The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Directors: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley

Producers: Henry Blanke, Hal B. Wallis (First National, Warner Bros.)

Writers: Norman Reilley Raine, Seton I. Miller (screenplay)

Photography: Tony Gaudio, Sol Polito

Music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Cast: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Patric Knowles, Eugene Palletete, Alan Hale, Melville Cooper, Ian Hunter, Una O’Connor, Herbert Mundin, Montagu Love, Leonard Willey, Robert Noble, Kenneth Hunter

When most average movie fans thinks of the origin of color cinema, they probably think back to The Wizard of Oz (1939) and that glorious moment where a sepia Dorothy opens the door to a world of color. Few actually realize color existed from the very beginning. In fact, Thomas Edison used hand-painted frames on the first films ever shown to the public, The Strong Man (1894) and Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1894), while D.W. Griffith tinted scenes in The Birth of a Nation (1915). In 1920, Herbert and Natalie Kalmus founded Technicolor, shooting through red and green filters on two strips of film that were then glued together, and created the first color feature in Hollywood, Toll of the Sea (1922). When Douglas Fairbanks invested $1 million with them, they found their first succes in The Black Pirate (1926).

Jack Warner took the next big step by combining the novelties of color and sound in Show of Shows (1929), where two dyed strips were transfered onto a single piece of film. In 1932, Technicolor announced a new three-strip process (red, blue, green), ushering in the first feature length live action all color film, La Cucaracha (1934). Meanwhile, Walt Disney applied color to animation with his short Flowers and Trees (1932) and then the monster hit Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), which arrived the same year as Selznick’s color triumph A Star is Born (1937). By 1938, Technicolor had 25 films in production, and the process was becoming more and more viable.

Which brings us to the watershed moment that blew the roof off of everything, The Adventures of Robin Hood, whose tagline declared, “Only a rainbow can duplicate its brilliance!” a full year before Oz took us “over the rainbow.” Starring Errol Flynn as the famed outlaw of Sherwood Forrest, Robin Hood was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. A virbrant palette of reds and greens colored a whole host of elaborate set pieces, lavish costumes and groundbreaking action. It was a gamble for Warner Bros., who until then had made their reputation on gritty gangster pictures and Depression-themed Busby Berkeley musicals. The risk more than paid off. The Adventures of Robin Hood earned a  Best Picture nomination and became the first color film to lead a year at the box office, sounding the trumpet that color films were here to stay.

A plot summary seems superfluous, for by now everyone should know the story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, Little John and Friar Tuck, Prince John and Maid Marian. But a quick summary nonetheless. Sir Robin of Loxley (Flynn) is a freedom fighter in 12th century England who’s taken up the cause of robbing from the rich (the Normans) and giving to the poor (the Saxons). Fighting alongside Little John (Alan Hale), Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles), Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) and the rest of his rebel Merry Men, Robin challenges the dictarorial Prince John (Claude Rains), who has assumed the throne while his brother, King Richard the Lion-Heart (Ian Hunter), is away on the Crusades.

During his journey, Robin must face down the evil Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and High Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper), who are in charge of carrying out Prince John’s oppressive taxing of the poor. Meanwhile, Robin woos the lovely Lady Marian (Olivia de Havilland), who shares the luxurious castle with Prince John, but is made to see the condition of lower class Saxons when she accompanies Robin into Sherwood Forrest. There, she comes to see that Robin Hood is more than just a renegade; he’s a man of great moral conviction: “Norman or Saxon, what’s the matter? It’s injustice I hate, not the Normans.”

Such a fairytale was popular long before 1938. The legend of Robin Hood dates back to 1377 and he started showing up in children’s stories in the 19th century. (D) In 1890, Reginald de Koven and Harry B. Smith produced a light opera rendition, and more versions would come as 20th century ushered in the new movie medium. The silent era alone produced six versions of the story, the most famous of which, Robin Hood (1922), was made for an estimated cost of $1.6 to 2 million — the most expensive film up to that point. It was the biggest hit of Fairbanks’ career, who starred as Robin Hood, performed most of his own stunts and wrote the script, under the pseudonym Elton Thomas. (B) 

The fact that such a story had been told time and again made it all the trickier to write, especially since this would be the first talkie version. Screenwriter Rowland Leigh took a crack at the first draft, but producer Hal B. Wallis didn’t like it, namely because Leigh wanted to leave out the love angle between Robin and Maid Marian. (D) In Leigh’s place, Wallis appointed Norman Reilly Raine, fresh off an Oscar for The Life of Emile Zola (1937), and Seton Miller, who would later write Flynn’s The Sea Hawk (1940) (B). Together they produced a script full of lovable characters and clever quips. Comebacks rarely come as good as when Prince John says to Robin, “You speak treason” and Robin responds, “Fluently.”

Still, a solid script alone wasn’t enough to make the film stand out from previous versions. The real reason The Adventures of Robin Hood is considered the definitive version is because it boasts the deepest cast of any version to date. Has a more distinguished actor played Prince John than Rains? The role began a powerful string of films: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Sea Hawk (1940), The Wolf Man (1941), Now, Voyager (1942), Casablanca (1942), Mr. Skeffington (1944) and Notorious (1946), four of which earned him Oscar nominations. Rathbone saw just as much success, dueling Tyrone Power in the most famous sword fight in history in The Mark of Zorro (194) and becoming the most famous Sherlock Holmes of all time, playing the detective 14 times between 1939-1946. And Between the shrewd charm of Rains, and the evil genius of Rathbone, Cooper is a nice touch of comic relief.

As for the Merry Men, the casting is just as effective. Paulette is the very definition of a go-to character actor,  Knowles fills in for original cast David Niven with a handsomeness to rival Flynn’s, and Hale is the most famous Little John in history. Father to Gilligan’s Island skipper Alan Hale Jr., Hale played the role three times, in three different decades, first in the 1922 Fairbanks version and later in Rogues of Sherwood Forrest (1950). (D)

Elsewhere, you won’t find a more beautiful Maid Marian than de Havilland, older sister of Joan Fontaine, one year before her casting in Gone With the Wind (1939). Ironically, de Havilland wasn’t the first choice for the role and was cast only after the original actress got pregnant out of wedlock and was forced to leave the project (the identity of that actress remains a mystery as her name is blacked out in all official records). (C) The film came at a very controversial time for de Havilland, who was unhappy with her contract with Warners and led one of the most famous revolts against a studio in history, suing the company and ultimately winning in 1943. The court decision because known as “The de Havilland Decision” and she is a heroine of SAG to this day. (D)

The actress’ newfound freedom began a new chapter in her career, and it’s telling that none of her five Oscar nominations and two wins between 1939-1949, came under Warner Bros. The Adventures of Robin Hood was the greatest film she ever made for Warners, and if you look closely, you may recognize the golden palomino she rides. At the time it was named “Golden Cloud,” but you know it Trigger, a name given to it by Roy Rogers later that year in his debut leading role, Under Western Stars (1938). (D)

Which brings us to the star of the picture, the incomprable Errol Flynn, whose very name conjures images of clanking swords, dangerous feats and dashing good looks. Four years later his name would become immortalized in American pop culture whe, upon beating charges of raping two 18-year-old girls, his reputation for wild sexuality garnered the phrase “In like Flynn.” He was a flamboyant figure always in the public eye, and no matter how sad he he became in later years, no one could take away the fact that for a time in the ’30s and ’40s he was the biggest action hero in movies. Fairbanks had to step aside. (E)

Ironically, Flynn was not the first choice for Robin. That was James Cagney, who in a major dispute with the studio, walked out on his contract. (A) Replacing Cagney with Flynn was a natural choice, as Flynn had already appeared twice with de Havilland for Warners, first in the major hit Captain Blood (1935) and second in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). They would go on to co-star in eight films throughout their career.

Today, it’s impossible to see anyone else in the role, much less Cagney. It was Flynn’s career role, and he will forever be tied to Robin Hood, and Robin Hood to him. It’s precisely Flynn’s charm that makes Robin Hood both the AFI’s #18 Greatest Hero of All Time and Premiere‘s #16 Best Movie Character of All Time. Despite the fact that he is a rebel and theif (literally a “robbing hood”), we root for him because he is at once a William Wallace — less badass, but just as good with a sword — and a regular Romeo, scaling the castle ivy to join Marian in a balcony kiss. Through it all, he maintains a defiant charisma, flopping a dead deer on Little John’s dining table, rocking casually in his chair with his feet on the king’s table, or shooting arrows the way Tiger Woods nails puts.

It’s important to note that Flynn did most of his own stunts, swinging from vines with the grace of Tazan and engaging in masterful sword battles down the stretch. Prior the film, he took fencing lessons with Fred Cavens, who had staged Flynn’s swordfight in Captain Blood and who choreographed the duelers as if two partners in a dance. The only major stunts Flynn did not do were the death-defying climb up the drawbridge rope and the ensuing fall on the other side, which busted the ankle of the stuntman in action. In all, the film used more stuntmen than any film up to that time, and to watch them divebomb the Norman calvary from the Sherwood Forrest trees is enough to take your breath away. (D)

Flynn also stepped aside to let a master handle the archery — Howard Hill. A 1971 inductee into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, Hill long held the title of “world’s greatest archer.” He is listed in the credits as “Captain of Archers,” but he also plays “Owen the Welshman” in the archery contest. Hill worked closely with sound guy Ben Burtt to create the sound of each arrow, which would remain Burtt’s favorite sound effect he ever created and one he used in almost all the Star Wars films through his company Skywalker Sound. Listen closely to the whizzing of the arrows, for instance, in the shot where Robin Hood splits an arrow with a second. It’s a shot Hill actually nailed, and when MythBusters tried recreating it, no one could pull it off.(C) His marksmanship was crucial to the safety of the actors, as Hill actually shot real arrows into the stuntmen, who wore steel plates for protection. (D) The stunts, staged fights and incredible archery earned The Adventures of Robin Hood a place on AFI’s 100 Thrills.

With so much action, Wallis knew he needed a director who could keep up the pace, an original director William Keighley was not it. Keighley had been assigned to the project because the previous year he had directed Flynn in the Warner costume drama The Prince and the Pauper (1937), as well as Warners’ first three-strip Technicolor film, God’s Country and the Woman (1937). But as the dailies came in from the action scenes, Wallis became increasingly distressed and ordered Keighley to be replaced by Warner golden boy Michael Curtiz, future director of Casablanca and the man who had made Flynn a star in Captain Blood. Variety reported Keighley left due to an illness, but the real reason is well known today — he was canned because Wallis wanted a capable action director. (B)

Curtiz was precisely that man. Despite the fact that he and Flynn did not get along, they still made 12 pictures together, which says something for the professionalism of both. (B) With the superb editing of Ralph Dawson, who won the last of three Oscars in his career, Curtiz kept the film moving at the rapid pace necessary of a film with “adventure” in the title. Most of all, he reigned in a massive production that ballooned from a budget of $1.6 million to $2 million, the most expensive Warners film to date. (C) The film was one of the biggest undertakings in Hollywood history and the epitome of the costume drama, boasting extravagant wardrobes, some designed by de Havilland herself. (D)

For the set of Sherwood Forrest, the art department took to Chico, California, and romanticized the surroundings, spray-painting the foliage green and adding a number of artificial rocks and trees. Art Director Carl Jules Weyl took home an Academy Award for his efforts. (D) Curtiz shot the production using all 11 of the Technicolor cameras in existence at the time, which required massive amounts of light to get the color to show up properly. (C) Needless to say, the end result was gorgeous.

“I don’t think Technicolor was ever more vivid or more exciting than it was in Robin Hood,” Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne said. “The reds are really red, the greens are really green, but it’s so vivid and so wonderful that it adds to the storybook quality of the film.” (D)

Still, beyond the visuals, beyond the stunts, cast and color, the true majesty of the film lay in Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Oscar-winning score. Previously an opera composer in Austria, Korngold agreed to visit Warner Bros. and see a cut of the film, but when he did, he declined to score it, thinking his type of music was not suited to score an adventure picture. That’s when history intervened. While in Hollywood, Korngold learned that Hitler was about to invade Austria, and Korngold’s parents and teenage son caught literally the last train out that didn’t require special permission. Korngold would often say Robin Hood saved his life. (D)

The score is one of the most treasured in movie history. The opening march is a rousing call to arms, the love theme can tell a whole scene of romance without the actors muttering one romantic line of dialogue, and the archery tournament theme is so spectacular that Chuck Workman used it during his 100 Years at the Movies montage, which also made use of Korngold’s score for The Sea Hawk (1940). The AFI recently voted The Adventures of Robin Hood the #11 Greatest Movie Score of All Time, the second oldest score to make that list (behind King Kong).

If you’ve never heard the score, much less seen the movie, make it a top priority. At the very least, you can compare it to your favorite version of Robin Hood, which no doubt is different for everyone. Disney produced two versions: The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952) and the animated Robin Hood (1973), featuring the songs of Roger Miller and a perennial favorite amongst kids. Hammer Studios produced three Robin Hood movies in a decade: Men of Sherwood Forest (1957), Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960) and A Challenge for Robin Hood (1968). There was also Robin and Marian (1976), a quasi-sequel starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn; Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), the hillarious Mel Brooks creation starring ary Elwes, Richard Lewis and Dave Chappelle; and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), starring Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman. (B) Cartoon lovers might also add Rabbit Hood, the Bugs Bunny short where Errol Flynn actually swings into the cartoon.

No matter how many versions arise, critics and scholars will forever hold up The Adventures of Robin Hood as the definitive version. It is the one most cited on best lists, including the Filmsite Top 100, #61 on Entertainment Weekly‘s Top 100 and #175 on IMDB. While some elements appear dated (i.e. some of the punching sound effects), the film holds up quite well as a piece of entertainment. Its message will arouse those of all political factions, as conservatives will cheer Robin for his “death to taxes” stance and liberals will hail him for redistributing the wealth, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Perhaps this is why parents feel comfortable passing the story of Robin Hood down to their children — or simply because it’s so damn fun. Scott Meek, of Time Out Film Guide, hit it on the head when he called The Adventures of Robin Hood “one of the great adventure movies that you can pretend you are treating the kids to when you are really treating yourself.” (F)


CITE B: Tim Driks,
CITE D: DVD Bonus Feature: Welcome to Sherwood: The Story of The Adventures of Robin Hood
CITE E: David Thomson, New Biographical Dictionary of Film
CITE F: DVD back cover

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