The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
I had the pleasure of watching The Adventures of Robin Hood recently, a film I've seen many times over the years. I was first introduced to this movie as a child on a Sunday afternoon when the BBC would often show Hollywood classics. My father was very enthusiastic about this movie and waxed lyrical about Erich Wolfgang Korngold iconic score. It had a profound effect upon me upon my initial viewing and set the benchmark very high for subsequent swashbucklers I saw. It has shaped my views on how a good action/adventure movie should be constructed and the fact that no matter how many impressive set pieces you may have, a strong script, written in the appropriate idiom, is always required.
I won’t waste people’s time or insult your intelligence by attempting to write a review for The Adventures of Robin Hood. It is a total classic and milestone in the history of cinema. It should not be taken as an accurate historical depiction of the times, but more as the embodiment of the concept of high adventure. It is vivid and flamboyant piece of cinema with its use of Technicolor, sumptuous production design and remarkable set pieces. The cast is outstanding with Errol Flynn giving a casual yet strong performance. But it is Basil Rathbone who smoulders as the evil and love torn Sir Guy of Gisbourne. Olivia De Haviland is dignified and suitably virginal and there is solid support from Eugene Pallette, Alan Hale Sr. and Herbert Mundin.
Seventy seven years on from its original release, can The Adventures of Robin Hood still appeal to a modern audience? Yes it can, as long as you approach the movie understanding that acting, editing and the overall pacing was approached differently in the 1930’s. This very moral tale still has a compelling story arc and is in many respects not that different from a modern blockbuster. All the essential elements are there from the hero with a cause, a socially complex romance and the triumph of good over evil. It is a common mistake to think that films from this era were heavily constrained by the social morals of the time. This is not the case. Film makers were just more subtle and adept with their craft. There is sexual tension and violence in The Adventures of Robin Hood. It is simply not overstated. For example Much the Miller’s son is slapped around the ear by a knight wearing a mail gauntlet. He bleeds quite noticeably from this casual brutality, yet it is shown in a matter of fact fashion.
The 2008 Blu-ray release has finally done justice to this movies use of “Three-strip Technicolor”. The high definition transfer is simple gorgeous to watch. The picture is detailed and free from print damage and excessive grain. The colours are rich and heavy due to the Technicolor. It looks like it was shot yesterday. One of the things that struck me while watching the movie is the sophisticated and innovative camera work. There are superb tracking and crane shots that you seldom see outside of an Argento film. These are even more fascinating when you consider the fact that the cameras used where the size of fridges. The sound design is very distinct and it’s nice to see that Warner Brothers have not made the usual mistake of replacing the original Mono soundtrack with a multi-channel remix. Many of the sound effects are still used in the Warner sound library today. As mentioned earlier the Korngold score is a stand-out feature of this movie. It embellishes the story to the extent that it becomes a character in its own right.
There are also a wealth of extras which are extremely informative. This film was a massive financial undertaking for the studio at the time and it was far from a trouble free production. The replacing of the original director William Keighley with Michael Curtiz, must have been a colossal risk, yet does not seem to have impacted upon the movie in a detrimental manner. There is also a very nice demonstration reel, showcasing the talents of master archer Howard Hill. It’s a well-known fact (but one worth re-iterating) that Hill shot real arrows at the heavily padded stunt team, never once missing the beech wood blocks concealed within their costumes. The iconic splitting of an arrow by another, a feat they couldn't reproduce properly on Mythbusters, was done for real. It should be noted that not all stunts and set pieces went well. The double for Basil Rathbone fell awkwardly on his legs at the films denouement resulting in both being broken.
The Adventures of Robin Hood is a testament to the old adage that however much things change, they remain the same. Hollywood has always known what works well at the box office and each decade has its own examples of commercially successful movies that are also of artistic merit. We do still have them even today, yet they are often hidden among the reboots, sequels and general multiplex fodder. The Adventures of Robin Hood is a fine example of honest and well-conceived mainstream film making. It still has relevance today and I would urge those who may not be familiar with this film to acquaint themselves with it.