The last major studio Robin Hood film, 2010’s Russell Crowe vehicle, was a joyless post-Lord of the Rings slog that reviewed poorly and flopped hard in theaters. An artifact of why this happened is actually embedded right there in that last link: If you look at the Box Office Mojo link to it, the film was originally to be titled Nottingham, and would reportedly have been from the perspective not of the forest outlaw but of the beleaguered sheriff tasked with hunting him down. In the hands of Ridley Scott, and starring Cate Blanchett and freaking Max von Sydow, however, it became a dumb film that culminates in a swordfight on a beach where Robin Hood—the greatest archer ever—fires one arrow.
Which is to say, it was an example of a movie that is the precise opposite of 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, the verdant Technicolor swashbuckler that, in 80 years of subsequent adaptations, remains the standard against which is measured any appearance of Robin Hood, be it full-length film or cheeky cartoon cameo.
A collaboration of Old Hollywood’s merriest men and women
The figure of Robin Hood has evolved so much over the hundreds of years of storytelling that gave rise to him that it’s foolish to call any one iteration the definitive one. He’s usually portrayed as a knight or at least a man of noble birth these days, but in the earliest telling he was a yeoman—a man with a small estate or the servant of a nobleman. Over the centuries, authorities even banned stories of Robin Hood because they were too openly rebellious, forcing storytellers to take the clever tack that he was a champion of legitimate authority by making him loyal to Richard the Lionheart.
Despite that, it’s fair to say that the ethos of Robin Hood is and remains rooted in raising his English longbowman’s middle finger to The Man. So it is not without some irony that I express this opinion: Warner Brothers, one of the great titans of Old Hollywood, made what has become the definitive version of the character, at least from a cinematic standpoint. Every appearance since Errol Flynn rode onto the screen in his eye-popping green get-up has either been an homage, parody or subversion of him. I guess that’s what you get for being earnest.
With the clout of Warner Brothers behind him, executive Hal B. Wallis salvaged the production after James Cagney walked off the project, leaving the eponymous role empty. Wallis got the studio to take a chance on Errol Flynn, then with just Captain Blood under his belt, and again paired him with his once and future onscreen love interest, Olivia de Havilland, after fighting against the unthinkably idiotic decision a previous script-writer had made to cut Maid Marian from the film. He also ensured Michael Curtiz directed the film, particularly the charged action scenes in the third reel, after the film lost its first director.
I wonder how much of the movie is Curtiz’s and how much his predecessor’s, however: For Curtiz, who went on to direct Casablanca, must surely have enjoyed a script that leans so heavy into an ensemble peopled with the stubbornly cheery downtrodden.
The film would also give him a chance to work with future Casablanca actor Claude Rains as a delightfully self-assured Prince John.
Red-blooded heroism in a green cape, in Technicolor
One thing that has always stood out to me about the Robin Hood story is its explicit incorporation of color. Robin Hood wears green, Will Scarlet wears red. Show any grammar school student a drawing of a guy in green with a funny hat and a bow and arrow, and he or she will not need three guesses to ascertain who it is. Accordingly, it is strange to me that so many more modern adaptations like Robin and Marian (1976) or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) have chosen to de-saturate the palette. And I can’t help but believe that the reason they do so is because the 1938 adaptation is blindingly, unbelievably chromatic.
From Robin’s vivid green to Will Scarlet’s tactically questionable crimson to the tabards of the treacherous Norman knights that are every shade of the rainbow and never the same design from scene to scene, the film is an able advertisement for Technicolor, and, I learn, the first Warner Brothers film to use the original three-strip Technicolor process. That process alone required cumbersome cameras and specialized lighting, but the poor crewmen who labored over it 80 years ago certainly could be proud of their work. The effect is one of fairy tale unreality, but when you consider this is in service to a story of legendary figures engaging in heightened romance and derring-do, it feels every bit as valid a choice as, say, The Wizard of Oz whacking audiences over the retinas with color once we leave Kansas.
The distinctive color choices for individual characters animate a tale of much melodrama and little complexity, but infectious enthusiasm. Errol Flynn plays Robin Hood as a charming and bold hero with no doubts about what’s right or wrong, careful even to articulate that his ire as a Saxon is raised not toward Normans, but just to the corrupt ones who heap cruelty on the poor and the traitorous ones who seek to steal the crown from the absent King Richard. Rains appears to be enjoying himself immensely as a Prince John amused by his own villainy, and Basil Rathbone turns in a sinister performance as Guy of Gisborne, the antagonist who provides the most opportunity for Robin Hood to bust out his sword.
Besides amusing character moments for every member of Robin’s merry men and even a narrative that actually gives Maid Marian agency and self-determination—she convinces a respectful Robin Hood that she’s more use to him spying on Prince John than warming him on those cold Sherwood Forest nights—the movie also features some involved fight scenes. Flynn and Rathbone, it is easy to see, performed a significant amount of their own stunts and, under the direction of fight choreographer Fred Cavens, really sold their bouts as exhausting fights to the death rather than clean fencing matches. At one point, Flynn menaces a guard with a prop sword whose blade clearly did not hold up well under the swashbuckling, but you feel like you should forgive it.
The hero (or anti-hero) of Sherwood Forest
When Daffy Duck and Porky Pig get together to spoof Robin Hood, Daffy sure looks like he’s dressed as Errol Flynn. When Disney decides to regale us with the animal kingdom’s version of the story of Robin Hood (yes, still my favorite), their sly fox dresses like and sounds a bit like Flynn. When Mel Brooks takes the piss out of Prince of Thieves, he still has to do it with costuming and staging that recall the 1938 version for it to truly code as a proper send-up. And any other versions which want to stand out from other adaptations—which want to seem more modern or serious or historical—all seem as allergic to green as the Green Lantern is to yellow.
Yet, for all these differences (and with few exceptions), hold up the plots of these disparate adaptations to the 1938 version. There’s no need to summarize the plot, is there? You could tell the story if you wanted to, and you’d be close. Curtiz and his cast and crew merely did it in Technicolor.
Kenneth Lowe has an outlaw for an in-law. He works in media relations for state government in Illinois and his writing has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues Magazine and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Read more of his writing at his blog or follow him on Twitter.