So far during this project the films that I’ve chosen to highlight haven’t really been that hard of a choice. Every now and then I have a year where there’s some strong contenders, but there’s one outlier that was pretty obviously going to be my candidate for favorite film from that year. But, today we get our first example of a year where I had to make a pretty tough choice. There’s plenty more years that are going to be like this in the coming months, sometimes coming from surprising years, but today we get to talk about the first real struggle I had. Because 1938 had two films that I really and truly love released. As you can tell, the winner of this contest ended up being the Adventures of Robin Hood, the first live-action color film that I’ll be discussing here on the Cinematic Century, and one of the finest adventure films of this or any era of Hollywood cinema. But, it really had some tough competition in the form of Alfred Hitchcock’s the Lady Vanishes. Because that film is a real treat. It’s my favorite of this period in Hitchcock’s career, right before he really got into his groove and started pumping out classic after classic. And, it would be foolish of me not to recommend the Lady Vanishes along with the Adventures of Robin Hood. It’s a tense, claustrophobic little thriller that strikes upon the idea of gas-lighting a person a few years before the film Gas Light would coin the phrase. It’s a hell of a film, and I highly recommend you check it out as well. But, it gets edged out by some good old fashioned swashbuckling fun!
The Adventures of Robin Hood was a real event. It was the first major film that Warner Bros. released in color, and they intended it to be a launching point to a higher echelon of public opinion. Up until then the studio had primarily put out really slight gangster flicks, nothing too big or boisterous, but audience-pleasing mid-budget fare. But, after they started to get some success from adventure films starring Australian actor and all-around fascinating and dreadful individual Errol Flynn. So, they decided to roll the dice, and make a massive retelling of the legends of Robin Hood with Flynn in the starring role. Robin Hood had been a good source of stories for films prior, famously portrayed by Douglas Fairbanks in the twenties, and they decided to take the larger than life figure of Robin Hood and bring him to life in vivid Technicolor. The film ended up becoming the most expensive production that Warner Bros. ever made, a lush costume drama full of huge sets, massive matte paintings, scores of extras willing to be shot with actual arrows, and a whole bunch of impressive stunts. They pulled out all of the stops, finding new and inventive ways to pull of the exploits of Robin Hood while innovating new special effects and bringing Warner Bros. into the spotlight, pushing them to be a bigger force in American cinema than ever before. And it paid off. The film was a massive success, earning the studio millions of dollars, and even getting nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It launched Errol Flynn’s career into the stratosphere and helped cement the idea that color films were meant for massive, fun, and gimmicky films. It’s also gone on to really define the way that we interpret the story of Robin Hood. And it’s easy to see why, because this film is kind of everything that you could possibly want from a Robin Hood film.
The Adventures of Robin Hood takes place in England in 1191 after King Richard the Lionheart is taken captive during the Crusades, leaving a power vacuum that his unscrupulous brother Prince John attempts the fill. Prince John is a vain and cruel man, and his form of governing begins having a real effect on the people of Nottingham, a sleepy community in Saxony. Prince John has put Sir Guy of Gisbourne in charge of Nottingham, letting him do pretty much whatever he wants. And that cruelty gets the attention of Sir Robin of Locksley, a Saxon nobleman who is so disgusted by Guy and John’s behavior that he decides to dedicate his life to stopping them and keeping King Richard in the hearts and minds of his people. And he starts things off by essentially declaring war on John after crashing a feast that John is attending in Sir Guy’s castle. Robin flirts with Lady Marian, a ward of Prince John, insults everyone in the room, and manages to escape after fighting with several guards. Robin then begins travelling the countryside, finding people who are willing to join his own personal crusade against Prince John. He takes the name Robin Hood and starts to form his Merry Men, including his friend Will Scarlet, the massive brawler Little John, a goofy hunter called Much, and the rambunctious holy man Friar Tuck. And, with his Merry Men assembled, Robin Hood begins launching a guerrilla war campaign against Prince John, robbing his greedy tax-collectors and giving the money back to the poor of Nottingham.
Prince John and Sir Guy become furious over Robin’s war of attrition, and since the Sheriff of Nottingham is too incompetent to stop them, there doesn’t seem to be anything to do. And, as time goes on, Robin starts to get bolder and bolder, finally culminating when the Merry Men abduct a group of soldiers carrying some gold to Prince John, and whose ranks include the Sheriff, Lady Marian, and Sir Guy. They mock and harass Sir Guy and Prince John, while Robin begins seducing Lady Marian until she actually starts to fall in love with him. But, after they’ve had their fun, the Merry Men release Sir Guy and the others and let them return to the castle, where Prince John is waiting and not pleased. Prince John and Sir Guy are now furious, and they decide to come up with a plan to catch Robin once and for all. And they do this by planning a fake archery contest, hoping to find the greatest archer in all the land, in the attempt to sway Robin’s ego. And it works. Robin and the Merry Men attend the archery contest, and Robin easily wins, getting the attention of the villains. They then succeed in imprisoning Robin, and plan to execute him in front of the masses, only to fail to recognize the Merry Men as they arrive and save Robin, fleeing again into the woods.
Things then get really interesting when another piece is added to the chess board. King Richard and his entourage have been released from capture, and have arrived in Nottingham, having heard the rumors of what Prince John has been up to. They hear tell of Robin Hood and all of his schemes against Prince John, and they’ve come to the realization that they should join forces with him. So, King Richard and his men set out to find the Merry Men and ingratiate themselves with the group, while Prince John begins sending assassins to kill his brother. Much manages to kill the assassin, and King Richard formally introduces himself to Robin, officially joining forces. They then concoct a plan to impersonate monks and crash an illegitimate coronation that Prince John has planned. The combined forces of the Merry Men and King Richard’s men attack Sir Guy’s castle, fighting his soldiers and bringing Prince John to justice. Robin is able to kill Sir Guy, and King Richard puts Prince John in his place, exiling him from England. King Richard then happily becomes King of England again, and Robin and Lady Marian head off to marry, living happily ever after.
The Adventures of Robin Hood is a wonderfully fun adventure film. The Robin Hood myth is clearly a very potent one, and one that shows no sign of leaving the popular consciousness, and this film is kind of the perfect example of why that is. Warner Bros. gave this film everything they had, taking a story that had already been adapted to film and tried to make it bigger and better than anything that had come before it. It’s a lavish costume-drama, full of impressive sets, a staggering amount of extras, and a bold insistence that Southern California looks just like Northern England. The film has a very meandering plot, full of little vignettes, but I think it ends up working well for it, literally showing us the many adventures of Robin Hood. We’re given a colorful and goofy cast of characters, especially from the Merry Men, and some wonderfully arch and evil villains. I realized I hadn’t actually seen a whole lot of films with Claude Raines where he’s not under a lot of special effects and make up, and he still knocks it out of the park as the sniveling and cruel Prince John. I do think it’s a little odd to make the Sheriff of Nottingham such a goofy bit of comic relief, but Sir Guy of Gisbourne as played by Basil Rathbone is a lot of fun, so I guess it all shakes out. Olive de Haviland is really fun as Lady Marian, and she’s able to get way more out of that character than I’ve almost ever seen. But, she still does fall into the damsel in distress a little too often. The film is easily carried though by Errol Flynn’s terrific performance as Robin Hood. It’s impossible to deny just how joyful and monumental his performance is, despite what a seemingly awful dude he was. He’s full of a boisterous energy that’s a perfect blend of camp, earnestness, and swashbuckling verve that made for a truly remarkable and memorable performance.
And, really, just about everything about this film is memorable. It’s kind of insane to watch this film in modern times and realize that basically every Robin Hood story you’ve ever seen is springing forth from this movie. Obviously the Robin Hood myth has been around for centuries, and this film wasn’t inventing things from whole-cloth, but the choices this film made, the specific adventures that it chose to tell, and the way that it told them has left such an incredibly indelible mark on the popular opinion of the Robin Hood myth. Even when they’re trying to buck tradition and do something different with the character and the story they still end up borrowing pretty heavily from this film. It’s similar to last week when I discussed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, because this film has completely dominated the tale of Robin Hood, and become the gold standard that all future versions of the story have to be held up against. Aside from the fact that most future adaptations tend to combine the Sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisbourne into one villainous character, just about everything from this film has become the perfect example of this story. It’s rare that an adaptation of a fable can so totally install itself as the preeminent telling of that fable, and it’s really a hell of a thing to experience.
The Adventures of Robin Hood was written by Normal Reilly Raine, Seton I Miller, and Rowland Leigh, directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 1938.
Categories: Cinematic Century