This article is posted as part of the Dynamic Duos in Classic Film Blogathon hosted by Classic Movie Hub & Once Upon a Screen
Read almost any study of the Golden Age of movies and sooner or later you will probably come up against a reference to the “classic pairing” of Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone as swashbuckling duellists. They are the go-to names and imagery for the genre. When you want to illustrate a classic swordfight – you use a still from THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. In the collective consciousness these two fought each other through countless rounds in countless films. Rathbone and Flynn, Flynn and Rathbone locking swords, throwing giant shadows across our memory as they parry and thrust and leap in an eternal, immortal showdown.
So, in how many movies did they duel each other? Ten? Seven? Five?
No, actually it was two.
Count them. CAPTAIN BLOOD in 1935. THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD in 1938.
Just two. Only one more time than Flynn duelled Henry Daniell or Rathbone fought Tyrone Power.
Surely not, right? It has to be more than that. I mean, everyone knows that Flynn and Rathbone spent a large part of their Hollywood careers chasing each other around castles.
Flynn made more swashbucklers without Rathbone than he did with him. Rathbone made more movies with Vincent Price and Boris Karloff than he made with Flynn.
I guess that tells us that legends aren’t necessarily about physical measurable things. They’re about some spirit of place and time. I guess when Flynn and Rathbone faced each other, swords in hand, they perfectly embodied that moment and the meaning of what they were doing, in a way other partnerships didn’t quite, and somehow they stepped out of linear reality a little, the way all legends do.
Why these two? The simple and obvious answer is – because they were both so damn good at it. Has there ever been such an athletically gifted – or physically beautiful – movie-duelling partnership? Flynn was an Adonis. And Rathbone was not an everyday sort of heavy. He was no Henry Daniell or Lionel Atwill. He was too beautiful. Too charismatic. He was made by nature to be a leading man, and in fact had been one in the early thirties, before he suddenly and inexplicably quit Hollywood and went back to England, thereby borking forever his chances of Grade A stardom.
So, when he and Flynn lined up it was a far more equal pairing than the usual Matinee Idol-meets-Slightly-Frumpy-Bad-Guy. When they fought they did so with equal amounts of dash and hero-swagger and when we watch it seems highly possible Flynn might really be outclassed and lose. The contest seems real and engages us as being real even though everyone knows it in fact isn’t.
And then there was that other immeasurable factor – their personal chemistry…..
It’s not by simple chance that Flynn and Rathbone were adopted as a subject by Queer Theorists, or that they have become slash icons for a new generation of fans on Tumblr and elsewhere. You don’t need to begin crassly exploring their personal sexualities to be aware that something happened when Flynn and Rathbone were on screen together, duelling or not.
Whether they are playing Norman and Saxon, rival pirates or traumatized WW1 flyers, as soon as they face each other there is movie magic. Unspoken things happen when they hold each other’s gaze. As audience members we are drawn in, intrigued. Gisborne and Robin are more than just rivals. They are – what? Curious about each other. Attracted to each other in some indefinable way. They seem to know – as we do – that, however much Olivia de Havilland might be their symbolic object of desire, it’s their mutual interaction that truly engages and defines them. And when they fight, they seem to move like two bodies with one mind, embodying Fred Cavens’ description of the ideal screen duel
“…The reliance on one another to go at full speed, where one slip could administer serious injury. You hold each other’s eyes. You see nothing else. The focus totally on one another, the almost telepathic sympathy, like one set of thoughts flowing through two bodies, and the hard hard work of sweating it out right time and time again. If you don’t love each other and trust each other and live in each other through the sequence you are going to fail…”
We’ll leave the question of love and trust aside right now and focus on the “sweating it out.” That kind of discipline, to work and work and get it right, might seem to be expected of Rathbone, with his classical theatre training and focused professionalism, but what about Flynn? Did he – could he even – apply himself to that kind of sustained “hard, hard work”? Most film analysts and writers would tell us right away the answer was “no.” They’d tell us the legends of Flynn’s laziness are almost as legion as the legends of his womanizing. That Flynn never could or did apply himself to anything but self-indulgence and that he coasted his movie career – even the dueling – on his good looks and natural athleticism. That Rathbone had to carry him and could easily have outclassed him. Even Rathbone in later years tended to disparage Flynn’s work as a swordsman, claiming that Tyrone Power, whom he went up against in THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940) was a far better duellist than Flynn.
“Power was the most agile man with a sword I’ve ever faced before a camera. Tyrone could have fenced Errol Flynn into a cocked hat.”
You can find that quote all over the internet. Everyone believes him, it seems. But it’s simply not true. Rathbone was talking nonsense. Either he’d forgotten the truth or he was intentionally avoiding it. Tyrone Power was emphatically not a better swordsman than Flynn. He was probably barely a better swordsman than Flynn’s grandmother. Power was a terrible swordsman. So bad in fact that Albert Cavens had to double him for most of the fight sequence in ZORRO (you can even see Cavens in one shot, if you freeze frame in the right place), and even so, Power managed to cut Rathbone’s forehead (twice) with a mis-aimed blow.
However lazy he may have been, Flynn was a thousand times the athlete and swordsman that Power was. Everyone knows this, yet no one has challenged Rathbone’s ridiculous claim. Bad as Power was, it’s still easier for us to believe he was better than Flynn, because we all know Flynn was a playboy who thought with his genitals and never cared enough to be good at anything that didn’t involve using them. Maybe we think he doesn’t deserve to have been better than Power, who was a much “nicer” and gentler personality. Maybe we just don’t want it to have been that way.
Errol Flynn reminds me in many ways of Cool Hand Luke, the eponymous hero of the movie starring Paul Newman. Luke is reduced to a symbol of other people’s need to believe. His own experience becomes, perhaps always was, irrelevant to his ardent admirers, and ultimately his reality is sacrificed to their need to believe.
I think Flynn’s reality has also become largely lost in his legend, and that this was as true during his lifetime as it is now. I think it is one of Flynn’s tragedies that he may have been more aware of the mythifying of his persona than most people have been at the time or after. What we glimpse of the man behind the Myth-mask is deeply intelligent, sensitive, self-doubting and troubled. But I think he knew full well that people had little interest in these aspects of his reality, that they needed him to be certain things, to transcend the human frailties of fear and self-doubt, be reduced to a simplistic symbol of Dyonisian self-indulgence, and he both indulged and exploited it, and ultimately let it destroy him.
No one then or now has ever wanted to see Errol Flynn as hard-working, as developing a craft, as doing anything as ordinary and vulnerable as trying to be good at his job. It doesn’t fit his image at all that he might have cared about anything enough to really try. And even when he did it seems as if people didn’t see it, didn’t notice his moments of application or diligence. Never believed he had worked hard, even when he obviously had.
I think we need to consider this when thinking about the way people talk about his duels with Rathbone.
Look again at those sequences. Especially the duel from ROBIN HOOD. Watch them closely. Run them in slow motion if you can. Look at the hundreds of beats where he and Rathbone have to be in perfect synchronization, where even a tiny slip would mean the shot was ruined.
Imagine yourself trying to replicate it.
How would you fancy your chances of putting on the green tights and just having a go?
I think suggesting Flynn was so cool and talented he could just turn up and coast through that fight is like saying Astaire didn’t have to rehearse his dance numbers with Ginger, because he was just that good. Sure he was physically talented, but – reality check here – talent isn’t the issue. You have to know the moves. And when you’re working as one half of a double act you have to know your partner’s moves too.
Flynn and Rathbone were performing there own kind of pas de deux, every bit as much as Fred and Ginger were, and it just would not have been possible for Flynn to coast by. Remember Cavens’ words quoted above:
“You hold each other’s eyes. You see nothing else. The focus totally on one another, the almost telepathic sympathy, like one set of thoughts flowing through two bodies, and the hard hard work of sweating it out right time and time again…”
However hard it is for people to accept, Flynn must have worked at that fight, learned the steps, practiced the moves. Even Rathbone admitted as much elsewhere, when he said that both he and Flynn lost around seven pounds in weight while filming that duel.
The reasons why Rathbone later felt the need to disparage Flynn in that unfair way are not known, but maybe it forms a part of that tension-attraction that was their professional chemistry. Rathbone also offered one of the best summaries of Flynn’s tragedy on record when he said “he had talent, but how much we shall never know.” Though I believe he misdiagnosed the situation when he claimed Flynn “had no ambition beyond “living up” life to the full.“ I think that was Flynn the Myth. Flynn the Man had a lot of ambitions, but maybe not always the guts to defy the Myth and admit to them.
What did Flynn think of Rathbone? He left no direct public record of it in his short life, but Rathbone recorded in his memoir that:
“…I would say that he was fond of me, for what reason I shall never know. It was always “dear old Bazzz”, and he would flash that smile that was both defiant and cruel, but which for me always had a tinge of affection…”
You almost get the feeling Rathbone is admitting the fact with reluctance, as if he would rather Flynn hadn’t liked him at all, and if he were being a little less honest he’d pretend he didn’t know it. Maybe the fact that Flynn was fond of him made him feel guilty about disparaging the man in favour of Power. Maybe there were tensions between them that went unrecorded or at least unpublished.
Whatever the private truth, the public reality is that Flynn and Rathbone came together on screen to create the perfect archetype of a genre. No one has done or will do it better. They are each other’s best claim to cinema immortality.
Whether they like it or not.
Other participating blogs:
The Hollywood Revue – Greta Garbo and John Gilbert
Bogie Film Blog – Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre
Stardust – Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck
Greg McCambley on Once Upon a Screen – Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles in The Third Man
Outspoken & Freckled – Nick and Nora Charles
Caftan Woman – Roy Rogers and Dale Evans
Thrilling Days of Yesteryear – Martin and Lewis
Durnmoose Movie Musings – Abbott & Costello (Part 2) – Let’s put some murder in the mix
Be Careful! Your Hand! – Maleficent and her crow Diablo from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty
Hitless Wonder Movie Blog – Evelyn Ankers and Lon Chaney Jr.
Movie Classics – Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
The Last Drive In – Bette vs. Joan, “Get Back in the Chair Blanche”
The Last Drive In – Bette vs. Joan, Part II “I wouldn’t piss on Joan Crawford if she were on Fire”
goosepimply allover – Doris Day and Rock Hudson
Viv and Larry — Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier (on-screen and off-screen)
Citizen Screenings – Batman (1966)
Picture Spoilers – Dynamic Duos in Libeled Lady
The Man on the Flying Trapeze — Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, focus on Hold Your Man
The Motion Pictures – Cary Grant and Joan Bennett in Big Brown Eyes and Wedding Present
Noir and Chick Flicks – Carole Lombard and Cary Grant
Movies Silently – Vilma Banky & Ronald Colman in The Winning of Barbara Worth
The Nitrate Diva – Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich
Weird Flix – Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, 50th Anniversary of Beach Party
Film Flare – Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren
The Jeanette MacDonald Blog – Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy
She Blogged by Night – Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi
Western Comics Adventures – The Lone Ranger & Tonto – Part 3
Trocadero Baby – Farley Granger and Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train
Frankly My Dear – Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in Too Many Girls, The Long Long Trailer and Forever Darling