Directed by Michael Curtiz & William Keighley. Written by Norman Reilly Reine and Seton I. Miller. Produced by Jack L. Warner, Hal B. Wallis, Henry Blanke. Photographed by Tony Gaudio, Sol Polito. Edited by Ralph Dawson. Art Direction by Carl Jules Weyl. Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Raines, Patric Knowles, Eugene Pallette, Alan Hale, Melville Cooper, Ian Hunter, Oona O’Connor, Herbert Mundin.
There’s just something about it that stirs the blood. Robin Hood is a legend about a man who stands against injustice and fights for the oppressed against the status quo. That might be enough for some, but it’s the details that make it so memorable: he does it with intelligence, prowess, wit and more than a little charisma. These traits are all very important, because they suggest a hero that does not simply oppose one thing, but stands for others: honor, justice, integrity, cleverness. During an early moment in The Adventures of Robin Hood, Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn) throws the body of an illegally poached deer onto the floor of Prince John’s usurped throne room, sits down to a warm dinner, flirts with the Lady Marian (Olivia de Havilland), teases the nobles and has the audacity to confront John with his crimes. When he is accused of speaking treason, a warm smile plays across Robin’s lips when he answers: “Fluently.”
For my money, there has never been a more delightful capturing of folk heroism than The Adventures of Robin Hood. It is big and full of danger, but that’s common. What is harder is its effortless management of grace, sweep and charm: Flynn, as Robin Hood, paints a portrait of a man bursting with so much adrenaline that it hardly seems to occur to him that he’s ever in serious trouble (notice the furtive and quick glances he gives whenever he sees avenues of escape being blocked). Over the course of the film, he will display astonishing acrobatic grace, daring horsemanship, mastery of the bow, sword and quarterstaff, and a gift for gab and smarts that will compel others to follow him. With these tools he approaches every obstacle as if a wonderful lark. Later on, he’ll knowingly walk into a trap designed to draw him out, and when this obviousness is brought to his attention, he almost chuckles when he says “what of it?” What of it? What a guy.
The story, which everyone knows, is simple: King Richard, captured on his way home from the Crusades, has left a political void. Enter the odious Prince John (Claude Rains) and the arrogant Sir Guy of Gisborne (Basil Rathbone), who subjugate the Saxons in order to prop up the corrupt Norman barons. Into this mess walks Robin, a landowner who becomes an outlaw when he tells Prince John what an evil man he is. To his face. Burn. Retreating to Sherwood Forrest, he gathers together a band of merry men, including Little John (Alan Hale), Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles) and, of course, Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette). They rob the rich barons who pass through Sherwood, stand up for the people, and generally have a great time as they prepare extravagant ambushes, plan daring raids and swing on vines like grade-schoolers pumped full of sugar. And, of course, Robin wins the hand of Lady Marian, after some wooing. Of course.
Indeed, love is perhaps the one thing that Robin Hood takes very seriously, and he shows it. As he courts Marian, he is fanciful (he can never not be), but also sincere, and there is genuine chivalry in his step when, on their first meeting, he wishes that she had a safe journey from London and bids her good morrow. He enters her bedchamber and plays games with her affections that are impudent but never disrespectful. He tutors her on the hardship of the Saxons, and cuts through her defenses when he rejects her notion that he is doing this for some sort of reward. Thoughtful, she states that she begins to understand, and he warmly says “then that is reward enough.” Then he kisses her hand and leads her into the forest, and she swoons. It’s just…it’s lovely. There’s even cute low comedy that acts in counterpoint, as the merry man Much (Herbert Mundin) conducts an awkward, nervous courtship with Marian’s lady-in-waiting, Bess (Oona O’Connor).
It’s made all the more enchanting by Havilland, who is excellent at evoking the image of a sheltered princess finally awakening to bigger, more romantic and exciting concerns: she is at first haughty towards this outrageous man, but something stirs within her, and it’s brought to bear when, sharing a meal, he hungrily eats a deer’s leg, and she watches in a fascination flavored with a slight but unmistakable eroticism. Much of Marian is conveyed in looks throughout the film: DeHavilland’s face is so expressive, so rosy and beautiful, so persuasive as an object of affection for so many men. She communicates the entire story of Marian though her face. It subtly leads up to the glorious moment where she and Robin declare their love for each other. It is so romantic, sweet and cathartic that it shows, in one glorious scene, what great things the full power of fable can do.
The film values pageantry and unparalleled cinematic vigor: costumes are fashioned in gloriously vibrant colors; the film allows the viewer to drink in the visual splendor while still moving quickly, jumping from the velvety comfort of Nottingham castle, to the beautiful expanses of the archery tournament, to the deep, lush greens of Sherwood Forrest. The film’s use of rich Technicolor is intoxicating. Nice visual touches abound, like when Normans preside over the execution of a peasant under a blood-red sunset, or when Robin’s merry men, preparing a trap, scurry up a tree trunk in unison, like ants. The richness of the production extends to the sets, which are intimidating and expressive, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s musical score, which explodes with so much excitement and romance that it is practically another character (and in fact it is, such as in a witty opening where the overture is revealed to being played by an actual group of musicians).
But the film is not simply a triumph of Hollywood filmmaking processes, though it is. It is not just an example of stellar craftsmanship, and wonderful Golden Age acting, although it is that as well. What is so arresting about The Adventures of Robin Hood is the canvas it employs to tell this story: it is colorful, bold, larger than life, peopled with compelling leads and wonderful little supporting roles: it gives the appropriate weight to every element, moves with grace and precision, steers away from unnecessary attempts to “modernize” or reinterpret the story. The Adventures of Robin Hood knows perfectly well that the legends and folklore we hear at a young age are formative. They give dimension to dreams, and harness big ideas about love, loyalty and integrity to impressionable youth. They are important. During one climactic sequence in Robin Hood, Robin and Sir Guy battle throughout Nottingham Castle, leaving the frame as their parries and thrusts are now carried on by shadows on a stone wall, larger than life. If there is any better illustration of the importance of pop mythology in film, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it.
Above it all, it is the sense of fun that permeates every frame that gives The Adventures of Robin Hood such resonance. Like its hero, the movie is light on its feet and joyous. Serious but never overly so, romantic but never mushy, fanciful but never too light, full of swashbuckling but low on messy (and unneeded) blood. The story of Robin Hood has always been a political fable married to a 12-year-old boy’s sense of big adventure, and The Adventures of Robin Hood captures that perfectly. It is a regrettable convention of the modern age for myths to be robbed of their inherent magic: to turn away from romance and gallantry, and more towards blood, violence, nihilism and false realism. But these are fads, tailored to cater to arbitrary whims that rise and fall: the classical style remains, because it is lasting. As humans, we desire to connect with each other via ideas, dreams, role models and heroes. It takes bravery to tell the adventures of Robin Hood with such skills, but it is braver still to tell one so devoid of irony, so cheerful and glad. It taps into a primordial vein of storytelling, where villains were dastardly, champions were plucky, and romance was the order of the day. It’s nice to be reminded of things like that.
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