The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

robin

This fly has a mighty sting, friend.”

Deneb’s rating: 4.8 black arrows out of five.

Deneb’s review: [On July 22, 2020 – yesterday, as I write this – Olivia de Havilland died of natural causes. She was 104 years old.

This saddened me. Though I am not familiar with the entirety of de Havilland’s work, she was one of the last survivors of the Golden Age of Hollywood, an era which, as a lover of classic film, I have a great fondness for – and at least one of her iconic roles holds a certain nostalgic charge for me personally, as shall be revealed below. Furthermore, by all accounts she was a kind and generous woman who stood up for her rights at a time when Hollywood actors had few of them, and in doing so helped bring about needed change. Her death, mercifully, was a quiet and peaceful one that followed a long, rewarding life.

Though I had originally planned a different post to break my far-too-long absence from this site – and that’s still coming; you’ll see it soon – this review had been almost ready for a while, and when I heard the news, I quickly finished it up. I hope you like it, and may it stand as my own small tribute to a great actress, the likes of which, alas, we are unlikely to see again any time soon.]

I have mentioned in a past review that there are times when the purview of this site becomes somewhat blurred. When does a cult movie stop being cult? Or, for that matter, when does it start?

For there are some movies which have achieved that rarified status through sheer circumstance – often, the mere passage of time. Oh, they are not forgotten, exactly. Critics laud them, film buffs praise them, histories of film record their memory – but the people, the general film-going public, start to forget. Tastes change. What was once a must-see for all becomes considered corny, old-fashioned, quaint. So are masterpieces ground down by the heavy tread of public opinion, until eventually only a devoted few still recognize their glory.

There isn’t much that can be done about this – after all, film, like all things, keeps growing and changing, and that is as it should be; it’s how the medium remains fresh and innovative. But at the same time, the past can still inspire the present, and prepare it for the future. Some things should never be forgotten – and it would be a crime indeed were The Adventures of Robin Hood to pass completely from memory.

The story is one that should still be familiar to all: back in ye olden times, King Richard the Lionheart (Ian Hunter) has left England to take part in the Crusades. He has left the throne in the hands of a trusted regent, but Prince John (Claude Rains), his evil brother, plots to seize it for himself – and he gets his chance when Richard is taken captive on his way back home.

Wasting no time, John grabs the reins, and, under the pretense of raising the ransom money for his brother, launches a campaign of brutal taxation and oppression against the Saxon peasantry. Anyone who dares protest is beaten, imprisoned and tortured, while his own people, the Norman aristocracy, feast off the takings. To put it bluntly, things suck – but what’s to be done? Who’ll go up against the Prince himself?

Well, there is one person – Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn), a Saxon noble with an inborn hatred of injustice. When he openly defies John’s treasonous actions, his lands and title are stripped from him, and he flees to the depths of Sherwood Forest. There, with the help of his best pal Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles), the loyal Little John (Alan Hale) and the irascible but big-hearted Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette), along with a host of others, he forms an outlaw band devoted to fighting for the common man and maintaining a force for justice in King Richard’s absence.

Thus begins a prolonged battle of wills against Prince John and his men, particularly the haughty Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and the blustering Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper). In the meantime, he also gains an ally, and ultimately a lover, in the lovely Lady Marian Fitzwalter (Olivia de Havilland), the King’s ward. But can the newly-dubbed Robin Hood hold out forever against these nasty baddies? And when the devil is that darned King Richard going to make his way home already?

I first saw The Adventures of Robin Hood when I was somewhere in my pre-teens. The situation was one that will likely be familiar to many (at least, of my generation; it’s probably not so common now) – a social gathering was taking place, and us kids got shoved off into a room with a movie to keep us occupied. Guess which one it was?

While no one amongst that group of viewers seemed to actually dislike the flick, the overall reaction, as best I can recall, averaged out at ‘yeah, it wasn’t bad’ – except for me. I was riveted. That film reached out through the screen and hooked me through the heart like a harpoon hooks a whale. I immediately wanted to see it again, and managed to borrow the tape, which I wound up rewatching several times before it had to be returned. Many years later, I managed to snag another copy, and it remains a valued part of my personal collection.

So it is that youthful mindset which I urge you to invoke before watching this film. Give your critical adult mind (if you have one) firm instructions to sit down and shut up, and unleash your inner eight-year-old. Because it is from that viewpoint that The Adventures of Robin Hood truly shines.

In terms of pure entertainment, it has everything you could possibly want in a swashbuckler. Sword fights. Chases on horseback. Arrows flying every whichaway. Quotable lines. Heroes you can root for, villains you can hate. Skulduggery and derring-do. Intrigue, defiance, suspense. Romance (but just enough; nothing too mushy). That glorious Korngold score blaring out at every opportunity, including during one of the best climactic action scenes in film history. There aren’t, unfortunately, any battles on board a pirate ship, but if the movie had lasted much longer, I firmly believe they would have found a way to add that in, too.

Furthermore, while it’s not exactly what you’d call complex, it does do one very important thing in terms of plot and characters. There’s more or less everything in here that you’d expect to see in a movie from the ’30’s – but it’s all unexpectedly handled just right.

What I mean by that is this. The Adventures of Robin Hood is chock-full of things which by this point have become cinematic cliches, and are often regarded with eye-rolling annoyance – but what will be made clear to you over the course of the film is that none of those cliches have to be bad. They have been made that way over the years via the rough handling of cinematic hacks who believed that they could just be plugged in any old where and automatically make a movie better. When used correctly and with respect, however, they become an organic part of the whole, instead of flashy decoration – and TAoRH uses them darn near perfectly.

Take, for instance, the comedy relief. The secret to good comedy relief (besides ‘not overdoing it’) is that it should never be there simply to be there – if a character, even a funny one, does not help move the plot along, then he’s functionally useless. There are a fair amount of comedy relief characters in this movie, but none of them are useless – they all play a role, even if only a small one, and if they were removed from the movie, there’d be some rewriting you’d have to do.

A good example of this would be Much the Miller’s Son (Herbert Mundin). He’s kind of a funny little guy, and usually winds up being the one who goofs around in the background while the really intense stuff is going on – but is he extraneous? You’d better believe he’s not! He gets moments of character development that tie into the broader themes of the movie, more than one twist in the plot specifically involves him, even if he’s not always directly involved with them – heck, he gets a fight scene! And it’s actually one of the better and more intense ones! Not bad, for a character who in less talented hands would probably spend most of his time tripping over his own feet.

The same applies to the overall hero/villain conflict – you can view it as clear-cut good VS evil if you like (and it’s certainly mainly that), but the screenwriters take pains to clarify that things are a little more complicated than they might appear. Even though the Normans are portrayed predominantly as the oppressors, that’s not simply because they are Normans; they’ve been cast as the villains because Prince John is one, and they’re on his side. Heck, King Richard and Maid Marian are Normans – and, for that matter, there’s a point where one of the ancillary bad guys balks at a point of nastiness past which he’s reluctant to go. Yes, the baddies are often spectacularly greedy and cruel, but they’re not ‘the Evil Empire’; they are a small conglomerate of schemers centered around a leader, and the regular soldiers who follow their orders (although some of that order-following is mighty gleeful, but whatever; we’d feel bad if Robin was killing nice people). There are nuances, is what I’m sayin’, which is not something you’d automatically expect in a movie like this.

Now, having brought up said ‘small conglomerate of schemers’, normally that would be my cue to give my opinions on said group – and we’ll get to them, never fear. But this is a movie where the heroes are very important, so it’s really only right that they come first – and first among said first-brought-up would naturally have to be the man himself, one Robin of Locksley.

In this age of gritty, complex heroes, it can take a bit of mental adjustment to not automatically perceive this Robin as a bit of a cartoon. The man cannot be described as full of hidden depths; he’s exactly what he seems to be, and does exactly what you’d expect him to do. You’re not going to see this Robin Hood getting involved in any last-minute plot twists where it turns out he’s doing this because Prince John murdered his family or some such – no, he’s the good guy because he is pure of heart and soul and the bad guys suck, and that’s pretty much it.

Is this a bad thing, though? Heck no – I’m all for deep characters and so forth, but there are certain circumstances where you genuinely need a straightforward good guy who you can rally behind – and if you needed a guy like that back in the ’30’s, there was no better man to turn to than Errol Flynn. Flynn is awesome in this role. His Robin Hood is reckless, daring and physical, always swinging on vines, kicking over tables, and getting into duels. He’s a bit cocky and arrogant and loves a good joke, but he’s just as ready to laugh uproariously when the joke is at his own expense. And just because he likes to have fun doesn’t mean he can’t get serious – when he’s laying out his initial mission statement to the bad guys, he is in deadly earnest, emphasis on the ‘deadly’. Look at his eyes in that scene; the man is angry. He is in straight-up ‘I will end you’ mode, and when this Robin means to end you, he freakin’ well does it, usually with an arrow through the heart.

Next up, of course, would be Maid Marian – or, OK, technically ‘Lady Marian’, but, let’s face it, ‘Maid Marian’ will always be what the character is called, no matter what her actual monicker is. It’s simply the nature of the beast, one might say.

De Havilland’s Marian is a good match for Robin, because where he’s uncomplicated, she’s got complications aplenty. Really, she’s the one character who gets developed the most – she starts out as a rather haughty noblewoman who has so far accepted more or less uncritically the Norman view of our Mr. Hood: namely, that he’s an interfering, murderous nuisance who ought to be hanged. Over the course of the film, her attitude softens towards him, until by the end, not only are the two of them in love, but she’s become a fierce advocate of his cause (albeit someone who obviously still wishes he’d tone down the swashbuckling a bit).

I have to say, I do genuinely like this Marian. Yes, she can be a bit of a damsel in distress at times, but that doesn’t make her a wilting flower, by any means – she’s got some fire in her, and is never afraid to speak her mind. She’s intelligent and brave and does not hesitate to take action when she feels it is needed – no ditherer, her. While she’s less flamboyant about it than her green-tighted beau, she’s ultimately just as heroic as he is.

As for the rest, Little John and Friar Tuck have a running gag going where they take (verbal) potshots at each other, but besides that and their basic personalities (Little John is burly and loyal, Tuck loves food and is obstreperous), there’s not all that much to either of them. Not that either of them are bad characters; they’re engaging and memorable enough, just… limited. Will Scarlet would be more interesting if we saw more of him, but as is, he’s just kind of a happy-go-lucky guy who likes to play the lute – you can see why he and Robin are pals; they compliment each other nicely. I’ve already talked about Much, so that just leaves Marian’s old nurse Bess (Una O’Connor), and she’s, uh… not hugely interesting, so I’ll move on. (She’s not useless, though – like I said earlier, there are no useless characters here, even if some of them are a bit one-note.)

Which must mean it’s time for the villains – and we got some pretty decent ones this time, folks.

The main one, of course, would be Prince John. If you’ve read my review of the Disney Robin Hood, you may recall me mentioning that the ‘voice I hear in my head when I think Prince John’ is that of Claude Rains – meaning, of course, the version from this movie. There’s a reason for that: he’s awesome. Rains is supremely slimy in the role of the Prince – he gives him this light, almost sweet purr of a voice that very nicely puts his character across. This is a man who is used to people listening when he talks, and so speaks softly. Hypocrisies spill easily and shamelessly from his lips. Not a hair on his head is ever out of place, nor is he ever dressed in anything less than his best. The one thing that ever truly ruffles his brilliant plumage is that dratted Robin Hood – and even then, he’s more irritated at the incompetence of his minions at not catching the fellow than truly angered or annoyed. Surely, as soon as those bunglers do their jobs right, the wretched rogue will be laid by the heels, and then all his plans will go swimmingly, because of course they will. In essence, Rains plays him as someone whom it would be very satisfying to punch, which suits the character nicely.

As for the others, while Melville Cooper gives a nicely hammy performance as the Sheriff, the real star supporting villain is of course Rathbone’s Sir Guy of Gisbourne. In a way, he’s more Robin’s arch-enemy than the Prince is – John, for all his odiousness, is not really a hands-on kind of guy, whereas Gisbourne, well… is. (In more ways than one, har har ‘Guy’ pun oh wit.) He winds up being the one who actually fights our hero more often than not. As such, he’s not a very happy man – he spends most of the movie snapping at people or just generally being angry or frustrated. This isn’t helped, of course, by the fact that he’s got the hots for Marian (though, to be fair, he is a good deal more gentlemanly about it than a lot of villains would be), and, you know, she’s kind of in love with Robin, so… Yeah. Bit of a problem, there.

I guess that more or less wraps up the characters, which leaves how the film looks and sounds. In a word: great. Both visuals and audio (which I’ve already mentioned, so I won’t go into it here – but seriously, that Korngold score is like velvet on the ears) plunge you into a bygone world of colorful derring-do.

Now, I don’t therefore mean to imply that TAoRH delivers anything like an ‘authentic’ portrayal of the period – it’s stuffed to the gills with bogus Hollywood pseudo-Medievalism. But it’s good bogus Hollywood pseudo-Medievalism, if that makes sense – it is, in fact, rather the classic example. The filmmakers know that you’re not here to see what sort of stitching a jerkin had, you’re here to see color and excitement and boffo-socko action – and by golly, if they don’t deliver just that! Just sit back and enjoy the Technicolor – green! Purple! Red! Blue! Yellow! Wowie! – as you watch doughty villeins hop about like bullfrogs and smite evil. Ahh, that’s the good stuff.

Now, of course the film isn’t flawless. Though it’s understandable, given that it’s based on a series of tales rather than one coherent narrative, there’s no denying that the plot kind of dithers around a bit in the middle – any part that isn’t directly about the Robin/Marian courtship or his crusade against Prince John could probably have been cut out. (I’m not saying it should have been, but the main plot wouldn’t have suffered, is all I’m saying.) Also, there are a few… questionable decisions that were made, let’s just say. To start with, they really should have just made the Sheriff the main ancillary villain, like they usually do – not that there’s anything wrong with Sir Guy, but this all takes place in Nottingham, remember – why is a knight from another county the local bigwig instead of its primary resident lawman? It doesn’t make much sense.

Also, while I have no problem with Robin and his men being pro-Richard patriots, the fact that they’re robbing the rich for him rather than to redistribute it to the poor has always kind of rubbed me the wrong way. I’m pretty sure that detail is nowhere in the original tales (at least, not the ones I’ve read), and it smacks of a change made more to fend off accusations of communism than to actually be true to the source material.

But these are all ultimately minor complaints. Over eighty years after it was first released, The Adventures of Robin Hood still shines like the brilliantly gaudy gem it was always intended to be. In these troubled times, we need to be able to look back and take comfort in this sort of film – and I hope we always will.

Now, then – yoiks! Tallyho! Od’s Fish, and all that rot! What say we give evil a jolly good smiting? What? No one else? Well, I mean… I’ll go by myself, if, if no one else wants to…

“Now, look here, boys, here’s a job for stalwart Englishmen! You see that over there? Well, it’s EVIL, and I propose we SMITE it!”
“That’s, uh… that’s a Stop sign, Robin…”
“Exactly! An ANACHRONISM! Evil!”

Intermission!

  • During shooting, the film used literally every Technicolor camera in existence at the time – only eleven of them – all of which were on loan from the Technicolor company, and had to be returned to them at the end of each day.
  • Errol Flynn was reportedly unhappy at the choice of Michael Curtiz for director, as he had clashed with him before during the filming of The Charge of the Light Brigade (Flynn was an avid horseman, and had been appalled at what he saw as Curtis’ indifference to equine safety in that film, which resulted in more than one horse dying or being injured). This came to a head when he received a nasty jab by an actor using a sword without a safety guard; the actor told him he had been instructed to remove it by Curtiz, to make the action more exciting. Flynn promptly went up to Curtiz, grabbed him by the throat, and inquired if this was “exciting enough” for his liking.
  • The film’s distinctive ‘arrow’ sound effect is not fakery; it was created by archer Howard Hill, who worked closely with the sound department, using specially-made arrows. (He also did all of Robin’s trick shots, including the iconic ‘splitting the arrow’ scene). This sound has subsequently become a favorite of Ben Burtt, sound designer for Skywalker Sound, who has used it in almost every Star Wars film.
  • Actor Alan Hale may well be considered the ‘definitive’ Little John, as he was seen in the role by three generations in succession. He first played him in the 1922 Robin Hood film, alongside the legendary Douglas Fairbanks as Robin, then again sixteen years later in this movie, then twelve years after that in the 1950 Rogues of Sherwood Forest. He did so, respectively, at ages 30, 46, and 58, and it would ultimately prove to be the last role he would ever play – he died that year of a liver ailment.
  • The castle set was a full-scale, historically-accurate replica of the actual Nottingham Castle, circa the 1100s. It was, at the time (and remained so for many years), the largest, most detailed, and most expensive set ever made.
  • When he first saw the film in its entirety, Erich Wolfgang Korngold panicked and pleaded with producer Hal B. Wallis to be let out of scoring it, as he didn’t feel he was qualified to be “a musical illustrator for a 90% action picture.” Wallis refused, which ultimately was to Korngold’s benefit, as he won the Academy Award that year for Best Original Score, and would become known as the definitive composer for such movies.

Groovy Quotes:

Robin Hood: Welcome to Sherwood, my lady!

Sheriff: Such impudence, your Highness! If I could only reach him!

Robin Hood: Perhaps it’s the weight of your purse that wearies you. Now, I can remedy that. You hand it to me, and if it weighs more than a just amount, then I’ll share it with those who have less; come.

Robin Hood: I’ll organize revolt, exact a death for a death, and I’ll never rest until every Saxon in this Shire can stand up free men and strike a blow for Richard and England.
Prince John: Have you finished?
Robin Hood: I’m only just beginning. From this night on, I use every means in my power to fight you.

Bess: You just harm one hair on my Lady’s head, and that ugly face of yours will be walking around with no neck under it!

Robin Hood: There’s a lusty infant!

Maid Marian: Why, you speak treason!
Robin Hood: Fluently.

Sheriff: I hope our little golden hook will catch the fish.
Prince John: You hope?
Sheriff: Oh, it will, if he’s here.
Prince John: If he’s not, we’ll stick your head upon the target and shoot at that.

Robin Hood: It’s all right; he’s one of us.
Will Scarlet: ‘One of us’? He looks like three of us!

Robin Hood: Come now, Sir Guy, you’d not kill a man for telling the truth, would you?
Sir Guy: If it amused me, yes!
Robin Hood: Then be thankful that my humor is of a different sort.

Maid Marian: What’s your reward for all of this?
Robin Hood: ‘Reward’? You just don’t understand, do you?

Prince John: Will you take that bonnet off!

Sir Guy: What’s your name, you Saxon dog?
Much: A better one than yours!

Robin Hood: Now, let me see. There’s a fat old captain of the guard down there with bow legs; hm – if I drop on him, that’ll bend him outwards. Ah, there’s an archer! Nah, he’s too thin; I might miss him altogether.
Maid Marian: Robin…
Robin Hood: The very thing! Five men at arms talking in a group; they’ll break the fall beautifully! Goodbye, my lady.
Maid Marian: Robin!

Little John: You’ll sweat the lard out of that fat carcass of yours before this day is over, my pudgy friend.
Friar Tuck: And I hope some Norman sword whittles you down to size!

Sir Guy: You couldn’t capture him if he sat in your lap shooting arrows at a crow!

Robin Hood: This fly has a mighty sting, friend.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Captain Blood
  • The Mark of Zorro
  • The Princess Bride

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