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’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 notable 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 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 1954 musical Let’s Make Up (aka Lilacs in the Spring) and the historical romance King’s Rhapsody the following year. Meanwhile, Cardiff had to wait five more years before getting another chance to direct–the 1958 thriller Intent to Kill.
Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!