Errol Flynn’s Unfinished Film “The Story of William Tell”

Flynn 7In 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 2Flynn 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!

Flynn 6

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!

  • Tony Payne

    According to Hollywood gossip the film marked the end of Flynn’s friendship with Bruce Cabot. Cabot reneged on his promise to refinance the production and that was the end of it.

    • Mike in Oz (down under)

      There is footage from this abandoned production on the documentary ‘THE ADVENTURES OF ERROL FLYNN’ released by Warner Home Video. Patrice Wymore is interviewed and possibly allowed the footage to be included.

  • Jeff Heise

    I remember an article about this film in FilmFax magazine some years ago with accompanying stills and what appeared to be frame blow-ups like the one above. If they had access to the latter, how so and why has no one attempted to acquire this footage to preserve it and make it available as a bonus on one of the DVDs of a Flynn movie?

  • Brian Jodrie

    Flynn turned down an actress for a part in William Tell.She was never going to get anywhere.Her name,Sophia Loren.

  • Joseph Brush

    Bruce Cabot sued Flynn for non-payment once the movie was abandoned and won an injunction in Italy whereby Flynn’s possessions including a car, and clothes were seized. Bruce Cabot did not have the financial clout to finance this movie. Flynn periodically gave Bruce Cabot money when Cabot was not working steady.