Robin Hood Spotlight

The Adventures of Robin Hood
1938 movie starring Errol Flynn

Spotlight Review by Allen W. Wright
(Original version: May 1998 -- under revision)

Introduction

Starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains
Original Screen Play by Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller

"Based Upon Ancient Robin Hood Legends"
Directed by Michael Curtiz and  William Keighley
(Warner Bros., 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. And to be honest, I didn't know what I was doing back then. 

While I have tweaked this review and added to it over the years, I am still not happy with it. One day I'll do a Spotlight that does this film justice.

Falling In and Out of Love with Errol Flynn's Robin Hood

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. They weren't ignorant. They were making deliberate artistic choices. That gave me a little more respect for the movie. Finally I saw it again, and realized something important.

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 VHS,  DVD, iTunes. 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.

I've had the privilege of watching it on the big screen many times now, and I always try to catch it when it's on Turner Classic Movies. Every single time I watch it I fall in love with a new aspect of the film. One time I'll focus on Michael Curtiz's use of shadows. Another time I'll be entranced by the colourful costumes. And then there are the performances and dialogue. It never gets old.

Flynn's Robin Hood: The Many Qualities of a Screen Hero

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 and BluRay).

BUGS BUNNY: 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. At some points he has a broad grin. Other times, he's deadly serious.

Errol Flynn's Robin Hood mocking Prince John and the Normans

Errol Flynn's Robin Hood declaring he'll exact a death for a death

ROBIN: 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's Robin of Locksley seems self-aware enough to know he's in a fairy tale. And yet, he doesn't treat the subject as an absolute joke. It's very hard to get that tone right. Flynn brings some of the rebellious spirit of the ballads to the film. And it's a lucky thing too.

Charity and Politics

You see, Bugs Bunny got something else wrong. This Robin Hood doesn't, strictly speaking, rob from the rich and give to the poor. 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.

We do see Robin Hood helps the poor. After he ambushes Sir Guy of Gisbourne, he invites his "guests" to a banquet in the greenwood. Marian is skeptical. She doesn't think they'd give the money to King Richard. "You wouldn't dream of keeping it yourselves!" Marian says sarcastically.

And so, Robin leads her away from the banquet table. He takes her to the poor and suffering under his protetction. They're relieved to have a good meal.

MARIAN (low): You're a strange man.

ROBIN: Strange ... because I can feel for beaten, helpless people?

MARIAN (swiftly): No . . . ! You're strange because you want to do something about it. You're willing to defy Sir Guy -- even Prince John himself -- to risk your own life. And one of those men was a Norman!

ROBIN: Norman or Saxon, what's that matter? It's injustice I hate, not the Normans.

MARIAN: But it's lost you your rank, your lands. It's made you a hunted outlaw when you might have lived in comfort and security. What's your reward for all this?

ROBIN (incredulous): Reward? (Looks curiously at her again.) You just don't understand, do you?

MARIAN: I'm sorry. I do begin to see... a little... now.

ROBIN: You do? Then that's reward enough. 

- The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Screenplay by Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller

That scene is a moral touchstone for me -- to do the right thing with the thought of reward not even entering one's mind. I know some may favour a more cynical Robin Hood, but sometimes we need something aspirational.

That scene also minimizes one of the film's issues.

Ever since Sir Walter Scott's 1819 novel Ivanhoe, the Robin Hood story has often played on the conflict between the Normans and Saxons. The Normans had conquered England in 1066, over a century before this film's 1194 setting. In popular culture, the Normans are portrayed as being haughty and arrogant. And yet a lot of the Saxon rhetoric in the Robin Hood story also skirts the edge of racism. Robin himself identifies as "We Saxons". But here, he makes a distinction not based in race or ethnic identity. Here, Flynn's Robin Hood makes a distinction between those who need help and those who cause harm.

Sometimes Gisbourne and his knights are compared to the Nazis. And Robin Hood champions the oppressed. And yet, in America in 1938, politics were murkier. While most Americans condemned the action of the Nazis, there was also a profound spirit of isolationism. This film hedges its bets when Robin condemns King Richard for going on Crusades in foreign lands and abandoning his people. The traces of "America First" in this movie is one regrettable aspect.

What Might Have Been

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.

[Since I first wrote those words I've seen Cagney in a lot of films -- from the hardened gangster in films like White Heat to composer George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, and of course as Bottom in the 1935 A Midsummer Night's Dream which had inspired this casting idea. Cagmey absolutely played Robin Hood -- with a certain pushy quality not present in Flynn's take. I'd love to peer into an alternate universe where the Cagney version of Robin Hood was made.]

There were also negotiations around using elements from Reginald de Koven's Robin Hood comic opera. MGM had been planning a Robin Hood musical, and so a trade was negotiated. One that keeping all singing out of the movie. Will Scarlett plays a musical instrument, but he does not sing.

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 1970s 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. 

But if you want a taste of what might have been, the tournament scene was included in the 1959 Robin Hood Annual by Amalgamated Press. This annual features a story inspired by the Errol Flynn movie, complete with the likenesses of the actors. The annuals reprinted comic stories from issues of the Sun and Thriller Comics Library. It seems that the Flynn movie adaptation first appeared in Knockout comics from 1947, the year of the film's re-issue.

Perhaps the inclusion of a tournament would have unbalanced the film, but the movie had more than enough riches as it is.

Robin Hood's quarterstaff fight with Little John from the ballads

Robin Hood crossing the stream on Friar Tuck's back

Borrowing from the Ballads

The film brings to life several moments from the ballads -- there's the archery contest and meeting with the king straight from the late medieval ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode

We also see Robin meeting his match when he recruits Little John and Friar Tuck, again moments also from the ballads.

This is Alan Hale's second outing as Little John. He played the same role in the 1922 movie with Douglas Fairbanks and would do so again in the 1950 movie, Rogues of Sherwood Forest .

Robin's encounter with Eugene Palette's Friar Tuck is entertaining, but it does lead to a tonal inconsistency. The Merry Men trick Robin Hood into taunting a friar they claim is pious but who they truly know is the deadliest swordsman in England. It seems odd that they'd risk their revolutionary leader's life over a practical joke.

Many Pleasures

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 .)

Much can be said about the film's glorious technicolor. The 21st century Robin Hoods might favour a darker or muddier colour palette, but for 1938 audiences seeing all the colours of rainbow on screen was a rare treat.

Black-and-white movies are notable for their use of shadow, and yet Curtiz provides many striking uses of shadow in this film. The Casablanca BluRay has a documentary on director Michael Curtiz. In that documentary, director Steven Spielberg expresses giddy delight when he finally worked out how Curtiz achieved the shadows in The Adventures of Robin Hood, and then duplicated the trick in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I could also talk about all the witticisms in the script. Or Erich Wolfgang Korngold's masterful score which won the Oscar. As did the movie's gorgeous art direction.

How about you don't just take my word for it and see the movie for yourself?

Order The Adventures of Robin Hood on Amazon

The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. For over 80 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. At long last, this classic has been released on DVD in a special two-disc set with a tonne of features, including footage of the filming, a commentary track by film historian Rudy Behlmer and the cartoons "Rabbit Hood" with Bugs Bunny and "Robin Hood Daffy" with Daffy Duck. And the film itself has been digitally restored to its technicolor glory. (The Blu-Ray edition offers the same features in a single disc.) 
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) on Amazon.com (United States)
The Adventures Of Robin Hood [1938] on Amazon.co.uk (UK/Europe)
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) (Bilingual) on Amazon.ca (Canada)

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.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (Wisconsin / Warner Bros. Screenplays) on Amazon.com
The Adventures of Robin Hood (Wisconsin/Warner Brothers Screenplays) on Amazon.co.uk
The Adventures of Robin Hood Screenplay on Amazon.ca

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.
The Adventures of Robin Hood Score on Amazon.com
The Adventures Of Robin Hood score on Amazon.co.uk
The Adventures of Robin Hood score on Amazon.ca

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