Continuing my infrequent blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I slog my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money, here’s 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood.
THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD
(1938) Directed by Michael Curtiz
Written by Norman Reilly Raine,SetonI.Miller, Rowland Leigh
Tagline: None originally (The Best Loved Bandit Of All Time! – rerelease)
What it’s about:
When Norman King Richard The Lionheart (Ian Hunter) is taken prisoner while returning from the crusades, his treacherous brother Prince John (Claude Rains) conspires with Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) to buy his way to the throne by hiking taxes against (and in the process, violently oppressing) the poor Saxon serfs. One loyal knight, peerless archer Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn), organizes a revolt against the prince, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor with the aide of his merry guerillas Little John (Alan Hale, father of The Skipper from Gilligan’s Island), Will Scarlet (Patrick Knowles), and Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette), wooing the true king’s ward, Maid Marian (Olivia deHavilland) along the way.
Why I bought it:
I was raised on this movie. Sunday mornings in the Chicagoland area, WGN channel 9 had a show hosted by Frazier Thomas (a local TV personality and the creator of Garfield Goose) and later Roy Leonard, called Family Classics. The list of great movies I was exposed to through Family Classics is about as long as Eel O’Brian’s arm. Ben Hur, the George Pal sci-fi classics, the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movies, A Christmas Carol, and most of the Errol Flynn swashbucklers, The Sea Hawk, Captain Blood, but most vividly, this movie, The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Errol Flynn in this and the aforementioned movies embodies my concept of a classic hero probably to this day. Upright and handsome, swift in action and wit, a daredevil who literally laughs in the face of danger. We first meet Flynn’s Robin Hood when he protects hungry Saxon serf Much The Miller (played by Herber Mundun), who shoots a deer on the royal lands to keep from starving and is nearly executed by the villainous Sir Guy. Sir Robin immediately claims Much as his servant to take the heat off of him, and Guy informs him killing the king’s deer warrants the death penalty. Robin coolly slips and arrow into his bow and draws down on Sir Guy.
“Really? Are there no exceptions?”
But Flynn really shines when he carries the dead deer on his shoulders right into Prince John’s crony-filled dinner party at Sir Guy’s castle and plunks it down on his dinner table. The guy exudes confidence, even in a pair of Technicolor green tights and a feathered cap. He plops down in a chair, eats the Prince’s food, puts his feet on the table, and even manages to insult Sir Guy and the Lady Marian (Robin: I hope milady had a pleasant journey. Marian: What you think can hardly be important. Robin: Tsk. It’s a pity her manners don’t match her looks, my lord.), just in from London.
Playing Robin entirely as a swashbuckling smartass wouldn’t have enamored me to the performance. When Prince John announces his plan to declare himself Regent, Robin spits his food out on the table and wipes his hand on the cloth. (Prince John: What’s the matter? Have you no stomach for honest meat? Robin: For honest meat, yes. But I’ve no stomach for traitors. Prince John: You call me traitor? Robin: You, yes. And every man here who offers you allegiance.).
This triggers the movie’s first action sequence, when one of the traitorous knights pitches a spear through the back of his chair. Robin kicks out of the chair, and proceeds to dodge and brawl his way through the party guests, getting up on the balcony at one point and killing four guards with arrows before making his escape.
To my five or six year old self, Robin Hood was amazing. Outnumbered about a hundred to one, he still jumps into his enemies without hesitation and comes out unscathed, proceeding to Sherwood Forest where he rounds up the peasantry and organizes an armed revolt ‘exact a death for a death’ and ‘to strike a blow for Richard and England.’
The archery scenes in the movie are all fantastic. No CGI arrows here. Just stuntmen taking real arrows to the padded chest and back (in one memorable scene, a bearded Norman guard pulls a screeching Saxon girl into his lap. The camera trucks in to a candle positioned on the table directly behind the guy. There’s a hiss, and Robin’s arrow streaks out of the night, puts out the candle, and buries itself in the would-be rapist’s back), and an arrow actually being split in the famous archery tournament.
The archery stunts are mainly performed by Hollywood’s patron saint of bowmen, Howard Hill, who appears onscreen as Owen The Welshman one of the archers in the tournament. He shot the arrow that splits Phillip of Arras’ bullseye arrow from nock to head to win the whole shebang. In DC comics, Hill is the idol of young Oliver Queen. In one story Queen actually meets Hill and Hill gives him the bow he used on Adventures of Robin Hood. Queen uses this bow throughout his career as the masked Emerald Archer, Green Arrow.
Now everybody knows the story of Robin Hood, how he proceeds to rob from the rich and give to the poor, how he romances Maid Marian and gets his butt whipped by Little John in a quarterstaff fight, thereby gaining his lieutenant. The Robin Hood story is pretty pervasive.
This movie is the reason. It informs every depiction of Robin Hood from 1938 onwards. To be fair, its look was inspired by NC Wyeth’s illustrations of Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood and Douglas Fairbanks’ 1922 silent action outing of the same name.
But there’s something about Technicolor that brings The Adventures of Robin Hood indelibly into the collective unconsciousness. It’s like The Wizard of Oz in that regard. People who have never seen this movie think of Errol Flynn in green tights when they think of Robin Hood.
Like Wizard of Oz, there’s an inherent four color goodness to The Adventures of Robin Hood that I find appealing. The bad guys are suitably dastardly, and they get their comeuppance. When the Norman Maid Marian seeks out the men of Sherwood to warn them about Robin’s pending execution, the thing that convinces the Saxons to trust her is simply Friar Tuck asking her to swear by her love for the Blessed Virgin that she’s telling the truth. She swears, and the whole room breathes a sigh of relief. That’s all it takes.
And I have to talk about Olivia de Havilland as Lady Marian Fitzwater.
In doing that, I have a confession. I’ve written exactly two unabashed fan letters to celebrities in my entire life.
The first was to The Muppets when I was six, inviting them all to come stay at my house. They sent me back an autographed group photo and a handwritten note thanking me for the invitation, signed by Kermit.
The second was to Olivia de Havilland.
Every hero needs a reason to fight beyond the greater cause, and Robin’s is Maid Marian. De Havilland was my first ideal for feminine grace and beauty growing up. She’s just effervescent in the role of Marian, charming, lovely, intelligent (and open to change – she goes from a loyalNormanto sympathizing with Robin’s cause) strong without being crass. A lot of the time writers can’t seem to conceive of strong women without putting a gun or a sword in their hand, basically writing them as men. Marian at one point is the damsel in distress, but she’s also instrumental in saving Robin when he’s arrested after the archery tournament, and decries John’s policies even in the face of her own execution.
I’m an avid admirer of Ms. de Havilland’s career. Besides doing great turns in Gone With The Wind and Captain Blood, she avoided the obscurity of other aging starlets later in her career by taking on some heavy, interesting roles in movies like Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, The Snake Pit and the incredible Lady In A Cage (where’s she’s stuck in a personal elevator and terrorized by a young James Caan in his chilling debut performance as a violent sociopath).
I’ve also got to mention a pair of minor but brilliant performances in the persons of Much The Miller (Mundun) and Una O’Connor’s Bess (Lady Marian’s maid), both funny (‘You’ve never had a single sweetheart in all your life? I’ve had the bands on three times!’) and at turns heroic. Much’s intervention in the assassination really turns out to be one of the most important deeds in the movie.
And Lady Marian’s horse? That’s Roy Rogers’ famously brilliant steed Trigger.
Best bit of dialogue:
Obviously this movie has great lines to spare, but the one that never fails to crack me up is when, after recruiting Friar Tuck (following an awesome sword duel with the deceptively fat clergyman – by Our Lady of The Fair Swordsman!), Will Scarlett rides up to the gathering and dismounts, doing a quick double take at the presence of the portly newcomer.“It’s alright, Will, he’s one of us,” says Robin.
“One of us? He looks like three of us,” Will quips, to the uproar of the Merry Men.
Hands down the climactic duel between Sir Guy and Robin at Prince John’s would-be coronation.
Up to this point, Sir Guy has come up short and been outshined by Robin in every endeavor, but as soon as they go to blades, Basil Rathbone displays his real-life fencing ability to the nth degree. For most of the fight he actually gets the better of Flynn, nicking and cutting him up maybe five times.
The fight takes them all over the castle, down into the dungeons, and incorporates most of the scenery. They kick over tables, pitch chairs and candelabrums at each other, and basically put on a helluva show.
The duel in Adventures of Robin Hood is one of the best in cinematic history, right up there with the ones in Captain Blood, The Princess Bride (which is a clear homage to the Flynn/Rathbone matchings), Highlander, The Mark of Zorro, and any of the Star Wars films. You can clearly see its influence in everything that came after.
The rousing, triumphant (and deservedly Oscar winning) score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold perfectly compliments every ring of steel on steel, every feint and leap in the entire movie, but especially in this scene, right up to the final stab and fall.
Would I buy it again? Yes.
NEXT IN THE QUEUE: The Agony And The Ecstasy