Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: not the first nor the last movie to beat Ridley Scott's Robin Hood to the punch, but almost certainly the best.
Of the many cinematic retellings of the legend of Britain's most famous outlaw, 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood is among the most significant for a couple of key reasons: it was the first English language Robin Hood film made in sound (and probably therefore the first made in sound, period), the first made in color, the only one ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and by virtually universal acclaim, it's the best version of the story ever filmed, though you'll find the nostalgic partisan of the Disney Robin Hood or the '50s TV series here and there.
Looked at from the perspective of so many decades in the future, it's hard not to see the '38 Robin Hood through the same romantic glass that it uses itself to look at 12th Century England. The late 1930s were the very height of the golden age of the Hollywood studio era, when impeccable works of craftsmanship and entertainment were all but cranked out by an conveyor belt. And of course, as anyone who has seen the film can attest, it has an apparently effortless breeziness, with big old star turns and stunning, only-in-Hollywood opulence in the sets and costumes, and a watertight screenplay that pushes the story forward with strict efficiency, the kind of ruthlessly disciplined writing that you don't get very much of in later days. So the romantic viewpoint does have something to recommend it: there's little if any chance that this movie could have been made outsides of the very small window between the 1935 and the outbreak of the Second World War.
Still, as with most romantic notions of classic studio films, The Adventures of Robin Hood wasn't made without its birth pains. According to some sources, the project was only initiated because Warner Bros. wanted a family-friendly A-picture to serve as olive branch to the Breen Office, who'd been pushing back against Warner's gangster films. The first director, William Keighley, was ingloriously pulled off the project midway through, for not making the action scenes exciting enough; he was replaced by Michael Curtiz, who'd worked with leading man Errol Flynn three times before, including what was till that point both the actor and director's biggest hit, Captain Blood. From the studio's perspective, this was an obvious, slam-dunk choice; except that Curtiz and Flynn openly despised each other (it's perhaps for this reason that the star later considered this to be one of his more boring roles). Scene after scene had to be cut for budgetary reasons. It took the writers numerous attempts to put together a sensible ending. Et cetera.
Not one of the most troubled films made in the '30s, not by a mile, but still a difficult shoot - and so much of it on location, too! But The Adventures of Robin Hood doesn't show it. It's simply one of the most effective adventure movies of the whole decade, indeed of the whole history of cinema, a rousing and fun popcorn movie of the highest order. If it doesn't speak to the core of the human condition, well, sometimes you just want to be swept off your feet.
The film is above all else, a spectacle: made using the three-strip Technicolor process that was only starting to become established in 1938, Robin Hood is still one of the most stupidly gorgeous movies you will ever come across. Later generations of filmmakers would more and more come to privilege "realism", and the representation of medieval Britain with as much period-appropriate mud and sweat and grey stone at could possibly be put in frame. The crew on the Warner film, rather more agreeably, were set on making something that would justify every penny spent in making the film in color. Thus it is that we have, above all else, the film's renowned costumes, which look absolutely nothing like what people might possibly have worn in the actual 1190s: maybe the wealthiest nobles could have afforded it, but it absolutely confounds belief that a peasant farmer would have been able to get his hands on something dyed with reds and blues and greens that are resolutely not found anywhere in nature.
Such niceties mattered not a whit in the production of this film, which practically glows with unearthly color, perhaps inspired by the luminous tones of illuminated manuscripts. At the same time, there's a clear method to it: Robin Hood and his band of Sherwood Forest outlaws are dressed, in a bright, clean kelly green tights and brown leather jerkins (colors signifying the forest), with the occasional splash of red or blue, while the villains in the piece wear golds and purples and blacks and great strong "artificial" colors, with the quotes meant to admit that everything in this movie looks pretty damned artificial.
Of course, there's more to the film than just hypnotically bright colors, captured in some of the best Technicolor cinematography in history by Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito. It's not one of the most-referenced and most-copied '30s swashbucklers for no reason: and if firing the perfectly talented Keighley and replacing him with Curtiz was the reason that The Adventures of Robin Hood came to have its stunning action setpieces, then let me shed no more tears for Keighley. Well-matched by Erich Wolfgang Korngold's bouncy score (almost certainly the best thing he ever composed), the fight sequences have been regarded as iconic at least since the film was graced with its first outright imitator, Fox's The Mark of Zorro in 1940. Part of this is Curtiz's stress on believability and realism, such as the use of unblunted sword points (one of the many things that strained his relationship with Flynn), or the firing of real, honest-to-God arrows into the heavily-padded chests of game stuntmen. Although the film goes out of its way not to make us feel the impact of any bad-guy deaths, it certainly doesn't shy away from presenting danger - not that Robin ever seems in much danger - and presenting it in all sorts of cunning ways. Curtiz really was a great director of action sequences, and he reached the height of that art in this film, especially in two of the biggest, best-known scenes, Robin's rescue from hanging, and the climactic battle in Nottingham Castle, replete with the famous shot of Robin and Sir Guy of Gisbourne dueling in huge shadows splashed against the stone walls. Curtiz, not to mention Oscar-winning editor Ralph Dawson (the closest there was to a celebrity editor in the 1930s), had a keen understanding of how to pace a fight scene, which means just the right number of quick shots - alarmingly quick, for 1938 - interspersed with grand wide shots and tracking shots that reveal as much of the big picture as they can.
Nor does the film's excellence end at the fight scenes. If there is one flaw with the movie (if!), it's probably in the story, which is unabashedly episodic, based on incidents in the old Robin Hood ballads. And, without a doubt, wildly unhistoric. We've got Prince John (Claude Rains) colluding with Sir Guy (Basil Rathbone) on the best way to take over England while King Richard (Ian Hunter) is kidnapped in Austria; Sir Robin of Locksley (Flynn), a Saxon nobleman, storms his way into Sir Guy's castle in Nottingham to inform John that he and the Saxons will not stand still for this treachery; and then stuff kind of happens to show how Robin, and his men including Little John (Alan Hale, reprising his role from the 1922 version of the story) and Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) are able to constantly outwit the nefarious usurpers, or how Robin falls in love with the king's ward, the Norman Lady Marian Fitzwalter (Olivia de Havilland). It would be easy, too easy, for this structure of "this happened and this happened and this happened the end" to grind along, but it is saved from this partially because of directorial magnificence - and let us here single out neither Curiz nor Keighley, for both men had a well-established ability to keep a story moving briskly - including not just the efficient handling of scenes, but also a gift for keeping the cumbersome Technicolor camera moving and probing, so that things never feel static or still. There are also plenty of well-chosen camera angles to keep things interesting and fresh; my favorite shows John, Sir Guy, and the wicked Bishop of Black Canons (Montagu Love) conspiring to kill Richard, back in England: it's from the back of a fireplace, so that flames lick the villains as they plot, three devils in their natural environment.
And the cast is, of course, top-notch: Flynn had little or no range, but he was one of the best charming hero-bastards in cinema history, and Robin Hood is arguably the best version of that character in literary tradition. Rains gives the best performance, as he usually does: his John is a bit weirdly effeminate (a hoary tradition in rich villainy that still hasn't entirely died out, alas), but so self-amused by the extent of his own cruelty that he has a definite magnetism to him. Of course, the film was made in one of those excellent periods for character actors who could make a huge impression even with just a scene (we are in another such period), making Pallette's Tuck, or Melville Cooper's intensely incompetent Sheriff of Nottingham, stand out just as much as the characters who get the actual focus of the film (Robin, Marian, Sir Guy, and John - Rathbone and de Havilland are both entirely fine, but given how much better they could be in later films, it's hard to get too exercised about either of them).
It's a bit strange to see a movie that's solely about having "fun" made with such top-drawer effort from everyone, for nowadays "fun" movies (which are often miserably dreary, as the 2010 Robin Hood makes excessively clear) don't often attract the best actors or directors or whathaveyou; our great artists would rather be making serious work than great entertainment. The difference is the studio system: if Hal B. Wallis said you were doing a Robin Hood picture, you were damn well going to make a Robin Hood picture, and if you still wanted a job next month, it had damn well better be the best Robin Hood picture you could manage. That is doubtlessly why The Adventures of Robin Hood still stands as the definitive movie version of the legend, after so many later adaptations: as far as the filmmakers were concerned, it was just as serious and important a project as any given piece of Oscarbait, just with different goals. Which is probably why the film ended being Oscarbait that particular year. That kind of A-list effort is only rarely present in our modern popcorn movies, and we're much worse off because of it.