The life and death? of photojournalist Sean Flynn..
“You know he heard the drums of war when the past was a closing door” Wrote The Clash for their 1982 song, Sean Flynn.
Sean Flynn was the son of the legendary actor Errol, a young man who sought adventure in the theatre of war and paid the highest price for his desire to escape the Hollywood set.
Born in 1941 to Errol and his first wife, the French actress Lilli Damita he began an acting career following a brief flirtation with university. His acting would last no more than four years, he had made bit part appearances and the odd forgettable European adventure movie but it was clear that he wouldn’t follow in his parents footsteps.
As with university, acting soon bored him and he flew to Africa to work as a safari guide and game warden in 1964. But these jobs didn’t pay well so Flynn flew to Singapore to star in what would prove to be his final film ‘Five Ashore in Singapore’ before flying to Vietnam in 1966 to work as a photojournalist for Paris Match and later Time Life magazine.
South Vietnam at that time was home to some of the twentieth century’s greatest combat photographers, here Flynn met Henri Huet, Dana Stone, John Steinbeck lV, Nik Wheeler and his great friend, Tim Page who took the remarkable portrait of Flynn above. Flynn and Page pushed the boundaries of reportage photography, Flynn often went with American troops on long expeditions into the heart of the combat zone, including parachuting into areas with the U.S. troops, his life was a heady mix of drink, drugs and the adrenalin rush of capturing the scenes of bloody battles at close quarter. Perhaps the greatest account of Flynn, Page and the theatre they immersed themselves in can be found in the classic Dispatches (1977) by Michael Herr who described Flynn as ‘a connoisseur of the Vietnam War’. Herr, unlike a number of his contemporaries saw beyond the model looks and film star background, realising Flynn’s fascination with war and more especially the Vietnam War: ‘It gave him a vision of Vietnam that was profound, black and definitive, a knowledge of its wildness that very few of his detractors would have understood’
By 1970 as the North Vietnamese continued their push deeper into the country Flynn flew to Cambodia to report on the situation there for Time magazine. On April 6th along with fellow photojournalist Dana Stone, Flynn was preparing to leave the capital Phnom Penh when they received word of a Viet Cong manned checkpoint, the communist Vietnamese soldiers were now in Cambodia. As they made their way to a press conference in Saigon on their motorbikes they agreed to stop at the checkpoint to get the story. They were never seen again.
There were many versions of what happened, some say they were imprisoned for a year, others say they were forced to dig their own graves before being shot. Flynn’s mother spent huge sums of her money trying to find his remains, she never did. As with any of these ‘mysteries’, sightings and accounts of their capture, imprisonment and execution are numerous and largely false. What is known however, is that Flynn was highly regarded by the soldiers whom he accompanied into battle and by those journalists who could put personal envy to one side for long enough to see what Flynn was really like.
Flynn went missing on April 6th 1970 aged twenty eight. He was declared dead in absentia in 1984.
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