The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Directed by Michael Curtiz & William Keighley

I can’t think of an adequate word to describe The Adventures of Robin Hood. The best I can come up with is magnificent. But it’s a feeble word for such a good movie. I find it amazing that a movie from 1938 could so joyfully surprise me by its excellence – at a distance of 65 years.

So what makes it so good? There are quite a few elements that contribute to its success but I think the film’s joy is what really makes it stand out. And much of this comes from the exuberant performance of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood.

The film is shamelessly corny – but as DVD Journal points out, “…in all the right ways and exists purely for the joy of being entertaining.” I think in 2003 one of the things we love about the movie (and as many reviewers point out) is the complete absence of contemporary irony and subtext. There is a naivete in the film that serves as a bromide for so much of the brow-furrowing angst and self-consciousness in so many current movies.

For example – There are scenes in this 1938 version of the Robin Hood story that are borrowed from the earlier, 1922 silent version with Douglas Fairbanks film.

In a contemporary movie these would have been “homages” or artsy cinema references – some sort of ponderous thing.

But in The Adventures of Robin Hood these scenes exist because they worked the first time and made good scenes. Period. No cinematic references, no self-awareness of the movie as a film working in a tradition. It’s just entertainment.

This Robin Hood aspires to nothing more than to keep us thrilled and engaged and it succeeds outstandingly. The filmmakers (including two directors – Michael Curtiz and William Keighley) – not only know what they’re doing and what they want to achieve, they use a great collection of actors to accomplish their goals.

They don’t just give us great action scenes. They know that the success of the action relies on the set up. So, for example, prior to the first action sequence we get a scene between Flynn and Claude Rains (as the power hungry Prince John). Flynn is put in a dangerous situation, his bravado gets our sympathies with him, and Rains makes us want to see the Prince defeated. Only then, after we’ve been set up emotionally for the scene do we see Robin go into action.

Then of course there is the film’s colour. It is brilliant and rich; lush and stunning. It’s an amazing display of Technicolor.

The Adventures of Robin Hood is a marvel. It knows its audience. It knows how to give that audience exactly what it wants. It allows the performers to perform, and the story to unfold without excessive self-conscious cimematic baggage. It is without cynicism; it’s a fairy tale informed by innoncence in its best sense.

It’s hard to imagine a film like this being made today and having any credibility. For the moment, at least, we’ve lost the ability to be simple. It’s often said this is the price of growing up but I wonder if, rather than that, it’s simply that we have yet to grow up enough.

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