to the best of my knowledge. I know that a couple of years ago I had heard Osborne also make reference to it in an introduction to a Damita film on TCM, and I shook my head that a highly suspect “marriage” such as this was being rather casually accepted as fact even by this movie devoted channel.

    Aside from the failure of any documentation to appear to confirm the marriage, has anyone ever seen in print a single quote from any one of Michael Curtiz, Lili Damita or Errol Flynn to this brief European union that was supposed to have occurred around 1926, or so?

    And considering the fact that Flynn eventually had such animosity towards both parties, just how could he, above all people, never have made reference to it?

    I try to image what that moment might have been like for Flynn when he first heard about it.

    “Oh, Fleen,” Lili might have purred into his ear one night, “you know that son-of-a-b—h director you hate so much? Well, if it makes you feel any better, he was a son-of-a-b—h when I was married to him too.”

    “Whaaat?” would have been the cry of Fleen’s voice as he sprang into the air, his head bouncing off the ceiling, providing him with a nice plaster of paris shower.

    I think that Errol might have remembered a moment like that and made mention of it sometime – like in his autobiography, or to any stage hand or passerby that ever came near him.

    1. Yes, Tom, I agree 100%. How could Flynn not have referenced a Curtiz-Damita marriage in his autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways? The reason he didn’t was because, Curtiz and Damita were never married. Not for one year; not ever. I believe that Errol would have used such ammunition to justify his blow-ups with Curtiz. And it would have been the talk of the Captain Blood set because as you know, no secret was safe in Hollywood. It was the world’s biggest, most adolescent high school.

  2. Robert, as a followup to your comments about the furious British reaction to Objective Burma, I just wanted to make reference to Lilacs in the Spring, released ten years later.

    Errol’s career was in full decline by the time he, pretty desperate for income of some kind, agreed to appear in this old fashioned musical concoction produced in England by Herbert Wilcox, featuring his wife, actress Anna Neagle, popular with English audiences but not too well known in America. Flynn took second billing to Neagle, though he got top billing in America where it was released under the title, Let’s Make Up (and bombed at the box office).

    The highlight of this creaky production is, by far, the scene in which Errol is on stage as a popular music hall performer, doing a bit of a soft shoe and singing “Lily of Laguna.” It’s a charming moment, with Errol looking happy as he performs with an enthusiasm to partially compensate for his lack of skill (though his singing voice wasn’t half bad). I appreciate Flynn for performing this musical number that undoubtedly had him out of his comfort zone. He must have seen it as a challenge that he was willing to tackle.

    But the other part of that film that I particularly recall relates to one of the films you were discussing this week. Towards the end of the film Flynn is saying goodbye to Neagle and David Farrar, both of them about to depart for Burma.

    “It’s hot in Burma,” Errol says, “I should know.”

    I’m sure that British audiences, at least, must have gotten a kick out of that inside joke reference to a film that had been so pilloried within their nation. I wonder, too, if when Flynn referred to it as hot, he was thinking of the British press reaction to it as much as anything else. That Flynn sense of humour!

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