Falling in love with a dead man, raising a son, losing a lover… Melissa Holbrook Pierson watches TV with Robin Hood.
You never forget the moment you realize you have fallen in love. Even though it was years ago, I remember it was in my living room, and my husband was seated next to me. But I’m not talking about him. My eye had fallen upon another: a small man. A dead man. He was small because he fit into the television, where he did not at all look dead. He looked, in fact, sparklingly alive, with dimples in his cheeks, and light reflecting off his slick bob. He bounced when he moved, and I suspect he was either consciously trying for a wood-sprite effect, or was so naturally effusive and young it made a tight spring inside him compress and then let go, in turn causing his arm to sweep the air as he made a rousing speech, or his perfectly formed legs to launch him effortlessly out of danger’s way. You could see the legs were perfectly formed because he was wearing tights, thank the lord.
He was dead because he was Errol Flynn.
He was dancing around inside our TV due to the fact that the other small male with whom I was in love, my six-year-old son, had suddenly gone Robin Hood mad. (Perhaps one day science will explain where biology has hidden the unalterable genetic markers for the human male’s progressive obsessions: with trains, ages 3 to 5; bow and arrows and swords, 5 to 6; muskets, pistols, and the Revolution, 6 to 7.)
I had heard the words “Errol Flynn” before but had paid them no mind. I was, I suppose, busy falling in and out of love with actual live men, though most of them turned out to be equally unattainable so I might have saved myself some heartache had I reserved myself only for this type of fandom fairy tale, the idea that a mortal — me — from Akron, Ohio, might turn the head of one of the gods of celluloid. Falling for him in my living room, watching a video, went just as it always did: the rest of reality peeled away to reveal one specimen who magnetized my gaze.
It was my son who gave me permission to shamelessly indulge the fantasy of every female in the western world during the thirties and forties, a fantasy Flynn allowed to become flesh with a startling, even dismaying, number of these women. Knowing, of course, that it was not merely at a distance that I wished to appreciate this idol was perhaps the cause of my unease as I sat watching next to my husband. I think what he saw was unreal Hollywood formula, while I saw something that made me wish, and what I wished unsettled me merely because I did. Guilt abraded me like sandpaper. I needn’t have worried, as it turned out.
So we embarked on this Flynn film festival, aided and abetted by Netflix: Captain Blood; The Charge of the Light Brigade; The Prince and the Pauper. My own little Errol would go out onto the porch with his plastic rapier and catch his reflection in the picture window, pausing to check his effect as he froze in mid-parry. He was learning things from the man they called the Tasmanian Devil, reflecting both his Australian birthplace and his miscreant behavior.By the time I went to the library for My Wicked, Wicked Ways, the obviously embroidered but sickeningly truthful autobiography of a man who had no idea how to form connections with other humans but who could not help trying — again and again and again — I was beginning to relearn a hard lesson: What you see is not always what you get.
My child had not yet discovered regret. I hoped, in true Hollywood fashion, that he never would, but I knew the time would come. Meanwhile, like his father, he was not seeing what I saw on the screen. In The Master of Ballantrae, six years before the leading man’s untimely end, Flynn’s beauty at forty-four was dissipated by self-abuse, by despair and a headlong chase after what could never be had, not by someone who did not know what happiness really was: at any rate, not from what could be ingested or bedded. My child, as always, saw only a flashing sword, but I saw a man trapped by his own creation and by a studio system that sent people who represented box-office lucre off to swordfights as others send peons into salt mines.
As Sir Robin of Locksley, the twenty-nine-year-old Flynn was everything I wanted to have, and everything my son planned to be. “Brave and reckless, yet gentle and kind,” says Maid Marian with a swoon in her voice, expressing the desire of every woman who has not yet learned that such a combination is forged only by Tinseltown’s smiths. Flynn excelled at portraying this ideal, whose sense of justice informs all acts and whose animal spirit informs everything else. His insouciance was sexy. His indubitable courage was sexy. His sexiness was sexy: “Such impudence!” his enemies spat; “Such impudence . . . ” his leading lady would sigh. True in mind, true in heart. It was all a glorious lie, one I recklessly allowed myself to buy for the duration of a film, since I thought experience had taught me at last to resist it in real life.
After this introduction, accompanied by pizza on tray tables, I was more than ready to let my imagination go, because I was safely married, and he was safely in the grave, as well as forever out of reach. During the show, our little boy would grab the remote, pause the movie, and run to his bedroom to strap on a belt with scabbard and return to the scene, waving a hat with craft-store plume. “How do I look?” he would implore, resting a foot with its bedroom slipper on a chair, much-abused toy sword slicing the domestic air. Beautiful, I would think; innocent, at least for a little while. Frozen on the screen I would catch out of the corner of my eye that intense gaze, those perfect white teeth with sharp incisors, those dimples more dangerous than any dagger; temporarily silenced was the aggressively raucous laugh that stood in for whole lines about courage and spirit and desire.
The star was a combination of man and boy, just the type fatally attractive to women like me. He seemed at once needy of a female’s care and independent enough to make you long for him to pick you alone to minister to those needs. Sometimes you believe you have settled bargains like that long ago. Now my eyes were turned to our son, who wished to throw off his neediness quickly, to become what he considered a man. It would be as easy as donning a sword belt. He, too, felt the pull of a fantasy as misguiding as mine. What is a man? What does one do, in real lives of bills to pay, schedules to keep, kindnesses to render? Or arguments to pursue and daily unhappinesses to face?
A year later, summer in Paris, the city that emits romance the same way a patisserie sends out the fragrance of sugared butter, I sat on the hotel bed and looked through the movie listings for the next day. The three of us were in town for only four days, and we had already looked at epically scaled paintings and sat drinking bière in outdoor cafes in mid-afternoon. (Ah, civilization!) Only in Paris: the next day not one, but two, theaters were showing a new print of 1940’s The Sea Hawk, a film composed of nothing but swords, tight pants, and the inexorable march, taking only 110 minutes, toward permanent and transcendent love.
We had yet another beer in yet another outdoor café, our boy adjusting speedily to the notion of sitting around in the middle of the afternoon sipping refreshments and eating from a little cup of salted peanuts, contentedly letting life flow past on the sidewalk, a stage play we had arrived at too late to know the full plot. Then we crossed the street and went into the dark theater. L’Aigle des Mers was about to begin, and as the projector threw light to the screen, I felt the uneasy stirring in my stomach that signals the imminent appearance of a man you want to see again, but also fear to. (Why? Perhaps the head knows it is always on a potential collision course with the heart; you wait for the sound of metal and glass coming together at great speed.)
The billowing theme music filled the sails of the movie, taking it out to sea. I looked over to my son, his face intermittently illuminated from the screen’s light. He was anticipating the clashing of swords. I was anticipating the clashing of reality with the impossible. I too wanted what no mortal could offer, and knew it, and deplored my own desire. It could only end badly, unlike these scripts. But I had no idea which of the two of us (the ones sitting here with our son, I mean, arms touching without us even knowing) was going to write an abrupt tragedy for us to enact.
When Flynn looked into the eyes of Brenda Marshall at the end, just as when he looked into the eyes of Olivia de Havilland any number of times, it was impossible to imagine him one day years later telling her he needed his freedom, he had met someone else online, he had never really loved her anyway. The clichés the screenwriters put in his mouth would preclude those other clichés. That was why I loved his movies. Onscreen, he was a man of honor. Men of honor never did what those men of earthbound corporeality routinely do — what all of us in fact do. Every day we express our frailty.
Thus Flynn whispered, “Always . . . ” as the score rose to a peak of melodic certainty behind the image of lovers sealing their pledge, and you knew it meant just that: forever. This is a span of time we want to believe can truly exist, which is why, when we turn to face each other before an audience of friends and family, we too speak a pretty line about forever. We mouth this vow — “until death do us part” — despite the fact that we all know the two words one should never include in any promise are “always” and “never.” Not in real life, anyway.
In October of the year our son first encountered the braveries and staunch morality, the fine jokes and high emotions, of The Adventures of Robin Hood, a friend and I worked an afternoon with green felt and salvaged suede. What ensued would on Halloween clothe a dashing six-year-old who held some noble hopes. He wanted to steal from the rich and give to the poor. He wanted to knock the evil-minded from their horses with brilliant blows of his pike. He wanted to be honorable. And he thought the way to do it was to be just like Errol Flynn.
For eight years now it has been just the two of us. One sudden day, there was the sound of backdrops being changed on the soundstage, a crashing and rolling and thudding and then silence. The movie was over, and not until that moment did I realize I had been living in one.
After the age of Flynn, my son and I began watching the films of Akira Kurosawa. It was interesting to me, though I can’t imagine why, to rediscover that Toshiro Mifune frequently wears agreeably abbreviated costumes in them. My son would run to get his purple samurai sword. I decided not to read anything about this actor, and I pressed Pause. Then I waited for him to return, the boy of my dreams.
About the author
Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of five books of nonfiction, the latest of which is The Secret History of Kindness. It takes a look into the underwear drawer of radical behaviorism and tries to understand what people’s beef with B. F. Skinner is really about. Her web site is here.
This article originally appeared on The Weeklings.