The Adventures of Robin Hood
Directors: William Keighley / Michael Curtiz / Script: Norman Raine / Seton Miller / Editing: Ralph Dawson / DoP: Tony Gaudio / Music: Erich Korngold
Cast: Errol Flynn / Olivia de Havilland / Basil Rathbone / Claude Rains / Patric Knowles / Eugene Pallette / Alan Hale / Melville Cooper
The Original Men-In-Tights.
Until the Hollywood studios fully embraced the Hays ‘moral code’ in 1934, Warner Bros’ (‘WB’) had been ploughing a lucrative furrow with a string of provocative crime thrillers (often starring James Cagney) and lush, expensive musicals (often choreographed by Busby Berkeley) but Hays was to see the studio change direction. In contrast to what had gone before, it now wanted to be seen backing ‘quality productions’.
After a few false starts, it settled on a production of Robin Hood, that it intended to cast from within its existing pool of contracted talent – but that still left the lead. After Cagney passed (probably just as well; I mean, can you imagine Jimmy Cagney – the original GoodFella – playing Robin?), producers went with new action star Errol Flynn; that there was a natural on-screen chemistry between himself and Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marion was a bonus (rumours of an affair between them during the production, persisted for years).
As a sign of their faith in the cast, WB also chose to shoot in Technicolor. Although the process had been around for a few years to that point, the Technicolor Company had struggled to persuade a major studio to use it for an entire feature, so using it for this production was a leap of faith by both parties. The film stock was very light-sensitive, so Technicolor boffins worked closely with their WB counterparts, to ensure that each scene – even exteriors – were lit by powerful arc lamps. Costumes and set direction were also designed with deliberate care, to ensure that colours remained vivid when projected; rival studio MGM would draw from the lessons learnt here, for The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind, released a year later in 1939. Technicolor’s unique process ensured that the original prints would never fade, unlike some rivals and nearly eighty years-on, these early pictures remain vivid and lush.
So to the movie itself. After Korngold’s memorable overture and an introductory scene between Claude Rains’ deliciously slimy Prince John (‘PJ’) and Basil Rathbone’s dangerous, edgy Guy of Gisborne (‘GG’), we see another leader of men: Errol Flynn’s Robin of Loxley (‘RH’) and his trusty lieutenant Will Scarlett ((‘WS’) Patric Knowles) as they ride out of a Northern Californian vale, into an equally unconvincing ‘Sherwood Forest’. I’m no arborealist (?), but the trees here don’t ‘look right’ to me. Anyhow, what do I know, for here’s GG and he’s caught a poacher… Enter RH and WS, to chase him off, rescue the oppressed Saxon (Much the Miller’s Son, as it turns out) and in so doing, recruit their first Merry Man. We’re off to the races.
Next, is Hollywood’s idea of a castle’s Great Hall, with the camera gliding slowly past a spit-roasting deer, a brace of hooded hawks, a gaggle of minstrels and assorted yeomen in serried ranks, there to drool at the food parading just out of reach, instead of patrolling the battlements. The camera then stops at a greedy wolfhound that’s picking at a carcass we’re led to believe any number of starving Saxons would die for… There’s PJ, picking oh-so frightfully over his dinner, before pausing only to smarm over MM. Their’s is a world of colour; of over-saturated stimulation beyond the scope of the beleaguered locals.
Talking of stimulation, here’s RH, striding into the Hall with the poached deer across his shoulders, like he owns the place. God, but Flynn looks like he’s enjoying himself in this part and the camera responds in-kind; with his classic good looks and physique, Flynn could have been filmed reading a shopping list aloud and he’d still have been a star: the camera loves him and it’s not all one-way traffic.
The meeting between saucy RH and chaste MM is quick and sparky, including allusion to GG’s own unrequited love for the maid, but PJ is impatient and asks for RH’s intentions (for our benefit, of course). As he obliges, Director Curtiz frames RH in heroic close-up for this defining speech. Then he’s off, being the guy who Curtiz last directed in Captain Blood, knocking-down newly mobilised guards with a chair, then up to a balcony (where no-one thinks to follow). There’s a pleasing, echoey clatter from the plywood & plastered flats dressed as worked stone; these are impressive, over-sized sets for all that, allowing for a variety of set-ups. Then escape: was there any doubt that Rob would escape to the Greenwood; a manor where he makes the rules?
A word now for WS, who’s unfortunate wardrobe makes Mr. Knowles resemble an animated Pepperami… As I mentioned, colours had to be bold so as not to appear washed-out under the numerous lights, but the film’s recent restoration & clean-up haven’t done this WS many favours. RH looks okay in his ‘Lincoln Green’, but there’s too much velvet and too many jewelled-studs to remain authentic. Remember: this is a Hollywood interpretation of a FairyTale. It’s the place that invented horned-helmets for Vikings and the down-pointing thumb for Roman Emperors at the games: make-believe, all.
Never one to hang about for long, RH’s soon gathers a rag-tag band of amateur terrorists (a-k-a ‘Freedom Fighters’), with reassuringly wholesome skin-tones underneath the pan-stick. After watching them swear allegiance to RH at a meeting held at ‘Gallow’s Oak’ (you know the place), we’re then treated to a montage as a variety of downtrodden (but swarthy) serfs watch their Norman persecutors die from unseen archers; one poor sod even has a flagon of wine poured over his head, when I’m sure he’d rather be drinking the stuff. If it all looks pretty tame, remember that Hay’s was still in-force: and the reason the film even existed… Give it a few years however, and things would change, once film-makers returned home from the battlefields of WW2.
By the time we meet Friar Tuck ((‘FT’) frog-voiced Eugene Pallete), the Merry Men are in co-ordinated suede jerkins and grass-green shirts, so they’ve obviously inducted one or two tailors along the way; even WS now looks almost restrained, as he spills the news that GG is accompanying a baggage train carrying ‘taxes’ through the forest. The ensuing scene, as the carts rumble towards RH’s hasty ambush, reminds me of a similar scene in Michael Mann’s superb remake of Last of the Mohicans. When the fateful attack occurs, we see assorted Merry Men swing on vines a-la Tarzan (a popular series of the age) or drop from trees, down onto unsuspecting (but ideally placed) Norman soldiers. As Curtiz snaps between the skirmish with the advance guard and GG & Co’s leisurely pace at the rear, so too does Korngold’s score adapt, flicking between two distinct motifs, until both coalesce as forces join battle. Watching the mayhem unfold, it’s obvious how this might’ve influenced George Lucas when planning the Ewok’s battle in Return of the Jedi. All we need are a few ‘chicken walkers’ and some logs swinging from ropes, and we’re good to go!
Happily, GG and the Sheriff of Nottingham ((‘SN’) Melville Cooper, as a glorious windbag of a Sheriff) are both captured and forced to exchange their finery for rags, while RH shows MM the seamier side of their camp. Far away from the BBQ and spontaneous dancing, there’s a much sadder tale to be told, in the shape of a proto-infirmary, where the injured & elderly decorously await scraps from his table. ‘Hardly an inspiring sight for such pretty eyes as yours, I’m sure’, says Rob to MM and he’s not wrong, for the crowd here are all that was left from the shallow-end of Central Casting’s pool of ‘rustic extras’. It’s enough to turn MM’s stomach, yet this lady’s not for turning, it seems: not now she believes in Rob’s ‘Grande Project’ and his intention to use the captured gold to pay the ransom keeping King Richard locked-up in an Austrian prison… Still with me?
Back at the castle, GG and SN are explaining-away their loss of the gold, to a sceptical PJ when the Sheriff suggests they hold an archery tournament with the prize of a ‘Golden Arrow’ to be presented by MM; as he points out: ‘The man who wins the Golden Arrow, will be Robin Hood!’ Uh, okay. A bit reductionist, but I’ll go with it…
Our reward? The first Hollywood tourney in colour, so it’s a shame that it looks little better than a school sports day… Unfair? Just as the opening feast showed us the Hollywood view of the past, so does this, with the lurid tunics of the Heralds, gaudy tents, etc. Speaking of which, having gone to the trouble of building a tent-village to border the set, it’s a shame that neither Curtiz nor Keighley thought to use any of it. After taking such pains to show us the goings-on in the Great Hall, the least I’d have expected, would be a blacksmith and some stables full of show-ponies dressed in bunting, but I’m just picky.
Rob turns-up, in a crappy ‘tinker’s’ disguise that fools everyone but MM; a disguise so good, in fact, that Disney Animation nicked it (and a whole lot more, besides) for their 1973 version, thus proving that art truly does feed upon itself. Inevitably, the Tinker wins and springs the trap. He’s captured! To be hung!
Next day, whilst reading the charges to the accused, GG looks like Queen Amidala from The Phantom Menace; he looks so anachronous to the period, it’s as though he’s gone full-circle and now fits-in.
Just as RH has saved MM’s soul (and sense of humour, it seems), so she’s now willing to repay the favour, by meeting the Merry Men at their boozer-in-town (the Saracen’s Head in Pegram Court, if you’re buying) and suggesting a plan to rescue her/their man. After that plays-out the next day, we see RH escape on horseback (again), through a sizeable exterior set, that has a tumbledown, dreamlike quality that reinforces just what the tone for this adaptation is, in case we’d forgotten: it’s a FairyTale. Isn’t it?
But we’re denied the FairyTale ending just a little longer, as first, we have to see King Richard first reveal himself, then challenge PJ at the point when his younger brother’s about to have himself crowned King: talk about leaving things to the last minute…
There follows the much-anticipated final duel / athletic grudge match between RH & GG; Curtiz shooting a previously-seen spiral staircase from a distance, allowing the combatant’s shadows to play over the masonry as they duel: a great, iconic scene. To conclude, a symbolic ‘casting-down’ of swords as RH & King Richard prevail. At last, RH wins MM’s hand and celebrates by whisking her off to pastures new; an evergreen heroic couple, to be rediscovered and re-imagined forever more.
Thus ends only the fourth highest-grossing film of 1938, but I bet you can’t name the top three?
So why has this endured? It’s not just the Technicolor, I’m guessing. Or Flynn’s animal magnetism, de Havilland’s ‘girl-next-door’ allure or, or, or… No, it will endure long into the future, because every element works in-harmony. The script is near-perfect, for the film it wants to be. Korngold’s score is a masterpiece; the composer only accepting the commission as a means of making an income, once Hitler’s annexation of his Austrian homeland had forced him into exile. The casting is top-notch as well. If I’ve been churlish about minor players, it’s only because I’m picky; when the era of its production is taken into account, this represented the state-of-the-cinematic-art. The picture even survived having its original Director Keighley replaced by Curtiz, when the studio felt results weren’t as engaging as they’d hoped for; an event that would be treated as a catastrophe these days, but back then, a commonplace event. Despite that, everything still looks, feels and sounds great. No wonder it’s survived: but then quality always does.
Our men can’t even lay a hot iron in the eyes of a tax dodge, without getting a black arrow in the throat. It’s outrageous!