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The Adventures of Robin Hood is a 1938 Warner Brothers Swashbuckler film, directed by Michael Curtiz, William Keighley, and B. Reeves Eason, and starring Errol Flynn, considered by many the definitive cinematic version of the Robin Hood legend. The film won three Academy Awards, for Best Art Direction (Carl Jules Weyl), Best Film Editing (Ralph Dawson), and Best Original Score (Erich Wolfgang Korngold).
The film was originally intended as a vehicle for Jimmy Cagney, who had gained critical approval for playing Bottom the Weaver in Warners' 1935 production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream -- but when Cagney walked out on his Warners' contract, the project was retooled to accommodate rising Warners' star Errol Flynn, who had in that same year made a huge impression as the swashbuckling lead of the pirate romance, Captain Blood. Olivia de Havilland, having appeared in both movies, was a natural for the part of Lady Marian. Korngold, too, had been associated with the same two films, as adaptor of Felix Mendelssohn's theatrical music for Dream and as composer of a (mostly) original score for Captain Blood. Basil Rathbone, having displayed in Captain Blood as the evil pirate Levasseur a fine talent for fencing and sneering villainy, was tapped to play the part of Sir Guy of Gisbourne. When director William Keighley was determined by the Warner brothers to be too dilatory and measured in his approach to the film, he was replaced with yet another Captain Blood alumnus, hard-driving director Michael Curtiz.
The script, by Seton I. Miller and Norman Reilly Raine, was considerably more faithful to both the matter and the spirit of the original Robin Hood ballads than earlier dramatic versions. This was largely in reaction to the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., version, which had focused on a Knight in Shining Armor version of Robin, with much screen time devoted to The Crusades and tournaments and relatively little to the character's woodland outlawry. Early drafts of the script omitted Marian entirely, as Miller insisted that she was not part of the original mythos at all; fortunately, the Rule of Cool (romance division) and the chemistry between Flynn and de Havilland ensured her appearance in the final version. Miller did manage to include many elements of the ballads: the quarterstaff bout between Robin and Little John, Robin forcing Friar Tuck to carry him across the stream, even (delicately, for fear of the Catholic Legion of Decency) Robin's antipathy to bishops, though a sequence showing an exchange of fisticuffs with the disguised King in Sherwood was cut in the final edit. On the other hand, many elements that came into the legend only later were also incorporated into this version, such as the identification of the King with Richard I from the Tudor historian John Major; the treachery of Prince John, the identification of Maid Marian with the King's ward, Lady Fitzwater, Robin's elevation to the nobility, from Anthony Mundy's Elizabethan plays; and the struggle between Normans and Saxons from Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold was initially reluctant to be associated with the "90% action picture"; however, the Warners were insistent, offering extremely generous payment for his services, and he at last agreed, leaving his native Austria just in time to escape its annexation by Those Wacky Nazis in March 1938. The Jewish Korngold was later accustomed to say, "Robin Hood saved my life." It is said that Warners provided a voluminous report on 12th century music to the composer, which he promptly dumped into the wastebasket (but see Regional Riff, below); in the event, Korngold's lush Late Romantic score, characterized by Wagnerian themes and Leitmotifs, not only won the Academy Award, but set a pattern for Film Music that has lasted down to the days of John Williams and Hans Zimmer.
Other notable talents engaged for the film included fencing master Fred Cavens (yet another veteran of Captain Blood!) to choreograph the duels and champion archer Howard Hill to perform the film's archery (and to appear in the small part of the "Captain of Archers"). There is some debate as to whether Hill actually accomplished the famous shot with which Robin splits an arrow with another arrow (the Myth Busters actually tested this one out), but it seems most likely that some form of staging was used. Various stuntmen were paid an extra $150 to allow Hill to shoot them in their specially padded torsos.
In the late 12th century, King Richard the Lion-Heart (Ian Hunter), returning from The Crusades, has been taken prisoner, and his treacherous brother Prince John (played delightfully by Claude Rains as a silky, effete Deadpan Snarker), with the help of compliant Norman barons such as the brutal Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) (whose support he gains by promising him marriage to King Richard's ward, Lady Marian Fitzwalter (Olivia de Havilland)), the Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper), and the Bishop of the Black Canons (Montague Love), is oppressing the Saxon peasantry in an attempt to squeeze money out of them, ostensibly to ransom Richard, but really to buy his way to the throne.
He is opposed by the Saxon knight, Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn), who, as the outlaw Robin Hood, gathers a band of Saxon resistance fighters, including Will Scarlet (Patric Knowles), Much the Miller's Son (Herbert Mundin), Little John (Alan Hale, Sr., reprising the rôle he had played 16 years before in the Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., silent), and Friar Tuck (Eugene Palette).
After Robin has stolen back the ransom money (and in the process won the heart of Lady Marian), he is taken prisoner at the archery tournament when his brilliant archery reveals who he is; he subsequently escapes (with Marian's aid, we are told).
Shortly thereafter, King Richard has returned to England in disguise; he is recognized by the Bishop, who informs Prince John and Sir Guy. When Marian overhears their plot to send the disgraced former knight Dickon Malbête to murder the king, she is detected by Sir Guy trying to send a warning, arrested, and condemned to death, but her lady-waiting, Bess, warns Much, who intercepts and kills Dickon. Meanwhile, Richard, in the guise of an abbot, has allowed himself to be captured by Robin.
When Much reveals John's plot and Marian's condemnation, they devise a plan to crash Prince John's coronation, disguised as the Bishop of the Black Canons' followers. A melee breaks out; Robin and Guy duel, and Guy is killed. Robin frees Marian. King Richard banishes Prince John, the Sheriff, the Bishop, and their followers from England for the remainder of his lifetime; pardons the men of Sherwood, and rewards Robin with an earldom and the hand of Lady Marian in marriage.
This film provides examples of the following tropes:
- Affably Evil: Prince John is a smiling, jolly, Prince of a fellow -- even while he is ordering a minion to stab Robin in the back.
- Age Lift: The 48-year-old Claude Rains is cast as Prince John -- who was actually 26 at the time of Richard's imprisonment. (By contrast, John's older brother Richard, 37 at the time of his return from Germany, was played by 38-year-old Ian Hunter.)
- Annoying Arrows: Averted as being hit by Robin's arrows is apparently instant death, justified of course by the fact that we are talking about Robin Hood here...
- As Long As It Sounds Mediaeval: The Bishop of the Black Canons asks Prince John by what authority he claims to receive the blessing of the Church as Defender of the Holy Sepulcher. This is arrant nonsense, as the Defender of the Holy Sepulcher was the title of Godfrey de Bouillon as Christian ruler of Jerusalem and had nothing to do with England at all. (Oddly enough, the real Prince John as a boy actually was offered the position of Defender of the Holy Sepulcher, but his father turned it down for him, and sent him to Ireland instead.)
- Awesome Moment of Crowning: The coronation scene was probably inspired by the coronation of George VI of England.
- Badass: Errol Flynn as Robin.
- Badass Preacher: Friar Tuck.
- Beta Couple: Much and Bess.
- Blade Lock: Allows Robin and Sir Guy to exchange some choice taunts. (Fortunately, though, the scripted one where Robin tells Sir Guy, "You've been eating...onions," was dropped from the filmed version.)
- Bow and Sword In Accord: Robin is an expert fencer and bowman. (He also wields the quarterstaff, to somewhat less effect.)
- California Doubling: Bidwell Park in Chico, California stands in for Sherwood Forest.
- Corrupt Church: The evil Bishop of the Black Canons.
- Crowning Music of Awesome: Doubling as well as Awesome Music Of Crowning, the "March of the Merry Men," as it recurs in the coronation scene, is a riot of trumpet fanfares, soaring violins, and glittering harpstrings.
- The Crusades: Condemned by Robin as having distracted Richard from his proper job of ruling England.
- Defrosting Ice Queen: Marian is certainly not impressed with Robin on their first meeting.
- Disney Villain Death: Granted, he is stabbed in the guts first, but Sir Guy makes his exit by duly falling over a parapet...
- ...and the trope is subverted when you actually see his lifeless body unceremoniously hit the ground.
- The Dragon: Guy of Gisborne.
- Dramatic Unmask: Though rather more a dramatic unhooding, this happens twice in the film, when Richard reveals that he is the King to Robin and his men in the forest, and when Richard reveals that he is the King and Robin and his men reveal that they are ... Robin and his men at the coronation.
- Expy: In The Mark of Zorro, made two years after this film, Eugene Pallette would play another militant churchman, Fray Felipe, a character obviously based on Friar Tuck. Moreover, Marian's lady-in-waiting, Bess (Una O'Connor) who has "had the bans up five times," is clearly modeled on the Wife of Bath in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
- The Evil Prince: Again Prince John.
- Fanfare: Korngold composed several for this film, notably one on solo trumpet for Robin (reused in his symphonic piece, Sursum Corda) and a recurring one for the Normans.
- Flynning: Fred Cavens deliberately designed all the movements of the duels to be as large and visible as possible. This is the benchmark for cinematic Sword Fights, rarely equaled and never surpassed.
- Fridge Logic: At one point Robin takes Marian from where his merry men are feasting to see a group of oppressed, starving peasants that have sought shelter with the outlaws. Naturally they weren't invited to the feasting because...because...
- ...possibly because Robin does not want to expose their identities to the vengeful Normans who are at the feast -- or possibly because he does not want to expose the Normans to the vengeful peasants. Anyway, Robin explicitly makes sure they have been fed and taken care of.
- The Full Name Adventures: You were expecting The Adventures of Someone Else?
- Hero Ball/Idiot Ball: For all the awesome in this movie, Robin's slip that gives him away at the archery tournament was pretty stupid.
- Hey, It's That Horse!: Maid Marian rides a palomino named Golden Cloud. Golden Cloud would later go on to achieve fame as Roy Rogers' Cool Horse Trigger.
- Historical Domain Character: Richard the Lion Heart and Prince John.
- Hollywood Costuming: The clothing worn by the characters resembles late thirteenth or early fourteenth century clothing more than the rather more simply cut costumes of the late twelfth century. Though fashions did change rather more slowly in the Middle Ages, this is a bit like dressing George Washington like Robert E. Lee.
- The House of Plantagenet: Richard and John.
- I'm Not Hungry: As Marian tells Robin after she has been captured with the Norman treasure-caravan, "I'm afraid the company has spoiled my appetite." (She tries to sneak a bite while he's not looking, though...unsuccessfully.)
- Insult Backfire: "Why, you speak treason!" "Fluently!"
- King Incognito: Richard first appears in the film as a traveling pilgrim, then as a wandering abbot, then as one of the Bishop's black canons.
- Kneel Before Frodo: "All these...have remained loyal."
- Land in the Saddle: Robin pulls off this jump with his hands tied behind his back. (Well, he's supposed to -- if you watch closely, the stunt guy's hands move in front of his body in one shot.)
- Men of Sherwood: Robin's men not only competently carry out the attack on Sir Guy's treasure caravan, but they also execute Robin's rescue from hanging even without his leadership. (The Trope Namer)
- Musicalis Interruptus (sort of): The film features Will Scarlet as Robin's sidekick, presenting him as a minstrel-like figure (the usual minstrel figure, Allan-a-Dale, does not appear in the film). In the original script, Will actually was to have sung a song; however, an agreement with MGM prevented Warners from including any original musical numbers in their films in 1938, so Will's minstrelsy is reduced to a few chords on a mandolin at the beginning of Robin's quarterstaff bout with Little John. In effect, the Interruptus took place before he even...er...touched his G-string.
- Notable Original Music: Korngold's lush romantic score, dubbed "Robin Hood in the Vienna Woods" by one wag. Notable for its use of Leitmotif.
- Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Of the main cast, only Prince John, the Sheriff, the Bishop, Will Scarlet, and Much are played by actual Englishmen, although King Richard and Sir Guy, both South Africans, and Robin, a Tasmanian, still speak received English. Maid Marian was of British parentage, though born in Tokyo and raised in California, and her maid Bess was from Northern Ireland. Little John and Friar Tuck remain thoroughly American, particularly the latter -- yet somehow this seems less disturbing than in other Robin Hood films. Sheer style, perhaps?
- Not So Harmless: As noted on the main Robin Hood page, the film slightly reshuffles the usual villain roles, leaving us with Sir Guy as The Dragon to Prince John's Big Bad -- the Sheriff is pretty much demoted to a Cowardly Sidekick. Oddly enough, though, the Sheriff, despite his surface buffoonery, is clever enough a) to realize Prince John's treasure caravan should take extra precautions against Robin Hood (he is overruled by Sir Guy), b) to devise a plan that actually captures Robin, and c) to survive the big final battle and to be merely exiled rather than executed.
- People of Hair Color: Largely averted. We are told of the dissension between Normans and Saxons, but its racial aspect is not notably stressed. Of the principals, on the Saxon side, only Will Scarlet is portrayed as a blond (possibly the better to contrast with his costume); Robin, Little John, Friar Tuck, and Much have light to medium brown hair. Of the Normans, King Richard (so far as we can tell) has brown hair; Prince John has dark red hair; Marian has reddish-brown hair; the Bishop has gray hair; Sir Guy and the rest of the Norman knights have dark brown to black hair. One may compare these portrayals to those of Howard Pyle or N.C. Wyeth.
- Purple Prose: The original script was full of it, but Curtiz thankfully had it toned down.
- Reality Is Unrealistic: Many people have cited the shots of people being shot with arrows as looking unrealistic. In actuality, stuntmen were paid $150 an arrow to be legitimately shot while wearing protection.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Sir Guy delivers a brief one at Lady Marian's trial for high treason; she replies with a brief Shut UP, Hannibal of her own.
- Regional Riff: In a variation that might be called a "Temporal Riff," Little John appears whistling a tune called "Sumer is icumen in," the oldest known secular song in English. (Maybe Korngold Did Do The Research, after all.)
- Rightful King Returns: Who says he "ought never to have left England."
- Unlike the real Richard, who never regretted leaving and left again almost immediately.
- Saintly Church: Friar Tuck.
- Shout-Out: A number of subsequent (usually comic) versions of the Robin Hood story enjoy parodying specific moments or aspects of this film.
- In the Looney Tunes cartoon "Rabbit Hood" (1949), when Bugs Bunny assaults Little John, who has been announcing Robin's arrival throughout the cartoon, with a vehement "Well, where is he?" his question is answered with an actual clip from The Adventures of Robin Hood (Errol Flynn received a personal copy of this short as compensation for the use of his image).
- The Looney Tunes short "Robin Hood Daffy" (1958) mocks both Robin's swinging on a vine ("Yoicks, and away!") and his overly jolly laughter after being trounced and dunked by an opponent.
- In the 1982 film My Favorite Year, Errol Flynn avatar Alan Swann (Peter O'Toole) stumbles drunkenly into a projection-room where one of his old films is playing: the actors duelling therein are costumed exactly like Robin and Sir Guy in The Adventures of Robin Hood.
- In the ALFTales cartoon version of the Robin Hood story (1988), the Merry Men spring off obvious trampolines during the attack on the treasure caravan (as they do in this film), and Gordon/Robin, painting a self-portrait, paints out what is obviously Errol Flynn's face and substitutes his own.
- The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "QPid" (1991) is pretty much a Whole-Plot Reference, down to a fight between Robin/Picard and Guy of Gisborne on a staircase--which makes Vash's absolute refusal to play Marian a whole lot funnier. (Oddly, though, someone somewhere seems to have gotten Guy of Gisbourne and the Sheriff confused, because Q is clearly playing Basil-Rathbone-Guy but calls himself the Sheriff, and Guy more resembles the dim-witted, rotund Melville-Cooper-Sheriff .)
- Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) obviously takes a few shots, but most notable is Robin's grand entrance into Nottingham Castle's hall, with a deer taken from the King's forests draped over his shoulders (though Mel Brooks switches it to a boar so that Robin can compare it with Prince John).
- Single Woman Seeks Good Man: Marian, eagerly discussing Robin with Bess, says "he's brave and reckless, and yet he's gentle, too, not brutal like--" Like whom, Marian?
- Smug Snake: Prince John.
- Sorry I Left the BGM On: The rolling tympani with which the main title music ends are seen to be played by mounted drummers accompanying the town crier.
- Take Our Word for It: We are told that Marian has devised a plan to enable Robin to escape his from being hanged, but we are never told exactly what it entailed. It does not seem to include anything that Robin's men could not have figured out themselves.
- Those Two Actors: This was the third of eight films Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland made together.
- War Was Beginning: "In the year of Our Lord 1191, when Richard the Lion-Heart set forth to drive the infidels from the Holy Land..."
- What an Idiot!: Marian's attempts to hide the fact that she is trying to warn the King are ... less than convincing.
- She writes a letter to King Richard, telling him of the assassination plot and then hears a knock on her bedroom door. Despite the fact that there is a) a lady's maid next to her who successfully hides and b) a fire burning on the hearth right behind her, she neither gives the letter to the maid nor throws it in the fire. Instead she puts it in a conspicuous box on a table that she claps shut and still has her hands on when Sir Guy bursts through the door, and that she stares at while he toys with it.
- What You Are in the Dark: When the King in disguise sees Robin frantically ordering a massive search for the King to get him to safety, the King has all the proof he needs that the outlaw is loyal to him.
- You Fight Like a Cow: "Do you know any prayers, my friend?" "I'll say one for you!" etc.