"Cruise of the Zaca", a precious documentary directed and narrated by Errol Flynn

Errol Flynn sailing – Cine Gratia Cinema

“Like a bird with great wings, the movement of a sailing ship is the poetry of motion.” 
– Errol Flynn

"Cruise of the Zaca" (1952, Errol Flynn) is a short documentary directed, starring and narrated by the actor who immortalized Robin Hood. Buried under a whole load of bonus material that accompanies an Errol Flynn classic, we find this little treasure coming from the Caribbean Sea. In association with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the actor used his schooner, the Zaca, and financed a series of scientific expeditions intended for marine research. It's a "thoughtful little film"(1) that reveals his deep love for sailing, his "inherited" interest in biology and his genuine adventurous nature. Surrounded by family and friends, Errol opened up the doors to his own paradise. Do not miss out on the opportunity for a fantastic journey aboard the Zaca. Prepare to be amazed.

Like other fellow actors and experimented seamen, such as Humphrey Bogart or Sterling Hayden, Flynn was a sea lover and I am sure that he agreed with Hemingway when he said that "the sea is the last free place on earth"(2). A descendant of a midshipman, on his mother side, and with a father devoted to studying the remains of evolution of marine species, Errol Leslie Thomson Flynn was ready to sail the seven seas at a very early age. Turbulent waters, both literal and figurative, became his natural environment. Sailing far surpassed a passion that he embraced long before his arrival upon Hollywood and that would last throughout his life. Thus, Cruise of the Zaca stands out as one of the few graphic evidence of that great love for sailing and the restlessness that defined him.

Errol Flynn directed and narrated the documentary "Cruise of the Zaca" (1952).
Still frame of the opening credits of Cruise of the Zaca.
© Warner Bros.

Very much in the Warner Bros. style, the opening credits of the documentary anticipate a film worthy of Captain Blood himself. Special mentions to Dr. Carl Hubbs, of the Scripps Institute and to Professor Thomson Flynn, his father, reveal the scientific purpose and sentimental attachment of the project. In fact, as the actor explains in his autobiography –which we will discuss in future posts–, the trip was proposed initially to the Galapagos Islands, where Charles Darwin made significant discoveries. Ultimately, the itinerary changed, but for Errol and his father, who was a fervent admirer of Darwin, the journey would still be filled with sentimentality: "recalling for us our times in Tasmania and the days when I went into the field with him as he quested for strange items of marine biology."(3) At the time, Theodore Thomson Flynn was a renowned marine biologist and a professor in both Tasmania and Queen's University of Belfast (Ireland).

Errol Flynn, his father Professor Thomson Flynn and John Decker.
Errol Flynn with his father and artist John Decker sitting on the Zaca.
Image via Old Movie Exhibition

The short film was shot in color, in 16mm and is around 20 minutes long. It handsomely illustrates the different stages of this marine expedition and a journey along Caribbean waters. From California to Port Antonio in Jamaica, the movie is a wonder to watch. A nostalgic view on another era which, even the poor quality of the film –which desperately needs a remasterisation–, doesn't diminish. The poetry of the sea, the longing for scientific knowledge and the beauty of the most remote regions are evident in Cruise of the Zaca. Particularly, the final stop in Jamaica which Errol described as "one of the most beautiful harbours in the world".  It was in this paradisiacal place where he purchased a ranch and even owned and run Titchfield Hotel for while.

"Cruise of the Zaca", itinerary animation by Cine Gratia Cinema.
An animated visual tour that we made to illustrate Cruise of the Zaca's actual itinerary. 

Among the crew that accompanied the Flynns, were two of his closest buds. One of them was John Decker, a painter and caricaturist who introduced Errol to art. Together, they opened the Flynn-Decker Art Gallery in Hollywood in 1944 with a considerable collection of paintings by Van Gogh, Gauguin and Matisse, amongst others. For this trip, Decker made a small pictorial catalog of the species discovered during the expedition. It is a real pity that such illustrations are not available for the one that appears on the film is truly beautiful. Howard Hill, an American professional archer was also his frequent companion in many adventures, on an off screen. He was known in the 30s, as "World's Greatest Archer". His incredible skills and precision were quickly spotted by Hollywood producers. He made numerous documentaries about archery and worked as a consultant on films such as "Across the Wide Missouri" (1951, William A. Wellman) or "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938, Michael Curtiz). For this classic film, Hill stepped in as technical adviser, stunt archer and archery instructor. He even did a small cameo as Elwen the Welshman, one of Robin's rivals in the archery tournament.

Errol Flynn and Howard Hill.
Still frame from another documentary filmed by Errol Flynn called "Deep Sea Fishing" (1952) with Howard Hill.

Errol Flynn guides us along the way, through the meticulous painstaking identification of new varieties of marine fauna –they discovered more than 2000 species– and through all the little events that take place during the trip. In this sense, the short film has two parts. The first one focuses on the scientific aspect of the trip, while the second part offers us a vision of the experience of the beauty and folklore of Jamaica. Despite its short duration, I can not help thinking that such expeditions were highly commendable efforts. Let's not forget that it was filmed about seventy years ago. Around that time, a walkie-talkie was the closest thing to the newest Apple device. Maybe I exaggerated it a bit but if we recall Jacques Cousteau's groundbreaking movies, this documentary was certainly a predecessor and, therefore, an interesting historical document.We might add that Errol Flynn was ahead of his time. His pioneering interest for marine research, sea life and travel accounts clearly confirm that. His talents as a narrator and raconteur were seriously overlooked. 

In terms of narration, Cruise of the Zaca is close to The Voyage of the Beagle (1839, Charles Darwin), Darwin's travel journal that also covers biology, geology and anthropology. That was distinctively a great influence on Flynn and his father. Around the the 30s and 40s, short educational pieces produced by the great studios enjoyed great success. Especially relevant and precursors were MGM's Traveltalks (1932-1954) shot by James A. FitzPatrick and Paramount's Popular Science (1935-1949). Warner Bros. also keen in producing successful short films acquired Flynn's Cruise of the Zaca. Initially, the actor had no intentions of distributing the movie but eventually sold it to Jack Warner. As he later wrote, "The Cruise of the Zaca was a thoughtful little picture. People still talk about this film. They don't ask me about Robin Hood, they ask about The Cruise of the Zaca. It had tremendous public interest. I sold it to Warners, idiot that I was, for practically nothing."(4) 

"By instinct I’m an adventurer; by choice I’d like to be a writer; by pure, unadulterated luck, I’m an actor." 
—Errol Flynn

Errol Flynn makes a dapper sailor

Errol Flynn's film presence is, inevitably, the first thing that captures our attention. His words, in turn, are equally magnificent. We are reminded of those great speeches by Peter Blood, Sir Robin of Locksley or George Armstrong Custer. It is no wonder, his crew would follow him towards the ends of the Earth. His onscreen personality was truly genuine. He is playful, energetic, eloquent. The music of the film by Howard Jackson contributes significantly to recreate the magic of Warner Bros adventure pictures.

Finally, we have to talk about his schooner, the Zaca, which became one of his most precious possessions and his pride. With a legendary past of its, the vessel was acquired by the actor in 1946 and, despite being ultimately abandoned after Flynn's death, is still sailing the seas, as they mention in the great Errol Flynn Blog. A great documentary by The Sailing Channel called "In the Wake The Zaca" (2005, Luther Green) gives a full account of the incredible history of this schooner. Commissioned during the Great Depression in San Francisco, the vessel was a witness of oceanographic expeditions, luxurious trips and the most glamorous parties. It even appeared in film noir's classic "The Lady from Shanghai" (1947, Orson Welles). A symbol of a golden era of adventure and romance, the legendary schooner docked in ports all over the world. Jamaica, Monte Carlo, in its final stage, the island of Mallorca in Spain.

The Zaca

For those of you who wish to watch this documentary, you might find it on YouTube, divided on two videos and also, buried and nearly forgotten, amongst the bonus material for The Adventures of Robin Hood bluray and DVD special editions.

One purpose of this blog, on its new venture,  is to explore a universe beyond cinema. To "rescue" and share discoveries like this. Somehow we hope to broaden the scope of references to classic cinema, with our uttermost respect and affection. There is still much left to be said and discovered, not only for us but for future generations of moviegoers and film buffs. For I can't imagine, if I may say so, any pleasanter journey than walking through life with you beside me.


(1)(3)(4) Excerpts from Errol Flynn's autobiography. Flynn, Errol. My Wicked Wicked Ways. United Kingdom. Aurum Press Ltd, 2005. p. 387.

(2) Phrase from Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast (1964, Editorial Scribners).

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