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Sin Like Flynn

“I’ve had a hell of a lot of fun and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.” That’s what Errol Flynn is supposed to have said before he passed away at the age of only fifty. Some might say that he was lucky to reach that age, because he had relentlessly battered his body with drink and debauchery. Did his weakness for drink come from the same place as his charm and good looks: his Irish ancestry?

That was certainly the legend Flynn himself tried to create. When he was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, he preferred to say he came from the Emerald Isle. In fact, he was Australian, born on the island of Tasmania in 1909. He inherited a good brain from his father, who became a professor of biology at the University of Tasmania, but education didn’t interest him, either in Australia or in England, where he attended a private school in London for two years.

He returned to Australia to complete his education at a grammar school in Sydney, but he was expelled for theft and, he later claimed, for seducing a female worker. He found a job as a shipping clerk in Sydney, but he hadn’t abandoned his light-fingered ways and was sacked for stealing from petty cash. Aged only eighteen, he set off to make his fortune on the wild and lawless island of Papua Guinea. But his ventures as a tobacco farmer and prospector came to nothing and by 1933 he was trying another path – acting.

He returned to England and worked in a repertory company in Northampton, hoping to gain experience and work his way to stardom. Again his lawless side broke out: he lost his temper with a female theatre manager and threw her down some stairs. He was dismissed from the rep company, but soon discovered that his stars were now right. He found work in films and caught the eye of the world-famous American company Warner Brothers, who signed him up and sent him to Hollywood.

His first starring role was in the pirate adventure Captain Blood (1935) and it was a smash hit. Appearing with the renowned beauty Olivia de Havilland, he played the roles of swashbuckling hero and romantic lover with such charisma and energy that the studio created more films for the two to star in, including The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Flynn had realized his dreams: he was world-famous and rolling in money.

But like the footballer George Best, he valued fame and wealth as the keys to what really interested him: wine, women and song. His appetite for excess became notorious in Hollywood and his wild parties, both ashore and on his private yacht, landed him in court charged with “statutory rape”. He was found not guilty, but the Second World War put him on trial in another way. This time, he didn’t get off. After he became an American citizen in 1942, he tried to join the military and fight for his new country. But he failed the medical: he had lived hard and his body had paid the price. He was suffering everything from heart problems and a bad back to VD and TB.

At a consequence, the only fighting he did during the war was on the silver screen: he made patriotic films like Dive Bomber (1941) and Objective, Burma! (1945). The films were successful, but Flynn’s star was slowly waning. After the war, public tastes moved away from action and adventure to more down-beat and realistic themes. Flynn, the archetypal action hero, was unable to move with the times.

In 1950, he was released from his contract with Warner Brothers. He would still make successful films, but his days as a superstar were over. So were his slim good looks and his enormous wealth: he lost huge sums of money in bad investments and drank ever more heavily, putting on weight and becoming increasingly unhealthy. Perhaps knowing that the end was getting near, he began work on his autobiography.

It was published in 1959 under the title My Wicked, Wicked Ways. In the same year, those wicked ways ended for ever: Flynn died in California of a heart attack. His abused body had finally given up the ghost: if his bad heart hadn’t killed him, then cirrhosis of the liver was waiting in the wings, as the coroner discovered at autopsy. But Flynn had lived as he wanted to: like George Best, he thought that a short and exciting life was infinitely preferable to a long and boring one. Both men had more than their fair share of Irish charm and both men entertained millions at the peak of their careers. But they both lived for something else: wine, women and song. And unlike their bodies, their legends will never die.