The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) looks as fun and lusty a good time as people could have overthrowing a corrupt government while wearing tights, swinging from trees, and eating chunks of meat with their hands. Famous for making Errol Flynn into a star, a man who truly looked the romantic hero and so natural in his 12th century costume and page-boy haircut, that he seems to look out of place in his modern-day films.
Basil Rathbone is the brooding Sir Guy who wants Flynn dead and who just plain wants Olivia De Havilland, who plays Lady Marion. Claude Rains is the devious and deliciously effete Prince John, who has usurped his brother’s throne. The well-known legends of Robin Hood are given a light but jubilant telling in this early Technicolor film, and what really makes it are the reliable character actors of the day: Alan Hale, Sr. as Little John, Eugene Pallette (who looks good with a sword) as Friar Tuck, Una O’Connor as the easily flattered giddy servant to Lady Marion, and a collection of Warner Brothers stand-bys. Most of the film is shot outdoors and this gives it an authenticity that is sometimes lacking in studio sets when conjuring history. However, the castle set is particularly impressive, and the final great swordfight between Rathbone and Flynn all over the great hall, stairs, and pillars of this set is especially memorable. The shadow of them thrown on the stone wall from the firelight has become iconic. There is another scene of the duplicitous Abbot, Sir Guy, and Prince John plotting, with the roaring fire between them and the camera. Technicolor must have been invented just for fire.
From the moment we see Flynn enter the castle with a killed stag across his shoulders and he plunks it on the table in front of Claude Rains, we know this is going to be a hearty tale of knightly courtliness, but no table manners. Swordsmanship, but dirty tricks. Honor, but treachery. Stolen riches, and stolen kisses. It is a 12-year-old boy’s best scenario: lots of fighting and not too much mushy stuff.
We are told in the prologue that King Richard is off in the Holy Land to drive off the infidels. Loaded words today, and the fight between the ruling Normans and suppressed Saxons is a very old story in the course of history. Only the names need be changed to see the same struggles happening over and over again, all over the world. It seems it is difficult to escape even in an escapist film.
We are told by authors Christopher Finch and Linda Rosenkrantz in “Gone Hollywood” (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1979), that Howard Hill, who was the archery consultant on the film and taught the actors for the great archery contest, was actually the person who shot Robin’s arrows dead-center on the target. We may still be impressed, however, by Flynn’s sword fighting, as well as his and Hale’s masterful fight with quarterstaffs.
It is difficult to watch this heroic battle without being reminded of Daffy Duck’s less heroic battle with his “buck and a quarter quarterstaff” with Porky Pig as the Friar in “Robin Hood Daffy” (1958), made of course by the same studio, Warner Brothers. Though Flynn was never heard to have uttered “Yoiks and away!” as Daffy does for his rallying cry, perhaps he should have. It is the only thing that the film “Robin Hood” is missing. It has just about everything else.
Another cartoon tribute comes in “Rabbit Hood” (1949) when Bugs Bunny’s Sherwood Forrest adventure is capped by a visit from the man himself, as the live-action film clip from “Robin Hood” is tacked onto the end of the cartoon with Errol Flynn welcoming Bugs to Sherwood. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, clearly Flynn’s “Robin Hood” became a classic even in its own time.