The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Sometimes, the best possible experience you can have with a film is when it completely and utterly blindsides you. I had such an experience with The Adventures of Robin Hood, a film I wasn’t expecting much from. After all, how good could a film about men in tights be? Few films have been as fun, enjoyable and thrilling as this one, a reminder of how fantastic early Hollywood filmmaking could be.

The story is one I’m sure every school age child knows. King Richard the Lion-Heart (Ian Hunter) leaves England and in his wake his brother, Prince John (Claude Rains), comes to power and begins brutally taxing Saxons throughout the kingdom. All the lords quickly swear allegiance to him, except one, a Sir. Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn). He starts a rebellion based in Sherwood Forest that swears allegiance to King Richard and steals from those who have fattened their purses in the leave of the king; giving the wealth to the poor it was taken from.

It’s a tale that has been retold many times, but perhaps no other film has told it as well. The film perfectly carries us through the story scene by scene, not wasting a moment and condensing a lot of the most memorable moments of the legend of Robin Hood into its lean one hour and 42 minute runtime. Every scene not only has a purpose but also entertains us as we are treated to an array of fantastic characters.

After all, what would a Robin Hood film be without his two most memorable sidekicks, Little John (Alan Hale) and Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette)? The banter between the men of Sherwood Forest is fun, fantastic and lighthearted. I can’t think of another film where a running series of fat jokes are not consistently funny but also handled with such a sharp wit and lighthearted spirit that they actually endear the characters to us.

And this also serves as a reminder of how fantastic classic Hollywood dialogue was. There’s a fantastic play of words here as people converse, with series of sharp, short and witty dialogue. It has some of the funniest and cleverest dialogue from this era. In fact, the verbal combat of the film has just as much finesse and is just to fun as watch as the physical combat.

And the physical combat is also fantastic to watch. The choreography has a fast, phonetic pace to it and keeps the fights brisk and daring. The film also makes the fights even more impressive to watch by setting them in difficult places to fight. These locations range from a narrow log to a riverbed to a spiraling set of stairs. It’s a style of fighting that emphasizes the footwork and body movement as much as the blades.

And it’s captured magnificently with the camera. The movement of the players within the frame and the way the camera follows them along adds an extra layer of movement and intensity to the fights. Plus, the film has an absolutely astounding use of shadows in some of the fight scenes. One of the best shots is when two fighters start fighting on left of a pillar, go off camera where we can only see their silhouettes fighting and then come back on camera on the right side of the pillar, still swinging.

And speaking of the use of shadows, this film has a fantastic visual style. The more of I watch of these ‘30s and ‘40s color pictures, the more I’m convinced that this was one of the greatest times for color films. Everything here pops to life with vibrancy, creating a fantastic, upbeat tone that perfectly compliments the film. The set and costume design make for a series of fun and fantastic images.

And they also make up part of the iconic performance of Errol Flynn. Without the green smock and funny shaped brown hat has become the immediate image conjured when speaking of Robin Hood and permeated many of the versions of the story that have come afterwards. And it is a fantastic design that gives the simple look of the character life, personality and vibrancy.

And Errol Flynn brings even more to this with what is truly a magnificence performance. From his suave look to the way he caries himself, Flynn emits a carefree and joyous air. And the way he delivers his piercing dialogue and deep laugh has a ring to it that can’t help but win you over. It’s easy to see how men would follow someone like Robin Hood without a second though because Flynn exudes the air of an enigmatic leader.

And then there is the character of Robin Hood himself. I think in this day and age the idea of the Robin Hood character has become generalized and idealized in a lot of ways as simply a man bridging the divide between the rich and poor. Here we are presented with a much more interesting and compelling character. He starts of the film as a lord (like the original legend) and gives it all up to begin his famous stint of stealing.

But why? This is the question love interest Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland) asks. What is his reward for this? The film could give an answer about truth and justice or the sense of joy he sees when restoring hope to the poor. But he refuses to answer, leaving his motivation ambiguous and making his character more compelling to watch.

Opposite Robin Hood are two men to challenge him. Prince John challenges him on an intellectual and ideological level. He’s played by the magnificent Claude Raines who a charming devil. His evil ways are subtly hidden behind this façade of regality and the way he speaks words with just a hint of irony makes for double meanings in some of his dialogue.

Challenging him physically is Sir Guy of Gisbourne, played by Sherlock Holmes himself. Basil Rathbone is the perfect antithesis to Robin Hood. He revels in the pleasure of inflicting evil and is the most serious and uptight character in the film. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s also after Maid Marian more as a status symbol than a person, which always makes for a good reason to run a man through on your sword (at least it is in my book).

It’s also of note that the film is of the time it is set in as opposed to trying to be culturally relevant. Other versions of this story seem to want to make some kind of social commentary about the time it was made in a, but here the political issues of the film are one that only a monarchy could have, a system of government that is rare, if not nonexistent, in our world today.

And in this way, and many others, we see The Adventures of Robin Hood is a singular vision. Everything unifies the film in order to transport us to another place and time and enjoy a grand adventure. And it’s near impossible not to be swept up by the film. From the fantastic performances to the superb pacing, The Adventures of Robin Hood proves to be one of the greatest adventures captured on film and, dare I say, one of the greatest films ever made.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing

The Adventures of Robin Hood [Blu-ray]
The Adventures of Robin Hood [DVD]

  • All time classic film. Did you know James Cagney was first choice to play the part, but had a contract for another movie?
    Also the white horse Olivia de Havilland rode during the film later became known as Trigger, Roy Rogers famouse horse!

    Second best Robin Hood movie was the Disney live-action film made in England in 1952 but sadly forgotten about because of the inferior cartoon version made in the 1970’s.

  • Ben L.

    Good grief, I had forgotten this movie, I vaguely remember watching it as a very young child. Very very young. It may be one of the first movies I remember seeing. I remember Flynn’s facial hair and the big battle in the castle, but that’s about it.

    Must needs watch it again.

  • Such a fantastic adventure film… possibly the best. Errol Flynn is a true, original action hero.

    You’re also right about the dialogue. Absolutely brilliant. What a fun viewing experience. Great review!

  • Moriarty

    This is one of the very few films that when watching, I tell myself, ” I want to watch this again”. Great film with few equals.

    • James Blake Ewing

      I rewatch it pretty regularly, which is something I do for very few films, so I’m with you.