Saturday, April 23, 2005

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Well, They Used To

The idea of bringing a moral perspective to economic life is not the exclusive province of the religious. (See my previous post on Catholic economics directly below.) I read Yakima Canutt's autobiography Stunt Man last night. The book tells the story of how Yak brought intelligence and professionalism to the dangerous profession of stunt work, thus preventing many injuries and saving lives. If you grew up with the old Western movies the way I did you'll enjoy the story of Yak's life. Little did I know as a kid that it wasn't John Wayne taking that fall off a horse or the shot to the jaw from a bad guy in a black hat. Yak personally did stunts for Wayne and many other top Hollywood stars of the 1930s through the 1960s.

As I read the book my admiration for one star grew immeasureably. I've always thought Errol Flynn was one of the most underrated actors in the history of the movies. His charm and dashing good looks brought him great popularity in his day, but not much respect. His reputation as a womanizer and two-fisted drinker was the stuff of legends. However, Flynn played the key role in making right one of the most significant wrongs in motion picture history. You see, during the filming in 1940 of Virginia City, a big budget Warner Bros. western, Flynn was sickened and appalled as he witnessed the deaths of as many as a hundred stunt horses. Horses were routinely injured and killed making movies in those days. Flynn could have kept on the good side of studio boss Jack Warner by keeping his mouth shut and accepting the mistreatment of animals as just business as usual, but Flynn was a man of character, intelligence, and steely courage. Silent he was not. According to Yak, it was Flynn who raised enough hell about what he had seen that the studios were eventually forced to reach an agreement with the Humane Society. That was the end of the wholesale slaughter of horses in the movies.

Errol Flynn died in 1959 at age 50. Years of excess had taken their toll on his health and his appearance. Today, when he is remembered at all, it is as likely to be for his trial on statutory rape charges in 1942 (set up by enemies, he was found not guilty) as for his spirited portrayal of Robin Hood a few years earlier. The infamous slang expression "In like Flynn," coined by some anonymous wisecracker during the trial, lives on.

I'd like to think that when the angels came for Errol Flynn that a team of white stallions, grateful for the horses lives he'd saved, paid homage to him by pulling a celestial golden chariot to bring him home with style and dignified grace. In--heaven that is--like Flynn.

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