David Christopher Lane, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
I first learned of Errol Flynn’s life and work when by chance I happened upon his autobiography, My Wicked Wicked Ways, in audio format at the Huntington Beach Library some two decades ago. It was an exhilarating find as it is one of the funniest and most insightful books I have ever listened to in my life. In fact, it was so good that I got a copy of the book and read it cover to cover again, and I was even more mesmerized by Errol Flynn’s hilarious stories and pithy insights the second time around. I became an instant fan and sought out as much information as I could about this charming rogue who had starred in some of the most popular movies in Hollywood from the 1930s and 1940s, including his breakout role in Captain Blood.
Besides being regarded as one of the handsomest men to ever adorn the silver screen, Flynn was also a scandalous character in real life skirting the very edges of what was legally permissible during his day. Yet, what I found most endearing about Flynn was his philosophy about life and how open he was about his own contradictory nature. Over time I read everything I could by and about Errol Flynn, including his underrated novel Beam Ends, published in 1937. Although Flynn starred in a number of successful movies, ranging from The Adventures of Robin Hood to Dodge City to The Sun Also Rises, his life was cut short at the age of 50 from a heart attack though his liver was also severely damaged. He lived an outsized life, pushing the limits with excessive amounts of alcohol and narcotics. His womanizing was legendary and got him caught in a number of troublesome binds, not the least of which is his infamous statutory rape trial of 1942 for which he was ultimately acquitted.
Flynn was not a stereotypical Hollywood star, given that he had a deep interest in oceanography and had an avid interest in philosophy and science. His father, Theodore, was one of the foremost Darwinian scholars in the world who was also a distinguished professor in his own right. Errol had a tumultuous and complicated relationship with his mother, Lily Mary Young, who severely disapproved of his bohemian ways. What makes Errol Flynn so continually fascinating is that he lived a life that was so adventurous and seemingly impossible it borders on the surreal, particularly given the cultural norms of that time period. Refreshingly, Flynn makes no apologies for his lifestyle and even revels in his iconoclastic ways.
It is difficult, if not misleading, to summarize Errol Flynn’s philosophy in just two sentences. Yet, I do think Flynn captures the essence of his thinking when he opines,
“I know that truth is sometimes an octagon and that I am one. Contradiction is a cardinal element of life and of itself may be no contradiction.”
To the amusement of my students at Mt. San Antonio College, around the turn of the millennium I began using Errol Flynn’s autobiography in some of my philosophy courses, since it embodies hedonistic existentialism. During this time, one of my students who was brought up as a devout follower of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was so taken by Errol Flynn’s philosophy (and transformed by his outlook on life) that he took his Book of Mormon and cut out the inside pages and replaced it with a fresh copy of My Wicked Wicked Ways. He would walk around school with his newfound “Bible.”
This is just the sort of sacrilegious act that most likely would have met with Errol Flynn's seal of approval since he disdained overt religious moralizing and was himself a non-believer. Now it should be stated that Errol Flynn’s writings are filled with exaggerations if not downright fibs. But this too is part and parcel of his character since Flynn didn’t mind stretching the truth (and one’s credulity?) for the retelling of a good yarn. I realized this early on after learning more about Flynn’s life, since even though his autobiography is a terrific book one is never quite sure where fiction begins and fact skims off the pages. In any case, I think there is much merit in reading Flynn closely and directly since his philosophy on life has an immediacy often lacking in drier tomes that are wrapped up in the guise of academic respectability. The following book contains a series of pregnant quotes from Errol Flynn (with occasional commentary by myself) conjoined with a treasure trove of photographs of him throughout his career.