Adventures of Robin Hood, The (1938)
Release Date: May 14th, 1938 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley Actors: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Eugene Pallette, Alan Hale, Patric Knowles, Melville Cooper
n 1191, when King Richard the Lion-Heart (Ian Hunter) set forth to drive the infidels from the Holy Land, he gave governance of his kingdom to trusted friend Longchamps (a meaningless reference, since it’s never specified why this character is absent from the film), instead of to his treacherous brother, Prince John (Claude Rains). Resentful at this snub, John hopes for Richard’s demise, so that he might seize (with the aid of the Norman barons) the throne for himself. Unfortunately for the Saxons, word reaches them from Vienna that the king has been captured as he was returning from the Crusades, held prisoner by Leopold of Austria.
This is the perfect opportunity for Prince John to stage his coup, beginning with the assignment of tax districts to the ruthless Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone). As the Saxons feel the weight of oppressive tax-gathering (and the hangman’s knot when they fail to pay up), the notorious troublemaker Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn) and his lieutenant Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles) descend upon the shire around Gisbourne’s stronghold, Nottingham Castle, to be a protector of the common man. As the deadliest archer in England, Robin proves to be a thorn in John’s side – amplified by his brazen tongue and his pesky ability to escape the most unfriendly of ambushes (no matter how outnumbered or outflanked).
It’s not long before Robin barges into a feast for the Prince, spews cheeky insults, unleashes his darting sword, and lets loose true arrows in the great hall of Nottingham. Often considered one of the greatest of all adventure films, this fast-paced tale of knights and bandits and abbots and maidens is a rousing bit of lighthearted entertainment. The costumes are a touch too vivid (tights and bonnets are iconic but impractical), and the speeches tinged with jokey nonchalance, but the sporting natures and unyielding camaraderie generate a good deal of fun. This is clearly the wholesome, innocent, family-friendly version of Robin Hood’s exploits.
Adapting the legends of Sherwood Forest and Robin Hood’s merry men, the film includes all the classic staples: the ponderous Friar Tuck (a perfectly cast Eugene Pallette), the lusty Little John (Alan Hale), the sniveling Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper), the fair Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland), an archery contest, robberies, poaching, duels, disguises, chivalry, treachery, ruses (“I must commend your highness for the subtlety of your scheme”), torture, daring escapes, rescue plots, overconfident rogues, skilled underdogs, and unshakeable nobleness. There’s also drama, romance, grandiose sets and settings, and an extra villain for good measure, exclusive to this version (Montagu Love as the Bishop of the Black Canons). And Robin Hood gets to acrobatically swing from ropes and vines.
On the technical front, the use of intertitles to separate the chapters of John’s increasing reign of terror is unnecessary, as the passing of time can be understood through montages and scene transitions. But the editing stands stronger during the action sequences. Staff battling and sword fighting choreography are quite amusing, with Flynn and Rathbone engaging in believable matches of lightning-fast fencing. A shot of an arrow extinguishing the flame of a candle as it pierces the armor of its target is rather unique, while the final showdown is a properly swashbuckling affair (the entire array of stunts in the great hall are nicely done). The pacing slows from time to time, particularly in between tense confrontations, but it’s tough to dismiss the (long-awaited) impressiveness of Flynn and Rathbone’s skirmish up and down a flight of stairs, eventually casting energetic shadows on a pillar, and then continuing to thrust and parry as background swordsmen shuffle into frame.
– Mike Massie