There are films that stand the test of time, and normally, critics and audiences cite movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood as key examples, such as Gone With The Wind, Singin’ in the Rain, Citizen Kane and so on. But, the one film that deserves to stand alongside those rare gems as one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces ever made in the history of cinema is 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, directed by the duo team of Michael Curtiz and William Keighley. Despite the fact that there have been many cinematic interpretations of the Saxon nobleman over the years ranging from good (the excellent 1991 Prince of Thieves) to bad (Ridley Scott’s 2010 garbage pile), this film IS the Robin Hood tale brought to life on the big screen. Nowadays, movies feel the need to be dark, bleak and gritty because apparently that is what Hollywood feels is trendy with modern day culture, yet the 2010 movie version demonstrated that taking that approach would make for bland and joyless storytelling; with this movie, everything is merry and lighthearted, good-willed and witty, bold and tender, impudent and dashing, while also being brightly clad at the same time, which all plays key factors as to why this movie is an undoubted movie legend with an enduring legacy behind it.
The story on its own is pure escapist magic, including greedy bloodthirsty barons, a wicked usurper, a rightful king sent into exile, and a proud beauty that’s in distress... and, of course, at the centre of it all is England's notorious outlaw hero, robbing from the rich just to give to the poor, and doing it all with a smile on his face and fending off foes in true swashbuckler style. But, most of all, this story understands the proper makings true hero; this wasn’t Luke Skywalker who got the medal at the end of Star Wars or got cheered like Harry Potter at the end of every movie, but was a man who strongly believed that what he was doing was right, was willing to stand and fight against oppression and tyranny, and would proudly die doing it while not caring if he was uncredited/forgotten or not. That is key as to why this interpretation of Robin Hood works so well and has resonated with audiences since its release nearly 80 years ago. The script sparkles throughout (huge credit to the writing trio of Norman Reilly Raine, Seton I. Miller and Rowland Leigh), has wonderful humour peppered throughout and is incredibly quotable (“May I obey all your commands with equal pleasure, sire!”).
Gorgeously presented in Technicolour, the colours are vibrant and pop out right at you, giving the film an eye-catching quality, while also having richness in texture, which is something that digitally-shot movies nowadays can’t even come close to accomplishing. Also, unlike the common stunts of modern cinema that’s littered with wire-fu or CGI, the stunts performed in this film are all for real and still keep you on the edge of your seat. While the story is gripping, the iconic music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold is legendary, brimming with rousing fanfare and full orchestral depth, it is no surprise the score was recognised with an Academy Award win.
One of the big fortunes this movie had was in its perfect casting across the board, and frankly, you can’t imagine a better Robin Hood than Errol Flynn. Flynn captures the humour, the vulnerability, the humanity and the determination that’s required to play that part, and even though Flynn stated that this was perhaps one of his most boring roles, it’s perhaps his best and most iconic one yet. Olivia de Havilland is also pitch-perfect as Marian, playing her as someone who stands by her own moral beliefs, and together with Flynn’s Robin, they constantly duel their way through what is the classic tempestuous romance; you have the prim and proper lady and the roguish outlaw risking both their lives in order to save each others. As Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Basil Rathbone gives a superb performance as the clever, yet arrogant arch-rival to Flynn’s Robin, and has a great rapport with Claude Rains’ pompous Prince John, both of them clashing for supremacy as the main villain of the piece. The rest of the supporting cast are all outstanding in their own right and give fully-committed performances all round, like Alan Hale Sr. as Little John or Melville Cooper as the High Sheriff of Nottingham.
It was evident that a tight, intelligent, well-written script was the real foundation for a film that proved to be a once in a lifetime true work of pure cinematic art. Both directors achieved what was possible with William Keighley bringing out the emotional weight and humanity, whilst Michael Curtiz handled the action with real style and panache. Every single thing about this movie succeeds across the board (from the writing, the casting, directing and so on), and when you have a movie that is THAT flawless, you do realise that what you are watching is a true masterpiece.
THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD / CERT: U / DIRECTORS: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley / SCREENPLAY: NORMAN REILLY RAINE, SETON I. MILLER, ROWLAND LEIGH / STARRING: ERROL FLYNN, OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND, BASIL RATHBONE, CLAUDE RAINS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW