When Errol Met Fidel
Communism on the silver screen.
11:00 PM, Feb 25, 2008 • By KEVIN KUSINITZ
FIDEL CASTRO HAS BEEN known as a man of many of many faces--dictator, autocrat, tyrant, despot--but long forgotten is his brief position as artistic muse. And considering that Castro's admirers consider him a modern-day Robin Hood, it's quite appropriate that the artist he inspired was none other than Errol Flynn.
The politics of Errol Flynn have become a source of controversy over the years, thanks to the Charles Higham-penned biography portraying him as a Nazi sympathizer. Having vacationed in Cuba over the years, Flynn--so the story goes--hatched a scheme to assassinate Castro. At some point, however, the actor switched sides. (And this after years of enjoying Cuban saloons, gambling dens, and brothels with President Batista's blessings. That's gratitude for you.) After charming his way into a reporting gig for the Hearst newspaper chain, Flynn played up El Commandante and his hombres alegres as freedom-fighters worthy of America's support. No doubt hanging out with charismatic firebrands like Castro and Che Guevara sparked Flynn to conceive what wound up being one of the most inane movies of the decade, Cuban Rebel Girls.
As a piece of agitprop, Cuban Rebel Girls makes Sicko look like Triumph of the Will. Pampered American teenager Beverly Woods misses her boyfriend Johnny Wilson, who has run off to join el revolucion. Feeling bad for her heartsick pal, Jacqueline Dominguez invites Beverly on a gun-smuggling trip to visit Johnny. But as she gets caught up with revolutionary fervor, Beverly's thoughts go from carnal to Castro. By the time Fidel rides into downtown Havana, the former Upper East Side brat has become a slogan-spewing believer.
It's hard to guess what audiences in 1959 thought of this harebrained vanity project. (Errol Flynn wrote the original synopsis, presumably over a glass or five of Bacardi.) Every scene is shot in one, static take. Almost all dialogue is obviously looped after the fact; in other scenes, actors simply keep their back to the camera to avoid synchronization entirely. Cuban characters speak one of two dialects: Speedy Gonzales and Shemp Howard. Comrades killed along the way are spoken of with the concern of tourists taking the wrong exit to the Waffle House. The marimba-and-drum "score" consists of the same two or three brief pieces of music played ad nauseam, signaling either "tropical" or "military." Repeated shots of the rebel army marching through sugarcane fields pad the scant 68-minute running time. Never was a revolution so dull.
And hovering over all of this like Zeus on a bender is Errol Flynn. Barely 50 years-old, his haggard appearance is initially shocking . . . and stays that way. His once-beatific face is bloated with lines that rival the canals of Mars; the eyes that used to twinkle sit on his face like two, underdone poached eggs. No doubt the 32-year-old Fidel Castro looked upon the old-before-his-time Flynn as just another victim of capitalistic excess, useful only as a way to put a glamorous spin on the revolution. Not unlike the same way he played the equally-haggard Robert Redford 30 years later.
But the real star (if you could call her that) of Cuban Rebel Girls is Bevery Aadland, Flynn's real-life 16-year-old girlfriend, as debutante-turned-commie Beverly Woods. Clearly out of her depth, Ms. Aadland appears to be exactly what she is: a wildly untalented adolescent playing dress-up (if you call army fatigues dressing up), delivering her dialogue with all the personality of an over-ripe avacado. Examining a wound through Flynn's torn pantleg, she exclaims, "It's your knee!" like a three year-old who just learned the word. When she tells a friend that until fighting with the rebels, "I never knew what freedom meant," you get the feeling she didn't know how to spell it either. If Castro's rebel girls were all like Ms. Aadland, they'd never have made it out of the jungle.
Cuban Rebel Girl climaxes with Beverly and her new-found amigos marching triumphantly into downtown Havana. (I forgot to mention--earlier, Jacqueline the gun-smuggler was killed by Batista's soldiers. Bastardos!) Mixed into the lot is newsreel footage of Castro puffing a cigar atop a tank. Watching this celluloid mash-up from a hotel balcony is Errol Flynn. He returns to his room and, double-taking the movie camera, speaks his last words on film:
And you thought Sean Penn was a patsy.