Reflections on "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938)
Written by Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller
Directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley
Starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains
A video presentation of this material is available here.
I have long since championed this film as one of the best examples of its genre, if not the best. As an entertaining historical adventure film, few can match it. The storyline and main themes are easily summarised and identified, and are likely to appeal to most.
Hard-working, honest and relatively poor citizens are being exploited and oppressed by a self-serving and scheming ruling class who consider themselves superior by birth to those they govern.
Their defender is a man of principle willing to renounce a life of privilege in order to pursue justice while shielding and protecting those being abused.
Men and women are judged by the values they adhere to and act upon, with fraternity, fairness and honour the bonding principles of some, as opposed to upholding a ruling elite and pursuing self-interest for others. The film makes its points very clearly and unequivocally. There are no psychological shades of grey here, characters are black or white, good or bad.
This is a film that inspires, involves and moves its audience while never losing sight of its principal purpose to entertain, and that is the key to the longevity of its appeal. Many films have dealt with similar themes but this one delivers its worthy message while alternating between threat and a tone of lightness and self-aware fun.
Of course, many films and film series have since adopted a similar tone. The early James Bonds, Star Wars and Indiana Jones, to name but a few, have all been influenced, to varying degrees, by the inclusion of knowing humour and self-awareness, and that notion can, I suggest, be traced back to "Robin Hood", both in terms of the writing and performance.
The key to success and lasting appeal for any adventure film is in the balance of the elements that go to make it, and in the case of "Robin Hood", that balance is just about perfect.
Threat must be real and credible, and tension must be created. Considerable effort is made to develop threat and tension in many scenes in "Robin Hood" - the meal in the castle, the archery tournament and the combat in Nottingham Castle - and the antagonists are usually defeated with skill, heroism and wit, often with an action or a line that diminishes the foe or shows humanity or a foible in our "hero", thus engaging affection, admiration and engagement in the audience.
The characters may be relatively uncomplicated representations of attitude or thought, but they are made human, interesting and entertaining by inclusion of personal characteristics and quirks, and through interaction with others, often with humorous, romantic or threatening overtones.
Serious points are made, emphasising values, justice and common decency, but they are made through characters and a script that entertain without condescension or moralising. Performance is an essential feature in delivering all these elements and must contain a combination of sincerity, threat and light-heartedness. Lines are sometimes delivered if not to the audience, then for the audience. These are lines that may have a connotation for or connection with the public, regularly at the expense of an unsuspecting foe, and make the audience complicit in the action. This may be said to peek over, if not actually break, the fourth wall, and invites a form of collusion.
Errol Flynn was the perfect incarnation for this "new" style of heroic engagement with an audience. He manages to combine a knowing self-awareness in places, almost as if he is sharing a joke with the audience, with a sincere and inspiring delivery and performance when showing compassion or aiming to motivate his men. He receives credit-worthy support from his co-stars who all play to the general tone of the piece.
The direction dynamically reflects the pace and style of the script and the whole is complemented and enhanced by the luscious colour photography and Korngold's wonderful music which, like the film itself, can be dramatic or playful. And, just as the film may have influenced later film-makers, this music and its orchestration has also exercised an influence on later film composers.
Film-making may have developed enormously on a technical level since this film was made, but in terms of the combination of writing, direction and performance in the action/adventure genre, and the creation of a refreshingly witty and involving style, this film is, in my opinion, virtually without equal.
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