Monday, 23 April 2012

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

It sometimes shocks me to discover that there are those erstwhile filmgoers who do not know of Errol Flynn. I daresay in the generations to come, film audiences will similarly be saying "Harrison who?", or wonder how on Earth anybody could possibly become a movie star with names like Leonardo DiCaprio or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Well, Errol Flynn was every bit as great as these and more. From Tasmanian upbringing (legend has it that he stowed away) to brief work in early British sound films, his rogue beauty buccaneered its way into Hollywood in some obscure roles before Warner Brothers took the bold move of casting him as Captain Blood (in place of original choice Fredric March) alongside 18-year old Olivia De Havilland (right), in an exciting, rousing swashbuckler directed by Michael Curtiz with a notable duel with suave Basil Rathbone as a slimy rival pirate: the legend of Errol Flynn was born.

I myself first heard of him only by association, from a college lecturer who was travelling with me to Nottingham to visit relatives, and we spoke of the area of Sherwood, and he invoked the named of Errol Flynn. The name was passed on wisely.

Flynn's portrayal is still the definitive Sir Robin of Locksley, surpassing all the other notable Robins such as Richard Greene, Richard Todd, Sean Connery, Michael Praed, Jason Connery, Kevin Costner, and now Russell Crowe. Even Flynn's great predecessor Douglas Fairbanks, the greatest of all silent stars, whose Robin Hood in 1922 was considered unsurpassable, doesn't quite come up to Flynn's matchless charm.

Perhaps the timing of the film was its crucial asset. In the 1930s, Warner Brothers had already come to grips with the sinister rise of fascism across the Atlantic in Europe. The notably titled Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) dared to speak out against a regime that America was not yet at war with. As for The Adventures of Robin Hood, the timing was apposite, and Warners made sure that Errol Flynn's Robin embodied all the heroism of a just cause. Somehow this evergreen depiction of Sherwood all makes sense: the myth, the heroism, the history. And it also had timely statements to make about the struggle against the Nazis.

Significantly to point up the threat, Warners made Robin's opponents a veritable tripartite of deceitful villainy: the scheming, vindictive Prince John (Claude Rains), the corruptible Bishop of the Black Canons (Montagu Love), and never to be outdone by those two, the one and only Basil Rathbone, as Sir Guy of Gisbourne - NOT The Sheriff of Nottingham as sometimes mistaken (who was played endearingly by Melville Cooper, and later portrayed in rumbustious fashion by Alan Rickman in 1991.) The formidable opposition meet their match however in a superb cast of Merrie Men: Alan Hale as a marvellously confident Little John (his second of three portrayals spanning 28 years), the seasoned veteran Eugene Pallette as the lugubrious, passionate Friar Tuck, and ultimately their trump card: their crusading king, Richard the Lionheart (Ian Hunter).

Having been lured into Sherwood Forest with their illustrious booty to pay for the taxes plundered by the merry men, the terrible trio soon have retribution in mind with a sinister plan to lure Robin into a trap, by staging a stirring archery tournament, scored in gloriously operatic fashion by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. John Williams and Star Wars owes a great debt to Korngold for the exciting, multi-setting finale encompassing all the different characters' exploits.

William Keighley's beautifully evocative Sherwood Forest (shot in beautiful leafy Pasadena) scenes were deemed to be slowing up the action, and so Warners called upon another trusted master of the action spectacular, Michael Curtiz (who later went on to direct Casablanca) to crank up the action, as the villains take an iron grip on proceedings and imprison Marian, and then treacherously threaten to murder the returning King Richard. It all leads to a stirring finale (another influence for Star Wars and other adventure epics), and one of the best screen duels ever, between Robin and Gisbourne.

Of all the Robin Hoods ever told - and there have been countless versions on stage, screen, television, and even by minstrel - Flynn was the quintessence of the rebellious hero, and Robin Hood was his greatest showcase, and with good reason.

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100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films