PHILm Review: Robin Hood (1938)

25 Jan

Robin Hood (1938)

Cinematic ‘First Girlfriend Syndrome’. Nothing else can ever compare.

This film was the first I ever owned; a VHS copy that was gifted to me by my brother John upon his arrival in this world. My parents must have loaned him the cash, but how he got to the video store I’ve never been able to work out. Now add the fact that the leading man (and quite understandably my childhood hero), Errol Flynn, was a fellow Australian, and I’ve already exceeded my nostalgia quota for this review before even reaching the second paragraph.

But this film really is the definition of a classic. This movie contains such potent Hollywood magic that even Maid Marian’s horse became famous simply for starring in it! (“Golden Cloud” was purchased by Roy Rogers and subsequently become his faithful steed, Trigger.) The tights are so crisp and tight, the feathered caps so jaunty, the crimson reds, royal blues and glittering golds of Basil Rathbone’s tunic so impressively vibrant.  The film is a celluloid dream from the golden age of swashbucklers; back when Technicolor was synonymous with technology.

The last time I watched the film was quite a while ago and I had forgotten how recklessly vigorous the sword-fights are. The combatants pounced and lunged, athletic and lithe, never missing a beat and only barely missing each other. I found myself barely stifling twin urges to either release the enthusiastic whoops of my inner 12-year-old, or yell at the television set, “Slow down! Someone’s going to lose an eye!”.

The only complaints I can make about this movie are petty, niggling criticisms. As an example, at their first meeting Robin Hood forces Friar Tuck to piggyback him across a river so Robin doesn’t have to wet his boots. However, one can clearly see the residue of a previous take; Tuck’s robe is already wet before he enters the water. Or, as another example, Tuck tosses Robin off his back and a devilishly agile sword fight ensues, during which one can clearly see Errol Flynn’s white underpants through his soaking, green hosiery.

But these mistakes are endearingly forgivable, merely the product of earlier era of film-making, a simpler time. And I must point out that such minor continuity mistakes (or even major anachronisms like the car that drives through the background just as Will Scarlett rides into the foreground and poses majestically) are only jumping out at me now as I watch my digitally remastered version on DVD. But you know what? They make me love the film even more. After all, this is the first film Warner Brothers shot in 3-strip Technicolor. How could you ever help but love something so unabashedly a product of its time? I would compare these “imperfections” to beauty marks on a loved one’s face; they add character, rather than detracting from overall beauty.

But its major strength is that, at its core, it’s simply the best iteration of the Robin Hood mythos, with the sole exception of the source material. The directors (Michael Curtiz took over when William Keighley went over budget and fell behind schedule, though both are credited) do a marvellous job of striking a perfect balance; they gives us iconic moments like  Robin’s first meeting with “John Little” on the log bridge and the ensuing quarterstaff duel, but without it ever being kitschy.

(Left to Right) Melville Cooper, Basil Rathbone & Claude Raines as The Sherriff of Nottingham, Guy of Gisbourne & Prince John, respectively

(Left to Right) Melville Cooper, Basil Rathbone & Claude Raines as The Sherriff of Nottingham, Guy of Gisbourne & Prince John, respectively

The directors have a clear respect for both their subject and their audience. Keighley and Curtiz don’t rub our noses in a bloke dressed head-to-toe in crimson to make damn sure we understand that this character is Will Scarlett. They give him a red cap, introduce him as ‘Will of Gamwell’ and move on. Similarly, Robin is referred to initially by his rank and title, Sir Robin of Locksley; it is only when he is captured and Sir Guy of Gisbourne reads the criminal charges against “the so-called outlaw, Robin Hood” that the eponymous title is bestowed.

The film assumes a familiarity with the myth and level of intelligence on the part of  its audience. It unapologetically contextualizes itself within the 12th century conflict between the Normans (Viking descendants from France who, led by William the Conqueror, invaded England in 1066) and the Saxons (Germanic settlers who had arrived in the 5th century and were dispossessed by the Norman invaders). And if you’re not boned up on your British history? You’ll miss nothing essential; only one of many added layers of artistry, of which the film has scores.

And speaking of scores, Wolfgang Korngold won an Oscar for his music in this film. The theme tune is a perfect match to the movie: uplifting, triumphant, and full of character. The acting is likewise a product of the Golden Age; the actors hit their marks, dramatically postured and gesturing at a minimum, harkening back to when movies seemed staged for live theatre and cameras were incidental.

Despite this holdover, the actors inject incredible depth and colour into the characters. Errol Flynn is delightfully upbeat, a gleeful and charming rascal, but capable of appropriate sombreness. His Robin Hood is decisive and swift, talented and dangerous, but comforting of the poor, tender with Marian, and fiercely loyal to King and country. The very definition of chivalrous. In short, Flynn evokes James Bond, centuries before Ian Flemming was even a twinkle in the eye of British Literature.

Olivia Dehavilland as Maid Marian is the very paragon of ladylike demureness. She is fair and well-spoken but not to be constricted by her gender or her station as a royal ward. Dehavilland’s Marian is as strong and daring as any of Robin’s band: she risks her life to get crucial information to the Merry Men when Robin is captured, and convinces the rag-tag Saxon band to trust her despite her Norman bloodlines. All this Dehavilland effortlessly pulls off whilst dressed (let’s face it) like a nun. In every single scene (except the one where they dress her like Heidi) she covered head-to-toe. And she pulls it off. They don’t make women like this anymore, folks. That’s class.

Claude Raines is fantastic as the pompous, self-affected Prince John. He seizes his brother’s throne the way a misbehaved toddler will steal someone else’s toy the moment they leave the room. Melville Cooper portrays the bumbling Sheriff of Nottingham with gusto, but the true villainy is left to Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne.

Although the role of Robin’s arch-nemesis usually falls to the Sheriff, Sir Guy is a native of the source material and Rathbone plays it marvellously. Cunning and ruthless, Sir Guy’s dark, beady eyes narrow on Robin with a singular, vicious determination in every scene they share. Even now, I can clearly recall childhood nightmares of being snatched up by Sir Guy and carried away on horseback and the thought makes me shiver.

With the evocative acting, shining musical embellishments, incredible production value all wrapped around such a well-known and well-loved mythic figure, this is one of very few films I would describe as completely and utterly perfect.

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1 Comment

Posted by on January 25, 2012 in Movies


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One response to “PHILm Review: Robin Hood (1938)

  1. JustMeMike

    January 25, 2012 at 23:30

    This was a lot of fun to read. A true classic as is is just as enjoyable today as it was when I first saw it. Thanks for bringing this one back to be throught of end enjoyed once more.



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