An iconic swashbuckling adventure, that is absolute Hollywood perfection
Most people already know the legend of Robin Hood - steal from the rich and give to the poor. Because of that, “The Adventures of Robin Hood” makes it easy to appreciate just what magic movies can add to a story. This romanticized fairytale telling of a time long ago creates such a richly vibrant world, it takes this folklore tale to soaring new heights. Robin Hood has never before (or since) come alive with so much energy, spirit, and joie de vivre. This film is sheer entertainment at its best. It stars a legendary on-screen duo (Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland) and an extraordinary supporting cast. It became one of the highest grossing films of the 1930s, and one of cinema’s most popular adventure films. Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, it won three (all but Best Picture).
“The Adventures of Robin Hood” tells the story of “Prince John” who’s usurped the throne of his kidnapped brother (the King of England), and “Robin Hood”, who tries to stop him with his band of Merry Men. What follows is non-stop action, bursting with sword fights, flying arrows, and eye-opening stunts. Along the way “Robin Hood” falls for the beautiful “Maid Marian” who was to wed “Prince John’s” henchman, “Sir Guy of Gisbourne”, creating even more exciting conflict. In addition to action, there's romance, gallantry, lovable characters, and lots of humor. And everything is captured in glorious Technicolor. Next to “The Wizard of Oz”, it is the most stunning use of Technicolor I’ve seen. It's still not known for sure if the folklore hero, "Robin Hood", was based on a real person. What is certain is that if there was a Robin Hood, he definitely did not resemble our modern day freedom fighter in any way, shape or form.
Filming began with director William Keighley at the helm, who shot most of the scenes taking place in Sherwood Forest. Filmed on location in Bidwell Park in Chico, California, they sprayed leaves with bright green vegetable dye to make sure they would look Technicolor radiant, adding prop trees as needed. When Warner Brothers executives (in particular Executive Producer Hal B. Wallis, the main force behind the film), saw the footage, they felt it was lacking action and spectacle. So halfway through shooting, Keighley was replaced by Warner’s top director, Michael Curtiz, who had previously directed the swashbucklers “Captain Blood” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, both starring Flynn and de Havilland. Curtiz masterfully directed the remainder of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (as well as additional Sherwood Forest action), and both Keighley and Curtiz received directing credit. You can read more about Curtiz in two prior posts, “Mildred Pierce” and “Casablanca”.
“The Adventures of Robin Hood” is forever linked, and rightly so, with Errol Flynn who stars as “Robin Hood” (or “Sir Robin of Locksley”). Overflowing with disarming charm, dashing good looks, athleticism, and that undefinable star quality, Flynn creates a remarkably dynamic hero. While everything about this film is already five-star, somehow Flynn’s charismatic performance elevates it to iconic. One of Hollywood’s biggest stars, this film set in stone Flynn’s romantic swashbuckler status, and his version of “Robin Hood” is ranked as the #18 film hero of all-time, on AFI’s list of “The 100 Greatest Heroes & Villains”. He was just as famous for his on-screen magic as he was infamous for his off-screen devil-may-care lifestyle. He was much like his charming, unbound screen image, yet what may work in a movie often doesn’t in real life. Born in Tasmania to parents who were largely absent, Errol Flynn was a rebellious kid aroused by danger, and with no restraint. Often in trouble, he was expelled from school after school, fired from jobs, caught seducing girls and stealing. Using his fearless attitude, good looks and charm, he would constantly reinvent himself. Not yet an actor, he was asked to be “Fletcher Christian”, the lead in a 1933 Australian film titled "In the Wake of the Bounty” (his first film). Fleeing the law later that year, he moved to England where he officially decided to pursue a career in acting. He appeared in plays while studying at the Royal Theatre in Northampton. True to form, he was expelled from the school, this time for throwing a woman down a staircase. In 1935 he appeared in a little known, low budget British film, "Murder at Monte Carlo”. Warner Brothers took notice and Flynn was off to Hollywood determined to be a star. The studio didn’t quite know what to do with him, and with luck on Flynn’s side (as it often was), star Robert Donat dropped out of the lead role in “Captain Blood” (also directed by Curtiz). Scrambling for a replacement, the studio tested some of their contract players, including Flynn, and gave him the part. It was a huge gamble, as was casting newcomer Olivia de Havilland as his co-star. “Captain Blood” was a gigantic hit, launching both of their careers and setting in motion Flynn’s swashbuckling persona. Flynn and de Havilland would make eight films together (“The Adventures of Robin Hood” was their second) and become one of cinema’s most popular on-screen couples. According to de Havilland, they fancied each other off-screen but nothing was ever consummated.
Flynn would become one of the top box office stars of the late 1930s and early 40s. He was also one of the top swordsman in the movies and you will see why when you watch this film. His explosive sword fight with “Sir Guy” has in itself become iconic. It was choreographed, yet Flynn and co-star Basil Rathbone make it look spontaneous and effortless. It was perhaps cinema’s first artful sword fight. The use of shadows, candlesticks, a staircase, metal clanking, and music, all make it electrifying. Flynn appeared in many other classics, including "The Sea Hawk", "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex", "Dodge City", "Gentleman Jim", and "The Charge of the Light Brigade”. He made twelve films with Curtiz, although they despised each other from the start. One story of their antagonism occurred while filming a different sword fight in “The Adventures of Robin Hood”. The swords used in the film were all fitted with small safety tips. During filming, Flynn found himself bleeding. The actor who cut him revealed that Curtiz told him to remove his safety tip for realism. Upon hearing that Flynn charged at Curtiz and nearly strangled him. I can’t imagine how they made it through twelve films together. After a career slump beginning in the late 1940s, major health issues, being broke, and considered washed-up, Flynn had a bit of a comeback in the late 1950s, appearing in films such as "The Roots of Heaven”, "Too Much, Too Soon”, and most notably "The Sun Also Rises”. Sadly, he is rarely noted for being a great actor, yet if you pay attention he is wonderful, making it look so easy with a charisma that most actors lack. Years after his death, Olivia de Havilland summed it up nicely in an interview: “He wasn’t sufficiently appreciated… There was nobody who did the kind of work he did as well as he... He had to give a great deal to those roles to carry them off with so much panache… and he was marvelous. It’s not that easy to play those roles. But for some reason or other they were not taken seriously and he wanted to be taken seriously”.
Flynn’s hedonistic lifestyle didn’t help him with being taken seriously. His love of brawling, drinking and insatiable sex were quite well-known, and being one who loved to embellish the truth, Flynn himself would help start, exaggerate, and perpetuate the rumors. Rumors circulated publicly about him having a large phallus, extra long staying power in bed, and he even claimed to have slept with over 12,000 women. He also slept with men, and in fact, one of my closest friend's male apartment manager was sexually propositioned by Flynn back in the day. Flynn’s sexual conquests were so notorious there became a saying “In like Flynn”, which is defined by phrases.org as meaning “to be quickly and/or emphatically successful, usually in a sexual or romantic context”. Flynn had a penchant for younger partners, and in 1942 was accused of statutory rape by two teenage girls (one 15 and one 17). The trial made international headlines and created quite a scandal. With the help of Warner Brothers’ lawyers, he was acquitted, but never completely recovered from it. His live-fast, playboy lifestyle would continue taking its toll, becoming more and more evident by his deteriorating looks in progressive films from the late 1940s onward. He had other scandals, including rumors of being a Nazi spy, of which zero evidence has been found. Wanting to be a writer, Flynn wrote articles, scripts, and three novels, as well as his autobiography titled, "My Wicked, Wicked Ways”. Though Flynn did some horrific things, he never seemed to take himself seriously. Actor David Niven, who once shared a house with him, has famously said, "You can count on Errol Flynn, he'll always let you down”. Niven also said his time with Flynn was the most fun of his life. Flynn was married three times - to actresses Lili Damita, Nora Eddington, and Patrice Wymore. His drinking, drug use, ill health, and “do everything” lifestyle ultimately caught up with him, and in 1959, financially bankrupt, while in the company of his 17 year old girlfriend, Errol Flynn died of a heart attack and other factors. He was 50 years old.
Olivia de Havilland stars as the ideal “Lady Marian Fitzwalter”, better known as “Maid Marian”. Adding thoughtfulness and depth to her natural beauty and regal air, she makes “Marian” more than merely a damsel in distress. de Havilland’s chemistry with Flynn is irresistible and palpable, overwhelmingly so when “Robin” visits “Marian” in her room. If you haven’t seen the two together in a film, you will now witness the allure they emit. “The Adventures of Robin Hood” came at a time in her career when she was fighting to play something other than the love interest or ingénue. As marvelous as she is in this film, it's the type of role she was tired of portraying, and she would soon go on to play varied and complex roles, winning two Academy Awards along the way. One year after “The Adventures of Robin Hood” came her iconic role in “Gone With the Wind”. I’ve written much more about Olivia de Havilland in three other posts, “The Heiress”, a short tribute written on the day she died (which you can read HERE), and “Gone With the Wind”.
One fun piece of trivia is that the horse on which “Maid Marian” rode, would soon be renamed Trigger, and become the horse of singer and western star Roy Rogers, and be known as “The Smartest Horse In The Movies".
Basil Rathbone flawlessly plays “Sir Guy of Gisbourne”. Rathbone masterfully combines the distinguished air of a nobleman with the despicable behavior of a true villain. He was an extremely talented actor, and is widely considered cinema’s number one swordsman. Rathbone’s tall, sophisticated, and unyielding presence makes “Sir Guy” the perfect match for “Robin Hood”. Rathbone and Flynn are spellbinding together, with an intriguing kind of love-hate chemistry. Born in South Africa and educated in England, Basil Rathbone began his career as a Shakespearean theater actor. He paused from acting to serve in WWI, where he became a captain and was eventually awarded the Military Cross for his heroism. Also while serving, he was the British Army Fencing Champion - twice! After the war he returned to the stage, and in 1921 began appearing in silent films. By the 1930s he was a star, mostly playing villains and swashbucklers (including appearing in “Captain Blood” with Curtiz, Flynn and de Havilland), and earned two Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nominations - one for the 1936 version of “Romeo and Juliet", and one for 1939’s “If I Were King” (not winning either). In 1939, Rathbone was cast in a role he was made for, as detective “Sherlock Holmes” in "The Hound of the Baskervilles” opposite Nigel Bruce as “Dr. Watson”. This would be the first of fourteen “Sherlock Holmes” films in which Rathbone and Bruce would appear, all made between 1939 and 1946. Wanting a change from playing “Holmes”, Rathbone did not renew his studio contract and headed back to the stage. In 1948 he would win a Best Actor Tony Award in the original Broadway production of “The Heiress”, playing “Dr. Sloper”, the role Sir Ralph Richardson played in the film version (film #11 on this blog). Beginning in the 1950s, Rathbone appeared largely on television (as well as films). With well over 100 film and TV credits, some of his other classic films include "David Copperfield", "Anna Karenina", "A Tale of Two Cities", "The Mark of Zorro", "The Black Cat”, "The Garden of Allah”, and of course, the “Sherlock Holmes” films. He was married twice, including his second marriage to silent screen actress Ouida Bergère, which lasted over forty years. Basil Rathbone died in 1967 at the age of 75.
Claude Rains who plays “Prince John”, is another magnificent actor impeccably cast in this film. In “The Adventures of Robin Hood” Rains dons a reddish wig, and is the evil mastermind usurping the throne and getting “Sir Guy” and the "Sheriff of Nottingham” to do his dirty work. Rains portrays “Prince John” calmly and somewhat affected, making him all the more sinister. As always, he is a delight to watch. Claude Rains has appeared in two previous films in this blog, “Casablanca” and “Notorious”, and you can find out a bit more about his life and career in those two posts.
While the entire cast is sensational, I’ll briefly mention a few of the supporting actors you will see time and time again in classic films. One such actor is Eugene Pallette who plays “Friar Tuck”. With his trademark gravely voice and pot belly, he is both gruff and lovable (as Pallette often was in films). He is the ultimate “Friar Tuck”. Eugene Pallette had a very long film career, starting in 1911 and amassing nearly 300 credits up until 1946. He began in silent films, including roles in the D.W. Griffith classics, "The Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance", as well as playing “Aramis" in Douglas Fairbanks’ version of "The Three Musketeers” (Pallette was slender then). With his frog-like voice and added weight, he was a natural in sound films as a character actor. He worked constantly and appears in many classics including "My Man Godfrey", "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", "Shanghai Express", "The Mark of Zorro", "The Lady Eve", "The Bride Came C.O.D.", and "Heaven Can Wait". He was truly gifted, both in comedy and drama. He was married three times. Eugene Pallette died in 1954 at the age of 65.
Alan Hale, Sr. lights up the screen as “John Little”, a.k.a. “Little John”. It’s no wonder he inhabits this role with such dynamism, as he previously played “Little John” in the classic 1922 silent version, “Robin Hood”, which starred screen legend Douglas Fairbanks. In 1950, Hale would reprise the role of “Little John” once more, in the film “Rouges of Sherwood Forest”. Hale contains a wonderfully infectious joy in the scene where “Little John” first encounters “Robin Hood”. Once again, perfect casting. He appeared with Flynn in thirteen films. Hale is another of the actors I’ve previously written about in this blog, as he appeared in “It Happened Once Night”, among his many classic films. If you want to know a little more about him and his career, please check out that post.
The last of the actors I’ll mention (although I could add several more), is Una O’Connor, who plays “Bess”, “Maid Marian’s” companion and ally. As is often the case, O’Conner brings much of the film’s humor in her high-strung, hysterically delightful way. Born in Ireland, Una O’Connor began her career in theater, eventually making her way to the London stage. She started appearing in films in 1929, and her second film was the 1930 British Alfred Hitchcock classic, “Murder!” (a film I studied in college, known for its innovative use of sound). In 1931 she appeared in Noël Coward’s play “Cavalcade”, and was brought to Hollywood to reprise her role in the 1933 film version, which went on to win the Best Picture Oscar. She stayed in Hollywood, and enjoyed a fertile career as a character actress, appearing in over 80 films and TV shows, including many classics such as "Random Harvest", "David Copperfield", "The Informer", "The Sea Hawk", "The Bells of St. Mary’s", and her final film, "Witness for the Prosecution" in 1957. She is perhaps best remembered for her appearances in classic horror films, including “The Invisible Man”, and most famously, “The Bride of Frankenstein”. She never married. Una O’Connor died in 1959 at the age of 78.
I must also mention Howard Hill, who plays “Elwyn the Welshman” in the archery contest scene. An expert archer, often called "The World's Greatest Archer", he was used to shoot any arrows in the film that required precise landings or trick-shots, and any that hit actors. The actors to be hit were padded under a steel plate, with balsa wood on top, under their costumes. Hills shot real arrows at them (he never missed), and anyone hit by an arrow was paid $150 per arrow (a lot of money at the time). Hill also wanted the arrows to sound authentic, so he worked with the sound department to create unique arrow sounds (for which this film is known). The sounds he created have been used in other films, including the “Star Wars” saga. And by the way, more stuntmen were used in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” than in any other film before it.
Another celebrated aspect of “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, is its Oscar winning score by Austrian composer, Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Am internationally renowned composer and conductor of mostly classical and operatic music, he would become one of the most influential film composers of his day (and the first composer of his stature to sign with a film studio). He had previously scored several films, including “Captain Blood” and the 1936 film “Anthony Adverse” which won a Best Original Score Academy Award (however, in 1936 the Oscar was given to the department head and not the composer). Korngold would officially win an Oscar for “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, and would earn two more nominations (for "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex", and "The Sea Hawk”). He composed scores for just over a dozen Hollywood films, including "Kings Row", "The Sea Wolf", "Juarez", and “Deception". His score for “The Adventures of Robin Hood” used music in daring ways, including having a symphonic score over an action film, juxtaposing a romantic motif in a non-romantic scene, using specific themes for characters and settings, as well as adding atmosphere. His symphonic score for this film established a new style that is still used today. One interesting tidbit: Korngold was conducting an opera in Austria when Warner Brothers asked him to come to Hollywood ASAP and score “The Adventures of Robin Hood”. He dropped what he was doing and immediately traveled there with his wife and youngest son. When he got there and saw the film footage, he didn’t think he could score an action film and resigned. As the music studio head was refusing his resignation and urging him to stay, Korngold learned that the Nazis had taken over Austria and confiscated his home (he was Jewish). He scored the film, stayed in the US until after the war, and credits “The Adventures of Robin Hood” with saving his (and his family’s) life. His score for this film is recognized as one of the finest in cinema history, is and ranked at #11 on AFI's list of "The 25 Greatest Film Scores Of All Time". Erich Wolfgang Korngold died in 1957 at the age of 60.
In addition to Korngold’s Oscar, “The Adventures of Robin Hood” won two additional Academy Awards: Ralph Dawson won for Best Film Editing; and Carl Jules Weyl won for Best Art Direction.
Let all your stress fade away and be transported to another time and place. A place with action, adventure, spectacle and romance. “The Adventures of Robin Hood” is a true Hollywood classic. Enjoy!
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