Classic Hollywood: Errol Flynn, the World War II years


Joan Crawford once said that Errol Flynn was the “most beautiful man who ever lived.”

The Tasmanian-born Flynn had looks, charm and athleticism to spare. He became an overnight sensation with the swashbuckling 1935 classic “Captain Blood” and followed that with 1936’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” 1938’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and 1940’s “The Sea Hawk.”

Errol Flynn films: The Classic Hollywood column in Wednesday’s Calendar about war films starring Errol Flynn misidentified film historian Frank Thompson as Frank Thomas. —

Errol Flynn films: In Wednesday’s Calendar section, the caption with a photo accompanying the Classic Hollywood column about Errol Flynn’s war movies misidentified two of the actors from the 1945 movie “Objective, Burma!” The caption said the actors, from left to right, were George Tobias, George Tyne, Flynn and John Alvin. The correct lineup, left to right, is Tobias, Anthony Caruso, Flynn and Tyne. —

That success notwithstanding, Flynn, who became a U.S. citizen in 1942, was turned down by every branch of the military because of a weak ticker, recurrent malaria, chronic back pain, chronic TB and a variety of venereal diseases. So the actor fought World War II in five eclectic action-adventure movies, which are being released on DVD this week by Warner Home Video.

“Errol Flynn Adventures” features 1942’s “Desperate Journey,” 1943’s “Edge of Darkness,” 1943’s “Northern Pursuit,” 1944’s “Uncertain Glory” and 1945’s “Objective, Burma!” Each disc includes coming attractions, newsreels, shorts and cartoons of the era. And with “Objective, Burma!” there also is fact-filled, breezy commentary from film historians Rudy Behlmer and Frank Thomas and film music historian Jon Burlingame.

During the time he was making his war films for Warner Bros., Flynn’s personal life was in turmoil. In the fall of 1942, his unlisted phone number was found among the possessions of 17-year-old Betty Hansen, who had come from the Midwest to visit her sister in Hollywood and had gone missing. After she was found, Hansen said that she had had sex with him at a party at actor Bruce Cabot’s house. To make matters worse, the L.A. district attorney disclosed that a 16-year-old, Peggy Satterlee, had also accused Flynn of having sex with her during a party on his yacht. Soon, he was on trial for statutory rape.

He was eventually acquitted of any wrongdoing and in one respect, at least, came out ahead: He wound up marrying 18-year-old Nora Eddington, whom he met through her job at the Hall of Justice.

Here’s a look at the films:

“Desperate Journey”

Made in early 1942 before his rape trial, “Desperate Journey” is the least successful of the films in this collection. Directed by Raoul Walsh, it’s almost a comedic romp through Germany. The film revolves around an RAF Flying Fortress whose crew is assigned to bomb deep into Germany. After they are shot down, they must take on the Nazis to get back to England. Flynn plays a charming Australian and Ronald Reagan is a fun-loving American.

“Edge of Darkness”

Far more dramatic is this adventure, directed by Lewis Milestone, about the inhabitants of a small Norwegian fishing town who rise up against the Nazis. Flynn is at his heroic best as the leader of the resistance.

Production was difficult because Flynn was dealing with the rape trial and had trouble concentrating on acting. But perhaps the biggest scandal was that Flynn spent his downtime romancing costar Ann Sheridan, who was married to George Brent.

“Northern Pursuit”

With Walsh directing again, Flynn stars as a Canadian Mountie of German descent who captures a downed Luftwaffe pilot (Helmut Dantine) who is also the head of a secret spy ring. Flynn is recruited to pretend he is sympathetic to the Nazi cause in order to crush them.

“Uncertain Glory”

Flynn gives an understated performance as a French roué on the lam for murder who decides to turn himself in as a saboteur in order to save the lives of 100 people in a small French village. Paul Lukas plays a dogged French detective. Walsh directed.

The film was made just after Flynn had signed a big new contract with Warner Bros. that granted him more power over story, casting and directors. He later told an interviewer that the role was “the best I’ve ever had.”

“Objective, Burma!”

A more mature Flynn heads the ensemble cast of Walsh’s lengthy but inspiring 1945 epic, which the British later condemned because the film paid no attention to the role that England played in Burma. It also has come under criticism for its depiction of the Japanese people, but in 1945 those negative depictions were de rigueur. A huge critical and commercial hit, the film was nominated for three Oscars, including for Franz Waxman’s pulsating score.

Flynn was reportedly well-behaved on the set. Walsh later said that “Errol was on his good behavior because he was writing a book when I was not using him. Between being gung ho with his men and typing his life story, he had no time for anymore than half a dozen drinks, which to him was almost total abstinence.”