[box cover]

The Adventures of Robin Hood: Special Edition

Warner Home Video

Starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland,
Claude Rains, Basil Rathbone

Written by Norman Reilly Raine, Seton I. Miller

Directed by Michael Curtiz, William Keighley

Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


"I've had a hell of a lot of fun and I've enjoyed every minute of it."

— Errol Flynn's last words



What Singin' in the Rain is to musicals, The Adventures of Robin Hood is to swashbuckler-romances — a big, sunny, hugely enjoyable dazzler that's impeccably cast, directed, and produced. This pitch-perfect action picture from 1938 exults in all good things we associate with Golden Age Hollywood. Here in lavish portions are Errol Flynn's dashing bigger-than-lifeness, Olivia de Havilland playing Maid Marian as a "bold Norman beauty" without being drippy about it, Erich Wolfgang Korngold's rousing orchestral score, a thousand resplendent costumes, lots of comic byplay, and swordfight scenes that set the standard for all subsequent swordfight scenes. Making sure we miss none of it, the movie bursts from the screen with the kind of glossy, incandescent Technicolor that sears images directly into your visual cortex.

All the storybook thrills are here in plenty, boisterously decked out with grand pageantry, Lincoln green tights, peaked feathered hats, and jewel-lined doublets. The heroics are served straight up with absolutely no subtexual messages or "postmodern irony." The Adventures of Robin Hood is corny in all the right ways and exists purely for the joy of being entertaining. If you swaggered through your life as unselfconscious as this movie, you'd get arrested or have your own TV show.

To say that "the Errol Flynn version" is the most pleasurable motion picture distillation of those hoary old Robin Hood legends is like saying The Wizard of Oz is the most colorful travelogue about a girl from the Midwest. Of the various retellings from the silent days, Douglas Fairbanks' version from 1922 was the one to beat. Disney tried it twice, once with humans in 1952 and then in 1973 with an all-animal animated feature. In 1976 Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn made Robin and Marian a bittersweet meditation on life's vicissitudes. (Rumor has it that Kevin Costner essayed the role at some point, but the very idea is so ridiculous that the less said about it the better, lest some Hollywood muttonhead actually thinks it's a good idea and makes the damn thing.)

The story is set in the 12th century, the English Middle Ages. But it's not our Middle Ages from real history, a terribly dreary time by all accounts. No, this Robin romances his lady love and fights the forces of oppression in the same morally unambiguous, primary-color universe that centuries later Superman would call home. Like his descendants — Zorro, the Shadow, and Batman — Robin Hood is a man of means who uses his ethical and material bounty to protect those who would otherwise be ground beneath the heels of bad men. He's no cackling avenger or gloomy Gothamite, however. This most dangerous archer in all England can still place his hands on his hips, toss back his head, and give out a laugh that's the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of "hearty." It would be superfluous to add that he gets the girl.

*          *          *

Flynn is, of course, Sir Robin of Locksley, the charismatic Saxon knight who forsakes his comfortable manor to hide in the forest and lead a populist uprising. Hollywood wouldn't discover an actor as well suited for a particular action hero role until Christopher Reeve put on tights of his own. As adept with his only-in-the-movies dialogue as Robin is with a gray goose shaft, Flynn is dynamic, romantic, and every inch the movie star. He catapults across the screen with the greatest of ease, exuding so much charm and confidence that he seems to klieg-light the film all by himself. When he barges into the great hall where the villains are assembled, with a dead stag draped across his shoulders, it's one of the great entrances in movie history. (As much as we love Jimmy Cagney, we can still be thankful that a contract dispute pushed him to drop the role, which had originally been assigned to him. Director Michael Curtiz would soon enough helm Cagney's perfect screen fit in Yankee Doodle Dandy.)

Robin is not anti-authoritarian, just anti-injustice. Before the film begins, King Richard, who left England for the Crusades, is captured and held for ransom by Leopold of Austria. This leaves the kingdom vulnerable to his tyrannical brother John and John's thuggish soldiers. Therefore the welfare and safety of the common folk are in the hands of Robin. "I'll organize a revolt," he announces to John and dozens of the prince's loyal barons, "exact a death for a death, and I'll never rest until every Saxon in this shire can stand up free men and strike a blow for Richard and England." How he'll keep occupied once the proper king is back on the throne is anyone's guess, although Lady Marian sure eases the guessing.

As Lady Marian, Olivia de Havilland is so lovely and soft-focused that her every frame feels like a rehearsal for how Curtiz would, four years later, shoot Ingrid Bergman in Rick's Cafe. Marian is a Norman royal ward, so at first she's icy toward the handsome Saxon upstart. (Marian: "You speak treason." Robin: "Fluently.") Yet once she sees the broken, destitute masses he cares for in the forest, her eyes and mind — not to mention her heart — open and she becomes the outlaw's ally, a mole in the Nottingham castle where she and John are the guests of Sir Guy of Gisbourne. The fact that dastardly Sir Guy loves her is just one of her inconveniences.

Claude Rains plays black-clad, black-hearted Prince John, usurping the throne from his brother, good King Richard the Lionheart (Ian Hunter). It says something about Rains that he can issue a line such as "Ho, varlets! Bring Sir Robin food! Such insolence must support a healthy appetite!" and make it sound as normal as a call for pizza delivery. While John is the urbane schemer, the actual footwork and sword-clashing belong to his chief enforcer, the coolly debonair Sir Guy, played by Basil Rathbone. (These were good years for Rathbone. In '39 he traded his Norman helmet for a deerstalker cap in The Hound of the Baskervilles, the first and best of his long-running Sherlock Holmes series.)

Robin's rakish derring-do would be for naught without backup from his troops, his band of fellow outlaws. Alan Hale Sr. is Little John, a role he played in Doug Fairbanks' version and again in 1950. Eugene Pallette waddles a fine gravel-voiced Friar Tuck. (It's hard to believe by looking at his Tuckish corpulence, but Pallette's career included playing a dashing leading man in D.W. Griffith's 1916 epic Intolerance, and Aramis in Fairbanks' 1921 The Three Musketeers.) Herbert Mundin is sweetfaced Much-the-Miller's-Son. And Patric Knowles gets three air-snaps as Will Scarlet, even if the only way to camouflage the correctly named Scarlet would be to parachute him into Vermont during the autumnal peak week.

Other memorable support comes from Much's five-times-married "sweetheart" Bess, Marian's lady-in-waiting, played by Una O'Connor (the screaming mimi from The Bride of Frankenstein), and Melville Cooper as an oafish Sheriff of Nottingham.

Also looking sharp is Sherwood Forest, played with gusto by a location near Chico, California. England never had such clear blue skies.

*          *          *

Cinematographers Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito, working hand-in-glove with art director Carl Jules Weyl, deserve attention for the snappy, vivid look of The Adventures of Robin Hood. It's Michael Curtiz, though, who gets hefty credit for the film's showmanship, which is at once stylish, athletic, and meticulously controlled. We're used to seeing action movies that try to pass off pow-pow-pow pacing and junky construction as entertainment. Not here. The action is there on the screen, the junkiness is not.

Curtiz took over the director's quiver from William Keighley, who began the filming with the Sherwood Forest scenes. Keighley was good, but he worked too slowly on scenes that executive producer Hal B. Wallis determined lacked the necessary zest (and perhaps were too feather-light for an action picture — the Merry Men of Sherwood are sometimes excruciatingly merry). So the studio replaced Keighley with Curtiz and both directors share the byline. The Hollywood studio system's most dependable go-to guy at Warner, Curtiz had already made Flynn a star in Captain Blood, a seafaring pirate adventure bested in 1940 by Curtiz's The Sea Hawk, also starring Flynn. In 1942 he would guarantee his own place in Heaven with Casablanca.

Is it possible that The Adventures of Robin Hood is a lucky byproduct of, as distasteful as it sounds, enforced censorship? Since 1934, Hollywood's notorious Production Code Administration had been ruled by Joe Breen, a strict Catholic moralist from Philadelphia. By enforcing the "Hays Code," the PCA used its authority to review all movies and demand changes in screenplays throughout a production cycle. "The vulgar, the cheap, and the tawdry is out," Breen assured a worried nation. "There is no room on the screen at any time for pictures which offend against common decency." Determining what was vulgar, cheap, or tawdry — as well as "common decency" — was in the minds and blue editorial pens of the PCA, not the studios and certainly not those scandalous filmmakers. Any theater running a film without the PCA seal of approval received a $25,000 fine. Depression-era economics forced studios to knuckle under to the Code's prohibitions. So Warner Brothers responded by pouring its strengths into its own renaissance of historical costume adventures — all swordplay, action, and romance, with nothing vulgar, cheap, and tawdry in sight. Determined to do it up right, Warner made The Adventures of Robin Hood a Beethoven symphony of common decency. Perhaps ... perhaps ... The Adventures of Robin Hood happened because even restrictions from God-bothering blue-nosed censors can entice a sort of newly focused creativity out of those restricted.

In any case, the production was an enormous gamble for Warner Brothers. The studio's most expensive movie to date, its original $1,600,000 budget ballooned to $2,000,000 (that's 1938 Depression dollars, remember). Not a small part of that went toward the new and costly three-strip Technicolor process, which was rare at the time. The gamble paid off and The Adventures of Robin Hood was an enormous hit starting with the first preview audience. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, not a bad showing in a nomination lineup that also included Grand Illusion, Four Daughters (also directed by Curtiz), and You Can't Take It With You, which got the Oscar. Robin Hood took home the statues for Art Direction, Editing, and Original Score.

*          *          *

That's not too shabby for a movie that wasn't at all "serious" cinema. Robin Hood leaps into our laps in the grand manner of the silent spectacles that the grownups in its first audiences remembered. Arrows strike their targets with no visible loss of blood, and a Norman soldier can be felled by lifting his helmet and conking him on the head. So the movie gave off a comfortable "old fashioned" exuberance even in '38. In its contemporary New York Times review, Frank S. Nugent said that Robin Hood would "rejoice the eights, rejuvenate the eighties, and delight those in between." He also got it right when describing the movie's villains: "...how the children's matinees will hiss them!" he wrote. Then he continued: "We couldn't. We enjoyed them all too much." Exactly so. The movie knows the vital difference between childish and childlike. Sixty-five years later its happy-everaftering still doesn't ram its feel-goodness down our throats.

As we watch The Adventures of Robin Hood now, one of the things that amazes is how well it has aged. Its simple story still sings. Robin, Marian, Prince John, and the rest still deliver. Its imagery still carries luster and impact. The only moments that strike us as "dated" are some action scenes shot with the camera slightly "undercranked," upping the speed a bit to a "silent flickers" rate, and even that looks right at home here.

The Adventures of Robin Hood is Old Hollywood the way we like it. It's big and rowdy and ostentatious and just enough gaudy. Flynn was never more "in like Flynn" than he is here, arrows fly with a satisfying ffffump!, and escapes are always narrow. Leaping out of trees onto a platoon of bad guys never looked so easy, and evil villains (oh, they are eeeevil) have the greatest tailors. Korngold showed John Williams how to score a movie, an archery tournament-cum-ambush never saw a better split arrow, and the swordfight on that curving stone staircase is the Middle Ages' rebel Death Star attack.

What does it say when a Production Code-era movie leaves every puppy-mill action flick released last summer in the dust? And how many of those would you leave out for the kids to watch, knowing that you can join them on the couch and get into it with them? The Adventures of Robin Hood is staggeringly well-made "all ages" fun. How often have you been able to say that at a Regal lately?

The DVD

Warner's two-disc The Adventures of Robin Hood: Special Edition finally brings the movie home in 65th-anniversary style with an all-new "Ultra Resolution Restoration," a first-rate transfer, and refurbished audio elements.

Simply put, the film is gorgeous. It's mastered from a 35mm print that must have been at least very good to begin with. As with Warner's amazing 50th anniversary restoration of Singin’ in the Rain, the studio used digital techniques to precisely register Robin Hood's original Technicolor negatives, restoring its vibrant color. It looks as freshly minted as a brand new film, cleaned and polished to perfection. The definition and clarity are excellent, if just a bit "soft," which should surprise no one about a 1938 movie. Some grain is noticeable, enough to keep Robin Hood looking appropriately "film-like" rather than overly video-processed.

(By the way, thanks to DVD technology we can freeze-frame an accidental bit of the 20th century appearing in the midst of Sherwood Forest. At 1:27:34-35, when Will Scarlet dismounts from his horse to assist Much, look in the background to see a car driving by. Naturally, don't look for it unless you first accept that your eyes will automatically fix on the car every time you watch the scene for the rest of your life.)

The audio arrives in Dolby Digital 1.0. While personally I'd prefer a 2.0 or better spread just to fill up the living room more, only a Norman blackguard would find fault in this strong, clear audio. The 1938-vintage audio elements can't give Korngold's orchestra the bottom fullness we might wish for, and sometimes the mid-to-high registers are a little bright. Still, the strength and clarity are exemplary. Nothing's lost in the dialogue, and only the most persnickety audiophile will gripe about the slightest hint of background hiss in the softer scenes. On our DVD shelves are soundtracks from decades later that don't sound nearly this good.

Film historian Rudy Behlmer gives us another of his informative, enthusiastic commentary audio tracks. (He is, in fact, practically our DVD host from beginning to end, from the commentary to supporting supplements on both discs.) Behlmer's commentary is erudite, full of interesting informational bullet points, and provides enough historical overview to place Robin Hood's production and cast into a solid context. Behlmer isn't the most warmly personal of commentators — he comes across as a pleasing-enough college professor giving a lecture he's done every semester for years — but there's no denying his encyclopedic knowledge and love of the material. The track is in DD 2.0 monaural.

The commentary is a matching bookend to this DVD's new documentary, Welcome to Sherwood: The Story of the Adventures of Robin Hood (55:42). For this 2003 production, Belhmer joins Leonard Maltin, Robert Osborne (Hollywood Reporter columnist and primetime host of Turner Classic Movies), film historians Paula Sigman and Bob Thomas, Korngold expert John Mauceri, swordmaster Bob Anderson, and Warner Bros. art director Gene Allen for a staid but informative "making of" piece. The format is simple — the hour is divided into 11 bite-sized chapters, each introduced by a talking head who then narrates footage from the movie or from behind the scenes of its production. Topics touched on include the screenplay's development, the casting (with emphasis on Cagney and Flynn), Keighley and Curtiz, the history behind the Robin Hood legends, the fight choreography (swordmaster Fred Cavens made sure that when Flynn and Rathbone crossed blades it looked "like a fight, not a fencing match"), and the film's post-production, preview, and release. While the content doesn't go into depth, as a surface skim of a major Hollywood production it's a thorough overview. Among the Trivial Pursuit points is the fact that Olivia de Havilland's white horse went on to fame as Roy Rogers' faithful steed, Trigger.

Another hour-long feature on hand is Glorious Technicolor, a TCM original documentary on the color filmmaking process. Narrated by Angela Lansbury, it's a more impressive production than Welcome to Sherwood, and more interesting than its title might have you believe. Never before has a nuts-and-bolts filmmaking process received such a celebratory retrospective. It could be an episode of A&E's Biography.

Music Only Track — This selection plays the movie with all audio removed except for Korngold's Oscar-winning score. It's in DD 1.0 and lacks the slight hiss found in the full soundtrack. This is a welcome feature for those of us wanting to better hear the parts of the score that are otherwise behind dialogue.

Ah, what value moviegoers got for their half a buck back in the day. Leonard Maltin introduces Warner Night at the Movies, 1938, a nostalgic compilation of the trailer for Angels with Dirty Faces, a newsreel, the musical short subject "Freddie Rich and His Orchestra," and the Merrie Melodies cartoon "Katnip Kollege." Maltin's separate intro clocks in at 2:41, and the rest totals 23:17. Click the "Play All" option to begin with the Angels with Dirty Faces trailer and conclude by going directly into Robin Hood for a full night at the picture show.

"Katnip Kollege" is, actually, one of the weaker Merrie Melodies choices. Fortunately, it's more than offset by two Looney Tunes cartoons that riff on the Robin Hood legend and this movie in particular. They were both directed by Chuck Jones at the height of his wonderfulness:

An Errol Flynn Trailer Gallery gives us trailers for twelve films, including Captain Blood, The Prince and the Pauper, Dodge City, The Sea Hawk, Dive Bomber, and The Adventures of Robin Hood's 1938 release and 1942 reissue.

Robin Hood Through the Ages (6:50) looks at the legend's earlier screen adaptations, giving most attention to the Fairbanks version.

Vintage Warner Brothers Short Films, all introduced by Behlmer:

A Journey to Sherwood Forest (13:17) — A remarkable collection of home movies and behind-the-scenes footage.

From the Cutting Room:

Audio Vault includes the May 11, 1938 National Radio Broadcast The Robin Hood Radio Show (Korngold conducting the score with the NBC studio orchestra, narrated by Rathbone) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold Piano Sessions (Korngold at the piano performing an informal medley of his movie score themes). Both are audio only.

Splitting the Arrow Galleries — Video montages of "Historical Art" (21 images), "Costume Design" (39), "Scene Concept Drawings" (20), "Cast & Crew" (31), "Publicity & Posters" (16). Inexplicably, the montages are encoded to disable your remote's fast-forward, rewind, and pause functions, leaving you unable to move through and view these images at will. It's a trend I've bumped into more and more lately, and it's no less annoying on this otherwise first-class DVD.

—Mark Bourne



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