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The 5 faces of Errol Flynn

'I don't know whether I can convey how deep the yearning is of an actor who has been stereotyped, who has the sword and horse wound around him, to prove to himself and to others that he is an actor.'
Errol Flynn

We remember Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, Peter Blood and Don Juan – all of them swashbuckling heroes who are as equally good at fighting as they are at being charming. It was an image that gave Flynn his fame and one that he would return to over and over, but it was also one which trapped him.

‘If a stereotype makes money, keep the stereotype alive. Don’t make a switch. Don’t experiment, don’t pander to an actor’s whim that he might like to do something special, different.’

Flynn wanted to be more than a one-trick-pony and here are 5 films that show how he brought different personas to his films.

Flynn the adventurer: Captain Blood (1935)

Although Robin Hood is probably his most famous role, the swashbuckling pirate, Captain Blood, is where it all started for Flynn in 1935. Originally offered to Robert Donat who had to turn it down due to ill-health and a desire to work more in the UK, it can be viewed as one of those twists of fate that actually turned out for the better.

Flynn

In real life, pirates can be a pretty rotten bunch, so perhaps that is why although Captain Blood is a pirate film, Flynn doesn’t actually play a pirate at all. His character is actually a doctor who, whilst trying to help an injured man, is falsely accused of treason and shipped to the Caribbean as a slave. There, he is bought by Arabella Bishop (Olivia De Havilland) and sparks fly. It is only after he escapes that he becomes a pirate, although he is a pirate with a moral code and sense of honour. When fellow pirate, Captain Levasseur (played by the fantastic Basil Rathbone), reverts to typical brigand behaviour and captures Arabella, one of the best sword fights on screen ensues.

What makes Flynn so good at the pirate persona is that there is so much of himself in it. The genre allowed the film studios to bypass the Hollywood code and show drinking, fighting, bawdy behaviour and womanising. Flynn was good at all these, although they would eventually lead to his early death at 50. But it was more than that. Flynn was born to play debonair, athletic and dashing heroes, and sword fights were his shop window. He makes a good adventurer because that is exactly what he was – in his memoirs Flynn claimed that he had once been a real-life pirate, and although it may not have been true, somehow it seems possible.

flynn

It would not be the last pirate he played: there would also be The Sea Hawke (1941) and Against all Flags (1952). He would also continue to play adventurers, even at the end of his career when his looks were fading and his body was giving up, such as The Master of Ballantrae (1953), his last movie for Warner Brothers. Audiences still believed in him because he was Errol Flynn and he would always be the personification of the handsome, charming rogue.

‘By instinct I’m an adventurer; by choice I’d like to be a writer; by pure, unadulterated luck, I’m an actor.’

Flynn the cowboy: Dodge City (1939)

Flynn was very unsuited to being a cowboy. He was far too clean and sophisticated for a man supposedly living life on horseback. His accent was all wrong and his moustache was what villains had, not heroes.

And yet he made eight westerns during his career beginning with Dodge City in 1939. With him is Olivia De Havilland and Alan Hale, two of his most consistent co-stars, and it is the only one of his westerns where they try to explain away his Tasmanian accent by claiming he was a well-travelled Irish soldier.

In typical Flynn fashion, he begins the film as a man looking to avoid responsibility, wanting a free and easy life, but the death of a boy changes his outlook. The Flynn that now appears is stern, determined and driven. He will not stop until he ends the violence and although he remains charming, he is now a man to be reckoned with. There is no swashbuckling here.

Despite his obvious drawbacks, the film and Flynn were a success, but his subsequent westerns were a slow decline in quality. As with many movies of the era, some of the attitudes towards First Nation tribes, people of colour and slavery are difficult to watch with modern eyes and mar the entertainment factor. But the scene where the young Harry Cole (played by nine-year-old Bobs Watson) is killed after being dragged down the street by wild horses is still one of the most powerful and harrowing depictions of the death of a child in cinema history.

Flynn the historical figure: Gentleman Jim (1942)

Flynn played several historical characters during his career, many of whom had actually existed. In The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex he was Robert Devereux; in They Died With Their Boots On he was General Custer; and, of course, Robin Hood.

In Gentle Jim he is the boxer Jim Corbett. Like most biopics, it is highly fictionalised in its telling of the story of the son of an Irish livery driver who works his way from being a bank clerk to a professional boxer. His character is a brash social climber, yet he is charming and stylish and instantly likeable, much like Flynn himself. This is why the film works so well. Flynn is playing Flynn. He is able to make the audience like him and he is a natural contrast to his brutish competitor, John L Sullivan.

But the film also makes sure that he is depicted as a man of honour as when he shows his compassion to his defeated foe at the end of the film. Flynn may be a rogue, but he is a decent one.

Flynn the anti-hero: The Sisters (1938)

The Sisters is one of Flynn’s lesser known movies but it shows a side of him that conflicted with his usual easy-going, heroic character.

The film follows the story of the three Elliott sisters at the turn of the twentieth-century. Flynn plays Frank, a journalist with aspirations of being a novelist, who sweeps Louise, played by Bette Davis, off her feet and away from her fiancé. The marriage runs into trouble due to Frank’s drinking and feelings of being trapped; Flynn is beset by demons, failure and anger which he takes out on his strong and determined wife.

flynn

The Sisters was primarily a vehicle for Davis although she had to fight to get her name alongside Flynn’s at top billing. She had already won an Oscar, yet she was only paid $2250 a week compared to his $4500, something that even Flynn acknowledged as ridiculous.

She had been keen to work with Flynn but she found their differing ways of working hard to deal with. Davis was an actress always looking to improve her craft, whilst Flynn was too interested in partying for her liking. Davis said of Flynn:

‘For this particular role of a restless, confused newspaperman, he was well suited. Handsome, arrogant and utterly enchanting, Errol was something to watch.’

In turn, Flynn understood Davis’ star quality and admitted that ‘she was a far better actress than I could ever hope to be an actor.’

What makes the film work is the fact that they are the right actors playing the right characters. He is an arrogant, charming rogue to her powerful, driven woman, exactly as they were in real life.

Flynn the doomed hero: Dawn Patrol (1938)

Flynn and Rathbone were reunited in Dawn Patrol where they were joined by David Niven. The film centres around three members of the Royal Flying Corp during the Great War, with Flynn and Niven playing pilots who live for today, knowing that their chances of surviving each mission is getting slimmer.  Rathbone is the commander forced to send his men to certain death, labelled as a butcher and heading for a breakdown.

This is one of Flynn’s best films. With an anti-war message at its heart, he begins as a devil-may-care, charismatic joker, and the fact that he was acting the scenes of drunken revelry with his real-life best friend brings a natural comradery to the film. But when the responsibility of command is suddenly thrust on him, he changes. He begins to understand the weight that Rathbone had carried and when he is forced to send someone on a suicide mission he can’t do it. He goes himself and pays the price.

Flynn and Niven
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A weekend walking in the Holme Valley

Overshadowed by the nearby Peak District and Yorkshire Dales, we explain why the Holme Valley in West Yorkshire is the perfect place for a weekend away walking.

There are times of the year when the towns and hamlets of the Holme Valley are bustling centres of art, film, food and folk events. If it can have a festival, then Holmfirth will host it. But this is forgivable for a town trying to rediscover itself after the ending of its most famous inducement to visit: the British sitcom Last of the Summer Wine which was filmed there. Long gone are the Japanese and American tourists that flocked to see Nora Batty’s house and Sid’s Café (both of which still exist, like archaeological sites to a fading past), and a new type of visitor is emerging; the weekend walker.

That is not to say that this area has not seen walkers in the past; quite the contrary. But the nearby delights of the Peak District and Yorkshire Dales lures walkers away from this lesser known haven.

A stop in Holmfirth opens up an opportunity to discover a hidden gem of Yorkshire walking.  

Holme Valley
By Tim Green - Holmfirth, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52100053

The Holme Valley lies on the far reaches of the West Yorkshire border, where the county meets Derbyshire, and turns into the rugged terrain of the notorious Saddleworth Moor. At its head is Holme, the gateway to the Peak District National Park. At its end is Huddersfield. It cuts a sharp V into the landscape, with the River Holme on its floor, and the larger settlements of Holmfirth and Honley climbing up the hillside, narrow roads spreading out like veins on a leaf, houses left to chisel themselves into the inclines. Once a royal hunting ground, the area around them is rural, scattered with farms, whilst they themselves bear testament to the Victorian age which saw a plethora of mill building. That legacy still marks the valley and dominates the architecture, marred by the occasional twentieth-century mistake now earmarked for demolition. 

Over the years the valley has been known as a hub for the early British film industry, the centre for saucy postcard production and the home of Fenella the tiger. Now it boasts a vineyard, a cider press, the Welly Wanging World Championship and one of the best cycle climbs in the country, featured in the Tour de France.

Walks flow out of Holmfirth in all directions, offering a variety of terrain and endurance levels, but always with a spectacular view as your reward. Flat walks are scarce without a drive, but they do exist if you know where to look: there is a small carpark at the head of Ramsden Reservoir, giving access to a flat walk to Riding Wood Reservoir and on to Yateholme, suitable for prams and sturdy wheelchairs.

Most walks from the town will involve some kind of ascent, but the severity of it depends on which route you take. The effort is worthwhile. Close to the town, the climb up through Wooldale to Holmfirth Cliff offers stunning views across the rooftops and a chance to boulder if you are so inclined. Other walks follow the River Holme downstream, meandering to Brockholes, Biggin, Thurstonland and Fulstone, following with lanes that have been used for generations to transport salt from Cheshire, stone from the local quarries and cloth from the many mills.

To the north of Holmfirth, are the two Thongs: the villages of Upperthong and Netherthong – and yes, on more than one occasion the names have appeared on national radio travel reports to great hilarity! In fact, they derive from the Old English: uferra þwang (upper strip of land) and neoðera þwang (lower strip of land). Come in June and you will be treated to the Welly Wanging World Championship, but for most of the year they each remain a tranquil hamlet where you are unlikely to receive the same welcome as John Wesley who recounted in 1757: ‘The men, women and children filled the streets and seemed just ready to devour us’. Weave through the old part of Netherthong village to find the cider press, complete with café and shop, and follow the winding paths, bridleways, woodland tracks and roads lined with dry-stone walls to Wolfstone Heights. For some the journey will take an hour, for others it may take the whole day, following the various routes out as far as Honley and back.

Holme Valley
Holme Valley

This land is the green fields of sheep farming, but look up the valley towards the Peak District and the place can seem barren and bleak. The area is rich in reservoirs (Digley, Bilberry, Ramsden, Riding Wood, Brownhill and Yateholme), built to serve the sixty or so textile mills that sprang up along the length of the valley below. Some have carparks, circular routes and picnic tables, attracting day trippers and families, becoming go-to places when the days are warm. Go further afield and the world is transformed. Carved into the landscape, the reservoirs present a diverse array of paths that twist down into the woods and up onto the bleak tops giving stunning views across the dappled landscape and down the valley.

The waters here have not always been so benevolent. In the early hours of 5 February 1852 the embankment holding up Bilberry Reservoir collapsed. The 81 people (sources are confused as to the exact number) who died that night were the victims of neglect; a spring which had been discovered when building the foundations was ignored and simply plugged and buried rather than being diverted, and in the years that followed, as the wall began to slump, none of the wealthy millowners who benefitted from the reservoir would pay for its repair. The torrent of water that swept through the valley wiped out entire generations, from 2 month old George Hartley to 72 year old Joshua Earnshaw; in one house, ten members of the same family were all drowned. An almost forgotten plaque in the wall of the butcher’s shop on Victoria Street marks the flood height as it swept into Holmfirth – you have to look up to see it.

Turn away from the valley and you are greeted with the moor. This area offers challenges: walks that require confidence, fitness and stamina. They are not for the casual traveller. Holme Moss has become famous as one of the elite routes for cycle climbing, rising up out of the village of Holmebridge to a height of 524 metres. Following a map across the moor – there are very few tracks – leads to Black Hill, which, being 58 meters higher, pips its neighbour as the highest point in West Yorkshire. But only just; you are now in the Peak District, sat on the border with Derbyshire, although until 1974 the hill had been part of Cheshire. Once black as the name suggests, it has been rewilded, bringing back mountain hares, grouse and short-eared owls to the once barren and boggy plateau. From other directions you can reach the summit via the Pennine Way, but whichever route you take, the panorama remains spectacular, with a view of Pen-y-ghent in the Yorkshire Dales on a clear day.

Holme Valley
Black Hill with the debris of the Sabre Jet. By Mick Melvin, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9117039

The south-east side of Holme Moss bears witness to its darker side. Remains of a US B-24H Liberator aircraft that crashed here in 1944 killing nine of her 10-man crew can still be seen. She had been on a test flight and, in poor weather conditions, the pilot flew low through the valley, crashing into the hillside which rose up before him and bursting into flames. Black Hill had already claimed a victim in January 1940 when a Fairey Swordfish crashed, killing its pilot. Only four months later, the moor claimed another aircraft, this time a four man Handley Page Hampden returning from a bombing raid in Germany, its unused bombs exploding on impact. The final tragedy occurred to the east of Black Hill in 1954 when a Sabre jet was undergoing a test flight before being transferred from the RAF to a NATO ally. Its pilot was also killed.

Come back down into the valley and normal tourist adventures are possible. A stroll around the town will take you past the old railway station, closed as part of the Dr Beecham reforms, the alms houses erected as a result of the devastation left by the floods and a 16th century gaol. There is also the building which once housed the Holmfirth Film Studios, a successful silent-era movie company that made films such as The Kiss in the Tunnel, Ladies’ Skirts Nailed to a Fence, Paula and Winky Causes a Smallpox Panic. This is somehow appropriate for Holmfirth – in Old English the word Holme means Holly and the word Firth means wood! The annual film festival is a reminder of what could have been. There are cafes, restaurants and independent pubs for refreshment, and a concert venue that still has the power to pull in some big names (the Nashville band Hayseed Dixie describe it as one of their favourite places to perform). Time your visit well and you can enjoy the festival of folk in May, the arts festival in June, art week in July, and the food festival in September. And, of course, there is still Sid’s Café and Nora Batty’s house.

Holme Valley Britain
All photographs by Samantha Arrowsmith unless otherwise stated.
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Finding Social Media: better late than never

I was born in the 1970s, in that in-between time when grammar wasn’t taught in schools and computers were still the size of a room. By the time consoles began to appear in the home, I had already spent my formative years using the ‘proper’ ways to communicate, such as pens and telephones. Don’t get me wrong, I still embraced Manic Miner and Daly Thompson’s Decathlon on my rubber-keyed Spectrum, playing for hours though it meant that no-one else could use the TV, but I didn’t get the idea that they would be a thing to communicate through.

 

By the 1990s that ethos was well and truly entrenched. Emails for work, yes; but social media? I watched others embracing, first, Friends Re-united and then the fledgling Facebook and wondered what all of the fuss was about. All it seemed to be about was people telling each other what they had had for breakfast. Why would I want to tell the world that, or anything else for that matter? Who would be interested in my ramblings?

 

It has only been in the last year that I have been ‘forced’ to engage with social media as I try to build up my writing business. I read with horror the numerous tips and hints guides that all said I had to use it. ‘Oh, hell’, I thought, ‘not that, of all things’. The world might have moved on from just talking about breakfast, but the results were still the same only now with lots of selfies and trolling.

 

I look back now with a huge amount of regret. Because of my original blinkered misconception I didn’t even try to look at what else was going on. If I had, I would have found the groups that were just the sort of people I would want to listen to: the history groups, the shark saviours, the Star Wars fans, the thinkers and the dreamers. But I stuck with my mantra that the only thing social media was used for was as a way for vain people to talk rubbish.

 

My daughter’s birth in the early 2000s would have been a perfect time for me to have discovered how wrong I was. I wish that I had jumped in, writing, blogging and talking with other oddballs like me about why Emma of Normandy was such a great queen, why Jar Jar Binks isn’t as bad as all that and how to get poo stains out of baby-grows when you haven’t slept for days and you think you are the only new mother on the planet not coping.

 

I would have learnt so much more than just what someone was having for their breakfast.