Judge Ryan Keefer asks: Where else can you see Sherlock Holmes and the Invisible Man together in one film? Well, maybe not in character, but still...
"Welcome to Sherwood, my lady!"
Robin Hood remains a mainstay in American cinema, regardless of the shape that he's taken. You've had actors from Sean Connery to Patrick Bergin to Kevin Costner to Cary freakin' Elwes portray the man who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Any way you slice it, 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood, while not being the first version of the superhero, is far and away the most memorable. A young Tasmanian actor named Errol Flynn had wowed studio heads with his performance in Captain Blood, which propelled him into the green tights after James Cagney dropped out. So now that it's in high definition, how are things?
Facts of the Case
In this film, directed first by William Keighley (The Man Who Came to Dinner), and later replaced by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) during production, Errol Flynn is Robin Hood, a man who symbolizes the Saxon revolt against Prince John's (Claude Rains, Casablanca) taxes and tariffs, which are brutally enforced by his right hand man, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes). John has taken over the throne of England while his brother Richard (Ian Hunter, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) is at the Crusades. Robin thinks that John's assumption of power is greedy, and he feels that his place in England is to organize the Saxon's rebellion against these unfair penalties that John is imposing. Using the help of friends like Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles, The Charge of the Light Brigade) and Little John (Alan Hale, The Sea Hawk), along with well-earned allies like Friar Tuck (Eugene Palette, The Virginian), he helps recoup monies from the Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper, Rebecca) and gives it to the Saxons.
Robin also gains the attention of Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland, Gone With the Wind), who admires Robin's loyalty to Richard, but also has to deal with the fact that Prince John would like to marry her off to Gisbourne. Robin is eventually captured when John acquires more power, and an attempt to free him occurs. Is it successful?
The first thing that occurred to me while I was watching The Adventures of Robin Hood was just how much fun Errol Flynn must have had in playing an anti-establishment hero that oozed charisma from every pore. The scene that really crystallizes this for the viewer is when he comes to the castle where Prince John and Gisbourne are at the head table shortly after repelling one of Gisbourne's attacks on one of his merry men (killing one of the King's deer in the process) and Robin is enjoying a fine helping of mutton while sharply and boldly responding to veiled threats the two are making. Robin gives it right back to them, before fending off an attack from the castle's guards and fleeing to the safety of his horse, to John and Gisbourne's frustration. The chemistry between Flynn and de Havilland is clearly present as well. Equal parts passion and flirty, the two worked in nine films together during the course of their careers (this was their third together), and this is as good a place to start watching them as any.
The film is the first that I know of that is both in HD and also presented in a 4x3 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which was a bit of a surprise. The good news is that the colors in the HD version really look good, the reds and greens look sharp, and there's a certain depth and texture to things (like chain mail on the guards) that really stand out. The Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack may only come out of one channel, but Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score sounds as good as it ever has, and is a bigger attraction than the picture. But hey, the film came out before any of us were born, and it looks great, which is the point of this platform in the first place, right?
The extras are directly ported over from the outstanding standard definition two-disc special edition from a couple of years ago. Film historian Rudy Behlmer, a Warner Brothers (and Robin Hood) expert, is enlisted for a commentary track on the film. Behlmer is well-organized for the task, with presumably an armload of notes covering a wide range of topics, in order to complement the viewing experience. Want some historical perspective? Check. Want some production information? Check. Want biographic and technical information about the actors and film itself? Got it. This is one of the better commentaries you're likely to get, regardless of whether or not it's in high-definition.
There are two large documentaries that cover the film and the technology it introduced. "Glorious Technicolor" is a one hour look at the three color film strip process that helped introduce the world to color films, despite the objections of many. Narrated by Angela Lansbury, the piece covers the origins and evolution of the process, while stars of the era (Esther Williams) and noted cinematographers (like Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now)) and John Alton (An American in Paris) talk about how the film looked when they first saw it. It was interesting to see how some people (like Carole Lombard) resisted the new style before gradually accepting it, and the legacy of Technicolor is discussed by other noted crew members like Thelma Schoonmaker (Raging Bull). It's an excellent companion piece to the film. "Welcome to Sherwood" focuses more on the production, such as Warner Brothers' place in Hollywood before the film was made, along with the initial push to have Cagney cast as Robin Hood before he dropped out. There are quick biographical looks at the stars of the film, while the locations, makeup and wardrobe are discussed afterwards. The directing change is also discussed, along with some of the post-production work, including the excellent score (which is included as an audio-only option on the disc). All in all, an excellent documentary.
Moving on from there, the other extras are pretty sizable as well. "From the Vaults" covers other Robin Hood-related subjects, and notably the inclusion of the animated Warner shorts "Rabbit Hood" and "Robin Hood Daffy." Both of these look excellent ("clear" is the buzzword when watching Bugs and Daffy) and I hope more Warner cartoons are put on discs in the future. There are additional shorts on archery (sorry, I don't do a William Tell act with a prune on my head, like one guy here), and an extended blooper reel featuring the Warner contract players of the era. The Warner "Night at the Movies" period that tries to recreate the feeling of the film's era is included. Basically, it's comprised of an animated short, a live short, some previews and a newsreel, it's kind of cool. Robin Hood was made several times before the 1938 release, and Behlmer visits the footage from the 1922 incarnation, with Douglas Fairbanks as the title character. Behlmer discusses the comparisons between this and the 1938 version (aside from Hale appearing in the silent film). There is also a short outtake reel with narration by Behlmer that shows some of the scenes that were cut from the film, and if it was an alternate take, the one used in the film shows up in the corner, which is pretty thoughtful. Along with some home movies of the set that were shot by Rathbone, there are a bunch of stills galleries and a trailer gallery of Flynn's films that complete the package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Adventures of Robin Hood remains a classic almost 75 years after it was released. It's high definition presentation is another helping of icing on an already tasty cake, and it's safe to say that if you've got an HD-DVD player, you'll want to upgrade to the next generation version of the disc.
I'm taking the "not guilty" verdict from the rich and giving it to the poor. Bring in the next case, along with a helping of mutton!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary with Film Historian Rudy Behlmer
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