Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Adventures of Robin Hood: A Love Letter to a Movie Classic

I have written on a number of films over the last couple of years that I really will never see again. There are the new blockbuster releases that are good for the weekend but don't leave a mark. There are the usual horror films that don't scare and leave you wanting more. And finally there are the films I looked forward to that disappoint and which will stay at best a vague memory as time goes by. When I first started blogging, the films that I wrote about were from the 1970s and many of them are old friends that I visit with and treasure on a regular basis. The closest of those old friends has been the Spielberg Classic "Jaws". I have a half dozen posts on it at this point so it is pretty clear how much I love that movie. Yet in spite of my admiration for that groundbreaking mid 70s classic, it is only my second favorite film of all time. You see I am in love with someone older. In fact, this month my object of adoration turns 75. My favorite movie ever, came out twenty years before I was born, but it looks as good now as it did in 1938. It is far more entertaining than most of the films being made today, and it has a cast that puts most of today's stars and supporting players to shame.

I first encountered this film on television back in the 1960s and I'm pretty sure I watched it in black and white because that was the TV my brothers and I had upstairs. My Mother insisted that she saw the film in theaters in Black and White, it may have been the 1948 re-release, I read somewhere that it went out in black and white prints but I cannot locate that proof at the moment. IMDB claims that an elaborate eight minute trailer existed at one point but that it is not in the Warner archives now. The one trailer that is available from early releases is the 1948 re-release trailer found here:

It was not until I was in my teen years that I remember seeing the film on television and in color. That is when my love affair really began. Some time in the mid 1970s, I went to a screening at the Rialto Theater in South Pasadena. This theater was a neighborhood movie palace from the old days, with ornate wall carvings and a balcony. A few years earlier it was converted into a revival house and old films as well as unusual fare were programmed into the theater. I think my Dad and I went and saw "The Sea Hawk" which was in black and white and "The Adventures of Robin Hood" in color, on the same night. 

Here is a video tracing the history of the Rialto Theater. 

If you look at it, you will see how easy it would be for someone to envision themselves seeing Robin Hood for the first time in 1938, even if it was 1976.

If you don't have time for the video, look at this image and try to imagine seeing The Adventures of Robin Hood in these surroundings.
I am a romantic at heart and the combination of the film with the setting almost certainly imprinted on me in a way that contributed to it becoming my favorite film. Swashbucklers are films focused on swaggering adventurers and clearly Errol Flynn was made for this role. He had already done "Captain Blood" and his star was on the rise. James Cagney was originally scheduled to play the part but a dispute with Warner Brothers put him out of the film and moved Flynn in.  Thank goodness, because as much as I admire Jimmy Cagney, I can't see him as Robin. Everyone who fell in love with Han Solo in Star Wars, should look at this movie and see where most of the character was cribbed from. Harrison Ford made his career playing parts that thirty or forty years earlier would have belonged to Flynn. The thrill I felt at seeing Luke and Leia swing across the chasm while pursed by stormtroopers in the first trailer for Star Wars, was exactly how I felt when Robin climbs the gate rope escaping the hangman, or swoops into the frame to greet the prisoners in the attack in Sherwood Forest.

The movie succeeds on so many levels that it is astonishing. Let me see if I can organize my enthusiasm a little for this discussion. I want to focus first on the characters as performed by the stars, and then discuss the story. When I finish with the main course, then we can take in the dessert that is the score and photography of the movie.

The Characters:

The Hero

Robin Hood, as portrayed by Flynn, is the very definition of a swashbuckling character. He is indifferent to  risks and seeks adventure by challenging the injustices inflicted on England by an illegitimate ruler.  Flynn gets three or four great entrance moments in the film. When we first see him, his horse bounds over a hedge and pulls up in time to rescue the desperate Much, the Millers son. His confronting of the diabolical Guy of Gisbourne, sets the tone for serious drama leavened with a scoundrel's humor. He is clearly established as a good hearted man who is offended by the casual injustices he sees popping up around him. He could stay detached and as Marion says at one point "live in comfort" but that is not his way. Backing off from conflict is not his way either. He invites it by taking the poached deer that was to doom Much, and delivers it in grand style to Gisbourne and Prince John. He swaggers into a feast filled with enemies making plans to put John on the throne, and pushes their soldiers out of the way with the antlers of the deer slung over his shoulders. He presents it as a gift from the King he remains loyal to, in a direct slap in the face to the barons gathered to depose him.
This second introduction sets up his willingness to defy the odds and his impudent character. He trades jibes with  Prince John and Sir Guy, he mocks the Barons with his tone of voice and manner, and he begins the serious flirtation that will be the center love story that pulls us all more deeply into the adventure. As he makes an escape later in the scene, we see his skill as a archer and his ability to improvise in a clever way by turning the gatekeepers into his allies. This is clearly a man who is able to stay above water using his wits and skills. It will take a cunning enemy to bring him down, and it is never clear that anyone on the other side will be able to match his wits in these confrontations. We know the depths of greed and ambition running in the Norman plot, it is their determination and ruthlessness that are Robin's biggest enemies, not their cleverness.

Robin's third great entrance is his appearance in Sherwood to end the attack on the caravan carrying the "ransom" money collected by Gisbourne's troops. Swinging out of the trees as if from nowhere he magically lands on a prominent rock and announces his welcome to the defeated enemy, who were accompanied by  Maid Marion. Each time Flynn steps up in front of his enemies, he does so in a manner designed to tweak them and flaunt his indifference to their animus. This is the key ingredient to a true swashbuckler, that and swordfighting. (More on this later).

The Villains

It is often said that a great action film is only as good as the villain that stands in the way of our hero and ultimate success. "The Adventures of Robin Hood " has a plethora of villains, and the tandem of Guy of Gisbourne and Prince John is impossible to match. Gisbourne is the blunt instrument of John's plans, and an ardent foe of Robin since he covets Marion for himself. 
Sir Guy is played by the amazing Basil Rathbone, the elegant and lean faced intellectual best known for embodying Sherlock Holmes in a series of films in the 1930s and 40s. Rathbone was a Shakespearean actor who was not new to swashbuckling adventures. He had already battled and lost to Flynn in Captain Blood, in a memorable sword fight on a beach. It has been said that Rathbone was the best fencer of all the Hollywood community. Given the number of times that swords were involved in his films it is not really hard to believe. Rathbone was also an accomplished film actor with two Academy award nominations to his name. His intense eyes and hawk like visage would be sure to frighten small children and make him an intimidating foe for our hero. The character of Sir Guy is a metamorphosis from the legends where he was a bounty hunter working for the sheriff. In this film he is a nobleman, conspiring with the Prince to seize the throne. Rathbone trades barbs with Flynn's Robin throughout the film, right up to the climactic sword duel that rightly remains legendary today.                        

A single foe would not be enough to challenge Robin however, even one as evil and dangerous as Guy of Gisbourne.  In the larger battle for England, outside of Sherwood Forest and his love of Marion, Robin must also stand off against the heir to the kingdom and a man trying to depose his brother, Prince John.  The man who would be king is played by Claude Rains, another fantastic actor who worked in the golden age of Hollywood as a star, as a character actor and as just about the best thing in nearly every movie he appeared in (and some that he disappeared in-"Invisible Man" joke). Rains was not a tall man but he exudes confidence and power in the role of Prince John. The stature may also have communicated his neediness to supplant his brother, like an early Napoleon complex. John is arrogant and self assured, at least until Richard returns. Even as Robin is reeking havoc in the countryside, John never seems over his head, rather his intensity simply grows. This shot, showing him picking out the juicy seeds of a pomegranate, is a sly reference to his plans to pick the country dry of taxes. All in the name of his brother but actually to buy his way to the throne. The effete and diminishing tone of voice that Rains uses to convey the character is a perfect counterpoint to the ebullient open naivete of Robin of Locksley. As they engage in the witty exposition at the feast Robin barges into, John openly admits that he likes Robin. He admires his audacity, a characteristic he and Robin share.    
This exchange is one of the earliest examples of the action hero and the evil villain, exchanging barbs and sharing exposition. Characters in movies today, still try to emulate the feeling of these scenes. John Maclane and Hans Gruber are descendants of this very byplay.

In most Robin Hood legends, the Sheriff of Nottingham is the main antagonist. Robert Shaw faced off against Sean Connery a second time in "Robin and Marion", and his Sheriff fits more closely the character from legend than the ineffectual but sly Melville Cooper. Cooper is largely played for laughs and portrays the Sheriff as a near cowardly shadow of the larger Gisbourne. He is awkward but also clever. It is he who contrives the archery tournament used to snag Robin. Most of the time he stays in the background, waiting to say just the wrong thing to irritate Sir Guy or Prince John. His plea for mercy and understanding at the end of the film on behalf of John is a great summary of his role, he is an echo existing for comic effect. 

The Band of Allies AKA The Merry Men of Sherwood

The legends of Robin Hood are filled with other characters that add color and drama to the tales. The men of Sherwood Forest comprise a guerrilla army, living off the land of the forest and taking plunder not for themselves but to right the injustices of the world. Robin begins the film in the company of Will Scarlet, but despite being the oldest of his friends, Will's character seems to diminish with the passage of the story. Once other members of his band begin to form, Will is only heard from occasionally. The personalities of the other actors may dwarf poor Patrick Knowles who played him. Early on they save Much the Miller's son from Sir Guy and he becomes the most loyal member of Robin's merry men. Much works as both fierce attack dog for the group but also for comic relief. He dispatches the assassin sent to kill the king, and he woos Bess, the chaperone to Maid Marion.In the final battle, he gets the laughs.Herbert Mundin is a familiar presence from many English based films of the 1930s. He also worked with Una O'Conner in a couple of other films where they portrayed a couple.

The most prominent member of Robin's merry men is Little John. So named because he is no such thing. The story of Robin meeting John and being bested by him with a quarterstaff stems from the early legends, so it is natural that it appears in just about every version of Robin Hood you can name. Little John is the muscle of the band, he is large and large hearted and here he is portrayed by Alan Hale (The Skipper's Dad). He worked alongside Flynn in more than a half dozen other films and the two seem to have a natural chemistry. Where Flynn is sophisticated, Hale is boisterous. Little John is Robin's sounding board and at times his Jimminy Cricket. Of course Robin disregards his inner voice on a regular basis because that's what swashbucklers do. Hale strikes me as a cowboy type and so it makes sense that he appears in the westerns that Flynn did as well.

The biggest if not the tallest of the merry men is Friar Tuck. Eugene Pallette was a very recognizable Hollywood fixture. He is in dozens of classic films from the 30s and 40s. As far as I could tell, this is the one time that he worked with Flynn. Friar Tuck is a swordsman partial to ale and good food. The scene where he carries Robin across the stream and tosses him in comes from some of the more recent legends. Pallete's froggy voice and girth were used primarily as comic foil to Little John in the picture. He does present a formidable opponent in the last sequence as well. He also represents a rarely listened to voice of reason in the outlaw group.

There were only two prominent roles for women in "The Adventures of Robin Hood". Bess is the chaperone/female companion and servant to the Lady Marion. She is a wise older woman with a big romantic streak. She serves as comic foil and confidant at various points in the film. The dalliance she undertakes with Much after the banquet in the forest allows her to serve as a conduit between Marion in the castle and the band of outlaws. She is played by Una O'Conner, who pops up in Universal Horror movies and Warner Brother Costume dramas on a regular basis.
Her bug eyes and memorable squeal make her a welcome comic addition to the story. Her accent and face made her feel very authentic in the Castle of Nottingham and in Sherwod Forest.

Lady Marion Fitzwalter is the ward of King Richard. A Norman noblewoman who creates a Romeo and Juliet type love story by falling for the disgraced Saxon Knight Robin of Locksley. She is played by the luminescent Olivia De Havilland. It is hard to imagine but at one point, the screen writers were planning on this story without the character. The movie is a romantic look at the Robin Hood legends, but how romantic could it be if there was no romance. As of this writing, she is still alive and just three years away from reaching the age of 100. De Havilland is of course the one surviving member of the cast from this film and from Gone with the Wind. In her career she was nominated multiple times for the Academy Award and she won twice. She made eight films with Errol Flynn and you can see why when you watch this movie. Lots of stars have chemistry together, Tracy and Hepburn, Garbo and Gilbert, Redford and Newman. This was a pairing that puts all of them in the back seat. They look great together, she seems to look at him with the worshipful eyes that Ashley Wilkes was supposed to get. The great balcony scene that is clearly stolen from Shakespeare, gives her a chance to pour on the googly eyes and honey voice and Flynn responds like a snake charmed by the movement and sound of a flute. In her defiant speech to the court of execution, she gives dignity to other nobles who are not part of the Prince's plot and she stands for equality between the Saxons and the Normans.  I don't think there has been a more attractive pairing of stars since, including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

The Story

Robin Hood is a character out of English folklore, although there are similar tales told in other cultures. There are many versions of the character and they do not seem to be based on a single person. In college I took a history class entitled "Outlaws and Outcasts of the European Past". I signed up in large part because Robin Hood was mentioned in the course description. Of course the historical information is a lot less romantic and the bits of history are inconsistent. That the story here works as well as it does is a reflection not only of character but of structure. The conflict between the Normans and the Saxons is not originally part of the legends, that is a contribution of the 19th century author Sir Walter Scott. It is used effectively here to create a sense of injustice not just from a heavy tax burden but from a sense of discrimination. That Marion is a Norman and Robin is a Saxon adds to the Romeo Juliet flavor of the story.

Setting the story in the time of Richard The Lionheart has become a fixture of the Robin Hood films. This appears to be a sixteenth century addition to the legend but it works really well at allowing political intrigue to mix with the exploits of Robin. This film was released just ten years after talking pictures became the norm. The device of using title cards was not to far from the past. The movie opens with a card that announces the set up for the story.

 The story of swashbuckling adventure in outer space that opened in 1977 heavily borrowed from the past and a simple comparison of the story cards reveals how similar they are. The film quickly establishes the characters of Robin and Sir Guy as adversaries. The plot to place John on the throne is hinted at in a banquet where the Norman barons are gathered. It is Robin himself that reveals the details. This shows that he is a sharp and observant thinker and his crashing of the feast sets the tone of jocular wordplay interspersed with daring escapes and fight scenes. This pattern is repeated several times in the story. Another pattern that comes up is the introduction of new characters through their interaction with Robin. Although the sequencing is quick, the structure might be a little repetitive, but the events are so well played and delightful that a couple of repetitions seems like a small price to pay.  Ultimately, the plot comes to a boil and the outlaws manage to infiltrate the castle at Nottingham with the returned but disguised Richard, just in time to break up a coronation ceremony. Robin and Sir Guy engage in an epic duel that sets the standard for screen swordplay.

The duel is imaginatively shot and paced very effectively. Each man gets the upper hand at different points and the locations of the combat change throughout. Of course the war of words continues as well. Robin consistently gets the better of Sir Guy with the one upsmanship dialogue.There is a terrific bit of business where the two combatants vanish from the frame but the duel continues in front of our eyes, magnified against a pillar wall in shadow. It is quite imaginative and effective as a moment of pure movie joy in this dramatic climax that we are witnessing.

Michael Curtiz is listed as Co-Director, but most of the movie was shot by him. Apparently William Keighley, the other director, was not getting the action scenes done the way the producers had envisioned. Although they had had a successful outing in an earlier film, Keighley was replaced by Curtiz . Curtiz also had a successful history with Flynn, having directed him to stardom in "Captain Blood" and "The Charge of the Light Brigade". Unfortunately his dictatorial style ruffled Flynn's feathers and he was despised by his star.
It appears that the feeling was mutual and Curtiz did not have much love for Flynn either. Even so, after the success of "The Adventures of Robin Hood", they worked together on four more Warner's pictures over the next three years. The very direct physical style that Curtiz used suited Flynn well and the action star was born on the big screen, breaking out of B movie melodramas and becoming a mainstream tradition. While the Saturday Serials may have influenced "Indiana Jones" style film making, it was the success of big budget movies like this which paved the way for careers of today's action stars .

The Music

Erich Wolfgang Korngold is the composer of the music to "the Adventures of Robin Hood". He had come from Vienna to help his friend adapt Mendelson music to a film. For four years he made a variety of contributions to the invention of film scores. He had returned to Austria to conduct an opera when the offer came to score Robin Hood. He accepted and came back to Hollywood. Right after he left the areas of Austria he lived in were annexed by Nazi Germany. He later said that the film saved his life. As a Jew he would have been targeted for the usual treatment in Nazi occupied lands. His style is clasically romantic as you can hear if you play the video clip above. After the war he returned to classical composition, but many film scholars describe his score for "The Adventures of Robin Hood" as one of the greatest film compositions ever. The strutting melody that is played when Robin crashes the barons banquet is a great example of adapting themes to scenes. The lush romantic themes for Marion and Robin's love scenes evoke a tenderness during turbulent times that promises a better day.

The Look

The Adventures of Robin Hood was one of the earliest films shot in Techicolor. In fact, they used all eleven  existing Technicolor cameras for the shoot. The cameras were returned to Technicolor at the end of shooting each day. The film looks amazing, the greens are incredibly deep and the reds pop off the screen. The studio made full use of the technology and spent a huge amount of money to make the movie. It won the Academy Award for Art Direction and when you look at the sets you can easily understand why.

I have a long history with the home versions of The Adventures of Robin Hood. A couple of years ago I donated all my VHS tapes to the Goodwill, so I do not have my purchased VHS version any more. I do have the copy I taped off of television in the early 1980s out in a box in the garage. I should dig it out, I'm sure it is an interesting artifact if it was done the way I think I remember doing it. There was a local station (KTLA) that ran movies in the evenings with only a couple of commercial interruptions. I usually let the commercials run out of gratitude for the limited breaks, so it will have some interesting TV history on it. I purchased my first Laser Disc player in 1990 and shortly after, invested in the Criterion Edition of the Laser Disc you see above. It has the original commentary track from film scholar Rudy Behmer that has been included on the DVD and Blu ray releases subsequently.

Of course the movie plays regularly on TCM and every time I come across it, there goes another two hours of my life. Last week my daughter and I went to a screening at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, hosted by the American Cinematheque. There were a couple hundred people there to share the experience. Several families came and they all seemed to be having as much fun as I was. We had a little trouble with the Fandango ticketing process but the screening was beautiful and the theater is in great shape. I should seriously consider joining the organization, I support what they do and the opportunities to see screenings like this would be greater. My only hesitation is that like a heroin addict, I'm afraid the entry level commitment is just the start. I can see myself easily moving into a theater seat there and not leaving.

From a Screening of Mildred Pierce in the Week before our Robin Hood Adventure.

The ceiling decor at the Egyptian from our seats.

The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn has been my favorite movie for forty years now. There are other movies that have been special and mean a lot to me but none has ever challenged the place in my heart that I hold for this treasure from the Glory Days of Hollywood.



Unknown said...

This is one of my favorite films. Everyone is perfectly cast for their roles. The colors are fantastic. The sword play and quarterstaff fights are admirable. I would like to find a dagger like the one Robin uses to eat as well as a bow styled like his. I would also like to find a staff like the one used by John Little. I also am tempted to purchase the film on DVD or Blu-ray if available but it is often on TCM as you indicated. I watch it every time it comes on.

Richard Kirkham said...

Thanks for sharing Jeff. I get hungry every time I see Robin gnawing on a mutation joint or cutting meat with that knife you mentioned. I watched it on TCM yesterday.

le0pard13 said...

Michael Curtiz, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, and crew firing on all cylinders! A great love letter to a movie classic, indeed.

Richard Kirkham said...

Thanks for coming by.

Unknown said...

Oh my goodness, I could chew the fat with you all day about this movie as it is my favorite of all the 10,000 or more movies I have seen in my life. As it is, I think you are underestimating Korngold's score as a very robust argument can be made that it is the single greatest original motion picture score in the entire history of the movies. And then there is the screenplay, which I have a published version of which is quite revealing in where it varies from the completed film. Finally -- for now at least -- William Keighley did in fact direct a substantial portion of the film, perhaps close to half as he directed all of the Sherwood Forest scenes plus several of the interiors before Michael Curtiz replaced him. Lastly, did you know that there are a few glaring errors in the end title credits? Perhaps someday we will chew the fat, who knows. You can find me on Facebook

Joseph Neola

Richard Kirkham said...


Thanks so much for coming bu and sharing some info on this fantastic film. I am always happy to meet a fellow merry man of Sherwood. The Korngold score really defines movie music for me. I heard John Mauceri and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra do it in live accompaniment to the film about a decade ago. It was an amazing night and one that I would repeat any day of the week. I hope you will return here for some more discussion on other films. I post on everything I see in a Theater, which means there is a lot of junk here, but I also post on older films that I love. I'm going to be more active this summer talking about other older movies and a return to Nottingham is not out of the question. I went Facebook and did a friend request through my Facebook Movie Page. I also found the video of the BBC Orchestra doing the Suite, that was a great twenty minutes of my day. Thanks again.