REVIEW: The Adventures of Robin Hood [1938]

“Hold it for the King”

The 1938 version of The Adventures of Robin Hood is quite the feat … for 1938. This adventure film is definitely dated, but don’t let that get you down; it is still a highly entertaining movie. I can see how innovative and successful it would have been upon its release and I respect all its achievements. However, it just has that stigma of a hammy, fun story wrapped around sword fights, romance, and political intrigue. It is the definitive version of the story, if not the best orchestrated in my opinion, because you can see glimpses here that were stolen for all the other iterations. Disney pretty much appropriated it all for their animated version and Cary Elwes was channeling Errol Flynn’s portrayal of the bandit stealing from the rich and giving to the poor throughout Mel Brooks’ Men in Tights. The only question I have upon the viewing is whether Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe will create something truly unique with the upcoming Nottingham, or whether they also will appropriate much from this tale, based on the legends of Robin Hood.

Everyone knows the story, King Richard has gone off to fight the Crusades and his evil, treacherous brother Prince John has usurped his proxy to seize control of the kingdom. Conniving to take the throne for good, John raises taxes and makes life horrible for the Saxons as any good Norman would. When the King is rumored to have been captured and held for ransom, the time to complete his coup is upon the nation. Only one man, Sir Robin of Locksley, takes the job of keeping the will of the true King alive. He begins to round up a ragtag army and starts becoming a huge thorn in the Prince’s side. The back and forth commences, fighting ensues, romances bud from unlikely pairings, and justice is put up in the air to either be defended or thrown to the side. It’s Robin Hood’s Merry Men versus the Prince’s loyally traitorous entourage … I wonder what the outcome could possibly be?

I will say that I missed the little jokes that made me love Disney’s Robin Hood so much, (it has always been one of my favorites of their hand drawn animations). You don’t know how much I wanted Claude Rains to start sucking his thumb when times became tough like Prince John did in the cartoon. It is all made up for, though, by the great production value. This is a big studio Technicolor picture on our hands. I have to imagine it was all shot on a soundstage due to the presence of some fantastic matte paintings, (the use of which makes me think it was not filmed outdoors). It is always a pleasure to watch characters move farther and farther from the foreground towards something that doesn’t exist. To make that look realistic is definitely a success. And the amount of detail and authenticity is astounding. The Medieval garb and castles are realistic; as is the muddy forest our heroes live and train in.

It’s all shot well too. The fight scenes are manic and exciting, moving at a speed so fast I have to believe it was over-cranked footage of slower choreography. With many cuts and reaction shots, the story is explained well by facial features and the orchestration of scenes. One cannot forget a wonderful moment during a fight between Robin Hood and Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Prince John’s second in command. The battle continues on through the castle until it reaches the dungeons. After going down the stairs, our swordsmen fall off the screen to be illuminated as shadows, looming over the huge stone column in the center of the frame. It is all one continuous take, leading us from a visual of them, to the shadowplay, to the return in frame of the two, still slugging it out. A beautifully shot sequence, it is what I remember most vividly from the screening.

My one surprise through it all comes from the character of Sir Guy. Who is this guy? I thought the Sheriff of Nottingham was the main baddie under Prince John’s ill-rule. I guess all the other versions I know of have combined these two roles and made the Sheriff into an icon of villainy, when, in fact, he is just a bumbling cop stumbling his way under Sir Guy, the real brains of the operation. It was my one head-scratcher, but a difference I kind of liked. Having the Sheriff a bit of a dullard worked against Basil Rathbone’s villainy nicely, because Robin Hood should have a worthy adversary. It was the biggest change of the ones I could spot—many others were just lack of detail and background. Much is glossed over for this blockbuster version: Friar Tuck’s drunkenness is alluded to briefly, but never spoken of I believe; Robin Hood’s taking from the rich is largely assumed, but never really shown; etc. This telling decided to go more for the high adventure, portraying our hero as infallible, than let any darkness creep in and add a little tension and duality of nature that could work so well in this tale.

That said; it was largely about the romance between Robin and Maid Marian. At first two very different people, a relationship the farthest thing from her mind, they soon fall for each other, as you know they will. Olivia de Havilland is effective as the girl needing protection, but she is also much more. There is a sense of royalty with her, always looking for a way to be free and independent. She has a strong will and spirit, never afraid to stand up for her beliefs, no matter the consequences. She is then the perfect candidate to catch Robin Hood’s eye. And boy does Errol Flynn take a look. His performance is a lot of fun as he hams up every moment with a witty oneliner as he partakes in a fight with swords or words. His ego is so big that his confidence will never quit. One could say he should fail on hubrus alone, but he is the hero and we love heroes. Flynn does not disappoint in that regard as he dons the tights and keeps Britain safe for his King’s hopeful return.

The Adventures of Robin Hood 7/10 | ★ ★ ★


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