Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Five Hoods: The Swashbuckler

Some links before we get ourselves started today. Norma has a cover for her memoir. Yesterday was a Square Dog Friday for AngryParsnip. Lorelei looks at the history of Hallowe'en. And the Whisk had a Who Am I question.

Today I start out with the first of five reviews for films about the legendary outlaw and the stories about him. Enjoy!

“Do you know any prayers, my friend?” ~ Sir Guy of Gisbourne 
“I’ll say one for you.” ~ Robin Hood

“You know you’re very impudent.” ~ Marian

“I’ll organize revolt, exact death for a death, and I’ll never rest until every Saxon in this shire can stand up free men and strike a blow for Richard and England.” ~ Robin Hood

The classic film The Adventures of Robin Hood is a swashbuckling story from directors Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) and William Keighley (The Prince And The Pauper). It brings together Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland for one of a number of films they co-starred in together as the outlaw from Sherwood Forest and the Lady Marian. There had been Robin Hoods on the silver screen before, and many more would follow, but for many, this classic version is the definitive take on the tale. It was a popular action film in 1938 that still endures today, well received by audiences and critics alike.

The film opens up with England at a crossroads; Richard the Lionheart (Ian Hunter), on his way back from the Crusades, has been taken prisoner. His brother Prince John (Claude Rains) is in the process of seizing power as a result, oppressing the common people, raising taxes for the supposed purpose of ransoming Richard, but in fact to gain control of the throne. One Saxon knight, Robin of Locksley (Flynn) opposes John’s actions. Having had already gained the enmity of Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), Robin finds himself on the run with a price on his head for his outspoken disagreement with the prince.

He and his friend Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles) end up in Sherwood Forest, where they cross paths with others who have a price on their heads, including Little John (Alan Hale Sr.) and Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette). Robin and his band of outlaws begin their own campaign of insurrection, robbing from the rich to give to the poor, fighting for a free England until the return of Richard. This will bring them into conflict with Prince John, Gisbourne, the sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper), and a whole lot of moving targets in soldier’s garb. All while Robin gets to flirt with Maid Marian (De Havilland).

Keighley was replaced during filming by the studio, which went with Curtiz instead as director; officially the story goes that Keighley fell ill, but there’s some dispute to that. Regardless, some of the finished work belongs to both directors. Curtiz would end up working with Flynn on a regular basis. Production was done in sets and locations around California, and at one time James Cagney was meant to star in the lead- wisely this never came to be. Flynn was, after all, far better suited for a dashing hero than Cagney, whose work leaned heavily towards the gangsters.  Warner Brothers went with Technicolor for the film, a new and more expensive process, but one that worked well for the story. Sets and costumes come to vivid life.

The film contains some of the best archery and sword duels of the time- the climactic fight between Flynn and Rathbone is particularly memorable; it turns out that the fencing master behind this believed sword fights should look like sword fights, and not fencing matches, and that comes across throughout. The film also evokes the chivalry and dashing adventurous spirit of the original stories. It won three Oscars, for the score by Erich Korngold, for editing, and for art direction, and has been designated of historic significance by the Library of Congress.  

It’s something of a family film- kids will enjoy it, of course, but adults certainly will enjoy it on an entirely different level. There’s no cynicism to the story, just an exuberant energy perhaps best seen in its title character. There’s a playfulness that extends to other characters, as well as the need to show off, but those are the characters and not the actors doing that. It also brings across a clear difference between right and wrong- the heroes act for the greater good, while the villains act for their own greed and ambitions.

The casting throughout is splendid, and that’s what makes this film work so well, as is the case with any good film. Claude Rains is ideal as Prince John. He had such a rich resume of acting roles throughout his life, with each role seeming in turn to be different from the others. His John is a schemer, but one with little personal courage. Melville Cooper gives us a different take as the Sheriff than later performances, such as Alan Rickman’s signature performance in the role. He’s much more of an underling, and at heart something of a coward. Basil Rathbone, who would go on to star in his greatest role as Sherlock Holmes in several films, gets the most screen time among the villains as Sir Guy, a treacherous snake with his own ambition and next to nothing in the way of ethics. It’s a great scene chewing role for the actor, and Rathbone makes him a terrific villain, just the right counterbalance to the hero.

The other supporting performances are just as good. Ian Hunter brings nobility and fair play to his take as King Richard. Patric Knowles gives his role of Will a certain amount of humour, but at the same time, this is a man who knows who his friends are and stands by them through anything- loyalty like that can’t be bought. Eugene Pallette is as grumpy, boisterous, and at heart decent as you would expect of Friar Tuck, a character who’s come down through centuries of stories as such. And Alan Hale establishes his take on Little John as a man worthy of respect, but also knowing a good leader when he sees one.

Olivia De Havilland brings many qualities to her role as Marian. She initially holds Robin in disdain as an outlaw and a brigand, but there’s a spark there. Her feelings shift gradually, as she discovers that his motivations are for the better, that there’s a good man beneath the swagger. She’s outspoken at times, and courageous and selfless, even at risk to herself. She has great chemistry with Flynn, and that comes across on the screen, but establishes her take on Marian as someone of depth all her own. In a career filled with outstanding work, this is one of her best roles.

Flynn was early on in his career when he got this role; later on in life he became something of a caricature. It’s refreshing to see him in this role; he seems to be having fun, both as the actor and in terms of conveying what the character is feeling. His Robin is fair minded, remarking that it’s injustice that he hates, not Normans, and he believes that his country can be better than it is becoming. He’s driven by justice, but there’s a swagger to him too, as though he’s thoroughly enjoying the danger he finds himself in on a regular basis. He’s certainly fearless, and a good leader, and Flynn brings these qualities to his performance in the role.

There have been many Robin Hoods on the silver screen, but this take on the role is one of the definitive versions of the story. It did eclipse the earlier Douglas Fairbanks silent version of the story, and for decades it has continued to entertain audiences who seek it out. The film is a rousing adventure with a sense of humour and the right amount of romance, all while featuring some of the best sword fighting in movie history.

Even if Bugs Bunny doesn’t believe Errol could possibly be Robin.


  1. Yes, Cagney would have been a disaster for this film. Whoever thought that might be a consideration was on drugs. lol

    Nice write up. Adding to my collection of movies this weekend.

  2. Oh, how I loved this film, watching it on TV, when growing up. It was fun to watch. I had no idea it was in color!

    Thanks for posting, and also for mentioning my blog, William!

  3. Wonderful review, William! I didn't know Cagney was considered for the lead. Glad that didn't work out! I haven't seen this movie in years, but now you've made me want to rent a copy and watch it with my kids;).

  4. You're spot on William, when a film is good it endures through the decades to be enjoyed by those who might have seen it several times and also by young newbie fans.

  5. I think this was my dad's all time favorite film--mostly for the fencing--and people probably noticed he smiled like Errol Flynn in a broad, engaging manner. Great review.

  6. @Diane: I had no idea about that casting notion until I started looking for information.

    @Lorelei: I've seen it in both formats.

    @Maria: thanks!

    @Grace: it's a real classic.

    @Eve: the whole movie works wonderfully.

  7. Another one I haven't seen. I have, however, seen Robin Hood: Men in Tights!

  8. James Cagney? Surely you jest!

    One of my favorite films!

  9. One of my favorites !
    I wonder if a very young James Cagney could have tried it. We have pigeon-holed him although he fit or fell into that niche of acting.
    He was not the tall suave Errol Flynn but who is?
    Except maybe Bugs Bunny !

    cheers, parsnip

  10. This one I did not see. But after reading your review, I think I should take the time to give it a look!

  11. For me, this is the only Robin Hood movie worth watching. They got everything right.


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