Written by: Andy Goulding
Director: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley
Screenplay: Norman Reilly Raine, Seton I. Miller
Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains
Producer: Hal B. Wallis, Henry Blanke
Running Time: 102 min
BBFC Certificate: U
With its beautiful outdoor settings, breathtaking cavalcade of exquisite set-pieces and relentlessly infectious joviality, The Adventures of Robin Hood transports me to another world away from the problems of everyday life like no other film I can think of. It’s quite simply cinematic magic, all filmed in “Glorious Technicolor” which floods my brain with serotonin and paints a smile on my face as bright as the vivid greens and reds of its own celluloid images.
I have always loved the story of Robin Hood since I was a child. However, few filmic attempts to capture the essence of what struck a chord with me about this legend have been particularly successful. While I loved the Disney animated version as a child (and still do, incidentally), live action efforts like Robin and Marian or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves left much to be desired. My favourite Robin Hood related offerings were invariably parodies like Tony Robinson’s brilliant children’s TV series Maid Marian and her Merry Men or Chuck Jones’ classic animated shorts Robin Hood Daffy and Rabbit Hood. However, these were spoofs, albeit affectionate, of the tale I loved so. What I craved was a full-scale recreation of the jocular, boisterous, colourful epic that filled my mind every time I read the stories of Nottingham’s noble bandit. When I first discovered The Adventures of Robin Hood all my dreams came true at once.
It would likely be impossible to recapture what makes The Adventures of Robin Hood so wonderful in a modern day production. The high levels of camp which characterise the whole story wouldn’t sit comfortably with any 21st century movie techniques I can think of and no current stars of the day would seem comfortable in the full Lincoln Green outfit and tights that my vision of the true Robin Hood story demands be in place. Yet in 1938 everything was perfect for such a yarn. The Technicolor process, relatively new at the time, was absolutely ideal for this materiel, its bold, garish attractiveness capturing the storybook joy of the yarn. The script was able to be campy without seeming ludicrous and the old style sets create a real sense of pageantry which Robin Hood absolutely hinges on. And then, of course, there is the cast…
Could there ever be a more perfect man for the role of Robin Hood than Errol Flynn? His easy charm, winning smile and agile frame all make him ideal but it is his utter willingness to immerse himself in this potentially ludicrous role which makes it work so brilliantly. Flynn is unselfconscious in the extreme, seemingly loving every opportunity to prance around in tights, brandish his bow, smirk out a cheeky putdown and throw back his head in exaggerated, bellowing laughter. He’s like a schoolboy relishing being centre of attention in his school play, which taps into an essential characteristic of the boyish Robin which was so noticeably missing in later portrayals by the likes of Kevin Costner or TV’s Jonas Armstrong. But just as crucial to the success of The Adventures of Robin Hood are the leading lady and villain and both are portrayed beautifully. Olivia de Havilland is a great Marian and she makes the speed with which she falls for Robin, a man she openly despises to begin with, utterly convincing. More impressive still, de Havilland somehow manages to make herself more beautiful as her character becomes more appealing. Some of the is achieved through the use of costume and camera work but it is mainly down to de Havilland’s acting. At the outset, as she fawns over Prince John and closes her mind to the wrongdoing that surrounds her, she is almost repulsive at times. As she melts and acknowledges her own naivety, however, de Havilland unleashes her allure through her performance until she is as utterly captivating as any Maid Marian should be.
But for the best performance of the film we must look to the villain. The Adventures of Robin Hood provides Robin with three adversaries but one is particularly of note. The Sheriff of Nottingham, usually the baddie most readily associated with Robin Hood, is reduced here to a bumbling, overweight buffoon and while Melville Cooper does his best with the role he cannot escape the fact that he is handed the majority of the movie’s weakest bits. Claude Rains as Prince John sounds like a much more tasty prospect. Rains is absolutely one of my favourite actors of all time and turned in unique, ahead-of-their-time performances in many great films of the era. He was terrificly multi-layered as different types of villain in Hitchcock’s Notorious and Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, stole the show from Bogart and Bergman in Curtiz’s Casablanca and was positively mesmerizing in David Lean’s oft overlooked The Passionate Friends. Unfortunately, Rains’ performance as Prince John is a rare misfire. Rains overplays the effeminate side of the Prince and the resulting performance is, to be perfectly blunt, totally weird and rather ineffective. With a strong villain being so crucial to any production of this story, The Adventures of Robin Hood could have been in grave danger were it not for the ever-reliable presence of Basil Rathbone. The Sheriff and Prince John are both wisely kept out of the action and pushed into the background by Rathbone’s tremendous performance as Sir Guy of Gisbourne. Rathbone seems to instinctively know how to play the role and he looks tremendously handsome in the period costume. Eschewing the element of camp that runs through most of the other performances, Rathbone’s Gisborne is a threatening, frustrated presence who quietly longs for Marian and nurses a furious hatred of Robin. Even when Rains and Cooper’s shtick takes centre stage you can see Rathbone quietly acting at the edge of the frame, his blood boiling that little bit hotter with each scene until the spectacular sword-fight at the climax of the film allows him to unleash his fury. While much of the cast rise to the occasion and turn in exactly the right kind of performance for the material, it is Rathbone who walks away with the acting honours with his delicately judged thesping.
With all this going for it, The Adventures of Robin Hood only needed a good script and director to succeed and it has both. Embracing the essential joviality of the story but generally stopping before it spills over into the ridiculous, Norman Reilly Raine & Seton I. Miller’s screenplay wisely puts the emphasis on action with set-piece after set-piece keeping viewers enthralled. The film opens with a very brief set-up (including a nice symbolic spilling of wine) and then we are thrown immediately into the first big action sequence as Robin single handedly escapes from the castle banquet he has cockily gatecrashed. It is instantly apparent from this heart-stopping sequence that we are in for a treat and Curtiz and Keighley keep the thrills coming, some of them small scale (the duel on the bridge with Little John) and others large (the archery tournament). When any major exposition is required, they neatly insert a written caption which ensures we get all the necessary information without having to slow down the pace. By the film’s finale (a legendary sword fight between Flynn and Rathbone which is every bit as wonderful as you’ve probably heard), only the most demanding of moviegoers could complain they had not been entertained at some point in the movie.
The Adventures of Robin Hood is a film I absolutely adore and will never tire of. If anybody ever suggests watching it I literally jump at the chance and I find it so thrilling to this day that I have to suppress the urge to leap out of my chair during the film and mime along with the swordplay on screen. I consider The Adventures of Robin Hood one of the greatest cinematic experiences in existence and a must for any movie fans, hell, for everybody.