February 2006

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Errol Flynn & Fidel Castro

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Oh Errol, sang Australian Crawl in their hymn to Tasmania’s gift to swashbuckling, I would give everything just to be like him. Such was the strength of the Flynn legend that the band named its second album Sirocco, after the schooner the adventure-seeking 20-year-old sailed from Sydney to New Guinea in 1929. Presumably it wasn’t Errol the tobacco planter and slave trader that inspired the would-be bad-boys but Errol the dashing babe-magnet star of Captain Blood, Mutiny on the Bounty and The Sea Hawk.

Yet thirty years of booze, broads, green tights and frigging in the rigging are bound to take their toll, even for a leading man of Flynn’s prodigious athleticism. By 1958, Hollywood’s most notorious philanderer was washed up. An endless parade of box-office flops, lawsuits, unproven rape charges, drunken brawls, alimony disputes and prying tabloids sent him hunting for somewhere to “drown the pains of the world in a few daiquiris”. He found it, temporarily, in Cuba.

He arrived in Havana just as Fidel Castro’s rebel forces were sweeping down from the Sierra Maestra to topple the corrupt Batista dictatorship. After sampling the fleshpots, he set out to report the revolution for the Hearst press. Soon in the thick of things, he was nicked in the leg during fighting at a sugar mill, either by a bullet or a chunk of plaster – he wasn’t sure which.

Two years earlier Castro had returned from exile on the yacht Granma to strike the spark of insurrection. Of the eighty-odd rebels who sailed with him, only 12 survived. They fled to the mountains where, aided by the combat squad of Celia Sanchez, the small band swelled to hundreds, then thousands.

Now poised to take power, the 32-year-old, media-savvy Castro invited Flynn to his headquarters. “He was in the fighting zone as a kind of war correspondent,” Fidel told the LA Times. Flynn was presented with a black kerchief and introduced to Che Guevara. Che had seen some of Flynn’s films but failed to recognise Robin Hood in the bloated roué across the table. In his subsequent report Flynn described Castro’s fellow revolutionary Celia Sánchez simply as “36-24-35”.

Flynn thought Castro “a real man” but he preferred his revolutions at a distance and his guerilla women on celluloid. Back in the US, he made Attack of the Cuban Rebel Girls, co-starring his 17-year-old girlfriend and cut around documentary footage. Too ludicrous to be called tragic, it was his last film. He died a few months later, of everything.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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