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He Wasn’t Like His Dad
By Zalin Grant

Sean and Errol Flynn had only one thing in common. Both were uncommonly handsome.  At six-two, blond, hazel eyes, Sean was considered by many to be le plus beau. Like his father he attracted women.  Unlike his father he didn’t chase skirts. Neither was he a boozer or a brawler. 

In fact, Sean was reserved, especially around women, and always polite.  He never fully escaped the middle-class values instilled in him by his mother—Lili Damita, a former French actress, whom Sean loved but sometimes found  a bit too much of a mother-hen. Since his battling parents divorced when he was born in 1941, he barely knew his father until his teenage years.  Then his most memorable son/dad experience came when Errol stole his recent LA girlfriend who was 14 years old.

Sean’s personality seemed to disappoint many people.  They wanted him to be more like his dad.  It seemed to go better with the story of the war photographer who was ready to take it over the top. After all, he was also a sort of movie star like Errol Flynn and had played “Son of Captain Blood.” Some people were even ready to embellish stories about Sean to make him sound more like they wanted him to be.

This was what Sean had fought against his whole life.  He didn’t want to be known as a copy of Errol Flynn.  And he chose the only way he knew to prove that he wasn’t—he went to war.  His dad was pretend-brave in war movies with fake explosions. Sean was brave in a real war with explosions that blew off heads and legs. Vietnam was Flynn taking on Flynn.

Sean and I played the war game. Photographers in the field clicked photos of each other in case the other guy got killed and they could make some money off it. Macabre as it might sound to outsiders, we all took it as an in-joke.  A photographer snapped your picture when you weren’t looking.  You turned and stared him in the eyes.  Both of you smiled.

Sean and I had our version. We were the same age, born within six weeks of each other. He took photos of me.  I reciprocated—with a tape recorder. He never liked talking about himself. But we decided to have a long tape-recorded conversation on February 21, 1969 at his apartment in Saigon.

As we both understood, I would never use it—unless, of course, something happened to him.  And I didn’t.  But here it is 40 years later.

Sean Flynn arrived in Saigon at age 25.

When I was fifteen I got sent to a prep school in New Jersey.  It depressed me.  I didn't like the Brooks Brothers atmosphere.  So much of this is easier now because I can relate to it in a more sophisticated vocabulary.  I'm trying to think back to what I felt then.

The only thing I knew then was that I didn't want to go to Princeton.  My prep school, Lawrenceville, was a feeder for Princeton.  I didn't want to go to an Ivy League school. Get a business degree, work on Wall Street, marry a socially acceptable girl. It just wasn’t there. 

The summer I got out of prep school actor George Hamilton phoned me in Palm Beach.  I'd known George since we were kids messing around on the beach.  He had a role in a movie they were making at Fort Lauderdale, called "Where the Boys Are."  He introduced me to the producer, Joe Pasternak.

Pasternak says, "Hey, I know your old man, kid.  I think we can do something for you in this film."

So I did a walk-on, that's what it amounted to, I threw a football.  As a result of the publicity the producer who'd done the original version of "Captain Blood," the film that made my father famous in 1935, gave me a call and said, "Look, how would like to do a real film?  I've got this great idea—‘Son of Captain Blood.’"

I realized if I did this I would be doing "Son of Zorro" and all the rest.  But the financial side of it was attractive.  My mother was never lavish with her money.  I got an education and clothes and stuff like that. But I didn't get a tremendous allowance like some of my friends.  Not that I necessarily wanted the money.  But the movie sounded like a good way of becoming independent.

It was what I was waiting for because I didn't really want to go to college. To placate the guys at home, I agreed to go to school one year before I did the film.  I went to Duke for a semester. 

Duke was a beautiful place.  But my grades weren't very good.  So it was sort of a mutual thing when I withdrew. And it was weird, because at Duke I suddenly found myself president of my freshman class. This was very strange for me.  I was getting out of my depth.  I don't enjoy being the center of attention or having to lead.

So I dropped out and went to California, to get ready for the film.  I did a little fencing with stunt men, took voice lessons.  This went on for six months.  I enjoyed the work but I soon wanted to get out of California.  Perhaps I'm a conservative at heart, but I had to get out.  Out of that smog and away from those freeways. 

Everybody I met was extremely cynical and knew everything.  To them, screwing a girl had nothing to do with love.  Even liking a girl was a kind of therapy.  Life just didn't have much meaning.  And I was trying to get away.  My mother is a very generous person with her attention.  I felt smothered, I guess, by her generosity.

What can I say?  I was a bit like a hick coming to the big city.  I met quite a few young actors.  The scene gyrated between Palm Springs and Hollywood to Malibu.  I fooled around, but I wasn't interested in it.  I'm not the gregarious type.  I don't make friends easily. 

At nineteen, I felt very ill at ease and out of place.

The director of “Son of Captain Blood” was a Spaniard who spoke no English, little French, and Flynn couldn’t talk to him. But he was patient with his young American actor.  Sean liked him. The movie went well, it made money, and even Time gave it a good review.

None of the other of his ten movies fared as well, except for “Stop Train 349,” with Jose Ferrer, which went to the Berlin Film Festival. Sean was paid $30,000 per film.  When he had saved enough to live okay in his family’s Paris apartment, he started turning down offers for further film deals.

Many years later my wife and I happened to see one of his movies on French television. We were both surprised.  He showed signs of real talent that could have evolved if he’d stuck with it.

The war was going on and I was curious. I’d bought a Leica in Spain but I hadn't done any work as a photographer.  I spoke to the people at Paris-Match and asked if they would be interested in any pictures I might take in Vietnam.  I thought perhaps I could do better than one of their staff people—little did I know!—because I was an American. 

They said, "Yeah, let's do it."

 But it wasn't for the reasons I gave.  They were interested in Sean Flynn, son of Errol Flynn, at war. I caught a taxi at the Saigon airport and gave the address I'd got from the Paris-Match guy.  The driver takes a look at it and says, "You sure you want to go there?"  I said yes.

So he takes me there.  I've got a couple of suitcases, an attaché case, a camera, and a tennis racket.  I get out the cab and turn around to see this gaping hole of a wrecked hotel.  This was early 1966 and the Viet Cong had blown it up a few weeks earlier.

The American press office in Saigon didn't want to accredit me.  They said the letter I had from Paris-Match wasn't sufficient. I got a girl in France to send me some Paris-Match letterhead stationery, and I wrote my own letter, which was accepted.

I heard there was going to be a big operation in the Central Highlands called “Masher-White Wing.”  I caught a flight to the press center the First Cavalry Division had set up in tents. I didn't know fuck-all about what to do.

Somebody said, "If you want to go where the fighting is you just hang around the medevacs and they're going in to pick up the wounded."

I found the medical evacuation helicopters and saw people like Eddie Adams of AP and Johnny Apple of the New York Times. We waited around about an hour or so and the pilots started to crank up and we all piled in. 

Christ, we landed in one of the hottest actions of the war!  South Vietnamese troops were coming up with armored personnel carriers on one side.  The North Vietnamese were on the other side.  We were in the middle.  And they were shooting it out.

All the photos I took were bad—underexposed. But I was glad to be in Vietnam. Maybe it was proving something, I don't know.  A lot gets lost in perspective, a lot of old personal battles.  After you get the shit scared out of you a few times, it's easy to look back and forget what was actually going on in your mind.  

You see, the movies were obviously something I didn't like.  I won't say I wasn't interested.  But I always felt—I don't mind fighting my father.  But I realized I was fighting him on his own turf.  It came down to that.  I was in a false situation.  

But I felt at home in Vietnam.  I found out right away that I liked the—it’s hard to say you like war.  But I liked the excitement.  I felt my strength would be my ability to function under fire, in this case to perform as a photographer.

I met Flynn a few days after he arrived in Saigon. He came to the Time bureau in the Continental Hotel.  Here was this handsome guy who looked more like a soldier than most officers. He was wearing green army fatigues with a combat harness.  Dangling from the harness were four M-26 grenades. 

Time reporter Jim Wilde, whose name was an understatement, practically started jumping up and down when he saw Flynn.

“What do you think you’re doing, doctor?” Wilde demanded, pointing to his grenades. 

The safety lever of the grenades was not taped.  Even in combat soldiers kept their grenades taped.  If not, in case of a serious bump or accident, the safety pin might be jerked out and the grenade would explode, killing everybody around.

Flynn looked stunned.  He didn’t have a clue as to why Wilde was upset and yelling at him.  As he later told me, when he arrived in Vietnam he didn’t know the difference between a major and a colonel. A compliant doctor had kept him out of the draft with an imaginary knee problem. He learned fast, though, by spending most of his time in the field.  

I went with the Green Berets to establish a new camp. We walked all day. We were supposed to reach water but couldn't find any, so we turned back.  The VC had watched us go out.  While we were gone they set up an ambush.  And when we came back down the path it hit the fan. 

The VC had a light machine gun and a couple of AKs sitting right in the middle of the trail.  I was the eighth guy back.  Couple of guys in front were killed with the first burst, others wounded. I hit the dirt.  I could practically feel the muzzle flash of the machine gun.  

We fought our way out.  But the men were pretty testy after that.  In the next several days, we caught a sniper who had shot into a church filled with refugees.  He had wounded a little girl.

This was Sean Flynn's most famous war photo.  A U.S. Special Forces team strung up and tortured a Viet Cong who had shot a little girl—1966.

So the Berets strung him up and beat the shit out of him.  The picture I took got play everywhere.  When it came out, though, the story behind it, about the sniper shooting the little girl, got lost in the shuffle.  At the time, the whole antiwar balloon was going up, and the photo created controversy about Americans torturing prisoners.

 I walked into the MACV press office and one of the top officers started giving me all this shit about whose side was I on.  I felt a tremendous resentment welling up in me. It was my first step in coming to terms with the war.  Before, it had been just a self-indulgent game.  Now I realized what was at stake.

It became clear to me that the war was a mistake.  I went through several stages where I hated the whole thing.  Anything American I was really ashamed of.  As time went on, though, I realized that the soldiers in the field were some of the most interesting people I'd ever run into.  I was in a position to meet a large cross-section of America, my contemporaries whom I'd never been able to communicate with before.

Ironically, the torture photo turned Sean into the Errol Flynn of the Vietnam War. The publicity linked him to his father and people assumed that he was a swashbuckling chip off the old block.  We got numerous queries from Time’s New York headquarters asking for stories about this crazy photographer.

By this time Sean and I had become friends.  We saw each other frequently on operations, and I sometimes attended parties at “Frankie’s House,” where he lived with a number of reporters and photographers of about the same age. Dope was smoked, loud rock was played—it could have been a scene from NY or LA of that period instead of Saigon, except for the Chinese opium pipe guy who plied his trade with neophytes, some of whom unhesitatingly threw up. 

I knew Flynn didn’t want any publicity.  I tried to beat back the requests for stories from the magazine. But out in the field things kept happening to him.  

I was on an operation with Australian troops when we stumbled across a big VC rice cache.  It was literally a mountain of rice.  We ran through the area and shot at a couple of Viet Cong.  We didn't know what was out there.

I knelt and waited while everyone else deployed on the flanks.  And, God, I looked down and right in front of me was this big Chinese claymore mine.  I was positive it was going to go off. 

I screamed at the commanding officer, "Hey, there's a claymore here!"

The guy saw it.  He was sharp, really good.  He ran over and wrapped his gun barrel around the wire and cut it.  I started taking pictures.  I figured there was no place to run.

I bumped into Joe Fried of the New York Daily News when I returned to Saigon.  He asked if anything was going on. 

I said, "Yeah, I'm glad to be alive."

Next thing I knew this exaggerated story was in the press.  It said I'd saved an Aussie company from annihilation. The Australians were very upset with the story and with me.

They said, "Nobody saves a company of Australians."

After Flynn saw that publicity surrounding him was likely to be distorted and get him into trouble he stopped telling even friends what had happened to him on operations.  Since we all took pleasure in telling our war tales that reinforced his reputation as a loner.  It was rumored that he had done something truly heroic by leading a charge up a hill in the face of enemy fire after the American leader was wounded. He didn’t talk about it and only spoke to me about it in the context of the documentary he hoped to make.

I've got some real wild stuff.  Like a couple of good assaults on Special Forces camps.  Some of the outposts were overrun.  One guy I was filming was 15 feet ahead of me when he was killed. It's all on the film.  When I put it together, I'll show it to you.  It doesn't have a plot.  It's vaguely autobiographical.

I've got some stuff on the Ha Thanh Special Forces camp, August 1968.  The North Vietnamese had cut off the camp, surrounded it, and were lobbing in shells.  They overran one of the camp's key outposts.  We had to retake it with a Vietnamese mercenary force, led by several American advisers.

We started at one p.m.  It took four hours.  It began raining half way up and was getting dark when we assaulted the top.  There was a squad of them up there.  They threw grenades down on us and laid down some heavy fire.

Yeah, I know some people said I led a charge up the hill.  I don't know what happened. One of the advisers had been badly wounded.  Another American was taking care of him.  The guy in front of me got killed.  Another American stopped with him.  So there was nobody up front. 

As you know, when you are in an assault you've got to carry the day or you are going to get your ass kicked.  If you turn and run, they will cut you down.  It was a very confusing situation.  I look at the pictures I took, and I still don't know what happened. 

I'm tired of all that now.  I can't imagine doing it any more.  They've all started to look alike now.

So I've gotten on to this bike thing.  I want to drive around Asia on a motorcycle.  You are much more in contact with what's going on. I want to go to Laos and buy a bike and drive around there, then Cambodia.

I saw Flynn a month later in Vientiane, Laos.  He had bought a motorcycle and was on his drive around Asia.  And I was on mine—in a VW camper from Singapore to Paris.  We stayed together at the Constellation Hotel and hit the bars and dens every night. Neither one of us mentioned the interview.
Sean Flynn & Dana Stone the day they were captured—April 6 1970. Photo by Terry Khoo assigned to ZG for the investigation.

Flynn spent some time as a beachcomber in Bali.  When Cambodia fell apart in early 1970 he returned to Saigon and accepted an assignment from Time to cover the chaos.  He and CBS cameraman Dana Stone were captured on a Cambodia road by elements of the VC and NVA on April 6, 1970. 

They were turned over to the Khmer Rouge three weeks later, along with more than a dozen other international journalists. It was my best judgment that they were held until late 1973 or early 1974 and then executed near Kratie City, in the north of Cambodia, on the Mekong River.

Even after his death people continued to try to make Sean Flynn into what they wanted him to be.  Tim Page, who was portrayed in Michael Herr’s DISPATCHES as the war’s crazy-freaky photographer, assumed the role as Flynn’s best friend and described him as a flamboyant hell-raiser like his father.

Years later Page went to Cambodia and declared that he had found Flynn’s remains. Actually, he found the site where Clyde McKay, a boat hijacker, and Larry Humphrey, an army deserter, were buried after being shot by a drunken Khmer Rouge official who was fed up with their pain-in-the-ass behavior. 

Louise Stone, Dana’s wife, was in Phnom Penh looking for information about her husband after he was captured.  She had met McKay and Humphrey when they were being held by the Cambodia government.  They told her they were going to try to escape and join the Khmer Rouge. She said she hoped they would be able to collect information about her missing husband.  After reports started coming in a few weeks later about two captured “journalists,” she knew it was McKay and Humphrey.

The Pentagon’s Central Identification Lab in Hawaii confirmed by DNA testing in 2003 that the remains Page thought was Flynn was actually Clyde McKay, who was indeed a flamboyant hell-raiser but also an irredeemable screw-up who had nothing in common with Sean Flynn.

Even Flynn’s mother, Lili Damita, tried to honor the son she wanted him to be—not the son he was.  Upon her death, she left Sean’s prep school in New Jersey ten million dollars, one of the biggest endowments the school had ever received. Of course Sean greatly disliked the time he spent at his prep school and would have been horrified by the gift.   

Sean’s last words in our interview, February 1969:

I've gone through my crucible in the past six months.  I don't know what triggered it.  Angkor Wat was very important.  I got involved with the camera and a little bit of acid.  I saw things in a completely different light.  Drugs were a part of my education.  But I can't go along with taking them. You've got to go beyond that. I've decided that for the rest of my life I'm going to play the game my way.  The game in the Buddhist sense—the Divine Joke of it all.

In Vientiane, as I pulled away in my van to resume my trip to Paris, Sean was standing on the second-floor balcony of the Constellation, scrubbing a new pair of jeans with bleach to give it an aged look. He always looked as sharp as a movie actor or an army commando.  We stopped a moment to exchange mock salutes, our final goodbye.


ZALIN GRANT served as an Army Intelligence Officer in Vietnam. A former journalist for Time and The New Republic, he is the author of six books, including FACING THE PHOENIX: The CIA and the Political Defeat of the United States in Vietnam, which was also translated and published without permission in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. For further bio, see:

(Photo by Claude Boutillon - August 9, 2010)



[Any use of material contained in the February 21, 1969 interview with Sean Flynn including but not limited to dialogue, scenes, and characterizations—and in any form and by any method of transmission—is expressly forbidden except by written permission of the owner.]

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