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The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 2000

Some tales seem to exist beyond the realm of localised culture, so tightly woven are they into our shared heritage. Mainly epic, or at least heroic, recountings of adventure, they embody symbolism of universal significance. There are no issues of popularity or obsolescence here. So in our hearts Theseus continues to slay the Minotaur, Beauty charms the Beast and Robin Hood steals from the rich to aid the poor. There's something about these myths that attracts people of all ages, time and time again; we never tire of such pure story telling. Hence if you try and bring something so well known to life, you're gambling in a big way, hoping that you can somehow synchronise with the images animated by a million daydreams.

Obviously William Keighley, the primary director of The Adventures of Robin Hood, felt this certainty of purpose. For Keighley to consider tackling the arc of Robin Hood's life in less than two hours, he must have hoped to channel and tap the power of cinema. Yet Michael Curtiz replaced Keighley, shipped in to jazz-up the film's action sequences; a grand decision. It's hard to see how Errol Flynn, as Sir Robin of Locksley, could be any more dynamic or athletic. He catapults onto the backs of horses, shins up thick ivy stems and leaps joyously into battle. There's just so much energy and zest in Flynn's performance that the movie buzzes even when he's off-screen. Even better, Flynn handles the dialogue (whether witty or poignant) with a practised ease and smoothly downshifts for the slower scenes.

The other cast members match his obvious pleasure, whether their role is large or small, Norman or Saxon. Basil Rathbone, as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, proves marvellously adept at acting nasty and manipulative. Thin of face and mean of character, Rathbone trades insults and rapier-thrusts with Flynn, almost but not quite his equal. Far less physical, but more conniving, Claude Rains makes a fine Prince John; scraped clean of morality, he turns everyone else's misfortune to his own advantage. For freedom and simple laughter, we must turn to Robin's band of followers, encamped in the depths of Sherwood Forest. Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles) is Robin's constant companion, more thoughtful yet equally brave. Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) and Little John (Alan Hale) represent the common people, stout, strong, hearty and loyal.

Fortunately for The Adventures of Robin Hood, the forest is a place of ancient beauty, mysterious yet welcoming. The location makes capturing such sensation relatively easy, as Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito certainly found out. In glorious Technicolor, Milo Anderson's costumes are a vibrant dance of shade and texture, contrasting hugely against the static backdrop. They just don't make movies with this level of tonal saturation any more, and that's the truth. Erich Wolfgang Korngold's award winning score reacts to this splendour as if stung, raising itself to noble and triumphant heights. It rouses and it rolls, horns soaring and drums beating. In the confines of a cinema the film feels balanced, a considered blending of action, comedy and romance.

Surprisingly, only a few liberties are taken with the legend of Robin Hood, enough to ensure a fast-paced adventure. The central conflict between Saxon and Norman emerges naturally though, as Robin himself states, the fight isn't with the Norman's as a whole, merely those who would oppress and enslave for their personal gain. This simple division is central to The Adventures of Robin Hood, it's a distinction that anyone can understand and applaud. Thus, while being as historically accurate as any story based on myth can be, the film kneads together outlaws, villains, bawdy humour and base wit; it swashbuckles like a trooper, throws man against man in personal combat and watches tense as its champions face daunting odds undaunted.

It seems almost ungrateful, churlish perhaps, to even mention the total lack of consequence on display; chests are struck by longbow arrows, yet there's no blood, heads are tapped by swords and the loser topples, even traitors are only banished rather than beheaded. Perhaps this is the legacy of our more gory age, making one sensitive to the inherent dichotomy. The Adventures of Robin Hood features stunning, believable fights yet each outcome could belong in a cartoon. Anyhow, apart from this, Curtiz and Flynn make the movie a thing of high enjoyment and captivating drama. It looks fabulous, stirs the blood and has a score to match the action at every turn; this is the definitive filming of Robin Hood.

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