Film Flick: Robin Hood

Friday, September 15, 2017

Sometimes thought of as the first epic adventure story put to film, Robin Hood holds a special place in many filmmakers; and film lovers' hearts. Of course, that isn't entirely accurate; the 1938 film, in fact, is a remake of the earlier silent movie of the same name that starred Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Still, there is something unique about the Errol Flynn film, and the place it holds in cinema history.

The familiar tale of Robin Hood is played out here, without irony or pretense. Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) is a hero of the Saxon people against their Norman oppressors. In this iteration of the tale, the common folk are not just overtaxed and starving, they are outright beaten and killed at a startlingly high rate. The tale goes through all the familiar beats of the Robin Hood myth: from a gathering of his Merry Men (Alan Hale, who had played Little John in the Fairbanks production also played him here ,and in a 1950 remake as well!), to his outrageous confrontations with Sir Guy and Prince John (excellently portrayed by Basil Rathbone and Claude Raines respectively) to his love of the Maid Marian(Olivia de Havilland).

It is obvious that this was a film that inspired many filmmakers-to-come, including the legendary Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Despite this- or perhaps because of this- to the modern viewer, the film could cross from the familiar to the boring. Combined with the movie's garishly bright colors and obviously not historically accurate costumes and set, and this film could be in danger of being disregarded. But if we can get past the modern expectations of needing grit and anti-heroes in our stories, then we can truly apperciate this film for what it is. As Roger Ebert's once wrote, "In these cynical days when swashbucklers cannot be presented without an ironic subtext, this great 1938 film exists in an eternal summer of bravery and romance. "

Made in 1938, it was Warner Brothers' first foray into the world of technicolor- in fact, all eleven technicolor cameras that were in existence were daily checked out and checked back in to create this film. It was also the studio's most expensive film up to that year, though it would be their biggest money maker of 1939 too. Everything about the film seemed bigger than life. It employed more stuntmen than any other film ever made to that date (stuntmen were paid a hundred and fifty dollars per live arrow shot into them!) The technicolor was put to good use with costumes that literally sparkled thanks to gems sewn into them, and plants native to Britain were even brought in to make the California backdrop feel more authentically like Sherwood Forest. Perhaps the most Larger Than Life thing about the film though was its swashbuckling hero.
Errol Flynn had several credits to his name before this- including a starring role- but this was the film that catapulted him into the Hollywood heavens as an action star. Despite the bevy of stuntmen employed, Flynn actually did many of stunts himself, including scaling castle gates and swordplay! He even looks exactly like Robin Hood from the pages of Howard Pyle's book The Adventure of Robin Hood, thanks to Flynn's insistence that Robin Hood sport a certain haircut. Supposedly, Errol Flynn may even have been distantly related to the real Robin Hood. Certainly, Flynn's acting brings a certain Puckish quality that is at times attractive and infuriating- a dichotomy of emotions that Flynn himself seemed to have in those he worked with! He and director Michael Curtiz clashes over a variety of issues including how the horses on set were treated (Flynn felt the director was indifferent to their injuries) and Curtiz preference that swords be live steel, without any protection. Likely also influencing things was the fact that Flynn was married to Curtiz' ex-wife, and Flynn's lazy approach to the filming schedule and learning lines.

Flynn was remembered more fondly by his co-star, Olivia De Havilland, whom he would share a total of nine film credits with over the years, though she was not without her frustrations with him. De Havilland was almost not in the film, as early scripts removed Maid Marian from the narrative completely. Lucky for us- and the film in general- that she is there. The woman is so beautiful and expressive one could almost just stop the movie and stare at her face, but her real drawing power is her ability to convey delicate emotions, an acting style that seems ahead of its time, frankly. Also, Flynn and De Havilland share a chemistry that you can help but fall in love with- and that tension spilled over into real life too. Flynn was interested in De Havilland, but she found out that his marriage was still very much alive, not on the rocks as he had imitated to her. She had her revenge by making their single love scene (an understated and innocent scene that was also the only one in which you could see De Havilland's hair) rather uncomfortable for him- ahem- south of the equator! Still, through flirtations and pranks they remained friends and the possibility of something more lingered, but never came to fruition. Looking back on things, Dehavilland later said, "Of course, we did have a life Maid Marian and Robin Hood...and those were happy lives and perhaps that was enough."

Watch Robin Hood yourself and you'll see it was enough- and more than enough- in that summer of sunshine, bravery and eternal romance that will awaken the adventurous child in us all.


  1. What a fascinating story behind the movie!

    1. Right? There was even more that I couldn't fit into one review, including a lot about the actors who played Sir Guy (who was a fencer in real life!) and Claude Raines who played King John. Hollywood history is just fascinating.

  2. This is an interesting analysis. Especially when we have a glut of anti-hero stories, this seems fun. There ought to be a term for when old stories seem unoriginal because they've been copied so much? I'll try to find a trope for it.

    1. This one seems to work:

    2. Love TV Trope articles....

      Yes, that does work well! It really explains a lot of things, and why older movies don't always seem to "hold up." It isn't actually because they aren't very good but is because they set a template and others embroidered on that. ( Did you read this one too?

    3. Oooo good article. Helpful use with Sherlock Holmes


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