Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Adventures of Robin Hood ( 1938 )

"I'll never rest until every Saxon in this shire can stand up free men and strike a blow for Richard and England!"

Never has there been a more joyous swashbuckler filmed than Warner Brothers' The Adventures of Robin Hood ( 1938 ). The centuries old legend of the bold outlaw who robbed from the rich to give to the poor comes to life in this glorious adaptation which brims over with thrilling swordplay, sweet romance, a stellar cast, a thousand resplendent costumes, and a rousing orchestral score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Verily, the film serves up a right merry feast of entertainment.

No archer ever lived that could speed a gray goose shaft with such skill and cunning as Robin, nor has any actor embodied a character as well as Errol Flynn does in his portrayal of this lusty rogue.

The legends of Robin Hood date back to the 14th century when tales of the famous outlaw were spread across the shires through ballads. Innumerable authors have passed the stories down in various tellings throughout the ages but it is undoubtedly Howard Pyle's inspired adaptation of the legends in his 1883 masterpiece "The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood" that set the tone for this film.

Like the book, The Adventures of Robin Hood transports its audience to an England of yor; a time of grand pageantry, when knights roamed errant through virgin countryside in search of adventures and the world was bathed in the glow of medieval romance. It was also a time of oppression for serfs who were under the rule of scoundrelly noblemen, such as Sir Guy of Gisbourne.

Storybook thrills abound in Norman Reilly Raine and Seton Miller's script, which weave elements of romance, comedy and adventure in its simple story of tyranny opposed and virtue triumphed. Robin Hood and his band of merry men, loyal to King Richard, set things right for England when the King's dastardly brother, the Norman Prince John, usurps the throne and wrenches tax money, yea, and the very blood, from the oppressed Saxons. The King's royal ward, Lady Marian, despises Robin Hood and his thieving ways until she sees the broken, destitute masses which he cares for in the forest. Then her heart goes out towards him and his noble cause and she becomes the outlaw's ally, eventually saving him from the gallows.

James Cagney was originally cast as the archer in green tights when Warner Brothers began development on Robin Hood in 1935. The studio was slowly expanding its output to include adventure films and prestigious historical dramas in an effort to compete with its rival Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and reach a broader audience.

After the success of Warner's A Midsummer Night's Dream ( 1935 ), costume designer Dwight Franklin suggested that the same formula could be translated well to another period piece, that of the tales of Robin Hood. Executive producer Hal Wallis decided to reunite most of the principle cast for this project, including Anita Louise as Lady Marian, Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins as some of the merry men, and Hugh Herbert as Friar Tuck.  Ho! but during the development stage James Cagney had one of his frequent rows with the studio and walked out on his contract, not returning for nearly two years.

Since much time and money had already been invested in the story, Wallis decided to cast the studio's rising star, Errol Flynn, in the lead. The part of the charismatic Saxon knight was a glove-fit for this devilishly handsome actor who had a roguish air and an athletic knack for leaping over parapets.

Fate dealt a fortuitous hand with Cagney's departure, for Flynn's arrival precipitated a complete overhaul of the project. What resulted was a film which could not be more impeccably cast. Claude Rains cloaked himself in red as the villainous Prince John, a urbane schemer who finds the feather-capped archer's exploits wryly amusing. Basil Rathbone had a long career portraying villains and did a stellar performance as the wicked pirate Levasseur in Captain Blood in 1935. For this film he donned the garb of the egotistical Sir Guy of Gisbourne.

Lady Marian could not be envisioned more lovely than Olivia de Havilland, who had just launched her film career three years prior with her appearance as Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Once Errol Flynn was cast as Robin Hood there was no doubt that de Havilland would portray his "bold Norman beauty", since the two were such an ideal couple in Captain Blood and The Charge of the Light Brigade. They would go on to make six more films together.

Robin's rakish derring-do would be for naught without the aid he received from his motley band of merry men : Alan Hale had portrayed the bearish Little John in the 1922 Douglas Fairbanks version of Robin Hood, so it was a natural choice that he reprise the role for this film. Hale and Flynn were a right jolly team and, over the course of their careers, were united for 13 films. Patric Knowles was Robin's lyre-strumming comrade-in-arms Will Scarlett ( a role originally intended for David Niven ) and Eugene Palette, the portly Friar Tuck. 

Also cast was Herbert Mundin as cheerful Much, who casts a favorable eye on Bess, Marian's twittery lady-in-waiting, portrayed by Una O'Connor; Ian Hunter as King Richard, and Melville Cooper as the oafish Sheriff of Nottingham.

Shafts of sunlight streaming down through the leafy canopy of Sherwood Forest were captured in the splendor of three-strip Technicolor by the perceptive eyes of cinematographers Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito, who were utilizing the newly developed Technicolor cameras. This was a cumbersome and costly process but it lent the film an unsurpassed richness in color. This beloved Sherwood of Robin's just happened to be Bidwell Park located in Chico, California. Never had England seen so much sunlight in one summer.

Director Michael Curtiz took over the scepter of command from William Keighley midway through production and deserves much credit for the sprightly pace of The Adventures of Robin Hood. He captured the grand-flourishing manner of silent day swashbucklers with their crowd-pleasing heroics and bold swordplay. Some of the sequences were even filmed "undercranked" which sped up the action on screen in silent-era fashion. 

Errol Flynn was Douglas Fairbanks reincarnated with his broad-gestured displays of machismo. Stuntmen were used in some shots of the film, but many a daring-do was performed by Flynn himself who wanted it known that he did not shy away from physical feats.

The Adventures of Robin Hood was an enormous hit upon its initial release on May 14, 1938, with critics praising its sheer exuberance and audiences of all ages coming to take a pilgrimage to the land of medieval fancy. Robin's arrows soared through the air to land with a resounding ffffrupp! on the bullseye of entertainment. Warner Brothers gathered nearly $4 million into its purse and the film went on to win three of the four Oscars it was nominated for at the Academy Awards ( losing the Best Picture award to You Can't Take it With You ).

The Adventures of Robin Hood remains a favorite amongst cinephiles nearly eighty years since Robin made his heroic entrance into Sherwood Forest. It is still considered one of the best films of its type and possesses all of its initial zest and vitality, in no small part due to Errol Flynn's exuberant portrayal of Robin Hood. He shows us a character so supremely alive that to him all of life is a lark. What makes him so wonderful to behold is he lights the fire of life within the audience as well. Our cares disappear and we wonder why we take our petty problems with such seriousness when Robin could face death innumerable times without ever losing a feather in his cap.

Numerous remakes have been undertaken over the years but none have been able to capture the essence of Robin Hood without cynicism or postmodern mockery. This film was made with sublime innocence in an decade when righteousness and evil could be presented to the audience in simple black and white imagery without brushing virtues and sins together into murky grays. The cast and crew of Robin Hood set out to make the picture, not as a technical masterpiece, but purely for the aim of providing entertainment to the masses, and verily, this task was accomplished with thunderous success.

This post is our contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's annual spring blogathon The Fabulous Films of the 1930s. Be sure to head on over to CMBA's website to check out all the wonderful posts celebrating the grand films of the 1930s. 


  1. "Never had England seen so much sunlight in one summer." You crack me up.

    Indeed if I were a voting member of the Academy in 1938 this would have been my choice - voting early and often! Every aspect is glorious, and you have given the film its well-deserved due.

  2. It really is perfect,isn't it. And a mention too for the glorious music of Erich Korngold.

    1. Yes, I can't imagine what the film would be without Korngold's memorable theme.

  3. Thank God Cagney had a row with Warners! Your post was as delightful as the film.You use the work "joyous" and that is a simply perfect description of everything about Robin Hood. I am a fan, also, of the Fairbanks silent version and think Flynn's performance owes much to that, but this film stands on it's own as perfect entertainment. And you really did bring a real smile to my face with your witty post. It took me a few tries to get past "No archer ever lived that could speed a gray goose shaft with such skill and cunning as Robin, nor has any actor embodied a character as well as Errol Flynn does in his portrayal of this lusty rogue." Good stuff.

  4. A beautifully written piece on a truly wonderful movie. Such a great cast, and rousing adventure is irresistible. Good point here -- "...but none have been able to capture the essence of Robin Hood without cynicism or postmodern mockery." This, I think, is one of our biggest hang-ups and greatest failures as a society today. We are uncomfortable with idealism. But in the thirties, when they had a right to lose heart, magnificent Flynn can fly down on his vine and make us believe.

  5. Great Post! You really captured the joy this film brings to anyone who watches it. Flynn doesn't get a lot of credit today because he isn't considered a great actor, but he certainly was a great movie star and his charisma is one of the reasons Robin Hood is still fresh and lively today.

  6. "Joyous swashbuckler" is the perfect description of this film. It never grows old, does it?

    I agree that modern interpretations of this story have metaphorical eye-rolling, and maybe that's what modern audiences expect. However, this film is special because it is so exuberant and the cast is so wonderful.

    Great choice for the blogathon!

  7. I can't even imagine this movie with Cagney!! The first Robin Hood movie I saw (that I remembered all of) was the Mel Brooks version. It was fun watching this one and seeing how much Brooks took from it.

    I loved watching the special features on the dvd about the film score and the Technicolor process!

    Great post as always! :)

    1. I had seen parts of this one as a child and remember thinking how beautiful Maid Marion was. Now de Havilland is one of my favorite actresses.

    2. Olivia is such a wonderful - and beautiful actress. Since you're a fan of hers you must have read the story about how de Havilland was in love with Errol during the making of the film. Midway through production he told Olivia that his relationship with Lilly Damita was all over and he was free to marry her. She told him to wait a little and see ( knowing that he probably still loved Lilly ) and that proved true. Years later, in Paris in 1959, she saw The Adventures of Robin Hood in the theatre and realized then just how GOOD that film was and, feeling inspired, she began to write a letter to Errol Flynn about all their film pairings together. She tore it up then because she feared he would think her too sentimental but he died just a few weeks later and she said then that she regretted not sending that letter. Sometimes you just have to listen to your heart's instinct and do things on the spur. Poor dear, she probably still regrets that even now.

    3. Yes...so sad. I really want to read a biography about her but my library doesn't have one.

  8. Errol and Olivia are the ultimate Robin and Marian. I never tire of watching this movie, it's entertainment at its best. Thanks for the wonderful post!

    1. The late 1930s were really the golden era in Hollywood and I'm so glad that Robin Hood came out in 1938 vs 1939 when the Academy Award committee would have probably overlooked the film in favor of the more dramatic films of the year. Swashbucklers so often get passed by at the Oscars, even though I think they are most entertaining genre of all. And you're quite right, Errol and Olivia are the best Robin and Marian.

  9. I LOVE this movie!!!! It's one of my very favorites, and certainly my favorite adventure/swashbuckling movie!!! Great post, thanks!!!

    1. We're glad you enjoyed the post Robin. I think it is an all-time favorite for MANY people ( including us ).

  10. Great review! I loved this line: "Never had England seen so much sunlight in one summer." And never had medieval people and castles been so spotlessly clean! This is such a great movie. Flynn is one of the most charismatic actors I've ever seen--you can't take your eyes off of him. And the Technicolor! There's a wonderful chapter devoted to this film in Scott Higgins' "Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Color Design in the 1930s." You make a wonderful point about why this film endures as opposed to "cynical" or postmodern remakes. Thanks for a great read!

  11. Dear Metzinger Sisters,

    Greetings from PEPS! This is a fine article! I didn't know that James Cagney was originally cast in this film. This is a very interesting fun fact. I agree that Olivia de Havilland is a perfect Maid Marian. Her costumes are gorgeous, and she's so beautiful that she even looks good in the ones that aren't as magnificent.

    I, Rebekah Brannan, have not participated much in the blog world in the past, but I intend to become more involved now. I have read some of your other articles, and they are all informative and enjoyable.

    I would like very much for you to participate in my upcoming blogathon, The Singing Sweethearts Blogathon, which will be my first real participation in PEPS. This blogathon, which will be hosted around Valentine's Day, is celebrating the famous singing team Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.

    You can read the rules of the blogathon at: https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2017/12/20/ring-the-assembly-bell-here-comes-the-singing-sweethearts-blogathon/. If you want to join, please comment and tell me your topic, if you have chosen one. I hope you'll join me in honoring this brilliant team and the holiday of love!


    Rebekah Brannan