The Adventures of Robin Hood Review
Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn) is living the life of an outlaw in the forests of Sherwood. England is not quite as welcoming as it once was for Sir Robin since the departure of the good King Richard (Ian Hunter) to fight overseas in the crusades for, in his absence, his wicked and selfish brother, Prince John (Claude Rains), has assumed the throne and increased taxes on the Saxon peasantry to keep the Norman gentry fed, watered and fatted. Sir Robin, however, wants all men of England to live together under the one flag and out of poverty, if they can, so he resolves to taking back the taxes being snatched greedily by Prince John and distributing them amongst the people once more.
His actions soon attract the attentions of Prince John and his local representatives - Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and the Sheriff of Nottingham(Melville Cooper) - who resolve to trap this outlaw. But Robin and his men are swift and have the forest in which to hide so the Sheriff sets a trap - an archery tournament that the vain Sir Robin will not want to miss. It is there that he, once again, meets the beautiful Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland), whose heart he steals but with the king's guards after him, will their affair be lost to the hangman's noose?
It doesn't have very fans but I love Oliver Stone's The Doors not only for Val Kilmer's performance as Jim Morrison, nor even for the music but for Stone including just about everything that one might have heard about Morrison. I doubt the facts of Morrison's life mattered to Stone - all that was important was presenting the legend. The briefest of reviews of The Adventures of Robin Hood would conclude that the film succeeds by simply presenting the legend but this fails to capture the why it is as well-loved a film as it undoubtedly is. Like Casablanca, much could have gone wrong with The Adventures of Robin Hood - James Cagney was the first actor considered for the role of Robin Hood but was no longer an option when he walked out of Warner Bros. over a disputed contract. The director who began work on the project, William Keighley, fell ill during the production and was replaced by Michael Curtiz. David Niven was the first choice for Will Scarlet but was unavailable and Errol Flynn, despite looking like nothing less than a star in this film, was then only on the cusp of success having only had his Hollywood break some three years before with Captain Blood. Even then, as with Cagney's unavailability for The Adventures of Robin Hood, Flynn was only cast in Captain Blood when Robert Donat, the first choice for the role, failed to appear on set. The risk facing Flynn as he agreed to take on the role of Robin Hood was that, should it fail, he might only ever be a second choice should an actor become unavailable. History tells us that, following the success of this film, Flynn would have no such worries again but as production began, this was by no means guaranteed.
The origins of Robin Hood are, as Rudy Behlmer makes clear on the commentary that accompanies this film, somewhat difficult to pin down. Whilst the first appearance of Robin Hood is in William Langland's Piers Plowman, which was written in 1377, it wasn't until 1439 that he was first presented as a legendary anti-hero via a petition presented to Parliament against an unconnected man against whom charges were being pursued. Ballads written in honour of Robin Hood were being published soon after the invention of the printing press whilst our modern view of Robin Hood as a man of good intentions fighting the wicked Normans comes with Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, written in 1819 and within which Robin Hood is described as a, "King of outlaws and prince of good fellows." Guy of Gisbourne, Maid Marian, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Prince John and King Richard the Lionheart all come and go in the telling of the tale of Robin Hood but by early in the twentieth century (1908) when the first film versions of the story began to be produced, the legend was complete. In 1922, Douglas Fairbanks starred in a silent version that featured Robin Hood as a swashbuckling enemy of the throne of Prince John. This version may well have been expensive - it required the building of a complete Norman village - but it was also spectacular and became much loved by audiences. Indeed, few would have suspected that Hollywood would have returned to the legend of Robin Hood within a decade-and-a-half, so famous was this Fairbanks film.
Following his work on Captain Blood, Dwight Franklin, an advisor on Warner's historical epics forwarded a memo to Jack Warner asking, "Don't you think Cagney would make a swell Robin Hood?" With the Hays Production Code being adopted in 1030 and enforced from 1934, Hollywood studios began looking to historical dramas, which, they felt, would not fall as foul as their gangster and crime movies had under the panel who enforced the Hays code. With Cagney replaced by Flynn, who was cast, as he had been on Captain Blood, opposite Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian, the central pairing of lovers divided by the throne of England was in place. With Claude Rains, Basil Rathbone and Melville Cooper in place as the villainous trio of Prince John, Sir Guy of Gisbourne and the Sheriff of Nottingham and Patrick Knowles, Eugene Pallette and Alan Hale as Robin's sturdy lieutenants Will Scarlett, Friar Tuck and Little John, production began with a budget set at $1.6m. This would soon grow to $2m - an enormous sum of money in 1938 - with much of the cost being absorbed by the use of three-strip Technicolor cameras to capture the rich, green countryside of England in the forests of Chico, California, the plants and grass within which were spray-painted a darker shade of green so to appear more English.
The Adventures of Robin Hood was Warner's first Technicolor film and it is the gloriously rich colours that first impresses. I'll say more later about the quality of the film on this DVD but, for now, it suffices to say that this is a wonderful-looking film. The opening scenes are there to quickly establish Robin Hood as a decent but unwilling subject of Prince John, a vain and selfish man who appointed himself to the throne in the absence of his brother, King Richard. As Robin Hood, who is better known in royal circles as Sir Robin of Locksley, rushes to the aid of Much-the-Miller's-son (Herbert Mundin), who has been caught in the act of killing a deer on the king's land without his permission - an act that carries the death sentence. Threatened by Sir Guy of Gisbourne but rescued by Robin Hood, the film teases with what one might think is a rather quiet opening before offering Robin a more full-blooded encounter with the king's men - this time inside the castle at Nottingham to an audience with Prince John himself. Errol Flynn's second introduction as Robin Hood is the stuff of film legend as he strides, a deer slung over his shoulders, into the castle and a, on Robin's side at least, good willed confrontation. As Rudy Behlmer makes clear on his commentary, Robin was originally to enter the great hall with a Saxon peasant over his shoulders, having found the body after he had been murder by the Norman guards of Prince John but that would have struck too serious a note too early in the film. Instead, we have an impudent, teasing and charming Robin Hood who flatters the prince in one moment and pricks his pride the next. With his suspicions aroused on seeing the doors out of the castle being sealed, Robin is on his feet and taking on all comers as he ascends and leaps between staircases and windows towards an exit. It's a remarkably assured piece of filmmaking and made all the more thrilling by it being Flynn performing the stunts throughout, finishing with a flourish of swordplay and a wide smile as he leaves the castle.
What follows is a game of cat and mouse through the forests of Nottingham with Robin remaining free of the sheriff's jails or, worse, the hangman's noose most of the time. Whilst there are deaths within the Norman house of Prince John, only those who deserve it are struck by Robin Hood's arrows as he exacts, "a death for a death" in his people's revolt. This Robin Hood is a gallant swordsman who, it appears, follows a strict code of chivalry and respect not only for one's weapon but also one's enemy. Even in the climactic duel, Robin hands Sir Guy back his sword but in revealing the treachery of the prince's men, Sir Guy sneakily reaches for a dagger when they tussle hand-to-hand. Famously, the Sheriff of Nottingham even sets a trap for Robin Hood by arranging an archery tournament, which he knows the vain outlaw could not refuse to attend given that he is the finest archer in the land. Claiming the prize, a golden arrow presented by Lady Marian, after firing his arrow through and splitting that of Philip of Arras - actually shot by professional archer Howard Hill, who was not only employed as a consultant on this picture and was responsible for much of the archery that we see onscreen but also has a showcase for his skills on Disc 2 of this DVD release - Robin is confident enough to mount an assault on the king himself with his only protection being his disguise as a tinker.
There isn't, however, really any doubt about the outcome of the film nor is there any particular threat to Robin's life. Although early drafts of the script did consider an ending in which Robin died, the joy of the film is in accepting that we know how it ends and that we can relax in what is simply an awfully comfortable story of good being done against evil. Free from having to make his character a more troubled persona, Flynn concentrated on making his Robin Hood a romantic, light-hearted adventurer who had the carefree spirit of one prepared to enter the home of his enemy for a minute with Lady Marian, the woman that he loves. Even as the Merry Men chastise Robin for his appearance at the archery tournament, he smiles and asks, "Oh, well, what of it...Where's your love of fights, risk, adventure?" This Robin appeals not only because, as a hero, he wins the day and the hand of Lady Marian but because he does both with such style. When Lady Marian accuses Robin, "You speak treason", he replies, "Fluently!" When he interrupts the coronation of Prince John, he asks of Sir Guy, "Did I upset your plans?" and he takes defeat with a smile, throwing his head back in that manner that became characteristic of Flynn, laughing and telling Little John, "I love a man who can best me!" Yet if his wits were quick, his sword was quicker still and this film was an improvement over the Fairbanks version of the story by having swordplay that matched the sharp thrusts of the dialogue.
Finally, though, the film succeeds simply by showing how much fun was to be had by being Robin Hood and, at its simplest, The Adventures of Robin Hood is the kind of film that leaves one daydreaming during quiet moments in the office of rescuing the Lady Marian from the castle of Prince John, of stealing chests of treasure and not keeping it and of being the one man who can restore a king to his just and rightful place on the throne. Yes, the Technicolor photography is gorgeous - Olivia de Havilland is shot so flatteringly in this that she could have marketed the process - and, yes, Robin Hood is supported by some sterling acting, most notably Claude Rains' sneering Prince John who parries Flynn's comments with an equal amount of wit but The Adventures of Robin Hood is all about film being as exciting, romantic and as enjoyable as it has even been.
Absolutely no question on this one - it's an exceptionally good restoration and transfer with a picture that is remarkably good and an audio track that is uncluttered by faults, absent of hiss and presented in glorious mono.
It's the picture that will take the plaudits, though, and this must have made Technicolor, which was a complex and costly process, a shoo-in for future Warners films. The rich colours are superb, the picture is sharp and detailed and it looks much more recent a film than what an original theatrical release from 1938 might suggest.
Commentary: Author and film historian Rudy Behlmer has provided a feature length commentary that is not only hugely informative but also avoids the complaint that is often made against those recorded by experts - it is never dull. Behlmer mixes facts from the production and from the legend of Robin Hood and whilst he tends to ramble from one into the other, it's never confusing. Rather, it's an enthusiastic and interesting commentary by someone who reveals a deep love for the film.
Music-Only Audio Track: Erich Wolfgang Korngold was invited by Warner Bros. to travel from his native Austria with a view to scoring The Adventures of Robin Hood. Korngold did go to Hollywood but having initially refused so to return to his home country, he saw that Germany was about to invade and decided to stay in the US. What he produced is a marvelously rousing score that, from the film's very first moments, impresses upon the viewer that this Robin is a daring, dashing thorn in the side of Prince John.
Warner Bros. - Night at the Movies 1938: Just my favourite DVD extra on any disc. Often, all that I want from a DVD is to have a film presented in the best way that it can be and this does just that. Following an Introduction by Leonard Maltin (2m41s), this presents The Adventures of Robin Hood as it would have been shown during a night at the movies in 1938. We have, therefore, a Trailer for Angels with Dirty Faces (3m22s), a Vintage Newsreel (1m23s), a musical short starring Freddie Rich and His Orchestra (11m07s) and a Warner Bros. cartoon, Katnip Kollege (7m26s) before the main attraction starts. Whilst critics may say that this smacks of Warner Bros. rounding up a bunch of unrelated and unwanted items from the archive and finding a use for them, I respectfully disagree - this is an extra that shows imagination and thoughtfulness and is, amongst all of the other wonderful extras on this DVD, what makes this a truly outstanding release.
Should the makers of a Kramer vs Kramer DVD ever consider doing the same, can I express an interest in seeing the short movie that preceded it once more. The one in which a cellist and his girlfriend kept losing their clothes?
Awards: This is one still screen detailing a list of all the awards given to The Adventures of Robin Hood over the years.
Cast & Crew: With one page devoted to the cast and another to the crew, who are rather sketchily reduced to the writers, producer and directors, this provides only the briefest of information on the film.
Theatrical Trailers: Containing both the Original (3m59s) and Re-Release (1m51s) trailers, these are a simple and obvious selection of highlights from the film. Where they do serve a purpose is in demonstrating, were any more evidence needed, the quality of the restoration of this film. Look no further than the unrestored picture quality on this trailer, which is soft and with an odd mix of colours where the main feature is neither for the care and attention that The Adventures of Robin Hood received for this release.
Glorious Technicolor (1hr7s): Narrated by Angela Lansbury - aren't they all? - this is a fascinating, hour-long documentary on the invention and usage of the Technicolor process. Developed by Dr. Herbert Kalmus and incorporated in 1915, Technicolor was a complex process but its success meant that few studios could refrain from using it. In particular, Technicolor would not allow its cameras to be sold only hired out, which allowed them to include a Technicolor consultant within the deal. Oftentimes this was Natalie Kalmus, Herbert's ex-wife, who he sent to Hollywood just to rid of her but as the documentary explains, she wasn't wanted there either. In particular, the documentary highlights the difficulty that they makers of Gone With The Wind had with Technicolor consultant Natalie Kalmus on the set. Eventually David O Selznick appealed to Dr. Herbert Kalmus to have his ex-wife removed from the set as she was constantly clashing with him, the directors and production designer William Cameron Menzies. As they state in this documentary, the colours of Gone With The Wind are said by some to be different in the second half of the film, which followed the dismissal of Natalie Kalmus, than in the first. With that being only one example of the kind of information in the documentary, this is an excellent bonus feature for a film that looks as wonderful as it does thanks to Technicolor.
Welcome to Sherwood (55m45s): Subtitled The Story of The Adventures of Robin Hood, this begins with a short introduction by Rudy Behlmer on the history of Warner Brothers and how the Production Code of the thirties put a stop to their gangster pictures and forced them to look elsewhere for stories for the screen. In time, they would look to the legend of Robin Hood and this documentary describes the production of this film with an exceptional amount of care and detail. As with the presentation of the film on this DVD release, this documentary, which neither spares the viewer nor obsesses over any particular part of the production, has obviously been made by a team who love this film and it shows in every minute.
Looney Tunes Cartoons: Contains Rabbit Hood (7m57s) and Robin Hood Daffy (6m42s), which star Bugs Bunney and, given the title, Daffy Duck, respectively. Although both are linked to The Adventures of Robin Hood via the subject matter - one has Bugs stealing the king's carrots whilst the other has Daffy attempting to recruit Friar Tuck as played by Porky Pig - Errol Flynn makes a guest appearance in Rabbit Hood via footage from this film.
Short Films: Cavalcade of Archery (1945, 8m33s) and The Cruise of the Zaca (1952, 18m17s) have been included, principally for their relationship to Robin Hood and Errol Flynn, respectively. Cavalcade of Archery is a joyous period piece that reflects on modern archery and stars Howard Hill - billed as the world's greatest archer - who might, in the words of the narrator, be able to show Robin Hood a thing or two. Before he gets down to his tricks, though, he has to show a bevy of beauties how to shoot an arrow properly before finishing with the old William Tell trick. Unlike William Burroughs, Hill shoots not only an apple but also a prune from the head of a willing accomplice. Said accomplice becomes a lot less willing when Hill tries the trick with a cherry, though.
As for The Cruise of the Zaca, one feels pangs of jealousy when looking at the life led by Errol Flynn. Ostensibly a document of a marine science expedition, it was directed and narrated by Flynn who charts the progress of one-time, real-life Steve Zissou, Dr Carl Hubbs of the Scripps Institute of the University of California aboard the Zaca. Along for the ride is Prof. Thomson Flynn, Errol's father, from the Queen's University, Belfast and the three of them, plus crew, have literally a whale of a time. Until, that is, Errol heads off with a terribly attractive young lady in the back of his speedboat.
Robin Hood Through the Ages (6m51s): Rudy Behlmer is back for this short extra in which he discusses previous film versions of the Robin Hood story. All but the 1922 Douglas Fairbanks' version receive little more than a mention but Behlmer - quite rightly - concentrates on this one film, summarising it in the form of a commentary over footage from the film.
A Journey to Sherwood Forest (13m18s): Rudy Behlmer introduces this mix of black-and-white and colour behind-the-scenes footage that has been taken from home movies by those working on the set. As he has done else on this set, Behlmer provides a commentary on the footage, which is roughly in chronological order, describing in sufficient details what the audience may not recognise, which includes the three-strip Technicolor camera. As Behlmer reminds us, behind-the-scenes footage was extremely rare in 1938 - think of even the very few films of, say, the seventies that include such footage on their DVD releases - so to have this included here demonstrates, were further evidence needed, of the care that has been taken over the production of this DVD.
From the Cutting Room: This is a mix of Outtakes (8m26s) and Breakdowns of 1938 (12m47s) from the Warner Bros archives. The Outtakes are not the kind that Dennis Nordern would be including in yet another of his interminable It'll Be Alright... shows but are, instead, alternate takes and footage that was cut from the finished film. Again, Rudy Behlmer provides a commentary. Breakdowns of 1938 is, however, what we might consider outtakes and bloopers and features footage from The Adventures of Robin Hood as well as actors Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis and Carole Lombard.
Splitting the Arrow Galleries: Given the rich design of The Adventures of Robin Hood, there's a wealth of photographs that are included here. The entire gallery is broken down into Historical Art (2m48s), Costume Designs (5m12s), Scene Concept Drawings (2m40s), Cast & Crew Photos (4m08s) and Publicity & Poster Materials (2m08s). Although each gallery can be scanned through using the Next/Previous Chapter buttons, they will also progress automatically should you let them.
I have mentioned Casablanca a number of times throughout this review and, personally, with good reason. My interest in this set goes back to Warner's release of the two-disc Casablanca Special Edition and on reading Mike Sutton's superb review of it for DVD Times, which you can read by clicking here, I bought the set and absolutely fell in love with the film. The Adventures of Robin Hood was my next purchase from Warner's growing library of stunning special editions and I was not disappointed.
This DVD does everything that you could ask of it - the restoration is as close to perfect as you could ask for, the extras are no less than superb throughout and the film is a wonderfully entertaining movie that, quite correctly, made Errol Flynn a star. The only complaint that one can make about it is that you will begin questioning the quality of those DVD's that don't live up to its astonishingly high standard.