Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Adventures of Robin Hood, The (1938)


In spectacular Technicolor comes the definitive all time classic of England’s most legendary heroic fugitive and his merry men in Warner Bros’ The Adventures of Robin Hood. Audiences are thrusted into the action in this adventure picture, filled with swashbuckling action and marvelous colors, becoming the entrenched vision for the mythology of the Robin Hood story. From its ever smiling hero to the wonderful cinematography, this picture would become one of the classic films from Hollywood’s golden age, ingraining its star into the genre of adventure films as the feature plays out with visuals from a beautiful dream with it vivid images.

The Adventures of Robin Hood is an adventure feature based on the stories of the famous character that steals from the rich and gives to the poor, defying the falsely empower ruler who takes advantage of England while the king is away. Our hero is the ever athletic and charming Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn) becoming the symbol of justice in a country under the rule of Prince John (Claude Rains) while his brother, King Richard (Ian Hunter), is away fighting in the crusades. Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) runs afoul of Robin and makes it his mission to bring Robin to justice, with help, or lack thereof, from the lethargic Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper). Robin bands together a gang of equally energetic men with passion towards help those in need under the rule of John, and pride themselves in serving the name of the one true king. With the classic characters of Little John (Alan Hale), Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette), and Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles), Robin attempts to bring further disarray to John’s kingdom and win the heart and safety of his lady love, Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland), until Richard returns and the final battle is fought ending John terrible rule over the land.

With the marvelous, bright colors and exceptional cinematography, perhaps the best use of Technicolor for a live action picture up to its date, this film literally shines as a motion picture at any theater it would have played in 1938. With classic swashbuckling action, complete with swordfights, bounding men, action filled archery sequences, and thrilling stunts of men swinging from all angles this feature of Robin Hood would outshine the luster of the Douglas Fairbanks 1922 version when Fairbanks was the greatest action star in the movies.

With high production costs for the color treatment of the film and massive art direction, director William Keighley was entrusted to bringing to the screen the first talking motion picture of the famous rogue hero. Keighley already had a track record of period pictures in his past, films that looked beautiful and stood out for quality. When producers began to see results of the action sequences they were displeased, feeling these moments lacked the flare and adventure the title called for. In reaction Michael Curtiz was called in to replace the original director and brought with him the spark of action the studio wanted in this film. Already the veteran of action pictures, including ones that starred Flynn, one being the well recieved Captain Blood, he was the correct answer to the studio. The humorous thing is Curtiz and Flynn actually did not get along, but it still produced to best adventure film of the year.

With Curtiz at the helm of production audiences would receive the well-staged action that would make The Adventures of Robin Hood stand out as one of the better Hollywood adventure films of recent years. Used were techniques that were popular in artfully done black and white picture, such as the use of shadows to add dimension to the frame, revealing action happening just off screen. For Technicolor to be filmed well studio lights would need to be very bright, usually washing out many shadows, plus directors tended to forget about the use of showed dimension when dealing with the advent of color. So to see Curtiz use shadows to this extent would be marvelous.

To add to the drama of the action was the use of genuine arrows actually hitting their human targets. Usual staged with camera trickery and quick editing, scenes with people being shot by arrows in movies were often sleight of hand tricks, but in this picture those are actually men being hit by actual arrows. To accomplish this the filmmaker hired men to wear padded suits that, hopefully, allowed arrows to penetrate the clothing and sink into the padding, but keep from harming the men being shot. Not being an exact science and being the presence of possible mistakes the men being fired at by the film’s gifted archer, who plays a small role in the archery tournament scene, would be paid $150 for each arrow they took on camera. This hazard fee would in its own way accomplish the task of making the scenes more authentic to movie goers and lives on in cinema history as a number of times we see well padded men being shot in the film.

Errol Flynn was not the first choice of the studio to play Robin, originally planned to be depicted by the studio’s famed star James Cagney, who was known for his tough guy image, as well for hisdancing skill. When Cagney left Warner Bros. the production was put on hold and the role eventually landed on the young Errol Flynn. Having risen from action/adventure genre with the success of Captain Blood, Flynn had a flare similar to Douglas Fairbanks, including a very large and confident smile. With Flynn’s very Fairbanks-like poses, smile, and laughter he slides in just well to the part once dominated by the visual of Fairbanks in the title role. It would now be Flynn’s depiction of Robin Hood that has been thought of first when envisioning the character of Robin Hood going forward. Flynn career would thrive from this exposure, even though he found acting in this role rather boring according to his words.

To play opposite of Flynn as his romantic co-lead is his co-star in two previous pictures Olivia de Havilland. Having appeared in a number of period pictures and becoming quite the romantic woman seen on screen across from Flynn, de Havilland fills in the role very nicely. Her lady like elegance and compassion makes her the Maid Marian that helps aid the audience through the story of Robin Hood. With Flynn being the star and center of the picture de Havilland is given the task of making the audience believe that someone beyond Robin’s gang of merry men would come to realize just how caring Robin really is. She becomes the lady you want Robin to fall in love with and for whom we become concerned with when her fate with the gallows threatens her being.

Rathbone, Rains, and Cooper
The antagonists are very important in any adventure film. Here Claude Rains plays the center of what is evil in England. His slimy demeanor makes for a perfect self-proclaimed monarch to be that anyone would root against in this good vs. evil story. However the main rival of Robin in the picture is Guy of Gisbourne, played by Basil Rathbone. Rathbone with his proper, holier-than-thou attitude has made him a prime example for villains in many of his films, and this time is no difference. It is he that becomes infatuated with Robin Hood and bringing him to justice, or at least his form of justice. Surprisingly the role of the Sherriff of Nottingham does not play a large part in this version of the tale, as is most commonly perceived in many other retellings of the Robin Hood legend. Here played by Melvillle Cooper who gives the Sherriff a snobby gentleman quality, who enjoys the title of sheriff more for the name and luxury, not to keep the law in order with his own power. An English born stage actor, Melville brings with him the attachment to the high class nose-in-the-air people of England in his own innocent way.

Much (far left), Flynn, and Hale (right of Robin)
Robin Hood’s band of men are played by a series of character actors, meant more to play to humor while still carrying out some action. Pratric Knowles, as Will Scarlett, plays as the somewhat band leader directly under Robin shares a similar way to the Robin character, but in a far less charismatic way. Alan Hale actually reprises the role of Little John, a part he performed in the famous silent feature with Fairbanks in 1922. Character actors Eugene Pallette and Herbert Mundin, playing the roles of Friar Tuck and a man by the name of Much, supply the audience with small diversions as more humorous roles, Tuck, a glutinous clergyman, and Much, an older man smitten by love for the first time in a tiny side story, bring small smiles to audiences when on screen for their short scenes.

The Adventures of Robin Hood found much favor with both the public and critics. An expensive production, the film made a large sum of money for the studio that usually did not dabble in such films. Warner Bros. was known more for their grittier dramas, with gangster films and darker movies, but here pulling out the stops and going for a lavish spectacle of adventure. The film would win three Academy Awards, justfully so for Art Direction, Editing, and Score. The picture would be marked as one of the year’s best, being nominated for best picture. Not surprisingly the cast was not nominated. Even though they become popular for their depictions of the characters, they were all very two dimensional and showed little to no range in the feature.

Despite the films massive success, considering its time, Warner Bros. and his producers found little favor in the movie. Still set in their ways of making darker, more of the ugly real-life films, the studio would not put too much stock in the idea of expanding their production of similar films to Robin Hood. This would hold back Errol Flynn from become a star on the scale of Fairbanks in his heyday. Though he still was a big star through Hollywood, he might have been something much larger if Warner Bros. could have pushed him. This was an aspect Flynn would despise in his future looking back as to what he could have been.

The picture would be the definitive version of Robin Hood that comes to the minds of most when visualizing the story. Parodied or made homage to many times over in the decades to come, both the film and its leading man were forever linked together. Now the film stands as an all time classic of the age in which movies first rule the public’s attention and sits as one of the many great films preserved for all time.

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