Review: “Robin Hood” (1938)
WARNING: ROPE-SWINGING SPOILERS
Whenever the film industry develops a new technology they tend not to scrimp. Sound? How about SONG! Color? We’ll make every red as succulent as a marichino cherry! 3-D? Let’s throw shit in your face for two hours!
“The Adventures of Robin Hood,” which was originally to be filmed in black-and-white and star James Cagney, was one of the first films shot with the three-strip technicolor process, and it shows, because the color really, really shows. Robin Hood was never so green, Will Scarlett was never so scarlet, and Sherwood Forest never looked like such a merry place to live.
Why is the movie still so good? Because it lives up to its title. These are adventures. They’re fun. Against a backdrop of oppression and tyranny, famine and regicide, everyone takes things about as seriously as little boys on a neighborhood caper. No one bleeds, the best fights are with friends, and you get to swing on rope swings. Grit hasn’t clogged the works yet.
Then there’s Errol Flynn. Douglas Fairbanks may have been more graceful, and subsequent Robins may have been more realistic, but no Robin Hood was more charming, romantic, or seemed to have more fun. Ironically, it was not the kind of role he wanted. He was after serious drama, Paul Muni roles, such as “The Life of Emile Zola” or “The Good Earth,” that won Academy awards and respect. Instead he got stuck playing the most famous film version of one of the most legendary characters of all time. We should all be so stuck.
There’s no fat here. It takes the Fairbanks version an hour, and the Costner version 45 minutes, to get us where “Adventures” gets us in five minutes: Robin Hood in Sherwood messing with the bad guys.
You know the backstory: King Richard’s away at the Crusades, he’s left Longchamps as Regent, but Prince John (Claude Rains) and Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone)—with the High Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) along as comic relief—plot, scheme and steal. When Richard is kidnapped by Leopold of Austria, John and Guy drink to a bright, evil future, then spill the wine and watch the red liquid drip on the floor with metaphoric delight. In quick order their men take meat from Saxon butchers and torture Saxon landowners. Then Sir Guy is about to kill Much, the Miller’s son (Herbert Mundin), for violating Forest law, but Robin of Locksley (Flynn) and his squire, Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles), appear on horseback and Robin shoots Guy’s mace from his hand. Now Robin has an enemy (Guy) and a follower (Much).
In every film version of the Robin Hood legend, the outlawed “merry men” are already in Sherwood Forest, either leaderless or led nominally by Little John, when Robin finally appears to offer true leadership. Except here. Here Robin appears first. He has a plan. He's so sure of this plan he saunters into the palace with the king’s deer over his shoulders, and, after annoying Sir Guy, amusing Prince John, and flirting with a put-off Maid Marian Fitzwalter (Olivia de Havilland), lays out his entire plan—the entire story, really—before his enemies:
Robin: I’ll organize revolt. Exact a death for a death. And I’ll never rest until every Saxon in this shire can stand up free men and strike a blow for Richard and England.
John: Have you finished?
Robin: I’m only just beginning. From this night on, I’ll use every means in my power to fight you.
Cue swordfight against a multitude, bows and arrows, escape into the night.
Why is this movie still so good? It’s exceptionally well-paced—mixing longer, memorable scenes with shorter, necessary exposition. After the above, for example, we watch the following:
Exposition: Robin is declared outlaw, his lands taken.
Long scene: The introduction of Little John
Exposition: Words spreads among the townspeople: “Robin in Sherwood.” “At the gallows oak.”
Exposition: The merry men, gathered together for the first time, take an oath to fight their oppressors to the death.
Exposition: Three examples of same: oppression of Saxons followed by a black arrow, Robin’s arrow, into the chest or back of a Norman knight.
Long scene: Intro of Friar Tuck.
At the end of Tuck’s intro, Will rides up to inform everyone that Sir Guy and the Sheriff are riding through Sherwood with a caravan of gold. And we’re ready.
The movie was initially directed by William Keighley (“Each Dawn I Die”), but Hal Wallis at Warner Bros. thought the Sherwood scenes, filmed on location in Chico, California, lacked vitality, and they replaced him with Michael Curtiz (“Angels with Dirty Faces”; “Casablanca”), who added just that. He filmed additional scenes of the merry men prepping for and then attacking the caravan, and all of that climbing, running and jumping, sometimes directly at the camera, feel like primers for the masculine energy of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”
The caravan includes, nonsensically, Maid Marian, which affords Robin the opportunity to woo her. Up to this point she’s believed the Norman lies about Saxons. But when the merry men display loyalty for Richard, and, more, when Robin shows her the Saxon poor and the sick that Prince John’s laws have created—living 10 yards from where his men are feasting and whooping it up—she’s won over. I wasn’t. It’s always dangerous for adults to critique the plot points of children’s stories, but the one thing that never made sense to me watching this movie as a child was this Sherwood Forest segregation. “How come the poor and sick haven’t been invited to the feast?” I thought at age 10. “How come they’re stuck in this cold, dark place, while the merry men are living it up over there? Seems unfair.” Thus are critics born.
Afterwards, the Sheriff, proving he’s not just comic relief, comes up with the plan for the archery contest, Robin Hood splits Philip of Arras’ arrow, and, in winning, is revealed, captured and sentenced to hang. It’s Marian, traveling to Kent Road Tavern, who nonsensically provides the escape plan. Following its success, we get a Romeo-and-Juliet-ish balcony scene between the two. Despite closed-mouth kissing and Hays Code proprieties, Flynn and de Havilland are still able to generate a great deal of heat.
Meanwhile, a disguised King Richard returns to England and allies with Robin even as Prince John tries to coronate himself. Marian is imperiled (though not, for once, her virtue—Hays Code again), and there’s the usual final assault on the castle and a duel between Robin and Sir Guy on the castle steps. Check out the long take, where, with Curtiz’s camera gliding back, the two men duel around a thick column and out of camera range but we continue to see their shadows clashing swords; then they come back on the opposite side of the column, foils still clashing. It’s dynamic and mythic, and surely influenced the light-sabre battles between Luke and Darth Vader in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Not many directors have used shadows better than Curtiz.
Question: Was the Norman-Saxon angle, absent from the Fairbanks version, a comment upon “master race” talk and events already eminating from Nazi Germany? The Crusades, on the other hand, so prominent in the Fairbanks version, are downplayed here, reflecting isolationist sentiment that was popular in the U.S. at the time. When a disguised Richard asks Robin how an outlaw who poaches the King’s deer can be a loyalist, for example, we get the following exchange:
Robin: Those I kill die from misusing the trust that Richard left with them. And the worst of these is Richard’s own brother.
Richard: Oh! Then you blame Prince John.
Robin: No, I blame Richard. His task was here at home defending his own people instead of diverting it to fight in foreign lands.
Richard: You condemn Holy Crusades?
Robin: Aye, I’ll condemn anything that leaves the task of holding England for Richard to outlaws like me.
In the end, with Sir Guy skewered and John and the Sheriff banished, King Richard commands Robin to take the hand of the Lady Marian; their friends all gather round to congratulate them but they slip out of the circle. It’s a replay of Robin slipping out from under a hogpile of Prince John’s men earlier in the movie. Here, he and Marian wind up by the door, where Robin, smiling, shouts: “May I obey all of your commands with equal pleasure, Sire!” Then they leave, the door closes, The End.
It’s what you’d call a Hollywood ending. I wouldn’t have it any other way.