By Brendan Brady / Phnom Penh
Sean Flynn’s towering stature and matinee-idol looks made him stand out during his years as a combat photographer in Indochina. The remains of his body, however, have proved more elusive. For years, official and unofficial efforts to recover the body of Hollywood swashbuckler icon Errol Flynn’s son have come up empty-handed. Now, 40 years after Sean Flynn’s abduction, two men say they uncovered a grave site in the Cambodian countryside that is likely his — generating a flurry of excitement, skepticism and resentment.
In the late 1960s, American Sean Flynn abandoned a lukewarm film career to join a band of intrepid journalists documenting the civil wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. At first, Flynn drew international attention merely by virtue of being the even-more-handsome son of his movie-star father entering a combat zone. He and his colleagues’ brazen lifestyle and daring work in the field became the stuff of legend and inspired a cast of colorful characters in war films and literature. More significant, their photos, shot within the frenzied theater of combat, became pivotal in exposing Americans at home to the brutality and ambiguous profit of their military’s involvement in the region. But their contribution was not without cost: at least 37 journalists were killed or went missing in Cambodia during the 1970-1975 war between the U.S.-backed military government and the North Vietnamese–supported Khmer Rouge.
Flynn was among them. In 1970, Flynn, 28, was on assignment in Cambodia photographing for TIME with fellow American Dana Stone, who was shooting video for CBS. The pair left the capital, Phnom Penh, on motorbikes for the front line — pushing each other, the account goes, to get the ultimate story. They were never heard from again. Cambodia had already descended into full-blown civil war, but little was known yet about its unique breed of communist Khmer Rouge revolutionaries. The world would find out only later that the group had no appetite for compromise with their enemies or captured Western journalists.
Numerous reports about how and when Flynn died have circulated over the years; the most widely repeated theory is that he was captured by Vietnamese communists, turned over to the Khmer Rouge and then held with other Western journalists before being crudely executed. The commercial value of the Sean Flynn story — a dashing, brash son flying headlong into war to stake out a reputation independent of his movie-idol father — has not escaped Hollywood’s eye. A film company has purchased the rights to Two of the Missing, an account of Flynn and Stone’s saga. Heath Ledger was reportedly considering taking the role of Flynn before his own death in 2008.
Despite the fabled search for Flynn, the two men who believe they found his remains have not exactly been thanked for their work. Australian David MacMillan, 29, and Briton Keith Rotheram, 60, turned over a skull, teeth and bones to the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh, which sent them to the military office in Hawaii in charge of finding missing Americans from past conflicts. That outfit’s initial assessment was that the bones may be those of a Southeast Asian, but further testing is under way. The office has emphasized that amateur digs are discouraged because they can damage evidence, noting that in this case, “The remains are badly fragmented due to the manner in which they were recovered.” Its spokesperson stopped short of saying MacMillan and Rotheram had broken the law, but contrary to standard protocol for exhumations, the pair used a mechanical digger with a serrated scoop to remove a layer of topsoil covering what they believed to be Flynn’s grave site. The military described the area as “disturbed” when a team was sent there for a follow-up excavation and said the team found additional bone fragments in the hole of the previous dig.
MacMillan and Rotheram have shot back at critics, saying they conducted their search at the behest of Flynn’s half-sister Rory, who lives in North Carolina, and with the full knowledge of the authorities in the district where they dug. They also say they wouldn’t have conducted the search themselves had the U.S. military agreed to previous requests to excavate the site. “We didn’t do anything that was haphazard,” says MacMillan. “I’ve been studying all of [the military’s] internal manuals for bone recovery. What we did was a combination of modern forensics mixed with the variables [presented by] the Cambodian jungle. We were doing the best we could with what we had.”
But former war correspondents who knew Flynn have lambasted MacMillan and Rotheram, describing them as reckless bone hunters in search of fame and financial gain — the latter criticism gaining steam after the pair said they would discuss the finding in detail only with the highest bidder. Most vociferous has been Tim Page, the storied photographer who is said to be the inspiration behind Dennis Hopper’s gonzo character in Apocalypse Now. Over the past couple of decades, Page, too, has conducted several searches for his old friend Flynn, whom he says was “like a brother.” In 1990, Page returned to Cambodia to complete a documentary called Danger on the Edge of Town, in which he tracked what he believed to be Flynn and Stone’s movements as POWs.
Page says MacMillan and Rotheram may have “contaminated” the grave sites of other executed journalists whose remains lie in the same area. “The way they went about it is astonishing,” he says. “Here you’re looking at a crime scene. How were these people killed? How many people died here? You put a machine like that across an archaeological site, and it’s a no-brainer you’re going to destroy the area. Usually this is done by digging and sifting.” (The follow-up military excavation did not find any secondary graves.)
Flynn’s half-sister Rory has come to MacMillan and Rotheram’s defense, saying she sanctioned their search and that their motives were altruistic. She says she has been approached over the years by a number of would-be detectives, keen to offer their search-and-recovery services for a fee or simply wanting to insinuate themselves into Flynn’s remarkable life story. “[MacMillan] came to me with some very good information and documents, and I jumped on board,” Rory says. “It’s been 40 years, and I was not going to let this opportunity go by. If protocol was broken a bit, too bad.”
Yet after an initial round of optimistic stories from an exuberant international press, local media have assumed a skeptical tone. Indeed, the two men’s credentials and point of departure for carrying out the search — as cult fans of the rugged and striking Flynn men — haven’t inspired confidence. Rotheram has been a bar owner in Vietnam and Cambodia, and MacMillan calls himself an artist, private investigator and bodyguard. MacMillan says the excavation was filmed and will be turned into a documentary that will show they “did it the right way.” Their motivation, MacMillan says, was to “recover the soul” of Flynn — or whomever it was they unearthed.