The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
“The Best Loved Bandit Of All Time!”
Director: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley
Cast: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone
Synopsis: When Prince John and the Norman Lords begin oppressing the Saxon masses in King Richard’s absence, a Saxon lord fights back as the outlaw leader of a rebel guerrilla army.
There aren’t many men who could stride through an entire movie in green tights without raising a snigger or two at some point along the way. I’m pretty sure Noo Yawk kid Jimmy Cagney couldn’t have pulled it off. Incredible as it now seems, producer Hal Wallis initially cast Cagney in the title role, but the volatile (when it came to the studios) actor chose that time to launch one of his periodic wage offensives against the studio system, so the part went to Errol Flynn instead. At least Flynn had the British accent for the role — it’s difficult to imagine Cagney taming that East Coast accent of his.
The action takes place in Nottingham, and co-directors Michael Curtiz and William Keighley had a tough time disguising the California scenery. Some of that landscape looks awfully familiar from the B-movie westerns Hollywood was churning out every week back in the 1930s. Rumour also has it they had to paint the grass green to make it look more like English grass. I don’t know if that story’s true or not, but there’s definitely no doubt that Nottingham was never sunnier.
The English Saxons are having a pretty tough time of it when we join the action. King Richard (Ian Hunter) is imprisoned in Austria. His wicked brother John (Claude Rains) has taken control of the country and raised taxes once again in order to drum up the money for the ransom, even though he has no intention of paying it. With Richard out of the way, the road is clear for him to legally assume the throne and really tighten his stranglehold on the good and noble peasants of Britain. John is aided in his plan by the equally wicked, but rather taller, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and the cowardly High Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper). The only fly in the ointment is Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn), a nobleman loyal to King Richard, who is hiding out in Sherwood Forest with his merry men and stealing from the rich to give to the poor.
Locksley, known as Robin Hood, even has the nerve to gate-crash one of John’s banquets and dump the carcass of a deer at his table, knowing full well that the penalty for slaying one of the King’s deer is death. But Robin knows that none of the King’s guards are as athletic as he is; they’re all stocky men nearing middle-age, and are no match for his nimble agility as he makes good his escape.
The film is episodic in nature and clearly aimed at those who are young boys, or who once used to be. The action is fast-moving, energetic and spectacular, and the swordfights leave you longing for those days when the studios took the time to teach their stars how to fence, instead of relying on rapid-cutting and close-ups to simply make it appear as if the players are engaged in a duel and not simply waving their swords around in front of the camera. When Robin and his men aren’t fighting King John’s hapless soldiers, they’re usually found laughing heartily and slapping each other on the back as they tuck into enormous legs of juicy mutton.
If, like me, you’re of a certain age, watching The Adventures of Robin Hood will have you hankering for the days when films like this would leave you itching to get outside to ride imaginary horses and fence with swords made of branches. The cast list is a roll call of famous and fondly remembered character actors; not only is there Flynn, Rains, and Rathbone, but also a 22-year-old Olivia De Havilland, looking luminescent in Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito’s vivid three-strip Technicolor, a dandy Patric Knowles as Will Scarlett, big, bluff Alan Hale as Little John, and foghorn-voiced Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck. Even Trigger gets in on the act as the un-credited mount of Ms. De Havilland. If there is any fault to be found in this epitome of the Boy’s Own Adventure, it’s Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s hyperactive score which, while matching the exuberance of the action, just never seems to let up. Two days later, and I’m still whistling it…
(Reviewed 11th February 2013)