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Clearly, Hollywood loves Robin Hood. He’s the perfect hero for them. He’s dashing, handsome, adventurous, brave and noble, a man of daring and action… he’s a hero for all ages. As such, they tend to revisit his story quite often. Every now and then, they tweak the formula a bit, like the Rat Pack gangster comedy Robin and the 7 Hoods, but they always comes back to the swash-buckling origins of knights and duels and chivalry and all that other stuff. One of the earliest cracks at that chestnut was the 1938 Warner Bros. classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.
When King Richard (Ian Hunter) is off leading the way in the Crusades, his brother Prince John (Claude Rains) and his court begin oppressing the masses in his absence. From this oppression comes Robin Hood (Errol Flynn), a Saxon lord, who chooses to fight back as the outlaw leader of a rebel army.
It should be understood from the outset that, at the time of writing, The Adventures of Robin Hood is 73 years old. Times have changed, standards have changed, and there’s been dozens of versions of this story attempted in that time. Many have tried to adopt a more realistic approach to the material, even going so far as to locate it in as specific a time period as possible. As such, to a modern audience watching this now, there is bound to be a slight dimming of the light. Nevertheless, you do try to take things on their own terms, taking into consideration what audiences were like back then and what they wanted from a swash-buckling adventure film.
Still, there are still elements of the picture that have aged rather poorly in light of more modern production techniques. One of Robin Hood’s biggest and most heralded of attributes is the fight scenes, particularly the final swordfight between Robin and Guy of Gisbourne. These scenes were a major selling point of the film and perhaps the primary reason it was so successful. They do feel authentic and visceral in a sense, however that is somewhat short-circuited by the fact that they were sped up slightly to give them a faster, more exciting pace. Back in 1938, audiences may not have been particularly aware of this (or maybe they were, but didn’t care), but to a modern viewer, this is likely to stand out as more comical than exciting. Further to this, the broader acting style can seem peculiar, if not a bit distracting. This is not a fault to be levelled at this film specifically, though. This was the style of many adventure pictures at the time, with everything being bigger and grander, so the performances simply followed suit. There are also moments of clumsy editing and awkward direction, but again some of this was a product of the standards of the time. Though, some of it wasn’t and it actually was just a clumsy edit.
However, all of this is not say that there is nothing for modern audiences to enjoy here. There are many technical aspects that continue to hold up rather well, and even certain story points that seem to outstrip more contemporary tellings of the Robin Hood tale. Firstly, the stunt work is still something to behold. Remember, this was back in the day when stuntmen were asked to do some really dangerous stuff with nothing to protect them but a good duck-and-roll. As such, watching them make 20ft leaps and actually go at each other with unguarded swords (by request of director Michael Curtiz) is still amazing. Also, men were actually shot with arrows during this film, and not by accident either. They were given some padding and $150 for every arrow that hit them. That’s ballsy.
The music in this film is also a great triumph. Austrian opera composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold was unsure as to whether or not to take the job, but when he learned that Hitler was about to invade his home country, he opted to take the job that kept him in the States. What he produced was the kind of joyously stirring, fanfare-driven musical underscore that became the standard that all such music would be measured against. It even got him an Oscar.
Some of the script actually manages to hold up really well, too. One of the more annoying facets of the film is that, in order to maintain the high spirits of the piece, characters will laugh heartily and often, regardless of whether what has just been said was funny or not. However, some moments are still kind of worth it. When Robin Hood introduces Friar Tuck to Will Scarlett for the first time, he tells Will, “He’s one of us.” Noticing Friar Tuck’s ample gut, he responds, “One of us? He looks like three of us.” Now, for all the impact that Will Scarlett makes in this film, you could almost cut him completely out, but that right there is a quality joke. There’s also some good moments of summing a character up in only a couple of lines, so it is, at times, wonderfully economical. For example, when Robin first meets Gisbourne and stops him from killing a man for speaking out of turn, Robin asks him, “Come now, Sir Guy. You would not kill a man for telling the truth, would you?” Gisbourne responds, “If it amused me, yes.” That’s pretty sinister, and you absolutely understand what kind of man he is from that one line.
Further to the script is the depiction of Robin Hood himself, which is actually rather interesting. As the Robin Hood story has been told over and over again, he has become more humble in his position as leader of his rebel army, but he has also been given a more personal stake in the fight. For example, in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, his father is murdered by the Sheriff of Nottingham, and so his quest is just as much about revenge as it is about justice, if not more so. Also, in Ridley Scott’s take on the legend, Robin is seen to be, albeit hesitantly, trying to fulfil the promise of a sort of Free Republic that his father had envisioned. With the Robin Hood of this film, however, his actions are actually more pure and decent than that, if more simplistic. Robin Hood fights for the oppressed because, well, he doesn’t like oppression. He has no real personal stake in this cause, no reason to care about the plight of the people. He chooses to fight because it’s the right thing to do and that’s reason enough for him.
Even then, there’s still a hint of something else in there. A secondary concern that really just affects the manner of the action rather than the decision to act itself, and it’s something that the character has lost as time has gone on. Here, Robin Hood is kind of a badass. Not to say that others aren’t, but it seems most noticeable here somehow. Can you imagine Kevin Costner or Russell Crowe swaggering into Prince John’s banquet hall, carrying on his back the dead deer that he just used to beat the hell out of the guards outside? It doesn’t quite fit with them, but it totally fits with Errol Flynn. Although overall, it’s a rather flamboyant performance, and the man himself said he found the role a bit dull, there’s still an enjoyable kind of laconic smugness about him. One of the great lines of the film comes from this very banquet scene. Robin has just finished telling all in attendance why he believes Prince John to be a threat to the country, and Lady Marian speaks up, “Why, you speak treason!” Robin turns to her, smiles and says, “Fluently.” It’s this kind of dry, cool wit that would eventually give us the likes of John McClane.
Perhaps its impact upon modern audiences will not be as strong as it was back in 1938, and there are elements that will seem a little foolish with the passing of time, but The Adventures of Robin Hood still has some greatness to it. It was then, and remains to this day, one for the unabashed child in everyone. It’s a simple tale, but told with great verve and gusto and still holds onto some interesting points to this day. You may not understand what all the fuss is about yourself, but if you’ve got a five-year old, they’ll tell you about it after they’ve watched it.