Sunday, March 3, 2013

Errol Flynn's Unfinished Film: "The Story of William Tell"

Errol Flynn as William Tell.
In his 1959 autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Errol Flynn wrote:

I went into an independent production to make William Tell. I wrote the outline of the script myself; I had a scenario drawn, and I went into business with a group of Italians--fifty-fifty. We budgeted for $860,000...I built one of the most beautiful sets right in William Tell country itself at Courmayer, in Northern Italy, where the Alps run up very high. I built an entire little village, with a stream running through it where we would shoot the famous highlight--knocking an apple off of a boy's head...I'd teach Jack Warner how to make pictures."

The year was 1953 and Flynn, having completed his Warner Bros. contract, wanted more creative control of his films. He had already written a screenplay (for his 1951 film Adventures of Captain Fabian) as well as two books: Showdown, a 1946 novel about a ship's captain set in New Guinea; and the earlier Beams End, an autobiographical tale of a voyage aboard his yacht, the Sirocco. With The Story of William Tell, Flynn envisioned a colorful tale along the lines of The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Flynn, in the middle, with Cardiff on right.
Flynn's previous two films, The Master of Ballantrae and Crossed Swords, were made in Europe. Both films were also photographed in color by Jack Cardiff, whose impressive credits included Powell and Pressberger's Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. Flynn was impressed with Cardiff's work and the cinematographer yearned for an opportunity to direct a film. With Flynn and his friend Barry Mahon producing, Cardiff signed on to direct The Story of William Tell. The intent was to mount a first-rate production; it would have been the second film photographed in Cinemascope (following The Robe). Flynn and Bruce Cabot headed a cast that consisted mostly of Italian actors.

After several weeks of filming, Flynn learned that the film's Italian investors could not cover their share of the production budget. In The Films of Errol Flynn by Tony Thomas, Rudy Behlmer, and Clifford McCarthy, director Jack Cardiff said:

(We) carried on for about six more weeks--the crew working for nothing--until poverty forced us to quit the beautiful mountain location...I was two years waiting for the picture to start again while law suits--including my own--were bandied back and forth. But it all fizzled out. The Italian producer who let us down died bankrupt. I finally abandoned ship, being owed nine million lira.

According to some sources, the remaining footage of The Story of William Tell is stored in the archives of Boston University. Indeed, the 15-30 minutes of edited footage has become something of an urban legend. In one account, Roddy McDowall bought the William Tell footage from Flynn's widow Patrice Wymore and donated it to Boston University with the stipulation that it never be publicly shown!

After the collapse of The Story of William Tell, a financially-strapped Errol Flynn made two films for Herbert Wilcox and his actress wife Anna Neagle: the musical Let's Make Up (aka Lilacs in the Spring) and the historical romance King's Rhapsody. Meanwhile, Cardiff had to wait five more years before getting another chance to direct--the 1958 thriller Intent to Kill.


  1. Oh, if only! I'd not heard of the Roddy McDowell story before, but even if true, why would anyone stipulate that it never be shown?? What a shame!

  2. Never knew any of this, Rick. Intriguing, to say the least.

    I wonder why the remaining bit of film should be locked away never to see the light of day?

    Maybe there is no film. Maybe someone forgot to load the camera. Just kidding.

  3. Fascinating tale of "Tell" you have told, Rick. I love Cardiff and really like Flynn and the setting sounded fabulous. What might have been! Sigh.

  4. The Roddy McDowell story is odd, though he was known as a film collector. He also supposedly purchased some of Errol's home movies.

  5. Rick, I thought I'd seem some of the William Tell footage in the 2010 documentary on Jack Cardiff. It seems to me that was where I first became aware of the "William Tell" fiasco (I read Flynn's autobio at such a young age that I remembered nothing about it...except Flynn's wicked ways). Excellent post on a film that never was but should have been.

  6. According to Brendan Carroll's biography of Erich Wolfgang Korngold,"The Last Prodigy", Flynn asked Korngold to score "William Tell." Korngold told him he had retired from films to compose concert music. Glad to see Flynn appreciated Korngold's talents.

  7. Fascinating story. Ah...what might have been...!

  8. I love to find out yet more about our mutual friend, The Great Flynn. I didn't know most of the interesting facts you write about, and of course wish the film could have been made. I agree with Kevin about Korngold's talents and Flynn's appreciation. The music for his swashbuckling films was so important to the atmosphere and success of those movies. Loved this one, Rick! I'd give my right arm (well, at least loan it) for a look at what did get filmed!