Double Take: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Steve Leftridge and Steve Pick

Double Take examines Errol Flynn's classic take on this vigilante archer: a bold, impudent rascal that speaks treason fluently, capturing hearts when he isn't shooting arrows into them.

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Director: Michael Curtiz and William Keighley
Cast: Errol Flynn, Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Patric Knowles, Eugene Pallette
MPAA Rating: PG
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 1938
US Release Date: 1938-05-14

One Steve’s violent vigilantism is another Steve’s interesting open rebellion to a repressive government.

Steve Leftridge: I first watched The Adventures of Robin Hood sometime as a child, but I haven’t watched it since. I’ve seen Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood, Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (a real chore, that one), Mel Brooks’ Men in Tights, and the Disney animated version (with those great Roger Miller tunes) all since seeing the Errol Flynn classic way back when. Still, it strikes me after revisiting it again this week that essentially every concept I have of Robin Hood comes from this 1938 film -- or from the Daffy Duck spoof, which itself features a brief clip of Flynn from the movie. There’s a lot to cover here: Flynn, Michael Curtiz, the Golden Age of Hollywood, the swashbuckling genre, Olivia de Havilland’s hair, socialism, Claude Rains, violent vigilantism, the Great Depression, Technicolor, Paleo diets, to name a few. So let me throw it you first, Mr. Pick. What’s your history with this one, and what did you most enjoy about watching it anew?

Steve Pick: My history is that I watched it yesterday for the first time. I had seen a few minutes of it on TCM recently, but somehow never caught the original film before. This is not to say that none of it seemed familiar. Obviously, the Daffy Duck spoof was something I knew, as well as the general sense of the Robin Hood mythos, much of which was faithfully recounted in the movie: Robin and Little John fighting on the log over the river, the way Friar Tuck loved food, and the archery contest which Robin wins in disguise. But even more, I realized I was so familiar with this stuff because the comic book character Green Arrow was so clearly based on Errol Flynn’s version of Robin Hood. It may have taken the comics 25 years to give him that beard, but everything else was there right from the beginning, even to the point of giving him a red-suited sidekick. And, of course, the fact that no matter how many arrows the hero shoots, there always remain more in the quiver.

Speaking of comic books, let’s talk about color, specifically Technicolor. That is the first joy of Flynn's Robin Hood. Dispensing with any attempt at realism, which would have made these thieves considerably dirtier, Michael Curtiz attempted to create life-like takes on paintings of the Middle Ages, with all the love of color that entailed. Making sure that all scenes are brightly lit, even in the interior of big castles and pubs, every hue in the rainbow is brightly rendered in the clothing worn by every character, My goodness, whoever had the franchise rights for Tide detergent in the 12th Century must have made a fortune. As an early distribution of Technicolor films, the brilliant color had to be a large part of the appeal at the time, and even now, when color palettes are much more subtle, it’s still plain delightful to see. It had to look very similar to the vibrant four-color process of the Sunday funnies (I suspect Prince Valiant was an influence, if only in haircuts) and the very beginning of the comic book world of the time.

You raise a lot of issues in your opening paragraph: let’s talk about what you call violent vigilantism and I call interesting open rebellion to repressive government.

Leftridge: Well, you know what Much the Miller’s Son used to say: one Steve’s violent vigilantism is another Steve’s interesting open rebellion to a repressive government. I think we can agree that Robin and his Merry Men take justice into their own hands without official legal authority, and that Robin’s stirring speech to the Saxons in Sherwood Forest is a call to arms: “Swear to fight to the death against our oppressors!” I’d have to go back and do a death count for how many of Prince John’s Norman soldiers we see killed by rebellion Saxon sniper shots, but violent vigilantism? Sure.

Of course, your point is that we witness a justified uprising from a terribly subjugated people, and given the wicked treachery of Prince John (the deliciously slimy Claude Rains) and the abject suffering of the Saxon people, it’s obvious who the good guys are, even if it takes Lady Marian a while to figure that out. Still, the history of Richard the Lion Heart as the benevolent champion of the people is far murkier. After all, when he was captured in Austria at the beginning of the film, he was off fighting the Third Crusade in the Holy Land, not exactly an excursion of good deeds. And Robin’s worshipful servility of King Richard seems at odds with the self-determinism we otherwise see from Robin.

What I also find interesting is how the film must have been given a sort of allegorical reading, released as it was in 1938, when Hitler was spreading across Europe and dramatically intensifying Jewish persecution. The Adventures of Robin Hood would have been playing in theaters during Kristallnacht in November 1938, for instance. Seeing this tyranny play out and Robin lead a revolt against villainous oppressors certainly would have felt more urgent at the time. Robin’s conversation with Marian in the woods suggests a connection with American isolationism during the War:

Marian: But it's lost you your rank, your lands. It's made you a hunted outlaw when you might have lived in comfort and security. What's your reward for all this?

Robin’s: Reward? Just don't understand, do you?

This message of sacrificing oneself for a larger noble struggle is also seen in the character of Rick in Casablanca four years later as the isolated American (“I stick my neck out for no one”) who finally sacrifices his own interests for the greater good. And who helmed that little allegory? Michael Curtiz!

Pick: Nice catch, that little link between this and Casablanca. I think it’s also interesting that the only time Robin talks back to Richard the Lion Heart (though I think the king was still in disguise at the time) is to complain that Richard shouldn’t have bothered to engage in a foreign war when his people needed him at home. Which is the opposite of isolationism, I guess, though of course from our perspective it’s impossible to justify any of the Crusades as anything other than rampant Imperialism.

You mention the death count of Normans, and yeah, there are a lot of them dying, albeit bloodlessly in the way of old movies. Some of those huge fight scenes should have been as gory as the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones, but there was something artful in the sudden deaths from a single arrow to the chest, from a cinematic point of view. Which brings me to the choreography of the fight scenes, something I loved -- I also have the suspicion that Akira Kurosawa liked them, too. Whether with arrows or swords or some combination, all those action sequences are wonderfully staged and filmed, keeping us on the edge of our seats even when it’s obvious that, in the end, Robin Hood and his men will prevail.

My favorite shot in the whole film is the brief shadow play of Robin and Sir Guy battling in the castle’s dungeon outside Marian’s cell. (Which reminds me, the cross-cutting in many of these sequences is as masterful as it ever got in the action-adventure realm). I also greatly appreciated the foley artistry, with the sound of clashing swords and whizzing arrows wonderfully understated. Kudos also to the absolute silence of all the many punches connected in the film; we are so used to loud thwacks whenever somebody is hit that it is a genuine relief to hear that our bodies don’t make those loud crackling sounds with every smack.

Leftridge: I’m glad you pointed out the choreography of the fight sequences, which are indeed stylish and fun. Flynn and Basil Rathbone turn in some impressive physical performances. That Flynn can really buckle some swash!

We can thank Michael Curtiz for staging the superb movement that we see in the film, from Robin’s escape sequence from the castle, to the treetop raids of the Merry Men, to the climactic sword-crossing at the end. It’s seems to me that Curtiz is one of the most under-heralded directors in history. His films are legendary -- Robin Hood, Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mildred Pierce, White Christmas, and so on -- but he never became a household name the way other directors of really famous films have. Casablanca is one of the most beloved and celebrated films of all time, yet almost no one can tell you who directed it. In any case, Curtiz is able to get great interplay among his actors; all those stagey but snappy exchanges that provide terrific energy to the scenes and intrigue among the characters, as in that sultry balcony scene between Robin and Marian.

Pick: I was always convinced Maid Marian hung out in the forest with Robin; he did allude to the fact that Friar Tuck could marry them, and I suppose in my youth I believed that happened. But I love her role in this film, the slow turning from apolitical Norman rich girl to the mole inside the Castle and the person who actually came up with the plan to free Robin from imprisonment. Not to mention the slow burning chemistry between Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn; obviously, Flynn looks great in tights, and de Havilland favored the most clingy of all medieval dresses, so there is going to be a sexual interest between them. But I like the way it unfolds slowly over their several encounters, with the light really coming on in that scene (otherwise very strange) when Robin reveals the truly poor and wretched Saxons who depend on his Merry Men (yet who were hidden away from the big banquet). And, of course, at the end, when King Richard orders them to be married and they lustfully sneak out of the Castle together as Robin shouts, “May I obey all your commands with equal pleasure, Sire.” I’m not at all convinced they were going to stop by Friar Tuck’s before they began taking off their clothes at the end of that scene.

Leftridge: Bullseye! And can you keep a secret? At press time, Olivia de Havilland is still alive! Can you believe that? She’s 98. (Her sister, the great Joan Fontaine, died a year ago at age 96.) Olivia has been divorced since 1979, so she’s still single, and if The Adventures of Robin Hood teaches us anything, it’s that old maids can be just as randy as the rest of us. I love how Marian is kept covered in those stuffy Normanian hijabs until letting all that braided hair unspool in her private chambers, a strip tease that must have made Robin’s feather stand on end. As for Flynn, he somehow imbues both an urbane polish and an earthy ruggedness. Such insolence must support a healthy appetite! Indeed, the rascal knows to get his protein, consuming venison by the fistfuls.

Pick: And mutton, Steve, don’t forget the mutton! I’m guessing Jerry Seinfeld wouldn’t have liked Robin’s parties.

I’m glad this film came up in the ol’ random generator, because it’s one I wouldn’t have watched otherwise. It's a rock-solid example of classic Hollywood movie making. I’d read Errol Flynn’s autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways a few years back, but I don’t think I’d seen him act from beginning to end in a movie in years. He’s not exactly full of nuance, but he makes us love the exuberant, boastful, stubborn, and heated character of Robin Hood.





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