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Against All Flags

Against All Flags(1952)

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teaser Against All Flags (1952)

It's rather remarkable that Errol Flynn and Maureen O'Hara worked together on screen only once -- in Against All Flags (1952). After all, this is a pirate swashbuckler with plenty of swordplay, just the kind of film that each star had ridden to previous box-office heights and incorporated into their personas. Flynn, of course, had made such swashbuckling classics as Captain Blood (1935) and The Sea Hawk (1940), while O'Hara had made strong impressions in The Black Swan (1942), The Spanish Main (1945) and the recent At Sword's Point (1952).

Nonetheless, the two were finally united in this Universal loan-out directed by George Sherman and shot in glorious Technicolor by ace cinematographer Russell Metty (The Stranger [1946], Touch of Evil [1958], Imitation of Life [1959]). Set in Madagascar in the year 1700, it casts Flynn as a British naval officer going undercover to infiltrate a band of pirates led by Anthony Quinn. O'Hara plays another pirate captain, the aptly named Spitfire Stevens. The film opened in New York on Christmas Eve, 1952, and became a commercial hit. The trade paper Variety said in its review that the picture "takes a tongue-in-cheek attitude towards the plotting at times without minimizing the story's chief concerns with swashbuckling movement."

While they hadn't previously worked together, O'Hara and Flynn had known each other since the late 1930s. In her memoir, O'Hara wrote that Flynn was very professional, always knew his lines and rehearsed his fencing meticulously, but that he drank on set -- of which O'Hara greatly disapproved. "You couldn't stop him," she wrote. "Errol did whatever he liked. If the director prohibited alcohol on the set, then Errol would inject oranges with booze and eat them during breaks." His performance was best early in the day, she recalled, before he got too drunk. By 4:00 pm, he was useless. "It was very frustrating, but you forgave him because what he had given you earlier in the day had been so terrific. I performed all my romantic close-ups (shot at the end of each day) to an X marked on a black flag that was supposed to be Errol Flynn. A script girl read his lines in a dead, expressionless monotone. It was very difficult to react to her delivery and pretend the flag was Errol."

In general, however, O'Hara was very fond of Flynn, for she also wrote: "Father Time was slowly calming his wicked, wicked ways, and deep within that devilish rogue, I found a kind and fragile soul."

Director George Sherman later recalled that Flynn was skeptical about a sword fighting scene with Maureen O'Hara. "Do you think this is going to work?" Flynn asked. "You know I'm supposed to be the bravest guy on the screen. How could I fight a woman?" Sherman told him "that I had worked with O'Hara before, and that she was quite capable of holding her own with a sword, a gun, or her fists, if need be -- and I cautioned him, 'You'd better be in shape.' When we shot the scene, Maureen, of course, handled herself with the grace and ability of an experienced sword fighter. Needless to say, Flynn's attitude about fighting with a woman changed radically."

This was the second of four movies on which O'Hara would work with Sherman (following Comanche Territory [1950]). Sherman had only the most positive memories of their collaboration: "She was an ideal leading lady, blessed with talent and genuine beauty. I was lucky enough to direct her in four films, and each time she made my job as director a lot easier. She was never late, and ever prepared. Her suggestions were never intended to enhance her own role in the film, for she was sensitive to the storyline of a movie, even when it meant taking a scene away from her... Maureen O'Hara embodies professionalism."

Sherman added that O'Hara and director John Ford were so close that "whenever I'd shoot with her, he'd phone several times a week to check up on his redhead... [He] considered Maureen his favorite actress and as close to him as were his own children. She was equally devoted to him."

According to biographer David Bret, Flynn did much of his own stunt work on this picture, including a spectacular scene in which he plunges his sword into the ship's sail and rides it down to the deck, cutting the sail in half. Shot in a single take, this was a tribute to Douglas Fairbanks' The Black Pirate (1926). But ironically, Flynn later broke his ankle doing another scene -- a routine swordfight -- when he slipped on a wet surface. Production was delayed for five months.

Against All Flags was remade as the 1967 comedy The King's Pirate, starring Doug McClure and Jill St. John.

By Jeremy Arnold

SOURCES:David Bret, Errol Flynn: Satan's AngelThomas McNulty, The Life and Career of Errol FlynnAubrey Malone, Maureen O'Hara: The BiographyMaureen O'Hara with John Nicoletti, 'Tis Herself: A MemoirDanny Peary, Close-ups

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