by Alexandre Paquin
"The Adventures of Robin Hood" is still, more than sixty years after its original release, the definitive film on its subject. A splendid cast led by Errol Flynn and excellent production values make of this Technicolor adventure film one of the best of its kind.The legends of Robin Hood and his merry men have been part of English culture since the first surviving ballads were written down in the mid-fifteenth century. Countless works featuring the outlaw and some or all of the legends' other characters -- Friar Tuck, Little John, Allan-a-Dale, Will Scarlet, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Sir Guy of Gisbourne, and of course Robin Hood's love interest, the lovely Maid Marian -- have been written, including books (including a secondary presence in Sir Walter Scott's romantic novel "Ivanhoe"), plays, and musicals, the most famous of these being the Harry B. Smith-Reginald de Koven operetta "Robin Hood", which premiered in 1890, and which proved to be a large success at the time.
"The swashbuckler film against which all others must be judged."
With the arrival of film, it was not long before the Robin Hood legends would be adapted to the screen, and while the first Robin Hood films were released in the early 1910's, the first prestigious picture on the hero dressed in Lincoln green was 1922's silent epic "Robin Hood", starring Douglas Fairbanks, which was the first film in history for which an elaborate Hollywood premiere had been held. The film was a superproduction with a budget of over one million dollars, and the film showed every penny of it. Adding to the magnificence of the film, Fairbanks delivered one of his most electrifying performances as the outlaw of Sherwood Forest. Nevertheless, the film gradually fell out of sight after the arrival of sound, and was considered lost until a print resurfaced in the 1960's.
It was only a matter of time before a memorable, large-budget sound version of the story would be made, and as early as 1935, Warner Brothers was considering making such a film with James Cagney as Robin Hood. However, due to a salary dispute, Cagney left Warner Brothers before the project could materialize. At approximately the same time, a previously unknown Australian-born actor, Errol Flynn, was becoming a major star with the release of the nautical swashbuckler "Captain Blood", directed by Michael Curtiz and co-starring Olivia de Havilland as Flynn's love interest. Flynn's popularity grew with the release of the historical hokum "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1936), again with Curtiz as director and Olivia de Havilland as co-star, and by 1937, he was the only logical choice to play Robin in the film that would be released in 1938 under the title of "The Adventures of Robin Hood", and even though at least one other actress had been seriously considered for the part of Maid Marian, Olivia de Havilland was eventually selected, to the film's benefit.
However, instead of logically going with Curtiz as the director, the powers that were at Warner decided to give the assignment to William Keighley. The reason for this choice was that Keighley had not only worked with Flynn on "The Prince and the Pauper" (1937), but also satisfactorily directed Warner's first three-strip Technicolor film, the obscure melodrama "God's Country and the Woman" (1936) -- important credentials, since "The Adventures of Robin Hood" would also be shot in Technicolor, still a year before the use of colour would become fashionable in Hollywood. While Keighley was a competent director of adventure films, he never enjoyed the same reputation as Curtiz, because the former's approach was mostly routine rather than inspired. After the shooting of the film had seriously fallen behind schedule and gone over budget, and with the rushes of the action scenes lacking the excitement the studio was expecting, the omnipotent Jack Warner, and Hal Wallis, the producer of the film, decided to replace Keighley with Curtiz, a change which would displease Flynn, who hardly could tolerate working under the fiery Hungarian-born director.
The film, with a final budget of nearly two million dollars (Warner's most expensive film at the time), was finally released in May 1938, and proved to be a major international success. Uncharacteristic of films of this type, "The Adventures of Robin Hood" obtained an Academy Award (TM) nomination for Best Picture, and although it did not win in this category, it won every other award for which it was nominated -- best art direction, best musical score, and best editing. It also proved to be Flynn's most memorable vehicle.
In an English society divided between the Norman ruling class and the Saxon peasantry (a theme adapted from Sir Walter Scott's "Ivanhoe"), the just King Richard the Lionheart (Ian Hunter), while on his way back from the Holy Crusades, has been captured and is held for ransom by Leopold of Austria. In the meantime, his brother John (Claude Rains) has set his sights on the throne of England, and has powerful allies in Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), the cowardly High Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper), and the Norman nobility. After John and his supporters start oppressing the Saxon population, Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn), a Saxon nobleman, decides to fight John's tyrannical regime by directly confronting the prince at a banquet, where he first meets the lovely Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland), who gives him a cold reception. After declaring his intentions to John, Robin narrowly escapes from the banquet, but is afterwards stripped of his title and estate, and is declared an outlaw. Hiding in Sherwood forest, Robin and his merry men, which include Much the miller's son (Herbert Mundin), Little John (Alan Hale), Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles), and Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette), set on challenging John's oppression and collecting money to pay the king's ransom. Robin would be provided with the opportunity to meet Marian again, and fall in love with her, but the fight against the prince's tyranny would take precedence until Richard is safely back on the throne of England.
This film cannot be successfully described as artistic -- the purpose was not to make a film with a thought-provoking social message, or featuring innovative camera work. "The Adventures of Robin Hood" is a purely commercial product about the clash of good against evil which follows the Hollywood formula to the letter, with a well-known story line that could attract patrons, actors cast because of the audience's familiarity with them in these types of parts, and as much money as was required to bring the story to the screen. The film, therefore, came out not of the vision of an auteur (Curtiz never was considered as such because his films are considered by supporters of the auteur theory as "Hollywood-ish"), but of the studio system, which was at the pinnacle of its efficiency and influence in the late 1930's, and the reason why the film was, and still is, a critical success, in spite of the obvious studio politics which plagued the production, is because of the professionalism of all people connected with it -- and a great deal of luck.
Flynn was at the top of his career in this film, before the studio started casting him in Westerns and war films justified by the international climate of the early 1940's (although he starred in another fine swashbuckler, "The Sea Hawk", in 1940), and before his legendary lifestyle started affecting his looks and performances. Flynn was one of the few actors of the time to have both the charm and energy required to bring the charismatic rogue to life, but he may have never gotten the part if Cagney had done the film, or if one of the two people originally selected to play the lead in "Captain Blood" had accepted the part that would catapult Flynn to stardom. Olivia de Havilland plays the Marian to perfection, and although "The Adventures of Robin Hood" was her third teaming with Flynn, this is the one which is most fondly remembered by film buffs. She would continue to play Flynn's love interest in other films, but these roles would fuel her dissatisfaction with Warner Brothers, and she eventually turned down these types of parts, only to find herself promptly suspended by the studio. When her seven-year contract was extended against her will to compensate for the suspension period, she sued the studio -- and won. Her portrayal of Maid Marian -- lovely, vulnerable, sensible -- is undoubtedly her best performance before she would be provided with the opportunity to play serious, psychologically deeper parts in the 1940's (which would earn her critical acclaim and numerous awards).
The film also features the burly Alan Hale, in the part of Little John (a part which he had played in the Fairbanks version sixteen years earlier, and would play again in the 1950 film "Rogues of Sherwood Forest"), as Flynn's sidekick -- a partnership which would be renewed in most Flynn vehicles until 1948. Portly Eugene Pallette is ably cast as Friar Tuck, as is Patric Knowles as Will Scarlett (although rather bland in comparison with the others), Herbert Mundin as Much the miller's son, and Una O'Connor as Marian's lady-in-waiting (the last two characters are mostly included for comic relief).
The villains, however, are by far more fascinating. Claude Rains's performance as Prince John is delightfully and refreshingly suave, but with an undeniable menacing tone underneath his apparently impassive attitude. While Prince John is at the origin of the plot to overthrow his brother, but he only orchestrates the scheme; the man truly in charge of carrying it out is Sir Guy of Gisbourne, played to perfection by Basil Rathbone, an actor who had become famous with his portrayal of villains on the screen (and would later gain more fame as Sherlock Holmes). Arrogant, unforgiving, ruthless, cold, and deadly, Gisbourne is the most dangerous foe in this film, and the duel between him and Robin is the highlight of the picture. Of course, Robin wins the duel, but in real life, it is undoubtedly Rathbone who would have won, as the actor, ever since a brief but memorable presence as a villainous pirate in "Captain Blood" (which also included a rapier fight with Flynn), had taken fencing lessons, and this shows in the duel, perfectly choreographed by fencing master Fred Cavens. Melville Cooper is memorable as the not-quite-brave High Sheriff of Nottingham, providing comic relief from Rathbone's merciless character.
The plot is, quite expectedly, slightly simplistic, filled with one-dimensional characters and unambiguous situations, and, given the familiarity of the subject, predictable. It includes all the staples now expected in a Robin Hood film -- the archery tournament, complete with an arrow-splitting shot by Robin, the love story with Marian, the duel, and the return of King Richard (proving the triumph of good over evil). The structure of the story was never entirely certain before the final cut, as can be demonstrated by the filming of an action sequence, either a tournament or a battle, that was to originally take place immediately after the opening credits, but which did not make it into the film because of the thought that it would diminish the impact of the action to follow -- and the idea of having Robin die at the end of the picture was apparently also considered, but was thankfully discarded. With a similar story but with other actors and crew members, and with a smaller budget, the production could have been a failure, or one of the numerous potboilers about the hero in Lincoln green that would emerge in theatres during the following decades. But the acting is first-rate, and the rest of the production is equally professional, and these make of "The Adventures of Robin Hood" the definitive picture on its subject. The film is full of memorable moments that have become screen classics -- the final duel in the stairs of the castle, the archery tournament, which Robin wins by splitting his opponent's arrow (a feat done without the use of trick photography, and in one take, by the champion archer Howard Hill, also playing Flynn's opponent), chases on horseback, and one particularly lively rescue sequence.
Curtiz's direction of action scenes is fast-paced, and features fluid camera work that perfectly follows the action. Nevertheless, while the direction is excellently done, Curtiz and Keighley have no particular "signature shot" in the film, but this has the advantage of helping the continuity of the picture. Both directors were professional, which explains why even though Curtiz, who shot most of the action scenes, is considered to be the best of the two, the film shows no significant break in the quality of the direction. Curtiz's emphasis of the shadows of the duellists during the final fight has become a classic scene, although much imitated and spoofed afterwards (including by Curtiz himself in "The Sea Hawk").
The enormous care that was taken in the visual aspect of the production also shows on the screen. The film was shot "on location" in different parts of California, but to give the locations an English look, indigenous English plants were added to the shooting locations, and the grass was painted to give it the appearance of English grass with the Technicolor process. This demonstrates not only professionalism in creating the ideal atmosphere for the picture, but also an understanding that filming in colour demands more planning than usual, and this pays off -- the viewer indeed believes that the action takes place in England rather than in California. The interior locations were created inside the studio with equal care, as the art director, Carl Jules Weyl, carefully designed sets of ancient stone castles, which created a true Medieval flavour and also provided the opportunity for the pageantry one would expect to find in such a film.
The costumes, however, are disappointing. While nobody should particularly expect a Robin Hood film to be entirely historically accurate, the costumes, resembling those from illustrations in children's books, do not blend well with the generally accurate sets. Here, Robin is donning the famed Lincoln green, and it was obviously this version which was at the basis of the Mel Brooks parody "Robin Hood: Men in Tights". The use of early three-strip Technicolor, while highly satisfactory considering the time the film was made, increases this feeling that the viewer is in fact turning the pages of a story book rather than watching a faithful depiction of Medieval England, because of the bright, vivid, and slightly unrealistic colours created by the process. While the audiences at the time may have found the use of colour dazzling because of its scarcity in motion pictures, to modern audiences, the colour could appear crude and unnatural rather than appealing -- but the fact that such a high level of technical achievement could be attained in 1938 -- only four years after the first live-action, three-strip Technicolor film had been released -- is in itself remarkable.
"The Adventures of Robin Hood" is considered a classic example how a fine film can be enhanced by an appropriate music score. The classical composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold had begun writing film music in 1935, and had won an Academy Award for his score for "Anthony Adverse" (1936). The music for "The Adventures of Robin Hood" is now regarded as his highest film achievement, yet the composer could very well not have written the score had it not been for the international political climate in early 1938. Korngold, an Austrian Jew, had travelled to Hollywood in February 1938, at Warner's request, to see the film, but immediately turned down the assignment -- Korngold, who had a preference for romantic and psychological stories, felt unsuited for an action film. However, a few days after his arrival in Hollywood, the composer received news that Austria was on the verge of being invaded by Nazi Germany, and Korngold, needing a source of revenue in the United States, wisely changed his mind (the rest of his family safely joined him shortly afterwards). And even though he constantly questioned his own capabilities while writing the music for the film, his score is now considered a masterpiece, and such was the esteem of the film community at the time that he was rewarded with a second Academy Award for it. Korngold's score, which perfectly follows the action on the screen, is rousing from beginning to end, draws its inspiration from opera, and is filled with memorable themes, subtly underscoring the romance and grandiosely raising the importance of the action scenes to epic proportions. Korngold's film music has often been criticized as bombastic, but such excesses are entirely to the advantage of the picture in this instance.
If one had to name the best Robin Hood picture ever made, it is very likely that the answer would be "The Adventures of Robin Hood". While the Fairbanks version was indeed visually prestigious, its structure and pace were deficient -- Robin Hood only appears in the second half of the film -- and its lack of sound has limited its appeal to silent film enthusiasts. The Flynn version, shot in Technicolor, with a charismatic lead (even more than Fairbanks), excellent acting in supporting roles, splendid production values, and a celebrated score, is still exhilarating more than sixty years after its original release. Critics of the film often mention that it is superficial and naive. Most films from the same period are, indeed, naive (due to a number of factors including audiences' tastes and the Production Code), but any film on Robin Hood is not meant to be thought-provoking (although there is one notable exception), and even though the characters in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" are mostly paper-thin, and that a few holes can be found in the plot, the film's main purpose is not to raise important social issues, but to entertain -- and as such, it has remained unequalled in its genre. The excitement is still there, and it deserves to be seen.To quote one famous cliché, "They don't make them like this anymore."
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originally posted: 12/08/01 23:24:23