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Review: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Rating

Director
Michael Curtiz, William Keighley
Screenplay
Norman Reilly Raine, Seton I. Miller
Length
102 min.
Starring
Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Patric Knowles, Eugene Pallette, Alan Hale, Melville Cooper, IanHunter, Una O'Connor, Herbert Mundin
MPAA Rating
Approved (original); PG for adventure violence (re-rated, 2003)

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Review
Robin Hood is probably the most frequently filmed story in film or television history. More than two dozen features and programs have featured the acclaimed defender of the poor and most of the trappings we come to expect from the story came from the William Keighley-directed 1938 version The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Many words have been written about the unrivaled archer who took a stance against the anti-Saxon rule of Richard the Lionheart's brother Prince John during his capture in France while he was returning to England from the Crusades. But most of those words are derived from legend and superstition, some originating from the time of Richard the Lionheart and others from prior. Because it's only a legend and not rooted in documented fact, it's hard to say just how much is creative license and how much is legitimate storytelling. What's on display in this film is largely based on historical data, at least describing the horrid conditions of the nation under Prince John and his Norman superiority complex attempting to weed out or subjugate the Saxon citizenry. The figure of Robin Hood is more designed to bring hope to oppressed people and not to regale the audience with the true story of Robin Hood's life.

Here, Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn) was a Saxon noble who took responsibility for the butchering of one of the King's stags in the woods. Because of his brazen rebuke of Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and Prince John (Claude Rains), he is condemned to death and goes into hiding within the depths of the Sherwood Forest where he encourages rebellion amongst the poor and downtrodden populace whose taxes have been raised and can barely feed themselves or their neighbors. At every turn, Prince John's action encourage rebellion and his attempts to capture this rabble-rousing leader Robin Hood consume him.

The film's story should be fairly familiar to most audiences, especially those who've seen the Disney animated version, which is largely a carbon copy of this film. This is the film to which all other versions should rightfully be compared. Fynn leads a strong cast as the undaunted hero of the story. It's not hard to see why Flynn was such a popular actor during the period. His Robin has a roguish charm that never diminishes. Even when facing dire situations, he maintains his smile and demeanor, using his bravery as a rallying point for those who might cower in the face of adversity. Rains is nearly his equal as the scheming Prince John who seldom loses his cool even when those around him down. Were it not for his isolationist and racist expressions and actions, he might have made an effective leader of the nation. Yet it's always Robin who remains poised under pressure, outwitting John at every turn.

In addition, the film is a vibrant feature, one of the earliest to effectively use three-strip technicolor. The colors and images are crisp and vivid and were it set side-by-side with films of the 50s and 60s, you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

The Adventures of Robin Hood is a perfect example how film can be used to not only entertain its audience, but expose the cruelty and villainy present in the world. It can teach the audience a little about history even when showing them a fictional character that may have had little to do with the events into which he's been thrust. Today, action/adventure films have veered so dangerously far from this idea that many of them are interchangeable in terms of story, plotting, effects and lack of impact on society and culture. Sure, those new types of films make money, but they prey on a viewership that want to think less and less when they escape to the movies. If only today's films were more like Adventures of Robin Hood, we might certainly live in a better world.
Review Written
February 14, 2011

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