Mon
Dec 30 2013 10:00am

“Our Young Saxon Cockerel Here”—The Adventures of Robin Hood

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb saying 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood is the iconic version of the Robin Hood mythos. Even 75 years later, if you imagine Robin Hood in your head, you’re probably thinking of a tall, thin man with a goatee, wearing a felt, feathered cap, bright green doublet and tights, laughing haughtily at authority (Or you’re thinking of a fox wearing basically the same clothes, and we’ll get to him next).

And if you think of the archetypal Robin Hood adventures—the quarterstaff fight with Little John; the archery contest; the climactic sword fight on the castle stairs—they’re all in this movie. But for all that it set the ideal of what a Robin Hood story is, The Adventures of Robin Hood has some complicated nuances that really reflect its creation.

The most obvious idiosyncrasy is the brilliant colors. With the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the year before, studios were eager to show off what they could do with Technicolor. To that end, The Adventures of Robin Hood is full of gorgeous hues: Robin’s bright green outfit, the glowing jewels that line the costumes of Prince John and Lady Marian, the lustrous gold of the goblets and plates. Much of the use of color is pure spectacle, but there is storytelling behind it: contrasting the shiny wealth of the nobles with the dull poverty of the peasants. Additionally, Robin’s forest green costume is actually pretty good camouflage amongst the leaves of Sherwood.

Directors Michael Curtiz and William Keighley set the main Robin Hood versus Prince John plot in the larger context of an ongoing conflict between the native Saxons and the Normans who conquered England only 100 years earlier. The racial nature of the conflict is heavily stated throughout the film: soldiers shout epithets like “Saxon dog”; Norman taverns thrive while Saxon inns are empty and taxed heavily; Sir Guy of Gisbourne tries to shame Lady Marian for betraying “her own Norman people.”

The portrayal of a feasting overclass profiting off the oppression of a racial minority worked as an allegory for Depression era economics in general, Jim Crow laws in the South, and the Nazi rise to power in Germany. (Of course, as Normans and Saxons are both played by white actors, it’s an allegory for racism that fails to feature any people of color.) Into this setting, Curtiz and Keighley place an arrogant, populist bomb-thrower who argues that everyone should be protected equally under the law, and that any king, or would-be king, who does not respect that ideal must be opposed.

The Adventures of Robin Hood really earns that plural in its title because it’s basically two plots in quick succession. In the first, Robin Hood raises an army to resist the oppressive regime of Prince John and Sir Guy of Gisbourne, all while wooing the Lady Marian. When John captures Robin by luring him to an archery contest, Marian leads the Merry Men in a daring rescue of Robin. That’s immediately followed by a second plot where Richard returns to England in secret, and Robin and his men must protect the king from Sir Guy’s assassin before overthrowing John and restoring Richard to the throne.

Robin Hood

Much of the credit for making this Robin Hood THE Robin Hood belongs, of course, to Errol Flynn, that handsome devil. He simply exudes an arrogant charm that’s hard to resist. He’s funny, he’s clever, he’s chivalrous, fearless and joyful. The first time we see Robin, he’s already in full costume, defending a poor hunter from a rich asshole. But it’s the banquet scene that really defines his character.

Robin fights his way into Prince John’s throne to give the prince with a deer, knowing the penalty for poaching is death. Then Robin sits down to eat like he owns the place, disdainful of both John’s authority and military might, all while cheerfully declaring his intention to bring down John’s government. (“You speak treason, my lord.” “Fluently.”) That Robin is correct to be disdainful—as he will escape the soldiers and will destroy John’s power—makes his fearless irreverence charming.

Robin treats everything he does—from getting his ass kicked by Little John and Friar Tuck, to wooing Lady Marian, to dueling Sir Guy to the death—as a fantastic game, which inspires his allies to be cheerful as well, while infuriating his enemies. Even when he’s about to be hung, Robin is a right smug bastard, and we love him for it. You can see echoes of Flynn’s Robin Hood in the more grandiose performances of Ewan McGregor as Obi Wan Kenobi; Kenneth Brannaugh as Gilderoy Lockheart, Zachary Levi as Flynn Rider, and Cary Elwes as Westley.

And, in one great moment, Flynn’s Robin drops the lighthearted act, taking on a serious demeanor when showing Marian the widows and orphans suffering because of Richard’s crusade and John’s harsh taxes. Robin knows there are real consequences for his success or failure, but not for himself.

There’s only a line or two explaining Robin’s backstory—he’s a Saxon lord that turned outlaw to support the poor—but it’s enough to show that he could have lived a comfortable life for himself if he never got involved. The only thing Robin seems to desire for himself is Lady Marian, who he woos relentlessly, but he’s willing to let her stay in the castle after she tells him she can be more helpful to the cause as an insider spy.

That’s hardly to say Flynn’s Robin Hood is a perfect person. He is arrogant, certain of his own righteousness. He never questions whether banditry is the best way of restoring order to England. And he’s vain, determined to prove he’s the best archer in England, even if it means walking into a trap. He’s a bit of bully, as his method of interacting with new people is to verbally or sometimes physically poke them, to see how they fight back. But he also knows when to back off, and never to poke someone who really can’t take it, or doesn’t deserve it.

The Adventures of Robin Hood

The Merry Men

Unlike in other Robin Hood films, in The Adventures of Robin Hood there are hundreds of Merry Men, “free born Englishmen, loyal to King Richard,” which makes Robin a real threat to the throne. If the Merry Men were just Robin and few buds, it’s hard to see why John would care about one highway man. But Robin has an army, a highly coordinated one with soldiers that dress just like him, strike at will with intricate, well-planned heists, then disappear; an army with which Robin eventually takes down John and restores Richard to the throne.

Of the named Merry Men, Will Scarlett is there from the beginning, but other than being Robin’s right hand man and understudy, Will’s only defining feature is that he’s a thief who wears bright red in a green forest. So he’s either more arrogant than even Robin Hood, or he’s colorblind. Little John has his moment of glory handily beating Robin at quarterstaves (after Robin intentionally riles him to “see what he’s made of”) then fades into the background as another Merry Man.

Friar Tuck gets a lot more characterization: a fat friar who likes to eat but rails against the greed of the church, a man of peace who’s also one of the great swordsmen of Sherwood, a man of peace who’s quick to anger when teased. He also has actor Eugene Pallette’s distinctive frog-like voice and squat demeanor, making him basically a Lord of the Rings dwarf with a turkey leg.

The Merry Man that stands out the most, who has his own plot line and character arc, is Much the Miller’s Son. He’s the first peasant we see Robin save, and he goes from poor, desperate poacher to empowered soldier in Robin’s army and finally hero of the revolution. He even has a love interest in Lady Marian’s nurse, Bess, and through her is able to stop Sir Guy’s assassin from reaching Richard, allowing the true king to meet up with Robin and eventually return to power. Everything about Much and his plot, including his sobriquet, implies Much is very young, possibly a teenager, but he’s played by Herbert Mundin who was 39 at the time and looks a lot older, leading to a bit of cognitive dissonance.

The Adventures of Robin Hood Marian

Marian

Olivia de Havilland makes a lovely Lady Marian Fitzwalter (never Maid, not in this version at least). For the most part, she’s the archetypal damsel in distress, to be wooed and rescued by Robin Hood, and to be lusted over by Robin’s rival, Sir Guy. But Marian also shows a lot of backbone, making her more than just some silly girl.

For one thing, she is not immediately taken by Robin’s good looks and roguish charm. In fact, she pretty much hates him, until she sees all the good he does for the poor, and how much it has cost him to turn outlaw. After that, she’s part of his team, planning Robin’s escape from hanging and then warning the Merry Men that Sir Guy plans to assassinate Richard, even though she’s sentenced to death for that.

Her nurse, Bess, shows even more gumption than that. Bess is the last to surrender to the Merry Men when they capture her, Sir Guy, the Sheriff. And Lady Marian, and she’s quick to flirt with Much, ignoring all class barriers.

Marian and Bess also wear costumer Milo Anderson’s most amazing attempts to take advantage of Technicolor. Marian is always wearing jewel encrusted clothing, shimmering through every scene, and wears what looks like a dress made out of tinfoil for most of the final act. And while Bess is dressed more simply in general, at one point it looks like she’s cosplaying as a tube of lipstick.

The Adventures of Robin Hood

The Bad Guys

One distinct feature of The Adventures of Robin Hood is that while both Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham are present, the main villain is actually a minor antagonist from Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, Sir Guy of Gisbourne, played with sneering contempt by Basil Rathbone. Though Sir Guy is left out of many versions of Robin Hood, he makes a lot of sense here. Sir Guy provides the physical threat Prince John cannot, and Flynn and Rathbone’s sword fight at the end is the standard by which all film swashbuckling must be measured. Meanwhile, Guy still has the air of privilege that the lowly, comical Sheriff lacks. If the story is really about the Norman’s systematic oppression of the Saxons, then the villain really needs to be a Norman who benefits from the system.

Not that Prince John, played with smirky smarm by the wonderful Claude Rains, isn’t a great villain himself. He’s hedonistic, rapacious and utterly sure of his power, not really bothering to pretend to care if Richard makes it back from the Crusades unharmed. Unlike Sir Guy, who bristles at Robin’s every word, John chooses to show his contempt for Robin Hood by treating him like a court jester. “Robin, I like you,” he tells Robin after Robin has dropped a deer in front of him. John knows better than to treat Robin as a legitimate rival, choosing instead to regard him as mouse: cute, but ultimately vermin to be exterminated.

Between John and Guy, there isn’t much room for Melville Cooper’s Sheriff to do, other than be comically cowardly and run from most fights.

Richard and the Crusades

The Adventures of Robin Hood has a surprisingly nuanced take on Richard the Lionhearted. Richard is not “the good, true king,” displaced by his scheming brother, and his return does not immediately signal a return to an English golden age. Though Robin declares loyalty to Richard as one of the tenets of the Merry Men, Robin is just using Richard as a symbol, shorthand for the illegitimacy of John’s rule. Robin actually blames Richard for the whole situation, for abandoning his kingdom to go off to the Crusades, and tells Richard himself when Richard and his men return in rainbow colored robes. Chastened by Robin Hood, Richard banishes oppression itself from England on his return to the throne.

Thus, “the Great Crusade” is cast as a bad thing (even if The Adventures of Robin Hood leaves out the racist and religious violence that truly made the Crusades terrible). It also creates an odd parable for 1938. Is The Adventures of Robin Hood a call for isolationism, saying that a country shouldn’t go off to fight a foreign evil (as in, the Nazis), until it fixes its economic and racial conflicts at home? Michael Curtiz will go on to direct Casablanca in a few years, which has the exact opposite message (evil must be opposed, at home and abroad), so who knows?

The Ending

One of the best things about The Adventures of Robin Hood is that it’s the only one (in this series of five) where Robin’s defeat of Prince John and Richard’s return are connected. In other versions, Richard just shows up in time for Robin and Marian’s wedding, which brings up the question of whether Robin actually accomplished anything, or whether he could have just waited out John’s rule.

Here, it’s clear that without Robin’s army of Merry Men, John would have killed Richard and pretended he died on his way home. Thus, Robin’s raid on John has two purposes, it saves a friend (in this case Lady Marian) from being hung, and also restores Richard to throne.

It also gives us one of the greatest sword fights in film history. Rathbone and Flynn really throw themselves into the fight, sweating and swinging and throwing each other around. It makes sword fighting not just look dangerous, but also hard work. And the fight is full of great moment, such as the epic shadows they cast on the walls, and Sir Guy’s sneaky tiny knife. The best moment is when Robin disarms Sir Guy, and instead of accepting Sir Guy’s surrender, or dishonorably executing the villain, Robin kicks the sword back to Sir Guy. It’s a great dick move. He’s going to kill Sir Guy, Robin implies, but he’s going to kill him fairly.

And then it sets the pattern for Robin Hood movies that Robin and Marian run off to have sex as soon as the movie is over.

Drinking Game

This is the iconic Robin Hood movie, and everything you expect to be in a Robin Hood movie is here, so be careful. This is a four drink movie.

In terms of what will kill you, there are a ton of unnecessary spangles, silly hats, hearty laughter, and people saying Robin of Loxley, but really, there is one scene where over thirty Merry Men swing down on vines. If you are drinking every time someone swings on something, your liver will explode.

Fair warning.


Steven Padnick is a freelance writer and editor. By day. You can find more of his writing and funny pictures at padnick.tumblr.com.

15 comments
David Levinson
1. DemetriosX
There is just nothing wrong at all about this film: the casting, the acting, the costumes, all perfect. Even the really over the top stuff like the scene between Prince John and Guy of Gisborne where they spill some wine while plotting and then chuckle evilly at the symbolism works almost perfectly. But it is the dialogue above all else that makes this movie. Robin's snark and his concern for the poor, the banter, the sliminess of the main villains, it's all in the writing.

And the fight scene is glorious. Flynn and Rathbone had fenced before and Rathbone declared Flynn to be the best stage fencer he had ever seen. Flynn had even wounded Rathbone while they were filming Captain Blood a couple of years earlier. But every fight scene after this tries to emulate it, even the comedies. Men in Tights, obviously, and The Princess Bride, but also Beau Geste with Michael York, where the hero and the villain discuss whether to duel with or without banter.
Paul Weimer
2. PrinceJvstin
Of course, as wonderful as that sword fight is, it IS in the end "Flynning" rather than more realistic swordplay.

(c.f. the 1973 Three and Four Musketeers for more period-accurate swordfighting).

OTOH, as unrealistic as it is, it is a wonderful set piece.
Wizard Clip
3. Wizard Clip
My understanding is that Rathbone was in reality a world-class fencer. I wonder if he minded always losing to Flynn and, a few years later, to Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro? Eugene Pallette shows up in Zorro too, more or less reprising his Friar Tuck role.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
4. hoopmanjh
Clearly the definitive Robin Hood was the portrayal by Daffy Duck. But Flynn comes in as a close second.
Wizard Clip
5. Ragnarredbeard
RE: the swordfight

I've always thought Olympic Fencing was booooooooorrrrrrrring, so it should be livened up a bit with some stairs, tables, candelabras, chairs, etc. Make it fun.
Wizard Clip
6. DougL
There were no good guys back then, Islam had started swallowing up vast territories of previously non Islamic territory and the Christian world felt very threatened; it still does. So, the Crusades were vicious and stupid counter punches, normally ill conceived, poorly aimed and generally inneffective.

I saw this Robin Hood as a kid, I guess I don't take him to seriously anymore as a character because I have not found anything, even the literature that speaks to me as an adult.
Wizard Clip
7. Juanito
@DougL: I'm glad you put that. So many people don't realize that the Crusades were failed defensive wars trying to reclaim territories lost to Muslim powers.

OTOH, tbis movie rocks my balls. I love Errol Flynn even if he was a manwhore with a weak heart and more STDs than a frat house jacuzzi.
Alan Brown
8. AlanBrown
This movie had a huge impact on my young mind, even though it was years before I saw it in anything but black and white on television. Lots of philosophy was packed into a production that looked like pure escapism on the surface.
The acting was not movie acting--instead, it was a stage production with everyone making sure that the last row of the balcony didn't miss anything.
Glad someone brought up that Daffy Duck version. "Yoiks, and away!" Crash! "Yoiks and away!" Crash! Etc...
Stephen Richter
9. levellersteve
The movie was shot just north of Los Angeles and is now a private Golf Course named Sherwood.
Wizard Clip
10. Eugene R.
Wizard Clip (@3): I suspect that Mr. Rathbone would be gracious in defeat, no matter the actual skill differences. He was very complimentary toward Danny Kaye regarding their sword duel in The Court Jester, for example, even as Mr. Kaye was a novice fencer, albeit one with great reflexes and natural ability, enough to have the movie fight choreographer double for Mr. Rathbone in certain shots.
Shelly wb
11. shellywb
I watched this again this morning. One thing you didn't mention that I love about this version is the magnificent score, which stirs me every time I hear it. The DVD version has a option to play the film with only music, and it's emphasizes how much it adds to the soaring mood of the movie.
Alan Brown
12. AlanBrown
I just found the disc while cleaning bookshelves (my wife has me starting on new year's chores, I mean resolutions, early). Time to watch it again!
Wizard Clip
13. tim1701
This is my favorite movie of all time. I have seen it once a year for the last 23 years. Flynn is the image I see whenever I think of Robin Hood. This movie is also the reason I'm generally dissatisfied with every other sword fight I've seen. Only Luke and Vader in ESB comes close.

As for some of the comments about the crusades made here in the comments, I take a slightly different view. For one thing the monarchs of the West didn't really care what was going on in Jerusalem. It wasn't until the Papacy saw a way of trying to restore some ties with Constantinople and some end of the world panic broke out in mainland Europe that people started to care. Islam may have been viewed as the aggressors by the West but they did remarkably little to deserve that view.
Heather Dunham
14. tankgirl73
I wanted to comment to thank you for featuring this movie here and piquing my interest. Of course I had *heard* of it -- the name Errol Flynn is synonomous with Robin Hood. But I realized I'd never actually seen it. In fact, I wasn't even sure what Errol Flynn looked like. Despite my keen awareness of it as a cultural meme, I had no actual personal experience with it.

Based on the description and the comments here, I went and watched it. And it was truly wonderful! I would never have believed they were making movies like this in 1938. It barely feels dated, it still hangs together well even by modern sensibilities -- the pacing, the drama, the comedy, the action sequences. Even the special effects are well done. (eg, the film is slightly sped up in some action sequences, but it's very smooth and not distracting)

Marian is a SOLID female character -- yes she's a "damsel in distress" but she is tough as nails, and it's *her* plan that gets Robin rescued from the noose. Female characters in the 1960's were far less heroic than she was here.

Flynn himself is not just dashing, but NIMBLE. Leaping onto a horse with his hands tied behind his back, as nonchalant as all get out! Scaling walls, climbing ropes, leaping elegantly over rocks - or horses - or dead Normans - as though it were child's play.

As an amateur archer myself (many years out of practice, but in my youth I was being groomed for competitive shooting - I just couldn't fit the training into my schedule), I loved the competition sequence. Although I doubt the judges would ever be standing so close to the butts in real life! I was very curious as to how they got the effect of the split arrow shot. It's a very difficult shot to make, it's not like you can just set it up and tape it. In fact, when you split another arrow like that, it is in fact called a "Robin Hood" and is still considered a great honour. I accomplished a few in my days -- although when you move to shooting with aluminum arrows instead of wooden, it happens a bit less often heh.

The use of colour was gorgeous, breathtaking even with the "old film" look that's a little washed out by today's standards. You could really appreciate the spectacle. This must have been Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring for 1938 film-making! In terms of the costuming, colours, scenery, masses of actors and extras, crowd fighting scenes, etc etc -- had there been anything *this* big done before then?

I really understand now how every 'swashbuckling' film in the 75 years following this owes its very style and essence to this movie. I can appreciate little touches of homage to it now - it takes Princess Bride up another notch in my esteem (which, honestly, already how could it go much higher?)
Alan Brown
15. AlanBrown
I just watched my Blueray version of this movie, and the colors are spectacular, better than I have ever seen them, and true to what the Technicolor must have looked like when the movie was new.
And I watched the extensive 'making of' features, and this movie was a labor of love, and for its time, a true big budget extravaganza.
The Blueray also had two WB cartoons in the extra features--Daffy Robin Hood (the cartoon folks mentioned above), and one called Rabbit Hood, where Bugs attempts to steal the king's carrots, and chaos ensues. That one actually ends with an Errol Flynn cameo.
The big surprise was a feature on the earlier, Douglas Fairbanks silent movie version of Robin Hood. It was illuminating to see how much the 1938 version owes to that Douglas Fairbanks movie. His movies, being silent, are largely forgotten today, but he was truly one of the great action movie stars of his time.

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