Cuban Rebel Girls (1959) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Not long ago I was researching the sad decline in the career and health of Errol Flynn in the late 50s, and that research led me to some articles about his last film, a curiosity which he had written himself about the fall of the Batista regime in Cuba. According to the press kit, it was supposed to have been lensed with Castro's full co-operation "during the heaviest fighting of the Cuban Revolution."

Fidel Castro and Errol Flynn, together at last, as pictured to the left.

Flynn supported the film's publicity campaign with his own claim to be a wounded veteran of that war! He returned from Havana to New York in January of 1959 with, as the L.A. Times reported, "a leg wound." The star told reporters that he had been wounded during fighting at a sugar mill in Oriente province. His leg, he reported, had been nicked by either a bullet or a chunk of plaster. No less a luminary than Fidel Castro himself told The Times, "He was in the fighting zone as a kind of war correspondent." 

The film has languished in obscurity, denied its rightful place in the bad movie pantheon, unknown even to many bad film lovers like me. About a quarter of a century ago, two movie buffs named Medved wrote a book called The Golden Turkey Awards, a recollection of the most shameful and incompetent accomplishments in the history of film. I suppose I learned more about bad movies from that book than from any other source I've ever encountered. It was the Medveds who firmly established the reputation of Plan Nine from Outer Space as the worst film ever made, and formally certified Ed Wood as the worst director ever born. That book was my favorite resource for bad movie lore before the internet came along - it seemed like the encyclopedia of bad movies - but it never mentioned Cuban Rebel Girls at all. In fact, I had never heard of the film in all my years of watching and reading about bad films. Because of that, and because of the sheer outlandishness of the Rebel Girl concept, I couldn't believe at first that such a thing existed.

I was still about half convinced it was a hoax until I watched it myself today. Now I am in heaven. Every film buff should get a chance to watch a few minutes of this film! Unfortunately, I have no idea where you can find it. I finally managed to track down a VHS copy on E-bay. That turned to be a homemade recording of a television broadcast, but I could see and hear it, and that was all I really needed. Besides, the damned thing only cost me three dollars.

Never have I received more entertainment for three dollars. Well, except possibly for one night in Boise with a drunken floozie and a rubber chicken, but I don't remember much of that, so this goes to the top. Although IMDb and other sources call it Cuban Rebel Girls, the title screen (pictured to the right) says, "Assault of the Rebel Girls." Flynn himself called it Cuban Rebel Girl (singular) in his autobiography. Whatever the title, it is a bad film, not only in the usual ways, but also in ways that can scarcely be imagined in today's world. Do you remember a line in The Producers when Producer Max Bialystock, in search of the worst play ever written, looks up from a manuscript and says, "It's practically a love letter to Hitler!" Well, he could easily have run into the script for Cuban Rebel Girls, and made the same exclamation, except substituting "Castro" for "Hitler."

That isn't as bad as it sounds. American viewers in our time are rarely able to see such a pro-Castro piece and may find it ... um ... thought-provoking, to say the least, but at the time Castro was considered by many Americans to be a liberator and hero. Director Sydney Pollack claims that he was thinking of America's attitude toward Castro when he started working on The Interpreter. Pollack told an interviewer:

ďI remember when I was a kid in New York, and Castro first came to power. There was a ticker-tape parade in New York, and he went on television and everybody in America worshipped him. He was speaking English, and he was this great freedom fighter who had liberated his country. And, slowly, heís become a guy you canít write anything bad about, you canít do this, you go to jail. Thatís what happened with all these guys. What really fascinated me was what would happen if any of these dictators came face to face with who they were before they became corrupt.Ē

Castro's uprising was popular enough, and Batista was unpopular enough, that Castro's revolution even received contributions from rich, idealistic Cubans, who obviously did not suspect that the freedom fighter would soon turn die-hard Marxist and expropriate the very land which had generated those contributions.

Flynn and a producer named Victor Pahlen actually owned a movie theater in Havana, and they were tending to that business and spending time in their favorite playground when Castro's victory suddenly seemed imminent. Although both men had enjoyed the good life in Batista's Cuba, they realized that they were sitting on a unique opportunity, so they stayed in Cuba, hung out with the revolutionary troops, and took to the streets with cameras to record history as it happened. Their efforts even include some rare footage of Che Guevara and a clean-shaven Castro. The initial result of that footage was a unique if sloppy documentary called Cuban Story which was written, edited, and directed by Pahlen with a narration by Flynn. The soundtrack consisted entirely of that narration and several reprises of "Adelante, Cubanos" ("Onward, Cubans"), Castro's revolutionary anthem. Flynn and Pahlen had seen the cruelties of Batista's reign firsthand, so they therefore took a decidedly pro-Castro stance in their documentary. The film was screened exactly once, in Moscow, then was lost for more than 40 years until recently unearthed and released on DVD.

The Cuban Story documentary is fascinating, but that's not the movie I am writing about today. There was also a second movie made from some of that footage, a sister movie, a fictional story, and that is today's subject, Cuban Rebel Girls.

It was well known that Flynn was in desperate need of money in the late 50s,  and it was whispered that he owed a film to some investors who had fronted him an advance on a production deal. This anecdote may be apocryphal, but as the story goes, Flynn had to come up with a movie to fulfill his part of the bargain, and he realized that he had one right in the palm of his hand during the Cuban uprising. After all, he could write, narrate and act in it; he had actual location footage of a revolution; and he had his leading lady already available 24/7, in the form of his underage girlfriend Beverly Aadland, who wanted to be an actress. (Aadland is euphemistically called Flynn's "protege" in the print ad pictured to the right.)

That story about the backers makes a lot of sense, and it carries a touch of romance and roguery that Flynn himself would have enjoyed. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any dependable corroboration, so it may be urban legend. The fact remains that Flynn wrote the quickie script himself, combining newsreel-type footage with an exceptionally large amount of voice-over narration from Flynn in his fictional role as an American reporter covering the revolution. Occasionally the story was advanced with a preposterous fictional scene featuring either Aadland or Flynn himself.

The story goes something like this:

The introductory footage consists of location shots, mostly revolutionary soldiers marching through the Cuban countryside, accompanied by the ubiquitous stirring anthem "Adelante, Cubanos!". The opening credits are followed by a long stretch of voice-over narration by Flynn as the reporter, concluding with a stirring Flynn pronouncement which kicks the film off for real: "But of all the stories I filed, the most interesting was that of the Cuban Rebel Girls. They were wonderful!"

The next scene takes place in a beauty parlor in New York (played by a bare room with one hair dryer), where a Cuban-American girl talks to the adolescent blond beautician (Beverly Aadland). Their small talk reveals that Aadland has an idealistic boyfriend who is fighting with the rebels in Cuba, and gosh, she sure misses the big lug! The Cuban girl asks, "What if you had a chance to see him this weekend?", and that segues into an invitation to join the rebellion. The blond 16 year old Aadland responds, in the tone of an inexperienced high school girl reading a script from a TV commercial, "Me, a rebel? Why, what could I do?" The Cuban girl explains that she is in charge of getting an important shipment of black market firearms to the rebels that weekend, and she sure could use some help with those heavy old guns, darn it. Aadland thinks it over for a few seconds, and then decides that she can give up her weekend plans to cut her toenails and hang out at the malt shop, electing instead to fight in the jungles for Castro.

The film doesn't get any better as it goes along. It's just more long narrations followed by more silly scenes. For example, when the beautician finally gets in the midst of the rebels, the Cuban commandante keeps assigning her to radio duty, and she keeps asking when she will get to kill somebody. Finally, one of the rebel girls asks, "Are all you Americans so bloodthirsty?"

Flynn and Aadland even had a brief scene together in the rebel camp (pictured right).

When Aadland finally reunites with the idealistic boyfriend, they take a stroll away from the rebel camp to the strains of romantic music, and they have a discussion like this:

He: It's so beautiful here in the jungle.

She: And so quiet! You'd never know there was a war going on just a mile away!

He: C'mere, ya little idjit!

The film ends with newsreel-style footage of Castro's victory parade into Havana, and additional footage of the bedlam at the airports and harbors, where Batista's sympathizers fled the country in panic. There are some scenes which are truly unique and memorable, not because they are good, but because it seems impossible to believe that Flynn had the miraculous good fortune to pull them off. As Castro's victorious army marches through Havana, Aadland is actually riding one of the tanks, and the boyfriend is actually in the cheering throng. He shouts, "Stop that tank!" Since the revolutionary army was co-operating with the filmmakers, they do stop the parade upon command, and Aadland scampers down off the tank for her second tearful reunion with the boyfriend. As they kiss, the camera cuts from them to a balcony overlooking the parade, where stands none other than Captain Blood himself. Perhaps a younger Flynn might have grabbed an overhead rope and swung down from the balcony into the parade as the crowd exulted. The Flynn seen here, however, overweight and 50ish, cast as a mere observer, simply looks on ...

The film might have ended there, but Flynn apparently felt that he had not yet achieved his daily quota of cheese, so we see Flynn turn his back on the parade, and lumber from the balcony to his bedroom. The camera then joins him in the hotel bedroom as our intrepid reporter packs his belongings, presumably on the way to his next dangerous assignment.

Before leaving, a disheveled Flynn (pictured to the right of the quoted dialogue below) turns to the camera  and speaks directly to the movie audience, saying with labored breath:

"Well, I guess this about ends up another stage in the fight to rid Latin America of tyrants ... (pause, obviously thinks he has screwed up, searches for the right word ...) ... um, dictators! But the spirit started by this handful of (strong emphasis) wonderful rebels is spreading and growing stronger every day.

And all you young men and women fighting for political freedom and your own beliefs - everywhere - I wish you good luck!"

(Deferential nod followed by yet another chorus of "Adelante, Cubanos" over the closing credits)

For the principals, Cuban Rebel girls seemed to be the first film or the last. For Errol Flynn, the author and one-time matinee idol reduced to mere character actor status in this film, Cuban Rebel Girls was the swan-song. Within a year of Castro's march into Havana, Flynn would succumb to a coronary thrombosis. The autopsy revealed that his liver had all but disintegrated.

Aadland, bereft of acting talent, would never work in another film after Flynn died, although she hung on to a career as a nightclub singer for some years. She would outlive Flynn by 50 years, which is not so surprising when one considers that she had barely turned 17 when Flynn died! She and Flynn met in the Autumn of 1957 when she was working as an extra on Marjorie Morningstar. They were introduced by Gene Kelly, the star of that film. She turned 15 on September 17 of that year, so depending on the exact date of their first sexual encounter, she was either 14 or 15. Flynn was an old 48. (They are pictured together to the right.)

Barry Mahon, the director of the film, was an independent producer and one of Flynn's drinking buddies. He had never directed anything before this. He did go on to a long directorial career, but you may have missed his films. He started out making pictures with names like The Diary of Knockers McCalla, and Nude Las Vegas, but by the end of his career he had somehow gravitated from soft-core porn into cheapie children's films with titles like Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny. What a career it was! Most of his 51 films are too obscure for an IMDb rating, but you have to love the variety represented in the list of rated ones, not to mention the consistently poor quality. Although Cuban Rebel Girls deserves serious consideration as the worst film ever made, Mahon went on to even greater glory and made several films which are rated even lower on the IMDb scale!

A sample from his career:
       

NUDITY REPORT

None

A DVD of  the documentary, Cuban Story, which was made concurrently with Cuban Rebel Girls Flynn's fascinating but unreliable autobiography. The most scholarly Flynn bio, a book which won unanimous praise from critics and Flynn aficionados. A bare-bones PC download of Cuban Rebel Girls.

The Critics Vote ...

  • There are no major reviews online for either of Flynn's Cuban movies.

  • Flynn bio at answers.com. Amusing tidbit I learned from this: there was discussion about calling his autobiography "In Like Me". (The expression "in like Flynn", meaning "sure to succeed", was based on Flynn's reputedly automatic success with women.)

The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, Cuban Rebel Girls is obviously a low F. And yet you must see it.

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