ONLY THE RAINBOW CAN DUPLICATE ITS BRILLIANCE!
These guys had done it before, but never this well. In 1935, Michael Curtiz directed Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in Captain Blood, a popular swashbuckler. But when the opportunity came to bring back Robin Hood to the silver screen (Douglas Fairbanks took a stab at it in 1922), Curtiz turned out the most impressive piece of its genre at the time. This film is the ultimate matinée, a grand adventure that could never have been made today with a straight face.
A terror reign targeted at the Saxons
In the year of 1191, the English King Richard the Lionheart is heading home from the Crusades when he’s captured in Austria. His brother, Prince John (Claude Rains), takes charge of the country and begins a reign of terror targeted at the Saxons. Robin (Flynn), Earl of Locksley, watches his people get harassed and overtaxed and finally has enough. After preventing a commoner from being executed for poaching the King’s deer (which the man did because he was starving), Robin brings the deer to Prince John’s court where he declares his opposition. The Prince’s men try to arrest him, but he manages to escape to the Sherwood Forest. Robin’s assets are seized, but rumor quickly spreads among the Saxons that he is preparing to bring down the Prince and secure the throne for the King upon his arrival; many join his band of outlaws in the forest.
Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles), Little John (Alan Hale) and Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) become Robin’s three key allies… but after a raid where the band captures an ally of Prince John’s, the malevolent Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), they make another friend. Sir Guy and his men were escorting the lovely Maid Marian (de Havilland); after seeing for herself the good that Robin does, she begins to trust him. When she and Sir Guy are released, Robin finds use for his new spy in the Prince’s court.
A dramatic color experience
The audiences had seen Technicolor before, but not like this. The filmmakers enhanced each color of the lavish costumes and production design to the nth degree. That’s almost a dramatic experience in itself, but Curtiz has packed the film with several memorable experiences, such as the scenes where Robin crashes Prince John’s party with that deer; where he splits a competitor’s arrow in an archery contest; and the final swordplay between Robin and Sir Guy.
That last showdown is a fierce, swift fight, inventively shot… I love the part where the two men move away from the camera, but their continuing swordplay is reflected in the shadows cast against the wall. Virtually all of the cast members came to define their characters for the future. Flynn as the handsome, jovial and brave Robin; de Havilland as the beautiful, equally courageous Marian; and the team of Rains-Rathbone as the scheming, profoundly villainous Norman noblemen.
Another defining part of the film is the Oscar-winning score, written by Erich Wolfgang Korngold who also provided the music for Captain Blood. It’s a rich, rousing piece of orchestral work that became an inspiration for future adventure films – and John Williams, which shouldn’t be a surprise to his fans.
Modern audiences might find it hard to overcome certain aspects of the film. The Mel Brooks comedy Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) didn’t have to do much to turn the silliness into sheer ridicule. Yes, these are men in tights who look more like merry ballet stars than hardened rebel warriors. But I have to agree with Roger Ebert who wrote in his review that the film symbolizes an irresistible Hollywood innocence that is now lost.
The Adventures of Robin Hood 1938-U.S. 102 min. Color. Produced by Hal B. Wallis. Directed by Michael Curtiz, William Keighley. Screenplay: Norman Reilly Raine, Seton I. Miller. Cinematography: Sol Polito, Tony Gaudio. Music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Editing: Ralph Dawson. Art Direction: Carl Jules Weyl. Cast: Errol Flynn (Robin of Locksley), Olivia de Havilland (Maid Marian), Basil Rathbone (Sir Guy of Gisbourne), Claude Rains (Prince John), Patric Knowles, Eugene Pallette… Alan Hale, Una O’Connor.
Trivia: Keighley started making the film with James Cagney as Robin Hood; when he was replaced by Curtiz, Errol Flynn was cast. David Niven was considered for the part of Will Scarlett.
Oscars: Best Film Editing, Original Score, Art Direction.
Last words: “Oh, [Curtiz] was a villain, but I guess he was pretty good. We didn’t believe it then, but he clearly was. He knew what he was doing. He knew how to tell a story very clearly and he knew how to keep things going; you had to transmit vitality. I was astounded by ‘Robin Hood’s’ vitality, its effervescence. That was a revelation, and I thought, well, he had something to do with it, and he did; I have to admit that.” (de Havilland, “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Films”)