“The Adventures of Robin Hood” was made with sublime innocence and breathtaking artistry, at a time when its simple values rang true. In these cynical days when swashbucklers cannot be presented without an ironic subtext, this great 1938 film exists in an eternal summer of bravery and romance. We require no Freudian subtext, no revisionist analysis; it is enough that Robin wants to rob the rich, pay the poor and defend the Saxons not against all Normans, only the bad ones: “It’s injustice I hate, not the Normans.”
For all of its technical splendor the film would not be a masterpiece without the casting–not just of Flynn and de Havilland, who are indispensable, but also of such dependable Warners’ supporting stars as Claude Rains, as the effete Prince John; Basil Rathbone, as the snaky Sir Guy of Gisbourne, and Patric Knowles, Eugene Pallette and Alan Hale as (respectively) Will Scarlett, Friar Tuck and Little John, the fearless Merry Men. Unlike modern films where superstars dominate every scene, the Hollywood films of the golden era have depth in writing and casting, so the story can resonate with more than one tone.
Errol Flynn was improbably handsome, but that wasn’t really the point: What made him a star was his lighthearted exuberance, the good cheer with which he embodies a role like Robin Hood. When George C. Scott as asked what he looked for in an actor, he mentioned “joy of performance,” and Flynn embodies that with a careless rapture. Watch his swagger as he enters John’s banquet hall and throws a deer down before the prince, full knowing that the punishment for poaching a deer is death. Surrounded by his enemies, he fearlessly accuses John of treason against his brother Richard the Lionhearted, and then fights his way out of the castle again. Another actor might have wanted to project a sense of uncertainty, or resolve, or danger; Flynn shows us a Robin Hood so supremely alive that the whole adventure is a lark. Yes, his eyes shift to note that the exit is being barred and guards are readying their swords, but he observes not in fear but in anticipation.
This is the scene at which Maid Marian first sees Robin, and we first see her. That Olivia de Havilland was a great beauty goes without saying – the shift in her feelings about Sir Robin is measured out scene by scene. It is not a sudden transition but a gradual dawning upon her that this is the man she loves, and that she must escape her arranged marriage to Gisbourne.
Their love scenes, so simple and direct, made me reflect that modern love scenes in action movies are somehow too realistic; they draw too much on psychology and not enough on romance and fable. It is touching and revealing to see the lovers in middle age in “Robin and Marian” (1976), with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn bridging the poignancy of their long separation, but how much more satisfying on an elementary level to see Flynn and de Havilland playing their characters as the instruments of fate; they come together not simply because of love or desire, but because they are so destined. Their union suggests the medieval ideal of chivalric love, in which marriage is a form of God’s will.
There are moments in “Robin Hood” as playful as a child’s game, as when Robin and his men rise to the bait of Prince John’s archery tournament. Are we to believe that the most wanted men in the kingdom could disguise themselves simply by pulling their hats low over their faces? And there are moments a little too obvious, as when Robin takes Marion to a part of Sherwood Forest occupied by some of the Saxons he has helped, and they skulk about like an engraving of tired and huddled masses, rousing themselves to express gratitude to him. We knew that Robin Hood took from the rich to give to the poor, but we didn’t know he ran his own refugee camp.
There are also moments of bravado, as when an arrow extinguishes a candle on its way to killing a Norman. And when Robin’s arrow splits his opponent’s in the archery tourney. And the great sword fight between Robin and Sir Guy that cuts between the men and their shadows. And Technicolor is never more glorious than in the big outdoor scenes of pageantry, such as the assembling of the court for the tournament.
The intimate scenes have a directness that is almost bold. When Robin and Marian look in each other’s eyes and confess their love, they do it without edge, without spin, without arch poetry. The movie knows when to be simple. And it is the bond between Robin and Marian, after all, that stands at the heart of the movie. The ideal hero must do good, defeat evil, have a good time and win the girl. “The Adventures of Robin Hood” is like a textbook on how to get that right.