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Film Friday: "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938)

Since Errol Flynn's birthday is tomorrow (June 20), this week on "Film Friday" I thought I would tell you a little bit about what is arguably the most iconic of his films.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Michael Curtiz, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) opens in 1191 with the news that King Richard the Lionheart (Ian Hunter) was taken captive by Leopold of Austria on his return from the Crusades. With the help of the rascally Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and the inept Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper), Richard's treacherous brother Prince John (Claude Rains) usurps the throne and wages a campaign of taxation and terror against the Saxons. The only nobleman who opposes John is the Saxon knight Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn), who is determined to do everything in his power to restore Richard to his rightful throne and save England from tyranny.

Taking refuge in Sherwood Forest, Robin begins recruiting his band of "Merry Men", including his loyal friend Will Scarlet (Patric Knowles), Little John (Alan Hale) and Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette), to protect and provide for the Saxon poor by stealing from the rich. When Gisbourne and the Sheriff ride through the forest accompanied by Richard's ward, the lovely Lady Marian Fitzwalter (Olivia de Havilland), Robin, now known as "Robin Hood," kidnaps them, seizes their tax money for Richard and opens Marian's eyes to the reality of Norman oppression. Although they are released unharmed, the Sheriff comes up with a way to capture Robin and have him sentenced to death. Marian, by now in love with Robin, helps him escape from execution and he soons joins forces with the recently returned Richard to infiltrate John's coronation and stop it from happening. After Robin kills Gisbourne in a sword fight, Richard is finally restored to his rightful throne. He banishes John and then gives Robin permission to marry his beloved Marian.

Sir Robin of Locksley: I'll organize revolt, exact a death for a death, and I'll never rest until every Saxon in the shire can stand up free men and strike a blow for Richard and England.

In the early 1930s, Warner Bros. was the studio of "gangsters, good guys and dancing legs," known for their fast-paced crime thrillers like Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931), socially conscious dramas like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) and gritty New York musicals such as 42nd Street (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933). After Hal B. Wallis succeeded Darryl F. Zanuck as head of production at Warners in 1933 and the Motion Picture Production Code was fully implemented in 1934, the studio was forced to abandon its realistic approach and produce more idealistic pictures.

Warner Bros. executives saw this as the perfect opportunity to expand their horizons and get into the "prestige area," turning out big-budget epics wrapped in literary and historical importance. Their first effort towards that was A Midsummer Summer Night's Dream (1935), based on William Shakespeare's play of the same name. Although the film opened to poor box-office results and generally mixed reviews from critics, James Cagney received good notices for his performance as Nick Bottom and the studio quickly envisioned another period piece for him: the story of the legendary hero from Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood. Soon thereafter, however, Cagney left Warner Bros. for two years in a contractual dispute and the studio, instead of putting the project on hold for him, started looking for a replacement.

Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn
In the meantime, Warners finally found the right formula for costume drama success with the swashbuckling epic Captain Blood (1935), starring a devilishly handsome and athletically inclined 26-year-old actor by the name of Errol Flynn and a 19-year-old British beauty called Olivia de Havilland. After delivering another smash hit, the historical adventure The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), and proving that they had an undeniable on-screen chemistry, it became clear for everyone at the studio that Flynn was the only obvious choice for the role of Robin Hood and de Havilland for his love interest, the sweet and fiercely independent Maid Marian.

There was probably no better casting on the screen than Errol Flynn as Robin Hood and Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian because there was a magic there. First of all, they were very beautiful people. Errol Flynn in his prime was a dashing figure and Olivia was one of the great beauties of Hollywood and she was having a bit of a romance going with Flynn at this time. The romance between them and the intelligence that Olivia brought to her role was just magical.
(Bob Thomas, film historian) 

Rathbone and Flynn in the climatic fight
Every hero needs a good old-fashioned villain and Warner Bros. surely got the best to play Robin Hood's nemeses. The role of Sir Guy of Gisbourne was given to the acclaimed actor and skilled fencer Basil Rathbone, who also played the principal antagonist in Captain Blood. Although his most iconic character later became that of the "superhero" Sherlock Holmes, in a series of fourteen films produced between 1939 and 1946, Rathbone's "angular features, his clipped diction and his blazing eyes" made him perfect for the morally ambiguous Gisbourne and the character remains one of greatest villains in the history of cinema.

For the part of the scheming Prince John, Warner Bros. chose another seasoned actor, Claude Rains, who would soon be seen with Flynn in The Prince and the Pauper (1937), based on Mark Twain's novel of the same name. At first, Rains was unsure of how to approach the role, as the script made Prince John appear as just another standard costume villain without much depth. When he learned that he would have to wear a red wig and beard, however, he decided to play the prince as "tacitly homosexual," starting a trend for films to depict John as an effeminate and cowardly character (according to a number of leading historians, it was actually Richard who was either bisexual or homosexual). Convinced that he based his performance on the stylized voice and mannerisms of Bette Davis, Roddy McDowall once asked Rains if that was really the case. Rains's only answer was an enigmatic smile.

Cooper and Rains
Completing the trio of villains was the character actor Melville Cooper, playing the incompetent Sheriff of Nottingham. In the early legends, the Sheriff was Robin Hood's principal adversary, being portrayed as quite menacing and as having a sexual desire for Maid Marian (the rivalry with Gisbourne was largely an invention of the 1890 operetta by Reginald De Koven and Clement Scott). Perhaps because Cooper specialized in comic roles, the character was depicted with more "humorous buffoonery," providing much of the film's comic relief.

Robin's Merry Men were drawn mostly from the ranks of other reliable and sought-after character actors. Alan Hale, who had played Little John in Douglas Fairbanks' Robin Hood (1922), was asked to reprise his role, one he would play a third time shortly before his death in Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950). Though originally conceived for Guy Kibbee, the part of the jovial and rotund Friar Tuck was eventually given to Eugene Pallette, a slender leading man of several silent pictures, such as Fairbanks' The Three Musketeers (1921), who became one of the screen's most recognizable character actors after gaining a life-threating amount of weight. 

Patric Knowles, Errol Flynn and Alan Hale
The role of Will Scarlet was initially offered to David Niven, but he was vacationing in England at the time, so the 26-year-old Patric Knowles was cast instead. Knowles' close resemblance to Errol Flynn, whom he had befriended while playing his brother in The Charge of the Light Brigade, made him ideal for the part of Robin's second-in-command, who is often depicted as witty young man, almost flamboyant, and with a love of fine and elegant clothes, as seen by his choice to wear bright red silk.

Rounding up The Adventures of Robin Hood's stellar cast were the South-African-born Ian Hunter, playing the jovial King Richard the Lionheart; veteran stage actress Una O'Connor in the role of Marian's lady-in-waiting, Bess, a character that did not derive from the original Robin Hood legends; and character actor Herbert Mundin as the cheeky but timid Much the Miller's son, who becomes Robin's loyal follower after he saves him from being arrested by Sir Guy for poaching deer in Sherwood Forest. Bess and Much are engaged in their own love affair throughout the film and their interaction also works as a source of comic relief.

If you look at The Adventures of Robin Hood and examine the cast one by one, it's not possible to think of anybody who could play any of those parts better. It is a perfect cast, and it's a perfectly cast movie.
(Leonard Maltin, film historian)

The Adventures of Robin Hood was written by Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller, in their only collaboration. Raine's credits include The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and Captains of the Clouds (1942), while Miller was responsible for titles such as Scarface (1932) and Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). To write The Adventures of Robin Hood, they borrowed plot devices from a number of sources, including Fairbanks' screen version, Howard Pyle's 1883 novel The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown, in Nottinghamshire, Sir Walter Scott's 1820 best-seller Ivanhoe and the 1890 comic opera Robin Hood, written by Reginald De Koven and Harry B. Smith.

The cast enjoying a break on location
 When The Adventures of Robin Hood began filming in September 1937, William Keighley was occupying the director's chair. Keighley had been responsible for Warner Bros.' first excursion into the three-strip Technicolor process, the Northwest drama God's Country and the Women (1937), so he seemed to be the natural candidate for the job when the studio decided to shoot The Adventures of Robin Hood in "glorious Technicolor." However, at the end of six weeks of location work in Chico, California, for what were to be the Sherwood Forest scenes, Keighley was fired after Hal Wallis and production manager T. C. Wright decided that his footage was lacking the vigor and excitement necessary to keep the story moving. The project was then handed over to one of the studio's top directors, Michael Curtiz, who had proven his amazing ability to bring action sequences alive in Captain Blood and The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Apparently, Errol Flynn was not happy with this sudden change in directors. Although he had worked with Curtiz four times before, he despised his temperamental and demanding behavior, finding it much more enjoyable to work with the sophisticated and soft-spoken Keighley, who had just directed him in The Prince and the Pauper. Oddly enough, Flynn and Curtiz enjoyed one of the most productive actor-director partnerships in Hollywood, working together on a total of twelve films between 1935 and 1941.  

Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn
When principal photography wrapped up in January 1938, production had run a month behind schedule, which pushed the budget up to almost two million dollars, making The Adventures of Robin Hood Warner Bros.' most expensive film to that date. For the film's score, Wallis decided to go all out as well and hired Erich Wolfgang Korngold, an Austrian-born former child prodigy who had become a critically acclaimed composer of operas and orchestral music. Initally unsure of how work with an action film, Korngold eventually managed to write a magnificent score, with the brilliant additional touch of choosing the key of certain sections of the complemental music based on the key of the speaking voices of the actors.

After three successful previews in California, The Adventures of Robin Hood premiered at the Radio City Music Hall in New York on May 14, 1938 to commercial and critical acclaim, eventually becoming Warner Bros. highest grossing film of that year. Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times called it "a richly produced, bravely bedecked, romantic and colorful show, it leaps boldly to the forefront of this year's best and can be calculated to rejoice the eights, rejuvenate the eighties and delight those in between."  For their part, Variety described the film as "cinematic pageantry at its best, a highly imaginative telling of folklore in all the hues of Technicolor [...] Played with intensity by an excellent company of actors, an illusion of fairy-story quality is retained throughout." At the 11th Academy Awards ceremony in 1939, The Adventures of Robin Hood won three Oscars Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing and Best Original Score and was further nominated for Best Picture, losing to Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You (1938). 

Errol Flynn as Robin Hood

Olivia de Havilland has revealed that Warner Bros. did not think The Adventures of Robin Hood was a very prestigious film, even with all the incredible success it had. When she saw it twenty years after its original release, the film proved to be quite a revelation for her. "I went to see Robin Hood on the Champs Elysees and I was quite impressed with it," she recalled. "I even wrote Errol a letter saying how much I enjoyed his performance, but I hesitated about mailing it. A few days later he was dead."

While I do not consider The Adventures of Robin Hood one of my favorite films, I have to admit that it is pretty spectacular. Not only is it absolutely stunning to look at, with all the colors popping beautifully on the screen, but it also really does have one of the greatest casts of all time. Errol Flynn was born to play Robin Hood; he is witty and bold, but also romantic and tender and so terribly dashing. Sparks fly everytime he shares a scene with Olivia de Havilland. They were beautiful together and you can see that they really loved each other, even though nothing ever came of it. If you are looking for a fun way to spend 102 minutes of your life, then give The Adventure of Robin Hood a try.

Claude Rains: An Actor's Voice by David J. Skal with Jessica Rains | Errol Flynn: The Life and Career by Thomas McNulty (2004) | The Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz by James C. Robertson (1994) | The Women of Warner Brothers: The Lives and Careers of 15 Leading Ladies by Daniel Bubbeo (2002) | Welcome to Sherwood: The Story of the Adventures of Robin Hood (2003) | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review


  1. Watch Robin Hood free online on zmovies now. Film was going well. Not amazing on action or plot, but kept me interested until half time.

    A different view on Robin Hood, who borrows his name and title from a knight... a bit on the rough side, roguish looking, but with good intentions.

    Then the last part of the movie comes, with kids hiding in the woods, one of the most ridiculous battle scenes ever on a beach, a woman fighting trained soldiers only to disappear in the waves and worst of all.... kids all around fighting war veterans in a very fast, ridiculous, senseless "slaughter".

    This is an insult to any kind of warfare held in the past, any kind of sense and intelligent thinking of humankind regarding medieval war & how to crucify every sentence in the "Art of War".
    See more: Robin Hood cast 2018


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