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The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) ***1/2

May 13, 2010

written by: Norman Reilly Raine & Seton I. Miller

produced by: Hal B. Wallis & Henry Blanke

directed by: Michael Curtiz & William Keighley

Rated PG for adventure violence.

102 min.

U.S. release date: May 14th, 1938

DVD & Blu-ray release date: August 26, 2008

The character of Robin Hood has seen many guises, revisions and updates for several centuries, This week, Ridley Scott will deliver his version of the hero of Sherwood forest to the big screen starring Russell Crowe as the titular character. It remains to be seen how the film will be received but one thing is for sure, Robin Hood has endured and will continue as long as the rich keep getting richer and….well, you know the rest. The fact is, there’s no getting around that the character of a man robbing the rich to give to the poor will always be an attractive one. It’s hard to say which Robin Hood in cinematic history is the most accurate since most of the legend of the character is myth, or a composite of various tales.

Apparently, there have been fifty something films featuring Robin Hood yet there is arguably one that remains the most memorable and recognized. That would be Errol Flynn’s portrayal in the 1938 film, “The Adventures of Robin Hood” released on May 14th. How ironic that the new film will be released on the same exact date, 70 years later. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards at a time when movies only cost a quarter, the film would go on to win for Best Art Direction, Film Editing & Original Score.

I can now check this classic film off my long “must see” list, having recently watched it for the first time. Oh, I’ve seen clips of it but for some reason I just never got around to watching this rollicking Technicolor gem, where swashbuckling men find their way into tights yet very few would know what to do with a toothbrush and a bar of soap.

As I stated above, Robin Hood’s story hardly needs any explanation, but there are some who still may not know much of Nottingham or its Saxon inhabitants. While we are not given many “adventures” as the title indicates, we are given a look at this folk figure and a glimpse of what he stood for.

The intro and set-up for the story set in Old England begins with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Oscar-winning sweeping score. We’re told King Richard the Lionheart, (Ian Hunter) the King of England, has been held captive by Leopold of Austria on his way back home from The Crusades. When word of this reaches his brother Prince John (Claude Raines), he takes advantage of the situation by proclaiming himself ruler, much to the amazement of all the Sirs loyal to the throne. This move primarily affects the poor Saxons who are just trying to maintain their land and make a living. Prince John won’t have it though and uses his power to increase taxes saying it’s for a proposed King’s ransom while having no intention to follow through on such a deed.

Prince John employs his by-the-numbers right hand man, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), to enforce the tax, squeezing any wage out of the same hard-working men he demands loyalty from. Enter Saxon Robin, Earl of Loxley (Errol Flynn), who defends Much (Herbert Mundin), a local Saxon and in doing so humiliates Sir Guy. Robin confidently strides into Gisbourne’s castle and defies John’s rule in front of a scornful maid Marian (Olivia DeHaviland), proclaiming he will do everything in his power to restore England to King Richard. Thus begins the battle of a patriot, stripped of his land and title, fighting an unjust ruler for the good of the common man.

The rest of the story plays out the way we’ve come to know it. Robin retreats to Sherwood Forest with the faithful support of dozens of men and their families. He promises them justice if they would only follow him and fight. With the help of his friend Will Scarlet (Patric Knowles), Robin enlists the end of a tight band of merry men. They recruit Little John (Alan Hale, Sr.) and watch as Robin persuades Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) through provocation. Prince John and Sir Guy get their just due (the Sheriff of Nottingham hardly mattered here) and Marian comes to see Robin isn’t just a scoundrel but a man at service to the people. Rousing swordplay, light-hearted banter and romantic longing can be found to the very end (after all, this when films ended with “The End”) and an instant classic was made at the then steep cost of two million dollars.

This would go on to become Flynn’s most celebrated and arguably most recognizable role. His Robin Hood would be the template that all other studios would look to whenever they would attempt on inevitable update on the character. It’s no wonder since he exudes an attractive charisma and heroism with equal sex appeal. His was one the original “guys wanna hang with him, girls wanna swoon over him” heroes on the silver screen.

The was Flynn’s second of eight films he made with co-star and onscreen romantic interest DeHaviland, who had both obviously made a conveyed a convincing cinematic couple. It’s hard to say what DeHaviland brings to the role of Marian though, since many of supporting female roles during this time were for the most part interchangeable. Frankly, there’s not much to do here for her but be repulsed, indignant and smitten. We see a glimpse of defiance in her toward the end when she stands up to Prince John but until then the audience is asked to believe that she would fall for Robin, fast and hard. As the character would be revisited in other films throughout the years, dimensions were added that gave Marian more substance.

While “The Adventures of Robin Hood” became an instant hit and would go on to become a classic, it has it’s share of off-screen drama. The film is credited with two directors, Michael Curtiz and William Keighley and there’s a story behind that. Curitz was brought in after production had begun when the producers felt Keighley’s action scenes were weak. Bringing on Curtz added a good deal of stress since he and Flynn had some disagreements on the set of 1936’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. While it’s been noted that Curtiz was a bit portentous, it’s apparent he served the story well here, crafting a fine balance between the romance, comedy and swashbuckling action of the day. There’s also the well-documented fact that James Cagney was originally set to don tights as Robin Hood. Imagine that! Cagney walked off the set, production was put on hold for three years and producer Hal B. Wallis then had 28 year-old, Errol Flynn (although he looks as if he’s 38) fitted for tights. Nowadays this kind of drama is common knowledge. Just imagine if there was internet back then.

Such back lot drama is always interesting and gives added perspective to classics but ultimately what lasts is the film itself. “The Adventures of Robin Hood” remains a storybook adventure for the whole family which isn’t something that can be said for all the remakes that would follow. The characters are larger-than-life (at times, too large) and have the charm of that golden generation of acting that is long lost. I can’t recommend it enough as a film that everyone should see at least once in their lives. Despite not having watched this film during my wonder years, I was still somehow a washed with a wave of fond nostalgia as I finally caught up with this landmark gem.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. windi permalink
    May 13, 2010 12:23 pm

    I have to say, when I saw this in my e-mail, I thought Three and a half stars for the new Robin Hood movie??? Really??? I gotta check that out! And then I get here and it’s for the original! hahahahaha…..

    Ok, now I can go and read the review. Maybe I’ll see if I can find it at Blockbuster……

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      May 13, 2010 1:45 pm

      I’m tricky like that!

  2. Francesca Carboni Perry permalink
    June 2, 2010 12:59 pm

    I love the Blu ray wrapper! DiHaviland and Flynn were such an unlikely couple but there was real magic there. The story goes that he was really in love with her but the feeling wasn’t returned. This film brings back memories of watching TV with my mum when I was little, she adored Flynn!

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