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The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)


The Adventures of Robin Hood is one of those rare studio system movies that started out as a regular genre film and somehow surpassed itself, feeding off a creative energy that generated its own sweeping artistry. It blurs the line of categories to include all types and styles: a swashbuckling action-adventure; a romantic fairy tale full of yearning looks and limpid eyes; a sight-gag comedy with dashing derring-do and hilarious costumes. Coming right down to it though, it’s a 65-year-old classic that still holds its rank as a movie among movies.

In 1938 Robin Hood was a huge success. It added to the Errol Flynn-Olivia de Havilland aura as a leading romantic team (they made six more films together). It also received special attention by using the new and expensive three-strip Technicolor in its cinematography. If you had a chance to see the restored 35mm print that made the rounds at various big-city theaters last August, good for you – you’ve experienced what ‘glorious Technicolor’ really is and you’re one up on the rest of us. But the new release of The Adventures of Robin Hood on a two-disc DVD special edition might just even the score. It’s hard to beat seeing any classic on the big screen, but the sparkling sharpness of this DVD image and the high quality and quantity of the extras almost make up for the lack of big-screen opportunities.

You know the story. In 12th century Britain, Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn) gives up his Saxon life of ease and privilege to wage a small-scale war on those evil Normans, lead by the fatuous Prince John (Claude Rains) and the shrewdly unctuous Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone). Robin’s Merry Men of Sherwood Forest are a combination of Keystone Cops and disciplined army who and win and win but sure go through some clumsy shenanigans to do it. Played by a gang of high-end character actors who seem to be having the time of their lives running around in tights while looting the rich and fighting the Normans, they really pump up the movie’s energy level. The movie also gets a boost from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Academy Award winning score, the Robin Hood March, used as a leitmotif of grandeur and adventure in stirring the Merry Men into action.

As in any fairy tale, Robin is fated to love just one and his destiny is Maid Marian. Olivia de Havilland glows in this role as a paragon of virginal beauty and loveliness. She has such natural, inviting intensity, and is so remarkable in close-ups, using that lost-in-love look that smiles with her eyes, you can’t help thinking how today’s buffed and surgically enhanced leading actresses come off like lap dancers in comparison. And there’s Errol Flynn, the young and intoxicating Errol Flynn, as big as movies themselves, and more fun and likeable here than he is in any other picture. From one of his three grand entrances, where he crashes Prince John’s dinner party carrying a deer carcass over his shoulders and dumps it on the dining table, to the last, thrilling sword fight, he confidently struts and preens in those infamous green tights, waving his sword in all directions as he ricochets from end of the screen to the other. Watching, you never quite believe he can keep carrying off so many jaunty stunts in that outfit and ‘bonnet,’ but he keeps doing it, and you keep going along, wishing you could be just like him. He’s having so much fun in the role you never stop smiling.

There are many terrific things about this DVD, but tops on my list are the nifty Technicolor asides you can pause and go back to, taking full advantage of the beautiful and funny ways the filmmakers structured the sets and costumes: Maid Marian’s powder blue veil swaying in the breeze while her brown eyes are tinting green in the sunlight; the decadent red velvet curtains and opulent castle-crest rugs hanging on the walls; the gleaming, painted green leaves of Sherwood Forest. There’s a riot of color in Milo Anderson’s costumes; bulging legs and rear-ends in pink and red tights running about in the woods and castles. The alarm-red tights and feathered bonnet of Will Scarlet (Patric Knowles) who stares, smiles, and makes faces like one of Santa’s elves dressed for Valentine’s Day. My personal favorite is the Bishop’s purple shoes, perfectly dyed to match the inner lining of his black cape and shining like the Queen’s silver. He would never let them get dirty.

There’s a page long list of extras on this two-disc DVD: blooper reels, outtakes, home movies, cartoons, and a documentary on the Technicolor process, to mention just a few. Film historian Rudy Behlmer does the informative audio commentary, pointing out things like which director shot which scenes (Robin Hood had two directors: Michael Curtiz and William Keighley), where stunt doubles came in and where they didn’t, and how Maid Marian’s horse, taking a bit part in this movie, moved on to stardom as Trigger. What’s great about these bonus materials is that going over them again and again won’t get boring as you’re learning something new each time. This special edition of The Adventures of Robin Hood offers more than a chance to watch a masterfully restored great old movie; it’s a loving tribute to all movies and the creative effort in making them. If you’re reading this review you’ll want to have it.

To the pain.