Robin Hood (1938)
Genre: Historical Romance/Swashbuckler
Back when I did a review of the first Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland movie “Captain Blood,” I said I’d eventually get back to doing more swashbuckling reviews. Yes, it’s taken me a while but here is one of the best of the genre and perhaps The definitive Robin Hood of them all. At least so far.
The plot is a mish mash of the old Robin Hood myths and legends along with some frankly made up stuff that the powers that be in Hollywood thought sounded and looked good. It’s after the 3rd Crusade and England groans under the tyranny of Prince John (Claude Rains)who’s the man in charge with his elder brother away first fighting and then being taken prisoner for ransom. John uses this as an opportunity to bleed the Saxon peasants dry as well as make a bid for the throne using Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) to help him. But Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn) gathers the oppressed into a band of Merrie Men (Patric Knowles, Alan Hale, Eugene Pallette, and Herbert Mundin among others) who rob from the rich and give to the poor while they fight to keep Richard’s throne for him until his return. Plus there’s a romance with Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland), an archery tournament and some entertaining sword fights along the way.
This film must have burst off the screen in glorious three strip Technicolor in 1938. The DVD I have has loads of extras including a commentary tract that I suggest all fans of the film listen to. There have been plenty of Robin Hood films made both before and after this one but in my mind, this one is the best. As commentator Rudy Behlmer says “the whole film is idealized. A fairy tale illustrated by Technicolor.” I’m sure medieval peasants, castle great halls, and archery tournaments never looked anything like this but Warner Brothers makes me want to believe they did.
The film has the standard elements: a hero who fights for justice against those in power, a heroine whom he at first spars with in a “they’re destined to fall in love” kind of way before she finally realizes what he’s doing and throws in with him, a band of equally oppressed followers who revere him, great rousing speeches, daring acrobatics, tense encounters with the villains, great villains with whom to have these encounters, fantastic fights, narrow escapes then finally triumph over evil and the reward the hero deserves. Basically you could take Captain Blood and change the costumes and voila, there’s the movie.
There are many places where the film could have ended up looking very different from what we have today. Two different directors and two screenwriters are responsible for it yet the whole blends together beautifully. Eric Korngold’s music sweeps the action along and Olivia de Havilland never looked lovelier in her many changes of costume. There’s Michael Curtiz’s shadow work and his skill with the large action sequences plus one of the most sigh-worthy love scenes after Robin hauls his way up the ivy outside Marian’s castle room. And who can do a full throated, deep belly laugh quite as well as Flynn can? Warner Brothers studio was known as the large scale, action specialists and they prove it here again and again. There were even special recordings made to get just the right “singing zing” of the arrows.
Maybe one day I’ll change my mind about which is the best Robin Hood movie – after all Russell Crowe is taking a stab at it soon. But I don’t think anyone will ever be able to top this one for sheer pageantry, entertainment value and fun.