The Adventures of Robin Hood Review
“It's injustice I hate, not the Normans.”
With King Richard - that's the Lionhearted one, folks - away fighting in the crusades, his dastardly brother Prince John seeks to seize control of old England. Thus, with the help of his scheming cohorts, the Sheriff Of Nottingham and Sir Guy of Gisbourne, he ups the taxes, has his henchmen subjugate the masses with a chain-mail fist and plots his succession to the throne in his mighty brother's absence. Pretty soon, the villagers are suffering all manner of degradations - ear-loppings, tongue-slicings, hangings and the lash - and the mood of the otherwise wondrously sunny and picturesque countryside turns sour with fear and oppression. The seeds of a revolt are sown and all that the poor peasantry need to help them through such a dark and persecuted reign is a leader.
But, hey, he better be heroic.
Aye, and dashing, too.
Good with a sword is a must. And a bow, come to think of it. Quick-witted, naturally. And have a twinkle in his eye for the ladyfolk. Oh, and one last thing, he better not mind prancing around in lime-green tights, slapping his thigh and throwing his goatee-bearded head back to unleash a ribald guffaw or two for nothing more than the sheer pleasure of it.
Only one man for the job, then.
Step forward a certain Errol Flynn. The mighty Flynn.
Born in Tasmania and still finding his feet in the movies whilst juggling an adventurous time as a party animal, his handsome face and athletic prowess had steered him to success in Michael Curtiz's swashbuckling escapade Captain Blood and, after a brief spell of gun-running in some godforsaken jungle enclave, fame came calling once again when Warner Brothers had decided (very wisely) that Jimmy Cagney would not, afterall, be the perfect choice for the spirited rebel who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, Sir Robin of Locksley. Thus, donning the Lincoln greens of nylon tights, peaked forester's cap and tunic, Flynn stepped flamboyantly into the history books as the most instantly recognisable Robin Hood to have ever graced the screen. With Curtiz again taking up the mantle of directing duties once a lesser talent had scuttled away after letting the production skyrocket in budget, and reunited with his esteemed cast companions from Captain Blood - namely the gorgeous Olivia de Havilland and Basil Rathbone (who was unique in that he could play both noble and heroic good guys as well as despicable rogues and villains with equal command) - Flynn brought the cherished English fable to ripe and indulgent Technicolor life.
Shot in the Californian hills, Sherwood Forest, Hollywood-style, looks a dreamy idyll. Banished are the rainclouds and the soggy heaths of real rural England. Instead, Flynn and his jocular gang of tree-huggers make their home amongst the glorious redwoods and bubbling brooks that nestle beneath crisp and deep blue skies, their wooded domain invitingly warm and cosy. The day-for-night shooting that sees Robin and co fleeing from the castle have a hauntingly hypnotic appearance, their subdued pastels lending the picture a hazy, almost surreal hue. The villages and hamlets liberated by the Hooded Man have a backlot sturdiness that places them in a realm that is, at once, familiar yet out of time. The castle, itself, is awesome in its polystyrene and matte-painted design, huge and foreboding as it sits brooding on the hilltop, and luxurious and expansive throughout it's intricately constructed interiors. When the skirmishing rampages through the vast halls and chambers, the sense of size and scale of the place is terrifically recreated with equally impressive camerawork that follows the action with reassuring dexterity and verve. The opulence of such a large costume drama is exquisitely rendered with a strong desire to emblazon the screen with as many vivid colours as can be contained within the frame. Hence, we have Robin's lusty woodsmen bedecked in wild primaries and many of the tumbling, and extras-packed, escapades woven within a neon-drenched wardrobe - to wit Will Scarlet's amazingly name-appropriate attire and the majestic candy-store shimmer of the archery tournament - and the dastards up at the castle equally resplendent in their robes and patterned armour. It's all exuberant and overblown stuff, a veritable cavalcade of deeply saturated visuals and whiplash characterisation. Written, eventually, by Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller, the quintessential English romance was given a Technicolor shot in the arm and managed to bring together practically all the mythology that surrounds Robin and his band of merry marauders in one fun-filled extravaganza.
Apart from the awesome Flynn, who literally owns the movie, de Havilland makes a feisty Maid Marion. Starting off despising this wolfish Saxon upstart, she inevitably comes to see truth behind his home-grown crusade and, unmasking her Norman brethren for the villainous scumbags that they are, becomes a spirited rebel in her own right. It may be quaint and verily so, m'lady for the first half of the film, but once the true heinous plans of Prince John are set in motion, hers becomes a role of covert espionage behind the castle walls and she is only too eager to place herself in jeopardy if it means that her scallywag paramour can shin up the ivy outside her window and alleviate her fears by night. Helped in all this subterfuge by the screeching character actress Una O'Connor, famous for her role in The Bride Of Frankenstein, as her harassed handmaid, and a foil for Rathbone's aggressive admirer, Sir Guy, Marion is atypical of the movie-heroine of the times in that she has a definite outlook and personality of her own. She may make a sudden swing-shift in her opinions about the way in which the society around her should be governed, but de Havilland still equips her with plenty of verbal firepower to spice up her arc of development.
“Men, if you're willing to fight for our people - I want you!”
And, of course, the blokes fair admirably too. Claude Rains slimes it up as the nefarious Prince John with style to spare, pandering to the spectacular whims of his arch-enemy throughout the famed set-pieces of the banquet-intrusion and the archery tournament, clearly enjoying the sheer guts of his charismatic foe, whilst all the time gleefully deciding how many cutlets he would like Sir Guy to carve him up into. Rathbone, of course, is exemplary - harsh and cruel-hearted when it suits him and fiercely subdued when tricked and made a fool of. And the cowardly, yet comical Sheriff (Melville Cooper) is a hoot of gullible idiocy. On Robin's side, of course, is a fantastical roster of rugged faced character-actors, each bringing dollops of riotous, happy-go-lucky ham to roles that have since become mere cliché. Alan Hale's Little John may not be all that physically imposing a figure, but his fast and hard-hitting stick-fight with Robin sure makes an impact. Patrick Knowles' Will Scarlet is as wooden as they come, but he gets by with a cheery smile on his face, a song in his heart and a convincing enough sense of camaraderie. Originally, Flynn's mate David Niven was chosen for the part, but he was contractually obligated elsewhere at the time. Much the Miller's Son (Herbert Mundin) is great fun and even gets to inveigle himself some romance, a whole heap of comedy and a pretty violent bout of hand-to-hand combat that proves considerably important to the plot. And there is stout support from the long-lost liege when King Richard, himself, makes a triumphant and crafty return to his almost-pilfered kingdom. Ian Hunter brings the sovereign to dignified and stoic life, hiding his armour and the Cross of Saint George beneath the cassocks of a monk.
The dialogue may be corny, but it is still a joy to hear. There's no-one like Flynn to deliver such rabble-rousing speeches as his clarion call-to-arms for the downtrodden or such playful sniping as when goading Guy of Gisbourne about his ineptitude. But the lines that simply can't fail to crease me up are dished out with the requisite hands-on-hips stance and a totally devil-may-care demeanour. After the successful ambush of the Sheriff's gold-escorting procession and a showboating vine-swing from tree to tree, Robin welcomes the captured Maid Marion to Sherwood and then turns the fake charm on his nemesis with a teasing, “What, Sir Guy, no greeting from you!” It doesn't sound so funny written down here in black and white, I'll admit, but when you hear the line issuing from Flynn's arrogant lips it's simply hysterical. Likewise the simple greeting he affords new members of his merry band, “What's your name, friend?” spoken with such jovial buoyancy that the words seem to be floating upon big, smiley clouds above his head. And then there's the marvellously po-faced Marion, slowly succumbing to Robin's wily charms, saying “You're a strange man,” to which the ludicrously costumed renegade replies with the sincerest bemusement, hands-on-hips and daft hat cocked at a jaunty angle, “Strange?” Well, yeah. Have a look at yourself, mate. Honestly, it's priceless.
But it isn't just the dialogue that offers such fruity laughs. The camp frivolity that cajoles virtually every scene is ripe with wit and lunacy. Just check out the bitch-slapping of poor Mutch near the start - a scene that is effectively parodied in Monty Python's Life Of Brian - or when Robin catches out Marion as she chows down on the hunk of meat during the great forest banquet - only Errol Flynn could produce such a double-take, smirk and guffaw and then go on to display his earnest compassion for the underdog and still get away with it. Although the film is populated with such tremendous stars and well-known character actors, it is always Flynn who excites the senses, either with heroism or chuckles. His every expression is a knowing exaggeration of mood and emotion - for examples: when a spear plunges through the back of the seat he is sitting on; his comically barely-hidden visage peering out from beneath his hood during the archery tournament; his unwitting remonstration of King Richard whilst in the company of the said Sire; and, best of all, his soggy belly-laugh after being bested by Little John. It is all timelessly good-natured and a terrific influence on the comedy-action capers that continue to this day. We wouldn't have had Bruce Willis wisecracking his way through machine-gunfire and broken glass in Die Hard, Mel Gibson, Sly Stallone, Arnie Schwarzenegger or even the many James Bonds quipping-under-duress throughout their explosive careers as action-heroes without Errol Flynn's cavalier-crusader having created the template for such joie-de-vivre in the face of danger in the first place.
“Why, you speak treason!”
Rightly celebrated is the grand old musical score from Ernst Wolfgang Korngold which, although cheekily spry and very pantomimic during many of the key sequences, is still a tremendously influential source of audio emphasis. The Merry Men would hardly have been so garrulous were it not for the tongue-in-cheek bravado of Korngold's fanfares and the swaggering of Robin or Sir Guy so deliriously over-the-top. But the action is superlative too. Considering that fight choreography had yet to come of age, the set-tos and melees in Robin Hood are quite dazzlingly accomplished. For one thing, Curtiz has to contend with Flynn's totally off-the-wall approach to the fight sequences. Despite what everyone says about the star, just have a look at the brazen way in which he throws himself around the sets and the impetuous, barely controlled vigour with which he leaps at his opponents. Many a time he seems to barely maintain his footing, parrying and lunging with such wild abandon in his determination to better Basil Rathbone, who had been his duelling partner in the earlier Captain Blood and was, it is widely held, the more accomplished swordsman of the two. The climactic fight that careers around the spiral stone staircase and then whips around the dungeons of the castle is inspired - check out the candle-cutting swipe from Sir Guy's blade - and the two duels that Robin fights in order to win over new recruits Little John and Friar Tuck are complex and energetic sequences. But my favourite set-piece actually appears right near the start when a belligerent and overly-confident Robin strides brazenly into the court of Prince John, with a freshly-killed deer slung over his shoulders. After winding-up the Norman nobles and amassed ranks of his oppressors with his glib observations and the delightfully stark proclamation that he intends to incite a rebellion, Robin then has to fight his way back out of the castle - cue some chaotic tussles on top of and underneath tables, up and down stairs etc, and several iconic poses that our hero strikes with bow and arrow as he takes out his pompous and impetuous pursuers. No-one, but no-one looks as good sporting this particular weapon - not even Legolas. Flynn would, inevitably, go on to be more dramatic and serious in his work - his westerns and his war flicks particularly - and, although that sense of wildcard-devilment would always shine mischievously in his eye, he would rarely recall the incredible brevity and sheer sense of fun that he projected here in Robin Hood. Certainly the family-feel togetherness of the production has a lot to do with this atmosphere. Flynn was never more at home than when he was performing opposite de Havilland - their final partnership, suitably enough being as Mr and Mrs Custer in the fabulous They Died With Their Boots On (1942) - and their mutual infatuation shows clearly here, again supplying more genuine bonhomie to the proceedings. It is impossible to view the film, even now in this much more cynical age, and not be thoroughly entertained.
Daft as they come and intensely camp, The Adventures Of Robin Hood is insanely addictive stuff. Although relatively short - certainly by today's standards - the film still feels epic in nature, packing so many incidents into its running time that you can feel quite breathless by the end of it. But its pacing is superbly maintained, with the big moments suitably punctuating a fast and dynamic set of circumstances and the string of set-tos and encounters building effortlessly one upon another to arrive at a splendidly rewarding finale. Although I have a personal fondness for Flynn's portrayal of the doomed Custer, I have to admit that this is probably his best and most memorable role. Nobody has ever really attempted to mimic his unique style with anywhere near the same level of dedication - well, there is always Lee Horsley's Flynn-inspired hero, Prince Talon, in Albert Pyun's spirited 80's romp The Sword And The Sorcerer - and that is testament enough to the man's stature as one of the greatest swashbucklers of all time.
Excellent stuff, folks and very highly recommended. Now bring on Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk and, obviously, They Died With Their Boots On.