At 28 years old, Sean Flynn was a dead ringer for his famous father, Errol. But instead of a life of glamor and fame, he chose to pursue an altogether more gritty career. Armed with his camera, he ventured into brutal war zones around the world – until one day he didn’t return.
By the time that Flynn was born, his father was one of the biggest names in Hollywood. And as the boy grew, Errol’s star continued to rise. Today, he is remembered for his major roles in movies such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood. But not many are aware that his legacy also included a tragic twist.
As a young man, Flynn had looked set to follow in his father’s footsteps with a glittering career as a leading man. But over time, he grew to abhor the fame attached to his family name. And where Errol starred in adventures on the silver screen, his son decided to pursue them in real life instead.
With his father’s good looks, Flynn must have cut a dashing figure as he darted through war zones, snapping photographs for publication in the international press. Through his work, readers around the world were exposed to the realities of conflicts across the globe, including countries such as Israel, Cambodia and Vietnam. But eventually, his sense of adventure would lead him towards a tragic fate.
As a teenager Flynn penned an emotional letter to his mother, expressing his regret that circumstances had kept them apart. And yet just 12 years later they would be separated for good when the photojournalist vanished without a trace. So what exactly happened to the intrepid son of Hollywood’s golden boy?
Born on May 31, 1941, to Errol and his first wife, Lili Damita, Flynn was his parents’ only child.
When the pair first got married, the actor was still a relative unknown yet to become a household name. But as his career flourished, their relationship deteriorated, ultimately ending in divorce a year after their son’s birth.
Brought up by his mother, Flynn appears to have fostered a dislike of Hollywood and show business from a young age. According to a letter that resurfaced in 2015 he had no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps – despite the apparent encouragement of both Errol and a big Hollywood studio.
“If father and MGM want me to do a picture, they can all go to hell,” Flynn wrote in the letter, penned to his mother in 1958. “I just want to be with my family.” But despite his early reservations, he would eventually make his way onto the silver screen. And in 1960 – one year after Errol’s death – he appeared in his first movie role.
Two years later, Flynn starred in Sage Western Pictures’ Il Figlio del Capitano Blood, a sequel to Captain Blood. But despite appearing in a handful of movies over the years, he never took to acting in the same way that his father had. And eventually, he tired of the industry altogether.
While his father had made his name playing a hero in the movies, Flynn sought to become an adventurer in real life. As a young man, he traveled to Africa where he worked for a time as a wildlife guide. In the end, though, it was the fast-paced world of photojournalism that captured his imagination.
Blessed with his father’s chiselled jawline and leading-man good looks, Flynn could easily have coasted through life on the back of his famous name. But instead, he chose to carve himself out a career in one of the most dangerous professions around. Armed with his camera, he traveled to the most war-torn parts of the world, capturing their horrors for posterity.
In 1966 Flynn traveled to a Vietnam torn apart by more than a decade of war. Determined to capture the best photographs for the likes of United Press International and TIME magazine, he soon developed a reputation as a risk-taker. In fact, his antics would put his father’s big-screen heroics to shame.
In Vietnam, Flynn became part of a small community of photojournalists who were known for doing whatever it took to get right to the heart of the action. Given a weapon by the Green Berets, he helped to fight off an ambush by guerilla forces and even joined U.S. soldiers for a parachute jump. But even this was far from his most dangerous assignment.
In 1967 Flynn traveled to the Middle East to report on the latest conflict between settlers in Israel and the neighboring Arab states. While there, he visited temporary prisoner-of-war camps and photographed captives being held in the desert by armed guards. But this time the skirmishes did not last long, and he was back in Vietnam the following year.
By that time, the communist forces of North Vietnam had launched the Tet Offensive, a far-reaching attack on South Vietnam and its allies. And even though the campaign turned out to be a military disaster, it altered American perceptions of the war. Slowly, support for U.S. involvement in the conflict was beginning to drain away.
By September 1968 Flynn was in South Vietnam, caught up in a battle between the Americans and the North Vietnamese. During the fracas, the photographer was injured by an exploding grenade – but even that didn’t quell his desire to be in the thick of the action. And two years later, this enthusiasm would lead him to his doom.
Ever since 1978 the neighboring country of Cambodia had been embroiled in its own civil war. With the backing of North Vietnamese forces, the communist Khmer Rouge had grown from a relatively insignificant guerilla movement into a political force with which to be reckoned. And in March 1970 the People’s Army of Vietnam launched an invasion.
That month, North Vietnamese troops began moving into north-eastern Cambodia, conquering territory on behalf of themselves and the Khmer Rouge. As the events unfolded, Flynn – keen as ever to put himself on the front line – headed for the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Sadly, it would be the start of his last adventure.
On April 6, 1970, Flynn traveled from Phnom Penh to attend a press conference in Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam. It was a journey of almost 150 miles, but the famous actor’s son eschewed the comfortable limousines that most other journalists chose. Instead, he and his friend Dana Stone, another photojournalist, opted for the freedom of motorcycles.
According to reporter Stephen Bell, who was also in Cambodia at the time, most attendees returned to Phnom Penh after the conference. But Flynn and Stone had other ideas. Apparently, they had been tipped off that the North Vietnamese forces were in action close by and set off in search of a story.
“They had heard there was a checkpoint that was manned by the Viet Cong,” fellow journalist Stephen Bell told British newspaper The Independent in 2011. “It was thought you could see the Viet Cong there.” Later, others would spot the two men in a small village, apparently arguing over whether or not they should pursue the story.
“I’ve got a wife in the hotel back in Phnom Penh, and I haven’t spent all this time here to get myself captured,” Stone is reported to have said. “I know it’s dangerous,” Flynn allegedly responded. “That’s what makes it a good story.” Then, witnesses claim, the pair briefly scuffled over keys before setting off on their motorcycles together.
Tragically, it would be the last time that either Flynn or Stone were seen alive. So what happened to these two men, both known for their courage in the face of adversity? For years, their loved ones struggled to get to the truth. And although Errol never lived to witness his son’s dramatic fate, his first wife never gave up searching, spending a fortune in the process.
Today, most people accept that Flynn and Stone were detained by troops aligned with the Viet Cong. On the day that they disappeared, the same fate befell several other journalists on assignment in Cambodia. And within a few months, as many as 25 individuals had been kidnapped by guerilla forces.
Out of all those people, tragically, many of them never came home – including three who were certainly killed. Had Flynn and Stone also met with a bloody fate? Although no bodies have ever been recovered, a number of different theories have emerged over the years to account for what happened to the men after they disappeared.
Not long after Flynn and Stone vanished, the latter’s wife Louise traveled to Cambodia in an attempt to track down her missing husband. And according to Perry Deane Young, another photojournalist who had been at the conference in Saigon, she was a resolute woman. But sadly, even her resolve was not enough to get to the bottom of the mystery.
At one point, Louise spoke to a member of the Khmer Rouge who told her that he had seen two men matching Flynn and Stone’s descriptions. But despite employing others to continue the search, she never succeeded in tracking down her husband and his famous friend. Tragically, she died years later, never knowing the truth.
Meanwhile, Flynn’s mother was engaged in her own mission to hunt down the missing men. But despite spending all the money she had on the search, she too came up empty-handed. Eventually, in 1984 she had her son officially declared dead. And ten years later, she herself passed away from Alzheimer’s disease.
But although those most engaged in the search for Flynn and Stone have since passed on, the mystery of the men’s fate has refused to go away. In 1990 Tim Page, who had also been a photojournalist alongside the missing men, traveled to Cambodia in an attempt to find the truth about his comrades. There, in a village known as Bei Met, he uncovered human remains.
At first, it must have seemed as if Page was on track to solve the puzzle at last. After all, the find came after a local family confirmed that two westerners had been held captive in the region around the time that Flynn and Stone had disappeared. But ultimately, tests revealed that the remains belonged to a different man.
While one of Flynn and Stone’s old comrades was busy searching for human remains in Cambodia, others were uncomfortable with his activities. Writing for the American news agency McClatchy in 2010 Young recalled, “At the time, I was appalled by Page’s digging in the dirt and coming out with what may have been pieces of our old Saigon roommate. Page may need that kind of closure, but I don’t.”
For his part, Page claimed that he was driven by a desire to do the right thing by the men who had once been his friends. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal newspaper in 2014 he said, “It’s the old promise about bringing your mates home from war. I don’t like the idea of their spirits out there tormented.”
By that time, another chapter in Flynn’s strange story had been opened – and closed. In March 2010 two men, described by the press as bounty hunters, declared that they had found the remains of the missing photojournalist. Unlike Page and Young, they were not connected to the missing men, and their heavy-handed approach was widely criticized.
Apparently untrained in forensics or excavations, the two men – a British bar owner and an Australian explorer – had focused in on a remote location in eastern Cambodia. According to The Independent, they were led there by reports of the execution of a man matching Flynn’s description. In a sinister twist, one witness claimed that the prisoner had been forced to excavate his own grave before being killed.
Confident that they had hit on Flynn’s final resting place, the two men assembled a team of locals and began digging at the site. But for Page, who believes that several murdered journalists could be buried there, the act was tantamount to desecration. Meanwhile, the bounty hunters’ attempts to exploit their story for financial gain did little to endear them to Flynn’s former colleagues.
Despite criticism, though, the two men did succeed in retrieving human remains. Could Flynn and Stone finally be put to rest? Unfortunately for those seeking closure, that was not to be. In June 2010 a spokesman for the U.S. military announced that the bones did not belong to the missing photojournalist and were likely those of a Cambodian local.
After the controversial excavation, it seems, the site in eastern Cambodia was locked down by the Pentagon’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. To people such as Page, this was an encouraging development. Indeed McClatchy wrote, “Maybe now my friends’ remains will be properly found and identified, and they’ll be safe from scavengers.”
So far, though, no trace of either Flynn or Stone has been recovered – from that site or anywhere else. But the story of the man who surpassed his famous father to become a real-life adventurer continues to unfold. In 2015 his mother’s estate was auctioned off, shining a spotlight on letters written by the photojournalist while still a teenager.
As well as expressing an early desire not to follow in his father’s footsteps, Flynn also wrote about his deep regard for his mother. One letter read, “I just want to say ‘thanks’ for home, the car, and just the fact that you are the best mother that I could ever want; and although you never hear me say it, I love you very much!”
In a sad twist, the letter continued, “I actually tried to be with you a lot but everything just didn’t seem to go together.” This heartfelt note written in 1958 was penned 12 years before Flynn’s disappearance. For his mother, who kept the scrap of paper throughout her life, it must have been a haunting reminder of her son’s tragic fate. Perhaps one day, the truth that eluded her will finally be uncovered.