30s Review: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)


No, my tights are a more garish shade!: Warner Bros

Why do they keep trying to make Robin Hood gritty? Robin Hood is supposed to be fun! Folk heroes bring cultures together by passing on stories and teaching us lessons about ourselves. Trying to force a modern tone on them or making them fit into the hottest current filmmaking trend doesn’t work. THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD is the classic take on the legend, the most fun take on the legend, the best take on the legend.

The heroic Saxon noble Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) begins a quest to free his kinsmen from the tyranny of Prince John (Claude Rains) and Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), rallying followers to his cause and redistributing the Norman conquerors’ ill-gotten wealth to the oppressed English population.

Admittedly we are given about five first acts in the film before a grand finale. It might be a little annoying for the overall rhythm of watching the thing, making the first half feel a bit episodic and inconsequential, but it’s appropriate for the telling of a serial-type story (these are the adventures plural of our emerald-tighted hero after all).

More than any other pre-existing film, this was heavily borrowed from to produce the Disney movie with anthropomorphic animals. Oh, who are we kidding? Forget borrowing, the Disney film is Adventures of Robin Hood with a fox in the lead. I was genuinely surprised that we don’t ever see Claude Rains sucking his thumb. When Disney inevitably get round to remaking their version, it’ll be even more obvious how blatantly they copied this.

What I love about large-scale films with ambitious action sequences from this period is that so much is done for real, because there really was no other way of achieving the desired effect. You had to get a couple of hundred extras in weapons and armour on a soundstage and get them to lay into each other convincingly enough to look real but not so convincingly anyone got hurt or destroyed the set. Yes, the expensive actors are sometimes swapped out for less expensive stunt performers, but the fight and chase scenes have a real jeopardy to them. Did you know that stuntmen received a bonus for each arrow they agreed to have fired into them? No tricks here, they were literally firing arrows into each other and hoping they were wearing enough padding!

There’s a reason why everyone who appreciates movie sword fights still bangs on about Flynn/Robin vs Rathbone/Gisbourne. The fight takes up the full frame with few cutaways to hide behind, the duelists clearly very adept with a blade for real. It’s the ultimate fight of good vs evil, right vs wrong, arrogance vs…more arrogance.

The cast are an extremely entertaining troupe. Errol Flynn may not have been a nice guy at all to work with, but he makes an excellent Robin, flitting between roguish charm and righteous determination to achieve justice for his fellow Englishmen. Basil Rathbone is steely and beard-strokingly evil as the ultimate scheming right-hand to the real villain, Claude Rains in a terrible ginger wig. Olivia de Havilland impressively even brings some sharpness to Maid Marian when the script allows (when).

Remember when historical action movies were colourful and a joy to watch? Ridley Scott wants you to forget so he can make more desaturated big battle scenes. Remember when swashbuckling adventures weren’t ego trips? Johnny Depp want you to forget so he can turn up in another wig with hidden earpiece. I’m sure many watching this today might giggle at The Adventures of Robin Hood, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I really don’t think we were meant to take the whole thing seriously; it’s just a bit of fun. It’s gleefully over-the-top in places (hands on hips, thigh-slapping laughter) but it’s all part of the charm. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

Writer and film fanatic fond of black comedies, sci-fi, animation and films about dysfunctional families.
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