Errol Flynn: The Westerns

We salute one of the most appealing of all male Hollywood stars on his natal day: Errol Flynn (1909-1959). A number of Flynn’s films are genuine classics. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) is one of the most perfect entertainments Hollywood ever created — I’ll undoubtedly give it its own post here someday. Captain Blood (1935), also with Basil Rathbone, set the template for Flynn’s swashbucklers. Gentleman Jim (1942), which I first saw when I was a kid, is one of my favorite bio-pics. And some of his best, most serious acting may be found in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).

But today I wanted to focus on one particular, discreet area of Flynn’s work: his westerns. Mostly because I have seen all of them and analyzed them. But also because they constitute a nice, digestible chunk, easy to wrap your arms around. To capture his swashbucklers would be a job of work; you may as well as write a book about the entire genre as write about Flynn’s place in it. But the westerns are easier. Above all, they are unique. Errol Flynn was an extremely atypical western star. First, he was a Tasmanian, not an American. In reality, that should be the farthest thing from a dealbreaker, There is nothing so much in the world like an American cowboy than an Australian bushman. They have the same temperaments, the same skills, practically the same clothes. But Flynn, while plenty macho, wasn’t rough like guys who spend a lot of time in the wilderness. His accent was polished, and to American ears, sounded English, which may have been well suited to playing 17th century sea captains, but stuck out like a sore thumb west of the Mississippi. He was slick and pretty and the farthest thing from unwashed. Lastly, he wore a mustache, which was attractive to ladies, but at the time was almost solely a signifier of villainy in westerns. In all these things, Flynn swam against the tide. It is a testament to his magnetism that he managed to suspend the disbelief of audiences in these 8 films.

Dodge City (1939)

Practically the whole cast of Robin Hood graces this Technicolor extravaganza, a wonderful, gorgeous entertainment. Flynn is a cowboy who becomes marshall of the lawless Dodge, Alan Hale his humorous sidekick and Olivia de Havilland the love interest. The film starts, perhaps unnecessarily, with a prolog at the town’s founding which is given as 1866, when one Colonel Dodge rides the very first train out there and a golden spike is driven into the ground, despite the fact that we are not in Promontory Point, Utah. Flynn and his cohorts are buffalo hunters for the railroad. (His Englishness is explained away by saying that he is “Irish”, which, while perhaps more acceptable to American democratic preferences, is rendered implausible by his accent). By the time Flynn and his buddies return in 1872 with a cattle drive from Texas, the town is a lawless Sodom, without a sheriff, and run, as such towns always are, by a crooked boss. A couple of events convince Flynn to step in as sheriff. Both events are brilliant and memorable cinema for totally different reasons. In the first, Hale (who has taken the pledge and vows to be good) goes to a temperance meeting and testifies to a bunch of old ladies. Meanwhile, his cohorts brawl with all the local toughs in the saloon next door in the wildest brawl ever. It is so wild it smashes through the wall of the temperance meeting, so Hale is obliged to join in. Later, he is caught by the locals and about to be hung. Flynn, who has already run afoul of the local boss by refusing to sell his beef to him, rescues Hale. The second sequence is one of the most harrowing I’ve ever seen. A shootout endangers a wagonload of children. A boy, who wears a toy sheriff badge, and with whom Flynn has already bonded, is dragged by horses through the streets, and dies, his little body broken. This is done unsparingly and is almost unbearable. Flynn instantly becomes sheriff when this happens. Now he passes a bunch of laws, confiscates the guns, even arrests one of his own crew in the sweep. Then, with the help of the newspaper editor and de Havilland he gathers evidence that will break the boss. The bad guys kill the editor. Flynn catches the killer, gets him on a train. The bad guys free the killer, but Flynn and his men catch and shoot them all. In the end, Dodge is totally cleaned up. and flynn, who is about to marry de Havilland, gets an offer to clean up Virginia City. The little woman endorses the plan.

Virginia City (1940) 

Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, Humphrey Bogart—all in the same movie! And Bogart as a Mexican! Beautifully directed by Michael Curtiz, with a terrific cast of familiars. Starts out with Flynn and pal Alan Hale (and another guy) trying to break out of Confederate prison—thwarted by commandant Randolph Scott. He vows to get even. Shortly thereafter the tables turn. The South is losing the war. Scott is sent to smuggle gold out of Virginia City to save the Confederacy with help from female spy Miriam Hopkins. Flynn & Co. escape…and it coincidentally turns out to be their job to thwart Confederate gold smugglers. And he rides the same coach with Hopkins. AND they fall in love. AND Mexicano bandito Bogart is on the coach. Much angling about when they get to Virginia City. Scott has an elaborate operation to disguise the gold, but is discovered by Flynn. His men flee early, with Flynn as prisoner. Then Flynn escapes and telegraphs for help from the army. The army pursues Scott but goes the wrong way, with a small band led by Flynn pursuing him. Scott is then attacked by Bogart’s bandits. Flynn comes to his rescue. Scott is killed but Flynn hides the gold and saves it for Confederate relief after the war before the cavalry rescues the survivors. He is courtmartialed after the war, but pardoned by Lincoln before he is executed! Another great touch—Charles Middleton plays Jefferson Davis!

Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Less a western than a “mid-western” for most of the duration. A most revealing movie, about Bloody Kansas — and for the most part largely taking the pro-slavery side. I’m not kidding. The hero is J.E.B. Stuart (Flynn), and the villain is John Brown (Raymond Massey)! To be fair, as presented, it’s the apolitical army vs. insurrectionists. Stuart’s circle of buddies and colleagues is half composed of future Confederate leaders and half future Union leaders. His buddy is George Armstrong Custer, played by Ronald Reagan with nary a hint of long hair, moustache or pointy beard. The love interest is Olivia de Havilland, and Van Heflin plays a former West Point colleague who has joined John Brown. The movie is often gorgeous to look at. Massey, with his crazy eyes and Biblical beard IS John Brown. Other than that, despite its important historical subject matter, it’s pretty routine adventure: a series of skirmishes. And it really does manage to seem not-so-subtly pro-South, putting haloes over Jeff Davis and Robert E. Lee, making John Brown a simple villain, and presenting blacks as goggle-eyed darkies who would be just as happy remaining slaves. The title is rather misleading but technically justified. Apparently Fort Leavenworth was the last outpost before Santa Fe. The railway stopped at Leavenworth. After that, the Santa Fe trail was the main way west. Three quarters of the film happens in that vicinity, but the rest happens at Harpers Ferry!

They Died With Their Boots On (1941) 

A preposterous concoction purportedly telling the life of George Custer but taking so many liberties as to be nearly completely fictional. The script is thus awful, though Raoul Walsh’s direction is terrific. Errol Flynn plays Custer, but of course he plays him as Errol Flynn. He hits his marks, he says his lines, and he looks good. The script misinterprets Custer from every angle, making him a guy who loves to drink and fight, but who also has all the military virtues and is full of honor. He was indeed brave, and did indeed win several Civil War battles, he was also vain, a publicity seeker and a careerist (the movie tweaks the vanity, but makes him out to be the opposite as far as the other foibles go.) In the end, his arrogance and self-delusion caused the blunders that resulted in the death of himself and his troops (dividing the troops and refusing extra men and weapons). In the film he is depicted as the victim of war profiteers, etc. In real life, while Custer curried favor with many superior officers, the movies boils them all down to General Winfield Scott (Sydney Greenstreet) whom in reality was only in charge of the war during its early months. Olivia de Havilland plays Custer’s wife (and the romantic subplot bogs the movie’s progress down – it’s nearly two and a half hours in the unfolding). Gene Lockhart plays her disapproving father. Arthur Kennedy plays the fictitious villain, a guy who miraculously pops up to bedevil Custer at every stage of his career—hilariously so. Custer arranges to get his revenge by forcing him to die with him at Little Big Horn. (In the film, Custer knows he will die at Little Big Horn, he is being “sacrificed by the army”. In real life Custer rather foolishly though he could easily whip the Indians, hence his various follies.)

Crazy Horse is played by Anthony Quinn – all the Native American leaders that the real-life Custer had to deal with are boiled down to him. (in the movie Custer treats him with respect but heartily approves of his own mission of “clearing the plains”. It’s hard to watch that aspect now, a bit horrifying, genocidal). And though Little Big Horn is on the grassy plains of Dakota, the location looks arid and rocky, like Arizona. Bad history but an entertaining film.

San Antonio (1945) 

A colorful, entertaining, and, needless to say, artificial vehicle starring Flynn as a wronged cattleman, falsely accused of rustling. He returns from Mexico with the evidence of his innocence, and the proof that the town’s bigwig is the culprit. The love interest is a beautiful actress (Alexis Smith). Apparently there were thousands of them crawling around the Old West, outnumbering even the farm wives! “Englishness” is no handicap to Flynn in a western. His jovial attitude and cool demeanor in a confrontation serves this older type of cut-out western well. it’s downright amusing and a million miles away from the depth Jimmy Stewart, for example, brings to a Mann picture.

Silver River (1948) 

Kind of a nothing little movie; we are a good ways away from the classics of a decade earlier. Not a bad story arc but done without subtlety. Flynn plays a Union officer in the Civil War who is dishonorably discharged for destroying a million dollar payroll on his own initiative before it falls into the hands of the Confederates. As a result of his dishonor, he INSTANTLY becomes a cynical gambler. No transition. Just, boom: he heads north on a riverboat, gambling all the way. Somehow he ends up in Nevada. Not sure how. No rivers take you there, that’s for sure! He starts a casino, which soaks up all the hard cash in the region, so he starts a bank and winds up owning huge portions of all the silver mines in the area. Thomas Mitchell plays his drunken lawyer. Along the way, Flynn falls in love with Ann Sheridan who is married to Bruce Bennett. Knowing that the Shoshone are on the warpath, Flynn allows Bennett to go into Indian territory to do some mineral exploration. He is killed, and now Flynn is free to marry Sheridan. Builds a huge mansion. Mitchell is disgusted with him, cites David and Bathsheba. Sheridan becomes disgusted with him too and leaves him. Then there is a financial panic for some reason, prices are bottoming out. There is a run on the bank. Mitchell runs for Congress but is shot by bad guys. (Who these bad guys are and what they’re doing is unclear to me, but it has something to do with the silver). Flynn does a 180 and rallies the miners to fight the bad guys, and gives an inspirational speech that would have done the Mitchell character proud. Sheridan comes back to him. Roll credits! Yee-hah!

Montana (1950) 

Technicolor. Flynn is an Australian sheep man who runs into trouble crossing cattle country with his flock (and his Scottish sidekick). When they first arrive, they are attacked at night and one of his men are killed. When they meet up with comical traveling merchant Cuddles Sakall he takes the opportunity to go into town with him masquerading as his partner so he can get the lay of the land. He goes to a bar, and has a shootout with a guy because he asks too many probing questions about the cattle and sheep dispute. Flynn wins handily. (Habitually he doesn’t carry a gun. He has to borrow one). The cattle faction is led by beautiful red-headed female Alexis Smith. Of course there is immediate romantic tension. Eventually the dispute plays out, and the woman comes around (after her fiancé is handily dispatched).

Rocky Mountain (1950)

A black and white film after so many Technicolor westerns, feels like another step down. Flynn plays a Confederate officer who heads west through the desert to seek help for the Lost Cause in California, with a Cavalry troop of eight. He is seeking a man named Cole Smith, who is supposed to have 500 troops. Because they stop off to rescue a stagecoach under Indian attack they fail in their mission but are still heroes. Flynn’s co-star in the film is Patrice Wymore, whom he married the same year.

This was Flynn’s last western, and he was fast falling out of favor with the studios. He was starting to make a come-back at the end of the decade, but he was falling apart from years of abuse. It would have been interesting to see him as an older man in westerns. With his distinguished demeanor he might have tried some other kinds of roles (a shoe-in for a cattle ranch patriarch, or perhaps a villain for once), but it wasn’t to be. A heart attack took him at the young age of 50.