Flynn's Last Fling
Near the end of his life, Hollywood's greatest swashbuckler embarked on one final adventure-the Cuban revolution
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Nov/Dec 2007
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American media reaction to Flynn's Cuban adventure was predictably snide. Time magazine, visiting with him in his Manhattan home, described him as "agog with glory after his fast tour as a 'freelance newsman,'" sarcastically adding that he kept "scribbled notebooks full of tidbits for a biography of Hero Fidel." The writer even took a jab at Flynn's decorating, noting the apartment's fuchsia and pink "Disneylandish bar."
Flynn had simply been a joke for too long to be taken seriously now. Of course, Flynn's own behavior, real or reputed, had encouraged some of the barbs. Alvarez Guedes still recalls hearing a story involving his old costar's pilgrimage to see Castro. "[Flynn] went up to the Sierra Maestra [the mountain range where the rebels had their base of operations], wearing officer's stripes," says the 80-year-old comedian, clearly enjoying the tale. "Fidel found out and took them off. 'This is not Hollywood,' he told him. 'This is a revolution!'"
If Flynn had been guilty of combining play-acting with his journalistic duties, the line between fact and fiction would be blurred beyond recognition when he returned to Cuba in the spring of 1959. Still deep in debt, Flynn set out to capitalize on his association with Castro—or perhaps just create a tax write-off—by making Cuban Rebel Girls, a low-budget exploitation film that promised to tell the story of the Cuban struggle "straight from behind rebel lines." It would star Flynn as himself (as a war correspondent) and the 17-year-old Aadland as an American who joins the fight.
Flynn's partner in the enterprise was Barry Mahon, yet another of those heroic, colorful figures Flynn seemed to forever be seeking out. Mahon had been a Second World War flying ace whose exploits in a German prisoner of war camp reportedly inspired the Steve McQueen character in The Great Escape. He and Flynn had met in the early 1950s, when Mahon, who had heard that Flynn liked adventure and was having money troubles, approached the actor about making a film in Europe. "My father wrangled a meeting with Errol Flynn at 10 in the morning," says Doris Keating, Mahon's daughter. "They started drinking Screwdrivers [and] talking about the war. At three that afternoon, Flynn's agent called up wanting to renew his contract. Flynn told him he should talk to his new manager and handed my father the phone."
Flynn and Mahon cemented their vodka-fueled friendship and, after securing some backing from United Artists, traveled to Italy to film Crossed Swords. The film, directed by screenwriter Milton Krims, was a historical epic intended to remind audiences of Flynn's earlier glories, but, in the end, not even sex siren Gina Lollobrigida as a damsel in distress could save the project. Indeed, the biggest winner might have been an actor and director who had nothing to do with the film. "Orson Welles [who was then living in Europe] would come and hang around the set," says Keating. "He married an actress [Paola Mori] who played a lady-in-waiting."
For their next European production, The Story of William Tell, Flynn and Mahon built an elaborate set in the Italian Alps. The film was never completed. "They ran out of money," explains Keating, who in the 1980s produced a television movie about Flynn's life. "The [Italian] government came and took all of my mother's furs, her jewelry." They also seized Flynn's two cars, along with third wife Patrice Wymore's clothes. "They weren't businessmen," says Keating of her father and Flynn. "They were real cavalier guys, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul."
The debacle only deepened Flynn's financial and personal crises. He and Mahon agreed to go their separate ways in 1954, but not before discovering they had something other than a lack of financial acumen in common. "They both got hepatitis," recalls Keating. "But Flynn kept drinking." And not only drinking. The actor, who had long experimented with drugs, was developing an addiction to morphine.
By 1959, when he and Mahon reunited in Cuba, Flynn wasn't simply out of shape. He was bloated, a hopelessly corrupted version of the handsome idol he had once been. And he was dying. "I'm sick, Uncle," he told his old friend, director Raoul Walsh. "My lungs have had it and the quacks say my liver is shot to hell. So what does it matter where I die?"
Cuban Rebel Girls doesn't appear to have required much from the ailing Flynn. The film was a mixture of staid reenactments and footage of rebel fighting shot the previous year. Flynn, though he appears in a few scenes—including one that re-creates his secret meeting with the Castro agent in Havana—has few spoken lines. Rather, his chief contribution is as narrator. Aadland plays a young American brought into the struggle through an old friend who has gone to Cuba as a soldier of fortune. Aside from its vaguely naughty title, the film had little to offer and was savaged by critics upon its release at the end of 1959. "With some additional experience," wrote The New York Times reviewer, "[the other actors] and Miss Aadland could qualify as amateurs. Mr. Flynn cannot be blamed for giving the appearance of being very, very tired throughout these phlegmatic proceedings."
Perhaps because he feared for his safety—FBI reports from the time note that Flynn was harshly questioned by Cuban secret police upon his return to the island in 1959—or maybe because his pride wouldn't allow him to publicly admit how wrong he had been, the actor participated in one last homage to the revolution. He filmed an introduction to independent producer Victor Pahlen's celebratory semi-documentary on the rise of Castro, Cuban Story. (The film, originally titled The Truth About Fidel Castro Revolution, was shown in Moscow in the early 1960s and not seen again until its rediscovery in 2001.)
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