by Paul Batters
There are some films which we watch many times over. The excitement as the studio logo emerges on the screen and the opening titles begin to roll is palpable. The fact that we know what the plot twists are, how the characters will fare and what the ending will be is besides the point. Indeed, knowing that certain moments are coming gets us excited, nervous, afraid or angered – it’s all part of the journey that we’ve experienced and get to enjoy again. There’s every chance that we’ll discover something new along the way as well. After all, film is a powerful emotional experience. In some cases, there are films which are simply a joy to watch for the ‘umpteenth time’. For me, it’s one of the greatest films of the classic era; The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938).
The Warner Bros. masterpiece is a testimony to why the studio system worked and brings together all the best elements of what is termed the classic era of film-making. It’s spectacular in its’ grandeur and the audience takes a roller-coaster ride into adventure, romance and some of the greatest actions scenes ever put to the screen. The tale of the former Saxon lord turned rogue outlaw under Norman rule goes back hundreds of years and of course the 1938 version was not the first and was not the last. But there’s no doubt in this reviewer’s mind that it is the best.
Prior to Warner Bros. wanting to remake the film, the 1922 version with Douglas Fairbanks Snr was considered the quintessential version. It seemed impossible that anyone could usurp Fairbanks as Robin Hood, who in the public mind was the embodiment of the legendary literary character. Interestingly, Fairbanks had thought ahead and wanted to assure this would be the case, copywriting his script and the key concepts behind the character. As David Bret points out, Fairbanks was so determined to be original that he ignored much of the traditional ballads, allowing the scriptwriters Norman Reilly Raine, Seton Miller and Rowland Leigh plenty of material to work with and avoid copyright problems. As a result, the legendary tales from the original ballads are brought to life and remain the best shown on film. The screenplay is tight and the dialogue perfect for the action. No scene is wasted.
It’s impossible to imagine James Cagney in the role; yet he was slated for the role and arguably would have remained so if he had not walked out on his contract. As much as this reviewer is a fan of Cagney, it is fair to say this would have been disastrous casting. In fairness to Warner Bros. there were constant headaches and dramas caused by the newly cast star but without Errol Flynn, the picture would not have been the massive hit that it would become. There would be other problems on the film as well. Director Michael Curtiz replaced William Keighley who was removed from the film for several possible reasons). The relationship between Curtiz and Flynn was complex and difficult. Yet they collaborated on 12 films. Curtiz was undoubtedly the top director at Warners and knew his business, and it is evident in the tight pacing of the film.
At the time of the film’s release, Warner Bros. poured serious money into production (eventually pushing past the $2 million mark), with the vision of a film that would surpass anything that Hollywood had ever seen. They wanted everyone to know it and even the famous logo is redesigned as a hallmark to the milestone status of the film. Hal B. Wallis’ production unit would end up crafting a masterpiece that still stands as a template for masterpiece film-making. As Roger Ebert stated, ‘it is a triumph of the studio system’.
The casting is superb and again shows how the studio system had perfected the art of using its wide talent base. As a result, it doesn’t just sit on the shoulders of its stars which means every scene has a richness of its own, even if Errol Flynn isn’t in it. And when Flynn is present, each player compliments the other through their performances. If Errol Flynn has become the popular incarnation of Robin Hood, look at the rest of the cast. Olivia de Havilland is wonderful as Maid Marian and the band of Merrie Men; Little John (Alan Hale), Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles) and Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) are merry. Claude Rains is a perfect Prince John and the ever-dependable Basil Rathbone shines as Robin’s nemesis, Sir Guy of Gisborne.
The huge budget is evident in the lush settings, beautiful costumes and of course, the action, drama and romance is heightened by the rousing and beautiful score by the great Erich Wolfgang Korngold. For me, it is this amazing technical achievement and use of brilliant Technicolor which is impressive. Whilst colour had been available for some time, the three-strip process meant deep saturation achieved through complex lighting and very expensive cameras. Cinematographers Sol Polito and Tony Gaudio certainly knew their business and would have utilised the Technicolor experts who knew how to combine colour, contrast it and achieve the best results on film. The depth, warmth and beautiful palate of colour is breath-taking. Have a look at the archery tournament; it’s a stunning example of how the key elements all come together:
Of course, it is about Robin Hood and Errol Flynn was never better. It speaks volumes for the intuition of Hal B.Wallis to cast Flynn when Cagney walked out of the studio. Watching Flynn on screen as the legendary outlaw is watching a masterclass of natural acting. There’s an infectious energy that emanates from Flynn and he combines the devil-may-care attitude and sense of justice of the literary character with an overwhelming sense of fun, adventure and excitement. Flynn is Robin Hood. Make no mistake though, Flynn brings a beautiful range of emotion in channelling the outlaw. Note his casual contempt for Prince John at the banquet, as well as the wit and fearlessness he shows as he struts into the lion’s den. He laughs in the face of danger whilst fighting for his friends and the oppressed people of England with deathly seriousness. His love for Maid Marian is as gentle as he is strong whilst admiration for her spirit. And when he fights with sword in hand, the action is outstanding:
What stands tall with The Adventures Of Robin Hood is that it is the perfect balance of action, adventure and drama with the moral standpoint of our hero. These men are not just a band of men on a lark, carousing and causing problems for their Norman lords. The struggle is very real, made evident when Robin shows Marian the suffering of the Saxons and the montage sequence showing the brutality and cruelty meted out. Robin shows no fear in telling Prince John to his face that he plans rebellion but that his hatred is for oppression not the Normans. Underlying the film is the essence of the legend itself; the importance of fighting against tyranny and protecting those unable to defend themselves in that fight. Is this a lesson that has ever become redundant?
Time Out made the following comment in its assessment of the film:
‘One of the few great adventure movies that you can pretend you are treating the kids to when you are really treating yourself’.
It’s how I have felt about The Adventures Of Robin Hood since I first saw it as a child and it remains an absolute treat, no matter how many times I have watched it. It will always remain so for me and I hope I get the chance to treat my grandchildren someday while treating myself again.
This article is a proud submission for For The Umpteenth Time Blogathon hosted by Therese Brown at CineMaven’s Essays On The Couch. Please visit there to read all the other great articles for this blogathon.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.