The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938/USA/dir. Michael Curtiz & William Keighley) appeared at #80 on my original list.
What it is • Welcome to Sherwood Forest, cloaked in lush green and lit by brilliant sunlight. Through these trees parade Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn) and his merry men, fomenting unrest and having a jolly time of it. Many Robin Hood adaptations, especially today, look to darken the story or give it a more naturalistic texture, but Adventures revels in its heightened artifice and sense of fun, with the emphasis on swashbuckling, colorful costumes, and the cheerful romance between Robin and Marian (Flynn's frequent onscreen partner Olivia de Havilland, who is simply luminous here). Similarly, the structure is casually episodic, collecting famous moments from the Robin legend rather than forcing everything into a streamlined narrative structure. This is a proudly traditional take on the classic story, and as such it may be the most archetypal Robin Hood. However, the film does contain several elements that mark it as a film of its time, displaying a concern for social/historical context than even many of the more "realistic" latter-day interpretations avoid. The Adventures of Robin Hood very much emphasizes the importance of ethnic strife and state persecution, continually hammering home the idea that the aristocratic Normans are oppressing the common, salt-of-the-earth Saxons (Robin, himself a nobleman but also a Saxon, sides with clan over class). The film even offers Robin Hood a solemn refugee camp to run amidst all the derring-do! As such, it's hard not to see the looming war in Europe casting a shadow over the sunny swashbuckler of 1938.
Why I like it •
I quite like those idiosyncratic elements, inadvertently marking The Adventures of Robin Hood as a product of its time as well as a film for the ages. But most of all, I love the film for its energy and its eye candy - this is one of the most vivid Technicolor masterworks of the 1930s with its lush emerald green and dazzling purples and reds dotting a wardrobe more concerned with joyous expressivity than drab accuracy. De Havilland (who - still living - will celebrate her 100th birthday next year) is also beyond lovely, while Flynn is charming in a lighthearted, breezy way (supposedly he found the character boring, yet he always gives the appearance of having a ball). Meanwhile Claude Rains purrs with delightful wickedness, and the supporting characters fill out the lively, varied ensemble - Una O'Connor in particular steals scenes with the same gusto that Robin robs the rich. Basil Rathborne unfortunately isn't able to flex the charismatic villain muscle he displayed in Captain Blood (Guy of Gisborne is very much a stick-in-the-mud) but he gets to deliver the swashbuckling goods in a climactic duel with Flynn. The Adventures of Robin Hood is the quintessence of what Golden Age Hollywood could achieve; I first saw the film at a retrospective screening and the big screen held me rapt for the entire duration. The movie is as cocky and confident in its ability to entertain as Robin himself.
How you can see it • Available on DVD from Netflix, the film is also streaming on these sites. I included a clip at 1:35 in Hooray for Hollywood! (chapter 5 of my 32 Days of Movies video series).
What do you think? • What is your favorite Robin Hood adaptation? Swashbuckling adventure? Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland pairing? Do you prefer Robin Hood's chief villain to be Prince John, the Sheriff of Nottingham, or Guy of Gisborne? What do various adaptations of the story tell us about the times in which they were made? Is there an explanation for one of the film's odd cuts, in which the embracing Flynn and de Havilland suddenly appear to be separated in close-ups (this isn't an open-ended subjective quesiton like the others, but something I genuinely am confused by)? Do you prefer films to push stories like Robin Hood toward a greater realism and/or darkness, or would you rather they embrace their escapist entertainment qualities...or find a balance between the two approaches? What gave the Golden Age films their special glow, and do you think this quality is overrated, do you wish films today would emulate it, or do you feel it worked for its time and now attempts to reproduce it would feel forced our out of place?
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Previous week: The Civil War (#81)
Next week: The Wizard of Oz (#79)