The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley
I was surprised to learn today that Errol Flynn, the actor known for his swashbuckling swordplay, only played Robin Hood in one film, 1938’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (which was helmed by director Michael Curtiz, two years before “Casablanca”). Many actors over the years have donned the green tights and feathered cap (or some other version of the famous outfit)—Kevin Costner, Cary Elwes, Russell Crowe, Taron Egerton—but many people think of the name Errol Flynn when they think of Sherwood Forest’s merry gang leader. I know I do…well, him and the fox from the Disney movie. So, did Flynn’s one-time portrayal live up to all those expectations? In short, yes…but the movie around him was less noteworthy.
In a standard interpretation of the well-known story, Robin (Errol Flynn) rounds up a band of down-on-their-luck men to rob the rich and feed the poor—all because Prince John (Claude Rains), who took over the throne when his older brother was taken captive abroad, increased taxes to an unlivable level. One of the prince’s men, Sir Guy of Gisbane (Basil Rathbone, a year before first portraying his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes), is on Robin’s tail the whole time, but is never able to outwit or outfight him or his jolly band of gentlemen. As if Robin’s mission wasn’t noble enough, he also had a blossoming (but forbidden) romance with Marion (Olivia de Haviland)—a ward of the throne—to keep him going.
Fight choreography has come a long way over the past eighty years of cinema, and stunts are now more daring than ever, but Errol Flynn’s swordplay has stood the unforgiving test of time. Most action movies today use editing to heighten the suspense of their fights, utilizing frequent dizzying cuts. Flynn didn’t have that luxury—we see him have to convincingly spar with Basil Rathbone and others for long stretches of time. There’s not much room to screw things up without the camera noticing. The action may not be as fast-paced or stimulating as our 21st-century brains are used to, but it’s nice to be able to spend time focusing on the skill these actors possessed. Still, I do wish “The Adventures of Robin Hood” had more scenes of action, and fewer scenes of juvenile comedy amongst the rowdy men in Robin’s group. I appreciated the film’s ability to keep things light (considering the potential for a story about a fascist leader to get pretty dark), but I would have loved to have seen even more of Flynn jumping on tables and stabbing bad guys. And yet, Flynn’s portrayal made the character a known entity (not to discount Douglas Fairbanks and his silent portrayal), and we’ve been rewarded by the many adaptations in the years since.