A thrilling piece of escapist entertainment, The Adventures of Robin Hood has a fast paced script, lush score, stunning Technicolor and a great cast led by a star in the role he seems born to play. It is also a film that exists in it's own world, free from the irony and subtexts that would inevitably come with a version of the story made at any point after 1938.
In 12th century England, with King Richard held captive in a foreign land, his brother Prince John (Claude Rains) seizes power and, along with his Norman cronies such as Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), begins oppressing the Saxon population. However, one man leads the fightback, Robin Hood (Errol Flynn), a Saxon knight, stripped of his land and wealth, who heads a guerilla army, hiding out in Sherwood Forest, robbing the rich to give to the poor.
This is very much Flynn's show, and his indefatigable swagger and energy mean the audience never get bored. The swagger is still there even when he is not sword-fighting or swinging from vines, as he delivers rousing speeches mocking John and Gisbourne like a music hall comedian delivering a routine.
His natural charisma helps sell the unbelievable situations, such as the Jesus-like way he persuades total strangers to drop everything and start following him. The whole premise is unbelievable in any kind of realistic sense, so your enjoyment will depend entirely on your ability to buy into the completely artificial world of Sherwood Forest, with the endless sunshine, well laundered and utterly impractical costumes, and people swinging from the sort of vines not normally seen in European woodland.
The co-stars are uniformly excellent, with Reins and Rathbone making a great contrasting double act, one short, squat and bullying, the other tall, athletic and a physical match for the hero. However, both are definitely bad guys, and very easy to boo at.
The well structured script clips along at a breathless pace, quickly establishing the characters, then breaking up into episodes that give them all things to do, culminating in a perilous rescue of the damsel in distress, Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland). Despite the numerous fight scenes involving arrows, swords and a trail of bad guy corpses, the end product is sanitised of any blood, although the descriptions of the torture of Saxon peasants are disconcertingly quite gory.
While it might not be swimming in blood The Adventures of Robin Hood is certainly swimming in colour, and looks fantastic, with the astonishingly
vivid Technicolor cinematography becoming almost overwhelming at times, and certainly helping to lend a fantastic, hyper-real feeling to the film.
It does not just look wonderful, but also sounds wonderful as well, thanks to Erich Korngold’s brilliant and groundbreaking music. Korngold was arguably one of the architects of the modern film score with his use of different recurring themes and motifs for different characters, as well as often explicitly tying the music to the action on screen, ideas that seem so obvious nowadays, but in the 1930s had not then been this fully explored in Hollywood.
If The Adventures of Robin Hood had been made a few years later than it was, it would be tempting to see it as a rousing piece of wartime propaganda, with heroes, villains, and talk of freeing oppressed people and different races (Norman and Saxon) uniting together. However, it was released in May 1938, and while Hitler was spreading fear and turmoil across Europe, it's hard to picture many people in Hollywood, or in the movie going public thinking too much of war. It is still very much a product of it's time, an innocence, on screen at least, that it is hard to imagine today. It is also hard to imagine Hollywood producing a hero so committed to forced redistribution of wealth in the post-war, McCarthy era, and I can not deny being surprised at a Hollywood hero so committed to the re-establishment of the monarchy.
The film has a happy ending, of course, but one thought remains though, one that I have never been able to resist thinking after seeing happy endings. Robin Hood makes his goal very explicit throughout the film, that of of wanting to see Prince John removed and King Richard restored to the throne. However, the fun he has making that happen, even in the face of extreme peril and threats to his life, mean that now his wish has come true, life in Sherwood Forest is simply not going to be so exciting any more.