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Robin Hood Spotlight of the Month

Under Revision

(Original version: May 1998)

The Adventures of Robin Hood

starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland

(Warner Brothers, 1938)

I originally wrote this spotlight in May 1998, the 60th anniversary of the best-loved, most-copied and downright classic Robin Hood film ever.  It wasn't a bad Spotlight, but that was still in the early days of my website.  I am in the process of revising this spotlight to match the quality and depth of my later "Spotlight" articles.

When I was a kid, I saw a wonderful, exciting, colourful Robin Hood movie. I raved about it for ages. I made bows out of the branches in the backyard. I quoted lines from it with that repetitive insanity children have. Now, I'm not entirely sure about this film. My hazy distant memories don't exactly match any film. But I'm pretty sure it was the classic Errol Flynn version. (My faulty memory had conflated Robin and Will's rescue of Much with the banquet scene.)

Unfortunately, I got older. I had researched the history behind the legends. And in my late teens, I fell in love with the British television series, Robin of Sherwood. I rented a copy of The Adventures of Robin Hood. And I hated it! Good King Richard? What rubbish! Bright colours, swashbuckling? It wasn't REAL. It wasn't like Robin of Sherwood. I thought I knew everything. And the Errol Flynn film seemed like kids stuff to me. And with that angsty, humourless earnestness of a teenager, I wanted to dismiss many childish things and prove I deserved a spot at the grown-up table.

Then, I got older again. I read Rudy Behlmer's book on the movie. I found that the writers of The Adventures of Robin Hood had researched the history of the legend. They knew what they were doing. That gave me a little more respect for the movie. Finally I saw it again, and realized something important.

My birthday present for May 1998. Movie poster from the film This movie is FUN! It's charming, delightful with charismatic actors and the larger than life stories of the ballads. It was classic, technicolor fun. And I had dismissed it just because it wasn't like a certain TV series (which wasn't completely historical or realistic itself, as if such things truly matter). This movie captures the soul of the legend. I learned a lesson in teenage arrogance.  One of the joys of truly being an adult -- as opposed to wanting to be one -- is the ability to embrace one's child-like side.

Since then, I've seen the movie many times, and own it on both video and DVD. For my 28th birthday, my mom gave me a poster from the movie which still proudly hangs on my wall. And a few weeks before that gift, in the spring of 1998, I had the chance to see The Adventures of Robin Hood on the big screen. It was wonderful. The audience loved it too, and we cheered at the end.

Although I came to my senses and fell in love with the movie all over again, I know there are some who still see it as silly and irrelevant. Perhaps the most common complaint about the Errol Flynn Robin Hood can be summed up by Bugs Bunny in the "Rabbit Hood" cartoon (included on the special edition DVD).

Yeah, I know Robin Hood will soon be here. He robs from the rich and he gives to the poor. Yo ho! He goes skipping -- tra la -- through Sherwood Forest helping the needy and the oppressed.

Funny, as most Warner Bros. cartoons are, but not exactly accurate. The tights (so mocked by Mel Brooks and others) might be absurd, but Errol Flynn's Robin does not skip. Ever. Douglas Fairbanks' Robin Hood from the 1922 silent film skipped at times. But no matter what he's wearing, there's a macho, cocky quality to Flynn's Robin Hood. That boldness can be seen in classic scenes like Robin breaking into Nottingham Castle with a stag on his shoulders and then verbally fencing with Prince John and the court. He's defiant and cocksure.

And Flynn's Robin also has steely resolve. He tells Prince John, "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." Errol Flynn looks like a leader, and one willing to fight and die for the cause. Robin's cause, as a freedom fighter, comes largely from Joseph Ritson's 1795 introduction to a ballad collection, elaborated by 19th century writers like Sir Walter Scott. With a Robin Hood who is so selfless, fighting for a just cause -- well, it could be very silly. Most Robin Hoods in this modern tradition look like overgrown boy scouts.  What keeps Flynn's Robin from being just another bland, well-meaning superhero is a sense of humour. True, lots of superheroes banter with their foes, but Flynn has this broad manure-eating grin. He's a trickster and it's a good thing that a good cause was available, because I think his Robin might cause trouble no matter who is in charge. Flynn's Robin is clearly enjoying himself, whereas other Robins don't seem to enjoy themselves. I think the audience sides with the person having a good time.  (This is why Alan Rickman's funny, trickster sheriff is far more popular than Kevin Costner's straight-laced Robin Hood.) Flynn brings some of the rebellious spirit of the ballads to the film. And it's a lucky thing too.

You see, Bugs Bunny got something else wrong. This Robin Hood doesn't, strictly speaking, rob from the rich and give to the poor.  He certainly helps the needy and oppressed. But his followers -- including the poor -- refused to keep the money they stole from Sir Guy. Instead it is used to pay King Richard's ransom.

 One of the most often repeated facts about this movie is that James Cagney was supposed to play Robin Hood. Since my only experience with Cagney is bad impressions of him saying "You dirty rat!", this conjures up weird images for me. But in 1935, the same time this movie was planned, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland made a splash with Captain Blood.

In Rudy Behlmer published the screenplay for this movie. He also included a long introduction showing the various stages of the films development. One plan was for Marian to have a small role at best (just as she doesn't appear in the early ballads). In another, she was the Empress Matilda (King Richard's grandmother.) Another plan was for her to end up with another guy. Robin would go off with Richard, return to England and die. (Not unlike the 1970's movie, Robin and Marian). Naturally, writers' whims couldn't keep the legendary lovers apart.

And the higher-ups wanted a jousting tournament to begin the movie -- much like that had kicked off Douglas Fairbanks' 1922 film.

I'll quote from scriptwriter Norman Reilly Raine's memo on this subject. (quoted in Behlmer)

The Archery Tournament will suffer pictorially if we stick a jousting tournament in the beginning. Christ's second coming in a cloud of glory would seem tame if we showed the creation of the world first...

The Fairbanks picture, in order to live up its tournament fade-in, had to ring in the whole goddamned Crusades, and a light taste of the real Robin Hood story was dragged in as a tag at the end to justify the use of the name.

The jousting match stayed out. And the real Robin Hood legend resonates throughout this movie. Robin Hood wins the golden arrow like in the classic ballads. Robin's encounters with Friar Tuck and King Richard are straight out of the ballads. As is Robin's quarterstaff duel with Little John. This is Alan Hale's second outing as Little John. He played the same role in the Fairbanks movie and would do so again in the 1950 movie, Rogues of Sherwood Forest .

This was the most expensive movie Warner Bros. had made to date. It cost $1,900,000 -- a king's ransom at the time. The movie was over budget and behind schedule. Director William Keighley was replaced with Michael Curtiz. Curtiz filmed the interior scenes like the classic scene where Errol Flynn disrupts Prince John's banquet, carrying a stag on his shoulders. Curtiz also directed the famous sword duel at the end where Robin kills Sir Guy on the staircase.

There are so many wonderful things to say about this film. The acting is wonderful. Flynn is extremely charming. DeHavilland's Marian is witty and spirited. Basil Rathbone makes a wonderfully evil Sir Guy of Gisbourne. And I have a special place in my heart for Claude Rains' conniving and quipping Prince John. (Rains went on to play my favourite character in Casablanca .)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score won the Oscar. As did the movie's gorgeous art direction.

This is a great movie! But why take my word for it?

Rent the movie and see for yourself!

Oh, and watch out for teenage hubris.

Pay a visit to In Like Flynn -- the official site run by Errol Flynn's family.

Also worth a visit is the Errol Flynn: Rogue Hero site

If you like The Adventures of Robin Hood you might be interested in:

The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. For over 60 years this superb technicolor movie has been considered the definitive Robin Hood film. It's exciting and witty with a wonderful group of actors. The legend brought to life. This classic has been released on DVD in a special two-disc set and on Blu-Ray, both with a tonne of features, including footage of the filming, a commentary track by film historian Rudy Behlmer, vintage shorts of Flynn's boat cruise and trick archer Howard Hill, and the cartoons "Rabbit Hood" with Bugs Bunny and "Robin Hood Daffy" with Daffy Duck. There are even bloopers and deleted scenes -- on a 1938 movie! And the film itself has been digitally restored to its technicolor glory.
Buy the North American DVD (Region 1) on Amazon.com
Buy the European DVD (Region 2) on Amazon.co.uk
Buy the North American DVD (Region 1) on Amazon.ca

Buy the North American Blu-Ray (Region A) on Amazon.com
Buy the North American Blu-Ray (Region A) on Amazon.ca

The Errol Flynn Signature Collection (DVD Gift Set) starring Errol Flynn. This DVD set collects five Errol Flynn movies - Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Dodge City and They Died With Their Boots On. Also included is a new documentary The Adventures of Errol Flynn. Four of these films were directed by Michael Curtiz and all feature at least one of Flynn's co-stars from The Adventures of Robin Hood, including Olivia de Havilland, Claude Rains, Alan Hale and Basil Rathbone. It does not appear that this set has been released in Region 2 (Europe) yet.
Buy the North American DVD (Region 1) on Amazon.com

The Music from The Adventures of Robin Hood by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. This is the Oscar-winning music from the 1938 movie starring Errol Flynn. A classic Hollywood score.
Buy it on Amazon.com
Buy it on Amazon.co.uk

Check out The Adventures of Robin Hood by Rudy Behlmer. (University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.) This book includes the script, including scenes and stills cut from the movie. The introductory article is extremely informative.
Buy it on Amazon.com
Buy it on Amazon.co.uk
Buy it on Amazon.ca

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Text copyright, © Allen W. Wright, 1997 - 2004.