Robin Hood is one of the most provocative characters in the Western imagination – a rogue, a rebel, a robber and a rascal; an opponent of the state out of loyalty to the state and a hero of justice who breaks the law.
There have been many “Robin Hoods”, many takes on the tale, reflecting the sensitivities and sensibilities of the tellers, but there is arguably only one that has defined the character in the popular imagination, one retelling that, almost by instinct, every other is compared to – The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.
Since its release 80 years ago, The Adventures of Robin Hood has thrilled and delighted audiences with its swashbuckling derring-do, its chivalry and its romance. This is not a “Robin Hood” bogged down in shallow efforts at geopolitics or cultural commentary; but one that soars with the cheer and charm of a good tale well told. This is the imagined Robin Hood that strolls through Sherwood Forest, the legend that has been passed down through the centuries.
Drawing on the original ballads as well as Tudor “histories”, Elizabethan dramas and Sir Walter Scott’s novels, The Adventures of Robin Hood keeps faith with that tradition and reaps the rewards.
The year is 1191 and King Richard the Lion-heart (Ian Hunter) has been captured by Leopold of Austria while returning from the Crusades. His villainous brother John (Claude Rains) schemes to gain absolute control of the kingdom for himself and his Norman henchmen: Sir Guy of Gisborne (Basil Rathbone), the High Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) and the Bishop of the Black Canons (Montagu Love). They oppress the Saxon people with their taxes and their soldiers and fear reigns throughout the land. Only one man dares oppose John openly – the Saxon nobleman Robin of Locksley
(Errol Flynn), the most feared archer in the kingdom.
As the situation worsens, Robin and his friend Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles) recruit a band of “Merry Men” from among the poor and dispossessed, swearing them to “despoil the rich only to give to the poor, to shelter the old and the helpless … to protect all women … to fight for a free England and to protect her loyally until the return of King Richard”. His first recruits include Much, the Miller’s Son (Herbert Mundin), whom Robin saves from Sir Guy, and Little John (Alan Hale), who bests Robin in a quarterstaff duel. Later on they recruit the jolly, but dangerous, Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) to act as their chaplain.
After a daring robbery where Robin and his men capture Sir Guy and the High Sheriff, he also succeeds in “recruiting” King Richard’s ward, the strong-willed and noble Lady Marian of Fitzwalter (Olivia de Havilland), to the cause by showing her the devastation caused by John and his cronies to the common people of England – and by proving his and his men’s devotion to their rightful king.
The Adventures of Robin Hood is a technicolour dream of an imagined England, imagined heroisms and imagined villainies. It knows it’s not real, so it doesn’t strain for a miserable, kitchen sink “realism”, preferring instead a heightened reality that makes it more relatable to its audience than any pretence of “relevance” could ever be.
Rather than creating “depth” by artifice, it goes deeper into the story by telling it faithfully. By following the tradition of Robin Hood, a tradition centuries in the making, the film makes itself universal, transcending the Englishness of its source to become something that appeals to all.
Moreover, this very universality indicates that the truths of the tradition are not subject to systems of theories. Robin Hood is no proto-Bolshevik or rustic revolutionary. He is not opposed to kings or kingship, but to bad kings, kings who are kings in name only, and who in reality forfeit their right to that title by failing in their duty to safeguard their people. Robin may “steal”, but he steals from those who have already stolen. He is not opposed to private property, but rather, wants to restore that property to its rightful owners.
There is something Chestertonian in this Robin Hood, from his patriotism to his concern for the common folk, his derring-do to his chivalry. But there is also something sublimely cinematic in the film – from the rich Romantic score of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, to Michael Curtiz – yet to make Casablanca – and William Keighley’s dynamic directing; but most of all in its sheer star-power: the luminous and lovely Olivia de Havilland, the eyebrow-arching and mocking Claude Rains, the menacing and masterful Basil Rathbone, and the roguish and charming Errol Flynn.
The Adventures of Robin Hood is the outlaw at his best. More, it is the legend brought to life.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).