Thursday 18 March 2010

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Directors: Michael Curtiz and William Keighley
Stars: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

One of the most expensive and successful films of its time, The Adventures of Robin Hood is generally regarded as both the quintessential telling of the Robin Hood legend and the quintessential Errol Flynn movie. I'd agree with the former, though with the caveat that I haven't yet seen the Douglas Fairbanks version, which has all the potential of equalling it, merely without colour or sound. The latter could be fair comment too, though while there are more substantial stories in his filmography this one surpasses them all as a timeless fairy tale. The important thing to remember is a note in the opening credits that defines it as being 'based upon ancient Robin Hood legends' and only with that mindset does it work. Try to read believability, reality or history into it and it fails, quickly and surely. Watch it as a thing of myth, especially one painted in such vivid colours as this, and it's definitive.

A good part of the huge two million dollar budget went on that colour, which was incredibly expensive at the time. Warner Brothers had pioneered the use of colour as well as sound, their first colour picture being On with the Show in 1929, to be followed by many others in the early thirties, but that was two strip Technicolor. The Adventures of Robin Hood was three strip Technicolor, a more vivid process that they used for the first time only a year earlier with God's Country and the Woman. They also shot Gold is Where You Find It in 1938, which in many ways was a deliberate test for this film, which had a much higher budget and expectation for success. Sure enough, it cost more than any previous Warners film but pulled in double its budget in ticket sales, making it one of the biggest pictures of the year.

Three strip Technicolor makes for very vivid, sometimes almost unbearably garish colours, but it rings very true that such a colourful story should appear just as colourful on the screen. The downside is that studios were not able to purchase Technicolor cameras, forced to rent them instead along with the technicians to use them. This film rented all eleven such cameras that existed at the time. Filming required more lighting than usual, consequently leading to risk of dehydration, especially on costume dramas, and potentially permanent eye damage. The payoff is what we see here, with the costumes almost leaping out of the screen at us, in their bright primary colours, not just Lincoln green.

The story is well known so nothing here is likely to surprise anyone who read tales of Robin Hood as a child, this being mostly sourced from the many 19th century renditions of the story. In fact, this film succeeded so well that it became the primary source for much of the Robin Hood mythos in the 20th century. The books I read when I was much younger had been written by people who had seen and absorbed the feel of this film. Certainly none of the many screen adaptations of the story since have come close to matching the iconic stature of this one, with the single exception of the animated Disney version in 1973. After all, even as a live action film this is good against evil on the most simplistic cartoon levels, so turning Sir Guy into a snivelling snake called Sir Hiss, voiced by the dastardly Terry-Thomas, isn't really that far removed from what writers Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I Miller set in motion here.

The year is 1191 and the much loved king of England, Richard the Lion-Heart, has gone to fight in the Holy Land, leaving custody of his kingdom to a regent called Longchamps rather than to his own brother, the villainous Prince John, who promptly takes over anyway. John and his Norman followers are unashamedly villanous, greedy men one and all but who also apparently simply relish being villains. They tax the good Saxon people beyond any means of payment. They steal anything they want simply because they want. They hang, slay or torture anyone who objects, though the gruesome element of such actions is kept offscreen because this is emphatically a movie for family consumption.

Claude Rains is wonderfully haughty as the conniving Prince John, a massive change from his dynamically insane debut as The Invisible Man five years earlier. Every part I see him in seems to add to his range and here even his red hair and beard seem to mock us. Everyone in this film was well cast, though not all could subsequently remain as eclectic as Rains. Basil Rathbone, who as Sir Guy of Gisbourne is John's chief villain, was so perfect as the swashbuckling hero's evil nemesis that he got typecast in that sort of role for years, at least whenever he wasn't playing Sherlock Holmes. It's hard to think of a villain of that era handy with a blade who wasn't played by Rathbone, perhaps understandably given that he was a keen fencer in real life. Naturally he lost both his epic swordfights to Flynn, in Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood, though as he reminisced years later in a one man show, 'I could have killed Errol Flynn any time I wanted to!'

Gisbourne and Hood, at that time still the Saxon nobleman Sir Robin of Locksley, face off early in the picture over the fate of Much the Miller's Son, who has shot one of the king's deer in Sherwood Forest because he's been taxed into starvation and defiantly says so. 'Would you kill a man for telling the truth?' Robin asks Sir Guy. 'If it pleases me, yes!' comes the reply. And so we're set for the rest of the story: for Robin to be the benign protector of the people, Much being only the first of many to join his band of Merry Men, and for the arrogant Sir Guy to be the unmitigated cad of the piece, cold hearted except for his lust for the Lady Marian Fitzwalter, King Richard's ward. She's played by the lovely Olivia de Havilland who possibly was never lovelier than here, given the wide variety of gorgeous gowns she's fitted with and how the cowls she is rarely without highlight the radiance of her face.

The story is impeccably written, with characters meeting at precisely the right times to introduce them to us in iconic scenes with definitive lines. One in particular is the foundation of the film, at a feast at Nottingham Castle where Prince John announces that he has taken over as Regent and only Robin objects. It's painted in broad emotions, especially the arrogance and defiance of Prince John pitted against the honesty and fearlessness of Sir Robin, and it defines in no uncertain terms why Robin Hood was the man that the Saxons banded behind to become outlaws and fight for their rights and for their king and country. It's kept very clear that being an outlaw is a bad thing, only necessary through unbridled loyalty to the true authority, King Richard. It could be seen that this is precisely the same loyalty that King Richard has to God, thus prompting him to leave England to fight the heathens in the Holy Land and unwittingly prompt the chaos that backs our story.

This is the first scene in which Marian meets Robin and initially she isn't impressed. 'You speak treason,' she tells him. 'Fluently,' says Robin. He leans back in his wooden chair and boldly accuses Prince John of being a traitor and tells him that he'll organise a revolt, matching a death for a death. 'From this night on, I'll use every means in my power to fight you,' he promises, before escaping against all odds in true swashbuckler style, leaping around like the laws of gravity didn't apply to Errol Flynn, who certainly did some of his own stunts and may well have done most of them. Of course Prince John promptly declares him an outlaw with a death sentence on his head, promising to hang anyone sheltering or aiding him. Instead they followed him into Sherwood Forest.

Flynn didn't much like the role that remains his most famous to this day, privately suggesting that it bored him. Nonetheless it's a powerful performance piece, lively and energetic while never quite matching the sort of thing Douglas Fairbanks used to get up to. It's impossible not to be engaged by his smile and his actions and he is believable switching from the dashing and generous hero to the serious leader who demonstrates the true face of the Normans to the Lady Marion. He was Australian though many of his more famous roles had him successfully playing classic English characters from legend and literature on the basis that American audiences thought his accent was English all along. By contrast I'm English but Americans tend to think I'm Australian, especially in my early years in the States. At least Flynn's mild Australian accent is a lot closer to authentic than Kevin Costner's abysmal attempt in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Flynn gets iconic scenes throughout, though so does everyone else. He recruits Little John through a quarterstaff battle on a log bridge, Alan Hale knocking him into the stream. Hale was the definition of Little John to Hollywood: he first played him in 1922 in the Douglas Fairbanks version, Robin Hood, then reprised the role here and eventually returned to it a third time in Rogues of Sherwood Forest in 1950, in what would turn out to be his last film. Friar Tuck is recruited through a sword battle in a river, Eugene Pallette being more than substantial enough for the role in voice, girth and talent. It would have been interesting to see the original choice, Guy Kibbee, in the part but Pallette made it his own.

Anyone with a background in classic Hollywood of the thirties can't help but recognise most of the cast here, who often appeared in the same films. Flynn was the new star, having risen three years earlier with Captain Blood and consolidated his stature with The Charge of the Light Brigade a year later. Both those films were directed by Michael Curtiz, who replaced William Keighley, the initial director of this picture, early on, precisely because the action scenes he conjured up with Flynn were what Warner Brothers saw as lacking in early footage of this film. Curtiz and Flynn were a powerful double act but they apparently despised each other, possibly because of Lili Damita, Flynn's wife at the time who had previously been briefly married to Curtiz in the twenties.

Olivia de Havilland was Flynn's leading lady in both those films and they'd go on to appear together nine times in all, their characters often romantically linked even though they were technically remotely related. They're 15th cousins, twice removed. Captain Blood also featured Basil Rathbone who Flynn got to fight again in The Sea Hawk two years later, another Curtiz film that also featured Rains and Hale, along with Montagu Love and Una O'Connor who have small but memorable roles here as the Bishop of the Black Canons and Marian's lady-in-waiting respectively. The Charge of the Light Brigade also featured Patric Knowles, who plays Robin's cousin Will Scarlet here. Pallette, who plays Friar Tuck as a fearful swordsman, got his opportunity to face off against Rathbone in the 1940 version of The Mask of Zorro, possibly the best swashbuckler of the sound era.

There are others beyond the names already mentioned. Ian Hunter shows up towards the end of the film as a respectful King Richard, though some of his scenes were unfortunately cut. Melville Cooper is suitably fat and cowardly as the Sheriff of Nottingham, though he's not an out and out fool in this version. Herbert Mundin gets a decent amount of screen time as Much the Miller's Son, becoming an important link between Robin and Marian given that he's carrying on with her lady-in-waiting. One famous Hollywood actor debuted here but wouldn't became famous until another film the same year. Here he's known as Golden Cloud and he's the Lady Marian's horse but he would be renamed Trigger for his next picture, Under Western Stars, the first of many co-starring appearances as the smartest horse in the movies for cowboy Roy Rogers.

The film's greatest success is also its greatest failure, depending on how you view it. It's ultimately a simplistic tale of good and evil that is utterly polarised down to a child's point of view, often ignoring entirely the adult concept of believability. The archery competition is a great example, as children thrill at Robin's sense of adventure in showing up, the tension as it's all determined to be a trap and the relief in his eventual victory, while adults know it's a trap all along and roll their eyes at the pitiful lack of disguise Robin attempts. He's as transparent as Clark Kent as Superman, even Zorro's flimsy black mask being less revealing. Also Flynn's Robin isn't just heroic, he's invulnerable, the only time he even gains a bruise being during his brief capture and confinement after the tournament.

Curtiz did conjure up considerable tension during his battles, the film employing more stuntmen than had ever been assembled for a single shoot at that time and those that were shot dead by arrows were really shot, albeit in a controlled way. A master archer called Howard Hill shot them in the chest, though they wore steel breastplates covered with balsa wood with heavy padding underneath to absorb the impact, being paid $150 a shot for the privilege. For his troubles, Hill was cast in a non-speaking part as Owen the Welshman who loses to Robin in the archery contest, ironically to a memorable shot Hill made himself. He also helped the sound department to produce the distinctive thunk that the arrows make, a sound that became the favourite of Ben Burtt, the technician behind the Star Wars movies, who featured it in most of them.

With The Adventures of Robin Hood, Michael Curtiz had the full grandeur of Technicolor to work with, along with huge sets, gorgeous costumes, perfectly cast actors and great cinematography, the switch during the climactic battle between Robin and Sir Guy from characters to shadows and back to characters again being masterful. With every piece of the puzzle in place, it's hardly surprising that this worked so well as a riproaring, swashbuckling adventure for everyone involved to strut their stuff in. The flaws tie mostly to the fact that it bears about as much relation to reality as the average Hollywood biopic of the era, which is to say not much at all, playing fast and loose with even those figures that have solid basis in historical fact. If you can watch it through the simplistic eyes of a child, it's the definitive ripping yarn. If not, then you're missing something.


Unknown said...

I agree that Olivia never looked better. In fact i think that role (Maid Marian?) fits her better than the role of Melanie Wilkes in GWTW. Who killed RHETT BUTLER? No one has written it, until NOW!

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Did you see my review of Gone with the Wind?

BrendanGCarroll said...

Just came across this review. I was rather surprised there is no mention of Korngold's magnificent score, which contrubuted so much to the film and won an Oscar.

I must also mention that Basil Rathbone did not duel with Flynn in THE SEA HAWK. That was Henry Daniell (heavily doubled)

While ROBIN HOOD may well be couched in a style that plays to a child's view point, it may be this very approach which has ensured that the film has not dated after 80 years and remains a classic.