George Hamilton speaks about his missing photojournalist friend
It was sometime in the late 1960s and they were getting off a plane in Geneva, fresh from a pleasure trip to Beirut.
George Hamilton, the famously well-tanned Hollywood actor, turned to his friend Sean Flynn, the son of movie star Errol Flynn. He asked Flynn, a photojournalist, why he was returning to cover the Indochina War.
“I said, ‘Why would you go back? You’re an old man, you’ve done all that,” Mr Hamilton said in an interview yesterday.
Flynn was only in his 20s at the time, but he already had a short movie career, a stint as an African big-game hunter and a few years as a photojournalist under his belt.
Flynn’s reply, according to Mr Hamilton: “It’s the only place in the world where anything’s happening.”
Not too long afterward, on April 6, 1970, Flynn and colleague Dana Stone disappeared in Cambodia after being captured by Vietnamese communist forces and handed over to the Khmer Rouge.
The pair were among 37 journalists, foreign and Cambodian, who died or disappeared in Cambodia from 1970 to 1975.
This week, about two dozen journalists, all former reporters on the conflict in Vietnam or Cambodia, are gathering in Phnom Penh for a reunion.
The 70-year-old Mr Hamilton is among them, though he is not, and has never been, a newsman, as he is quick to point out. An old friend of Flynn, he was invited to the reunion by photojournalist Tim Page, and is on his first visit to Cambodia, he said yesterday.
“For me it was an unclosed story, and I thought well, I don’t know that I can do anything but I can be supportive,” Mr Hamilton said at a hotel in the capital. “At least it’s something.”
Known for his suave on-screen persona, Mr Hamilton has had a film and television career spanning the last five decades, including a role in 1990’s “The Godfather Part III.” The 2009 comedy “My One and Only,” was based on his life.
He met Flynn in Palm Beach, Florida, in the 1950s, when the pair were going to different high schools. He described Flynn, who was younger by about two years, as “very shy” and “very well informed, very well aware.”
Afterward Mr Hamilton went to Hollywood, and he eventually recruited Flynn to throw a football in the 1960 teen comedy “Where the Boys Are,” in which Mr Hamilton had a starring role.
Thus embarked, Flynn took parts in a few more movies. He starred in the 1964 pirate caper “The Son of Captain Blood,” before turning his back on Hollywood. His movie star father Errol was the original swashbuckling “Captain Blood” in the 1935 movie of the same name.
“I think he always felt like he had to kind of live up to or outdo his father,” Mr Hamilton said of Flynn. “And he was a different man, a different kind of guy.”
In one sense, Flynn took his father’s adventurous on-screen persona to the next level, Mr Hamilton said. He became a professional big-game hunter in Africa, and then, in 1966, he went to Vietnam and joined a group of young photographers and reporters known for taking risks.
“I think in some ways Sean did what his father did in movies, [but] he did it in life,” Mr Hamilton said. “Took it to the extreme.”
When Flynn disappeared in April of 1970, forty years ago this month, it was hard to believe he wouldn’t come “roaring out of the jungle with a story,” Mr Hamilton said. But then weeks became months and months became years.
Mr Hamilton began to wonder if Flynn wanted to get caught.
“For somebody to pull up to a checkpoint who’d been through a war, it always made me wonder, was he really unaware that that could happen? I don’t think so. He even flagged other people back. It begs the question: Did he want to get caught? And was that the ultimate story?”
Last month a team of adventurers claimed to have found what may be Flynn’s remains, creating a wave in the media. A US military team earlier this month re-excavated the Kompong Cham province site and found what appeared to be more bone fragments. All of the remains are currently being analyzed by a US government laboratory.
The amateur dig, conducted by self-described Flynn fans, has come under criticism from former colleagues, though it had the support of Flynn’s half sister, Rory Flynn. Mr Hamilton said he did not know enough to comment on the excavation.
“Of course, for what remains of his family and friends, it would be great to have some sort of closure,” he said. “In the bigger picture, you know, sometimes the only answer you can get is I don’t know…. There’s not always closure in these things.”
Mr Hamilton also expressed wonder at the continuing interest in Flynn’s disappearance.
“Why does something have this universality?” he asked. Then, thinking aloud, he continued: “It is just his looks? There are a lot of good looking actors that I’ve seen in Hollywood. Is it because he got a good story? I’ve seen a lot of stories….” Mr Hamilton trailed off. “Why is this one going on and on and on? There’s something about this I can’t figure out.”