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.
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 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.
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 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?
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.
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.