I'll organize revolt, exact a 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!
I've always been a film buff, but other people have sometimes had to nudge me along the way. Back in the early 1990s, when I was a freshman in college, my girlfriend Lisa knew of my love for classic films. After seeing the Kevin Costner vehicle Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves together, she asked me what I thought of a particular scene in the classic The Adventures of Robin Hood. I had to admit that I had not seen it yet. She chastised me severely, and when we got back to her house, she sat me down and made sure that I watched it, on VHS, from beginning to end. (Actually, it turned out to be rather a long night, since she also discovered that I hadn't seen To Kill a Mockingbird or It's a Wonderful Life, and made sure she corrected those oversights as well.)
Facts of the Case
While good King Richard the Lionhearted is away at the Crusades, his evil brother Prince John schemes to take over the throne and the wealth of England. His accomplices are the cruel but incompetent Sheriff of Nottingham and the formidable, genteel Sir Guy of Gisbourne. These men, being part of the Norman hierarchy, set out to make life miserable for the peasants, particularly those of Saxon ancestry.
The one unfailing defender of the absent King Richard is a Saxon nobleman by the name of Sir Robin of Locksley. Sir Robin, known to the peasants of the realm as Robin Hood, engages in various acts of defiance and larceny, generally making himself a major pain in the posterior for Prince John, Gisbourne, and the Sheriff. Robin and his followers, including Little John, Much the Miller's Son, Will Scarlet, and all the rest find refuge in Sherwood Forest, venturing forth to continue their various acts of patriotic mayhem.
As Robin's confrontations with the nobles escalate, he catches the eye of royal ward Maid Marian. Marian, despite her Norman background, admires Robin for his loyalty to King Richard, her rightful guardian. This conflicts with the plans of Prince John, who would like to unite her with Gisbourne in order to solidify his allegiance.
When Richard is captured on his way back to England and held for ransom by Leopold of Austria, Prince John sees his chance to ascend to his brother's throne. Can Robin keep his own head out of a noose, win the love of Maid Marian, and restore the rightful king to the throne?
The Adventures of Robin Hood is one of the truly great swashbuckling adventure films. It is, as film historian Rudy Behlmer states in his commentary track, "A fairy tale illustrated in Technicolor." There is something endlessly appealing about this film, a sense of adventure and excitement as seen through the lens of a Hollywood of a more innocent time.
Probably the most essential element in the perfection of The Adventures
of Robin Hood is the presence of Errol Flynn in the lead role. In the 1930s
and '40s, Flynn established himself as the greatest screen swashbuckler ever.
Flynn's bold, devil-may-care persona, along with his
Complementing Flynn is Olivia De Havilland as Marian. Strong and plucky in her own right, De Havilland's Marian matched so well with Flynn that the pair found themselves working together in a number of Warner productions after this one, ending with They Died with Their Boots On. De Havilland wrote years later of her great affection for this film, and how seeing it quite some time after its initial release she was surprised to see that not only had it been great fun to make, it was great fun to watch and was a wonderfully good movie.
Of course, no adventure would be complete without a proper complement of villains, and this film provides us with two notable adversaries for Robin Hood. Claude Rains (Casablanca, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) is his usual refined, good-natured, deliciously corrupt screen persona. The real adversary with whom Flynn must match wits, however, is Basil Rathbone as Gisbourne. Rathbone started his career in the silent era as a romantic lead, but migrated to a series of roles as the dashing, formidable, charismatic villain. He is also one of the best fencers ever to appear in the movies, a talent that gets put to excellent use in the climactic scene in the picture. The final duel between Flynn and Rathbone is considered one of the best in cinema history, on a par with only Rathbone's duel with Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro. The impressive swordplay in this film was the work of the great Fred Cavens, the Belgian fencing master and fight choreographer who brought his talents to a generation of Hollywood films. He worked not only with Rathbone and Flynn but with several other members of the cast as well, helping to create some truly spectacular mass battle scenes as well as one-on-one duels.
I prefer this duel to the later Power/Rathbone duel, thanks largely to the sweeping direction of Michael Curtiz. Curtiz was one of Warners' most reliable contract directors, carving out a quite respectable body of work even in the confines of the studio system. He was seen as a bit demanding and tyrannical by the actors who worked under him; he and Flynn would later come to blows on the set of The Sea Hawk. However, his attention to detail and his love of grand scope and daring camera moves served him well across the spectrum of genres; this is, after all, the man who helmed both The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca.
Warner Brothers received some well-deserved criticism early on for their leisurely pace in releasing some of their best-loved films onto DVD. However, the care that they have taken to restore some of the greatest films in their catalog and create quality special editions has silenced all but the harshest critics. We may have waited a while to see The Adventures of Robin Hood, but this two-disc edition proves to be truly worth the wait. The quantity and quality of the special features on this disc are truly amazing. Among my favorite bits is the "Warner Night at the Movies 1938," which takes viewers through a complete theatrical experience starting with a trailer, moving to a newsreel, a musical short, and a cartoon before the feature begins. Noted critic Leonard Maltin provides a short word of introduction and explanation beforehand, which provides some useful background information and some pointers on things to look for.
Film historian Rudy Behlmer provides a commentary that has to rank as one of the most complete and informative tracks available. Behlmer has written extensively on The Adventures of Robin Hood in the past. His commentary is packed with fascinating information, ranging from the origins of the Robin Hood legend in medieval minstrel ballads to filming techniques and behind-the-scenes anecdotes to the personal lives of the stars. Behlmer knows every frame of this film so intimately that there is never a stuntman that goes unnamed or a special effect that remains unexplained. Behlmer's commentary runs wall-to-wall, with very few (if any) pauses or gaps.
Also included on Disc One of this set are a collection of trailers for various Errol Flynn pictures, including Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, two great Curtiz-directed Flynn flicks that are sadly not yet available on DVD. There is also an isolated music track, allowing one to watch the film in silence while enjoying Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Oscar-winning score. Korngold's brilliant music certainly deserves this kind of treatment, but sitting through the silence between musical cues takes a bit of patience. Perhaps including a soundtrack CD or DVD-Audio option would have been more beneficial. For those with patience, however, it is interesting to see confirmed once again the maxim that sound always dominates over picture.
Disc Two is similarly packed with special features goodness. The documentary Welcome to Sherwood: The Story of The Adventures of Robin Hood is a very complete and excellent look at every aspect of the production, from early story treatments and casting discussions through every stage of the making of the picture. Behlmer returns for this documentary, joined by Maltin, Bob Thomas, and Robert Osborne of American Movie Classics fame. Other special features include such varied items as Basil Rathbone's home movies from the set and a short film about a cruise aboard Errol Flynn's yacht. There is a collection of outtakes narrated by the dependable Behlmer, and Breakdowns of 1938, a Warner blooper reel that was an annual tradition. In addition to moments from The Adventures of Robin Hood, look for such stars as James Cagney, Burt Lancaster, Bette Davis, and Ronald Reagan in various screw-ups and blunders. Technicolor helped make The Adventures of Robin Hood the success that it is, and so a lengthy and fascinating documentary on the history of the process is included here as well, narrated by Angela Lansbury.
In addition to all of this serious, informative, delightful goodness there are two delightful treasures on this disc. The Merrie Melodies short "Rabbit Hood" and the Looney Tunes short "Robin Hood Daffy" are both here in all of their ridiculous fun. Of the two, the Daffy Duck short is probably the most fun and best remembered, with such memorable bits as the "Ho! Ha! Thrust! Parry! Spin!" routine, as well as "Yoikes and away!" Both are sure to bring back many Saturday morning memories.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The costumes may be a bit commedia dell'arte for some tastes, and the attitude of innocence and optimism of the whole picture will probably not appeal to modern, cynical filmgoers raised on "irony" and "gritty realism." Too bad, because they will be missing out on one of the most fun times to be had watching any movie, ever.
Not all is perfect with this DVD, however. Picture quality is quite good, and the Technicolor cinematography shows up in all its glory. Much of the film looks as though it had been shot just yesterday, and the colors almost leap off the screen. Natural, healthy film grain is to be found everywhere but is never detrimental, simply showing the film as it truly looked. However, the transfer is not without a few niggling defects. Reds appear to be oversaturated in a few exterior sequences, leading to some pronounced bleeding in places. For an example, see the exchange between Robin, Will Scarlet, Much the Miller's Son, and Gisbourne's men in Chapter 2. Gisbourne's cape bleeds noticeably, as does Will Scarlet's red clothing. There is also considerable edge enhancement evident from time to time. These defects are not as bad as they might sound, and will not keep viewers from enjoying this great film, but they are present. Still, this is probably the best this film has looked in over 50 years, and may well be the best it has ever looked.
The audio fares a little better. The track is generally sharp and clear, much more so than might be expected of many films of a similar vintage. Still, there is a considerable amount of analog hiss and static under it all. It is hardly noticeable unless one is looking for it, but now that I have mentioned it, it will probably bother you more than it should have otherwise.
In retrospect, Lisa did me a huge favor by forcing me to watch this film. Fans should be well pleased with the treatment of The Adventures of Robin Hood, both in terms of the audiovisual quality and the excellent collection of special features. Anyone who is not a fan of the film should seek it out immediately, just as I was forced to do years ago; if the movie itself doesn't convert you, the bonus materials should.
Not guilty! A truly great film and a great Special Edition from Warner Brothers.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Film Historian Rudy Behlmer
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