RogerBW's Blog

The Adventures of Robin Hood 11 August 2020

1938 adventure, dir. Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland; IMDb / allmovie. Prince John oppresses the Saxons; a Saxon lord fights back.

This was a film that had to tread carefully: the 1922 silent Robin Hood had used many of the traditional story elements and United Artists was known to be somewhat lawsuit-happy, so some new ones were dug up for this production (such as the fight with Little John on the bridge, and the piggy-back incident with Friar Tuck). Perhaps because of that, there's no setup: at the start of the film Richard is already imprisoned and Robin is already an outlaw fighting on the side of Right, with backstory to be filled in later, though he gathers more of the traditional band in the first act.

This is a fast-moving film: its 97 minutes are packed with action with only occasional pauses for dramatic speeches. Without the need to repeat a complicated explanation several times for the hard of thinking, all the dialogue serves to move the plot forward. This was Warners' first big-budget film in three-strip Technicolor, and not only is everything thoroughly saturated, they don't want to waste expensive footage on boring static things.

But it's the cast that's glorious here. Errol Flynn is perhaps more important for his physicality than for his acting, and Olivia de Havilland's Marian is thoroughly underwritten (though she is the only character who undergoes any sort of transformation; and her gowns are lovely, mostly silver lamé that perversely grabs the attention by being the one thing in the scene that's not saturated colour);

but we also have Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy, Claude Rains putting on a splendidly casual evil as Prince John, and Melville Cooper as a cowardly braggart Sheriff of Nottingham. Any one of those performances could anchor a film, and we get all of them.

Korngold's score probably saved his life (without that job, he would still have been in Vienna for the Anschluss), and does a good job of setting a mood but keeping to the background – except when it's forced to be diegetic, as we suddenly cut to some trumpeters miming in time to the music. That's a distracting stylistic choice, but to my mind the only mis-step by Curtiz (who was brought in to move things along when William Keighley was being too slow for the studio's preferences).

This film stands up splendidly even now. More recent productions tend to be dark and serious, but Flynn's Robin laughs even as he knows his life is on the line. One could do much worse.

Trailer here.

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