Victor Pahlen‘s 1959 documentary The Truth About Fidel Castro Revolution [sic] opens on a schoolroom set: a wooden desk supporting a large globe, wall map pulled down over the blackboard. Then Errol Flynn saunters into the frame — shirt open, skin tanned, cigarette holder clenched in his teeth — looking as if he’s just left his beach cabana. Bleary-eyed and teetering on the edge of corpulence, Flynn picks up the globe and seats himself precariously on a corner of the desk. Class, apparently, is in session. “This little speck here is Cuba,” Flynn tells the camera, pointing vaguely. “It may be small, but it‘s recently grown big in the hearts of men who love liberty and humanity the world over.” Abruptly, he tosses the globe offscreen, where we hear it take a couple of bounces across the floor.
Why would a rapidly fading Hollywood icon and committed roue join a jet-setting gambler and raconteur, who had fled Bolshevik Russia with his family, to make a documentary in praise of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution? In keeping with the hard-and-loose lifestyle of Errol Flynn and drinking-buddy-turned-writer-director Pahlen, coherent answers are few and far between. One can only guess at the sozzled and plainly hurried state of the film’s production, from Flynn‘s wobbly onscreen introduction to its grammatically suspect title.
Under any title, the film — released here for the first time ever last Tuesday, April 30, on DVD, as Cuban Story — has never screened theatrically in the United States and goes missing in most Flynn filmographies. Produced sometime between the final months of military dictator Fulgencio Batista’s regime and Castro‘s transformation into America’s Communist-demon-next-door, The Truth About Fidel Castro Revolution got lost in a crack between eras. Now it emerges from obscurity as a Cold War curio that blurs the lines between celebrity and politics, journalism and publicity, in what may have been the last-ditch effort of two world-weary dreamers to stave off their ejection from paradise.
Flynn first came to Cuba on a 1936 yachting trip in the Caribbean after foul weather forced him to take shelter. He took quickly to Havana‘s palatial casinos, flowing rum and discreet distance from Hollywood’s prying tabloids. In the mid-1950s, Flynn turned to Cuba again to seek shelter from a storm. A scan of the press coverage during his decade of decline reveals a seemingly endless parade of box-office failures, lawsuits, rape charges, drunken brawls, bankruptcy hearings, alimony battles and health problems. As a foggy-eyed Flynn wistfully opines in the opening shot of Cuban Story, the island was tailor-made for “men like me who think they can drown the pains of the world in a few daiquiris.”
It was around 1956, when Flynn was shooting the forgettable forgery thriller The Big Boodle in Havana, that the actor met Victor Pahlen. The two exiles became partners in a local Havana movie theater, but business, according to Pahlen‘s daughter Kyra, wasn’t what originally drew them together. “They became good friends,” she says, “because they were attracted to the same things, drinking and gambling.”
Born in St. Petersburg, Pahlen was a Dostoyevskian figure with a weakness for roulette and a sharp mind for the quick deals he needed to sustain a cavalier lifestyle. He was also a natural as a film partner, having produced and co-written, in 1950, director Frank Tuttle‘s riveting crime thriller Gunman in the Streets. Despite his business acumen, however, Pahlen was inclined to drift.
“He never owned property, because he figured, ’What‘s the point when the Communists could come along and take it all anyway?’” says Kyra Pahlen. “His solution was ‘Let’s just hang around in grand hotels and have a good time.‘” And that’s exactly what Victor Pahlen was doing in Havana as Che Guevara led a column of rebel troops out of the Sierra Maestra Mountains in August 1958, as part of Fidel‘s final offensive.
Just when and how Flynn and Pahlen hatched the idea for the documentary project is unclear. Cuban Story, to say the least, proves a slipshod affair, and not nearly as colorful as the men who made it. What few salient political points emerge from Flynn’s narration — the complicity of American tourists, himself included, in Cuba‘s poverty for example — are buried under an inflated infatuation with Castro and the absurdity of Flynn’s casting himself as a champion of the people. Largely an amalgam of newsreel footage charting the revolution from May 1953 to Castro‘s triumphant 1959 entry into Havana — followed by deadpan footage of political show trials and grisly executions by firing squad — the whole project feels secondhand.
Flynn, however, did manage a firsthand encounter with Castro. The aging swashbuckler sought him out in November 1958, a few months before Batista’s fall, and the meeting is commemorated in Cuban Story by two still photos of the screen idol standing alongside the revolutionary at what looks like a news conference. “Here was a man,” Flynn narrates, “a real man.”
Flynn‘s adventures had already sparked a small flurry of press coverage when he returned to New York in January 1959 with, as the L.A. Times reported, “a photographer, a leg wound and model Barbara Evans.” The star told reporters that he had been wounded during fighting at a sugar mill in Oriente, nicked in the leg by a bullet or a chunk of plaster, he wasn’t sure which. The Times asked Castro for confirmation. “He was in the fighting zone as a kind of war correspondent,” the rebel leader told the paper. As another, unidentified rebel put it, “We had the feeling [Flynn] was not a real journalist.” (In a series of articles Flynn wrote about his Cuban exploits for the Hearst newspaper chain in the early months of 1959, he recounts how he once caught Batista fresh from the shower, “bare-skinned in an unruly bath towel that kept getting loose.” No such luck with “real man” Castro, alas — although in one L.A. Examiner story, Flynn does size up the measurements of Castro‘s female attache, Celia Sanchez, as “36-24-35.”)
In none of his newspaper articles does Flynn mention The Truth About Fidel Castro Revolution. His insistent attention to the women of the revolution, however, suggests that the print series may have been connected to Flynn’s last film, Cuban Rebel Girls, in which he plays a war correspondent while his latest protegee, 16-year-old Beverly Aadland, co-stars as an American ingenue swept up into the revolution by her love of an American expatriate. (The film‘s director, Barry Mahon, went on to make Bunny Yeager’s Nude Las Vegas in 1964 and, in 1965, International Smorgas-Broad.) Shot in the spring of 1959 and released after his death in October, Flynn‘s ticky-tacky, pro-Castro swan song was described by one reviewer as a “miserable screen epitaph.”
So was Flynn a true believer, committed to the cause of Latin American revolution? Or was he an over-the-hill hack who jumped on the bandwagon in a bid to put himself back in the limelight? Were Cuban Story and those Hearst dispatches merely attempts to hype Cuban Rebel Girls? Or did they reflect some genuine if cheaply purchased idealism?
For David Kalat, founder of All Day Entertainment, which also brought Pahlen’s Gunman in the Streets to home video, Cuban Story was a means to a far more personal end. “I‘ve theorized that there was some kind of quid pro quo going on,” says Kalat. “Pahlen and Flynn partied together, and they probably felt that their debauched lifestyle was being impinged upon by the revolution. So they made Cuban Rebel Girls and Cuban Story to ensure their own futures on the island.”
It’s a theory Kyra Pahlen, who is currently shopping her script about Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L‘Ouverture, rejects. “My father was an idealist who loved a good story,” she says. “And if you were sitting in the middle of the Cuban Revolution, you could see it was one hell of a story.”