In The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Errol Flynn runs around a forest in green tights with his BFF who looks like he’d like nothing better than a cuddle from his comrade in arms, and falls for a girl dressed in medieval Europe’s version of the hijab. Directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, it is an enduring classic. And watching it again for the purposes of my self-declared Flynn Week made me remember why.
If you speak English, you know the story. In fact, it’s been made and remade so often, for television and film, that I was pretty sure I had Robin-fatigue. Part of the reason for this feeling, quite apart from the individual merits of the films or television shows made after the 1938 version, I realized, is because when you’re remaking an old classic, the burden is on you to find “something new” to justify the remake.
Better sets and better costumes that introduced moody lighting and did away with the famous tights. New interpretations of old characters that gave them a bit more to do than be candles to Robin’s star. Realistic styles of warfare involving a great deal of blood and screaming. A hook that announces to the audience that this is not the same old stuff that you saw in your childhood.
By that same token, however, the charm of The Adventures of Robin Hood is that it is precisely that movie you saw in your childhood… and loved very much. The sets seem made out of play dough; the costumes are hilarious; the fighting is choreographed like a slightly less graceful ballet; the story is a wafer thin concoction of action scenes culled from lore; and any true unpleasantness like blood and death are presented in a way calculated to preserve the innocence and sensibilities of the infants of an era past wherein incredible amounts of mindless, desensitizing violence wasn’t the cultural norm. And yet, it is a benchmark because, quite simply, it is fun.
I’ve lost count of how often I saw this movie as a child, or even as an adult because I never missed it if it was on TV, but it has been a few years now and this is the first time I’m writing about it. That brings the realization that my idea of what it means to be A Hero has been indelibly shaped by Flynn’s portrayal of Robin Hood.
“He’s brave and he’s reckless,” gushes Maid Marian (the very lovely Olivia de Havilland) to her nurse (the very funny Una O’Connor). “And yet, he’s gentle and kind, not brutal…”
Flynn’s Robin is indeed all these things and more besides. In fact, my deeply held belief that true heroes are wonderful men who must be a phenomenal pain to know in person stems from his portrayal of Robin in this movie. Childish me thought him exceedingly romantic – grown up, stodgy me doesn’t grudge poor Marian a lifetime of following in the wake of the fires he’s bound to start because he thought the night called for some warmth and by building the biggest bonfire he could, he’d have some fun and something pretty to look at besides. But the magic of Flynn’s Robin is that despite knowing all this, you still either want him or want to be him.
His hot-headed nobility would be insufferable if it weren’t for his humor and obvious intelligence. Of course, it helps that Flynn is also the personification of male beauty at his very prime, with a truly excellent pair of legs he puts to good use during intensely acrobatic fights that require him to run, jump, and swing around like a monkey. And then there is that cocky little grin doing a lot more damage than any of the arrows he lets loose in the movie.
Helping him along is his chemistry with co-star de Havilland. Unlike the majority of versions, in The Adventures of Robin Hood, Maid Marian is not the childhood sweetheart of Robin of Locksley. She is instead a snooty Norman ward of the King of England, very much a partisan in the on-going ethnic strife between Saxons and Normans, and doesn’t care all that much for Robin at first sight, pretty face or not.
You can’t really blame her: Robin has a taste for mouthing off to royalty in the guise of the villainous Prince John (Claude Rains), appears at parties with the carcasses of forbidden game that he dumps on the main table, a habit of jumping up on tables where food is being served, his friends are a ragtag bunch of extremely common commoners, and his main occupation is running around shooting or robbing her friends, especially her would-be beau Guy of Gisborne (Basil Rathbone). Hardly endearing behavior.
Once she adopts his cause, however, Marian is anything but a wilting flower. She gently nudges him back to the path of duty when he starts dreaming of a countryside idyll with her by his side, and plots his escape when he inevitably gets into trouble through his reckless actions. She is also the one who puts her life in danger to send him word of King Richard the Lion-Heart (Ian Hunter), who has returned to England after escaping his captors.
And in the midst of all the things that are going on – kings to be restored to thrones, villains to be defeated, fair maidens to be rescued, a kingdom to be freed from the greed of a racist tyrant – The Adventures of Robin Hood even takes a moment to comment on current affairs circa 1938. The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest, you’ll be happy to know, were decidedly non-interventionist. Oh, irony.
The Adventures of Robin Hood is one of those rare movies that delivers exactly what it says in the title: Adventure with a capital A. If you somehow passed your childhood without access to its magic, you need to rectify it today!