In 1958, Errol Flynn, once Warner Brothers’ biggest male star, was trying to retrieve his career. He was in poor health — he had been declared 4-F by the American draft in World War II because of heart problems. He also was subject to recurrent bouts of malaria that he had contracted in the 1930s, had several venereal diseases, used drugs, and was an alcoholic. Once an athletic and beautiful man, Flynn was now a bloated wreck.
Flynn had enjoyed partying in Batista’s Cuba in the 1940s and 50s when gangsters like Meyer Lansky ran Havana as a wide-open city. Flynn had built up connections over the years and was co-owner of a Havana movie theater. Now he became interested in the revolution that was building in the mountains. Leaving his teen-aged girl friend, Beverley Aadland, in a Havana hotel, Flynn secretly made his way to Fidel Castro’s headquarters.
Flynn and Fidel hit it off and the actor who had so enjoyed Batista’s corrupt rule now became a revolutionary, at least in spirit. He never handled a weapon more dangerous than a fountain pen, he said later, but he filmed the revolutionaries, including a clean-shaven Castro and other leaders, then he began making a movie, Cuban Rebel Girls, a very very bad movie.
But Flynn also put together a documentary called The Cuban Story and he took much more care with this film. Castro was seen as a hero by many Americans in 1958. A year or so later, the U.S. had come to see him as a commie threat. By the time Flynn was ready to show his documentary, no one in America wanted to see it. The Cuban Story played once in Moscow then was lost until a print turned up in 2004. It is now regarded as a primary document of the Cuban revolution. The footage of rebels, Castro’s words, scenes of battle from this period are unique and of great interest.
There are some scenes which are truly unique and memorable, not because they are good, but because it seems impossible to believe that Flynn had the miraculous good fortune to pull them off. As Castro’s victorious army marches through Havana, Aadland is actually riding one of the tanks, and the boyfriend is actually in the cheering throng. He shouts, “Stop that tank!” Since the revolutionary army was co-operating with the filmmakers, they do stop the parade upon command, and Aadland scampers down off the tank for her second tearful reunion with the boyfriend. As they kiss, the camera cuts from them to a balcony overlooking the parade, where stands none other than Captain Blood himself. Perhaps a younger Flynn might have grabbed an overhead rope and swung down from the balcony into the parade as the crowd exulted. The Flynn seen here, however, overweight and 50ish, cast as a mere observer, simply looks on …
Batista fled Havana on the first of January, 1959. From that moment on, Flynn found himself increasingly running against the American tide. Newspaper reports that he sent from Cuba were never published. An attempt to get Ernest Hemingway to write about the struggle also went nowhere. In early 1959 Flynn appeared on CBC’s Front Page Challenge where he defended Castro. Many viewers had been horrified and upset by scenes of the new Cuban regime executing ex-Batista supporters and others deemed enemies of the state. Flynn said that Castro must not be aware of what some of the “wilder” revoltionaries were doing; he said that Castro had told him that even the worst of Batista’s henchmen would receive justice. By mid-year, though, he came to believe that the revolution had gone bad. He said Castro was no better than Batista.
Now, sick at heart and in body, Flynn struggled to find funds to carry on. He took his yacht to Vancouver to sell it and there, in October, his heart finally gave out. A year later a ghost-written autobiography, My Wicked Wicked Ways, came out. Flynn had little to do with the book and it has not much to say about Cuba.
Flynn had been an adventure-seeker all his life and his Cuban exploits began as yet another happening in an event-filled life, but The Cuban Story remains as Flynn’s great legacy, a film that will be mined for details long after everyone has forgotten Captain Blood.