In Like Flynn

Errol Flynn: The Untold Story

by Charles Higham
Doubleday, 370 pp., $12.95

Stamped across Errol Flynn’s face on the cover of Errol Flynn: The Untold Story is a large red swastika. Inside, the author Charles Higham is visited by Flynn’s ghost, who congratulates him for slashing through a curtain of lies. “You know what?” says Flynn’s ghost in the prologue. “I don’t give a God damn. Where I am, there are no politics, no sex, no death, no contraband, no theft, no greed—though I’ve got to admit there are one hell of a lot of Nazis.” So even before the evidence has been spread upon the table, Errol Flynn is convicted of treason and sentenced to spend eternity swashbuckling in the company of Nazi ghouls.

To Higham, Flynn is a Nietzschean monster, embodying “the triumph of the senses over reason, of self-indulgence over sanity, of chaos over order.” Higham stresses that he has a personal stake in bringing Flynn before the tribunal of history. “I am partly Jewish; my childhood home was bombed by the Germans in World War II; I risked my life firefighting on a school rooftop as a boy of eleven in the Blitz.” Brave lad!

Higham’s séances and war reminiscences serve a sly purpose, however. Having churned out show-biz bios of Cecil B. DeMille, Ava Gardner, Katharine Hepburn, Charles Laughton, and Marlene Dietrich, Higham doesn’t want the reader to think that Errol Flynn is merely another waxwork for his Hollywood museum. By turning himself into a Nazi-hunter, Higham makes this book seem a stern, righteous quest, a one-man Judgment at Nuremberg. Errol Flynn: The Untold Story is a hack’s bold bid for respectability.

Though Higham seems to resent Flynn’s manly vigor (he snipes at him like a kid hiding behind a hedge with a slingshot), Flynn dominates the early chapters of the book with his rude, rapacious energy. Born in Australia in 1909, Flynn was a sassy terror who loved to box and swim and chase skirts.

He became fascinated with the daughter of the laundress, and found various places around the school to consummate his interest in her. Finally, he discovered an ideal spot: the coal pile in the cellar.

Late one night, he met the girl at the coal pile and they lay on top of it, energetically making love. It gave way beneath them and they rolled all the way to the bottom, becoming completely covered with coal dust in the process.

As they lay there coughing and sneezing, they heard a footstep on the stairs. A flashlight cast an arc through the darkness. The school nurse stood there, speechless with horror at the sight of the two naked black bodies on the floor. She rushed to the head teacher and got him out of bed. When she told him the name of the male culprit he said: “I’m not surprised. He just stole the slush fund for the tennis team.”

Slapstick episodes like these have the gritty flavor of Roderick Random, tossing us …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.