While Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda made news as leading actors doing their duty for their country in the military service during WWII, Errol Flynn reportedly raised eyebrows among more critical fans for staying in the movies, playing heroes instead becoming one. If he looked as fit as the dashing figure who defended Canada, France, Norway, and the U.S. from Nazi schwein, why wasn’t he legitimately in uniform?
According to historian Rudy Behlmer, Flynn tried like made to enlist, but he was branded 4F no mater what division he tried to enlist, due to recurring malaria, a bad heart, and, er, health issues stemming from a really ‘engrossed’ libido. That unfortunate circumstance – being technically unfit for military service – was kept hush-hush by Warner Bros. because it would certainly have tarnished their top star.
From the striking figure he cut as a doctor in Dive Bomber (1941), Flynn’s health – and zeal for living a hard-fun life – looked perfect, but his indulgences in drink, love, and puffing away like a chimney eventually caught up with him in the late fifties; he was great playing cynical drunks in Fox’ CinemaScope productions of The Sun Also Rises (1957) and The Roots of Heaven (1958), but he looked like hell, and it’s tragic one of the most virile figures in cinema died at the age of 50.
Unlike George Sanders, whose enjoyed great success playing his own brand of cynical, caddish men (if not sublimely polite English shits, like Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray), Flynn was a benevolent cad; he might rib you for not making a play for a girl in a bar and making it too easy for him to bed the wench, but he’d save your life if some drunk disliked your ‘look’ and tried to dislocate your nose from the centre of your face. (Sanders would’ve just stood there, letting a dry, sly grin creep across his face while yours was being rearranged into amateur art.)
Uncertain Glory (1944) is very much a refinement of Flynn’s cinematic cad: in the film he plays a convict destined to lose his head under the guillotine, and yet after escaping to his ex-best friend’s pad, he shags the girlfriend while the boyfriend is out doing errands for Flynn’s benefit. He even has the audacity to ask for his friend’s best suite before embarking on a hasty train trip; not only does he get to keep the pin-striped suit, but he gets some cash for the trip, and flees before his friend sees evidence that said girlfriend wasn’t faithful during the last hour.
What a lucky smiling bastard.
Flynn eventually does a few very noble, selfless things, but if there’s room for a little skirt-chasing, why shouldn’t he have a little fun?
Director Raoul Walsh did a lot of films with Flynn, and he seemed to recognize what aspects of his screen persona worked, and how to find that perfect balance between cad and hero – and it worked beautifully in Uncertain Glory and Desperate Journey (1942).
In Objective, Burma! (1945), though, Flynn was reduced to the lead of an ensemble cast largely filled with character actors, and it’s not only one of his best performances (free from the schtick that mucked up Edge of Darkness), but was key in making this one of the best war films of the period.
The mission in Burma is pure rabbit rubbish, but it’s told in an engrossing docu-drama style, goosed by a vibrant Franz Waxman score, and blessed with sharp cinematography by James Wong Howe. Like Dive Bomber, Burma is an amazing amalgam of sound, image, and editing, and it really deserves to be back in circulation – if not as a 35mm print for rep cinemas and cinematheques, than a digital projection, because these films deserve a return to the big screen for appreciative Flynn and WWII action fans.
Both Uncertain Glory and Objective, Burma! are part of the TCM Spotlight: Errol Flynn Adventure box, and Burma has been remastered and augmented with new extras, including a great commentary track with Behlmer, Jon Burlingame, and Frank Thompson. (The DVD review includes a comparison of the extras present on the 2003 and 2010 releases.)
Mark R. Hasan, Editor