Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Director: Michael Curtiz                                 Writers: Norman R. Raine & Seton I. Miller
Film Score: Erich Wolfgang Korngold              Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains

The Adventures of Robin Hood is one of the trinity of films that made Errol Flynn a star, and the only one of the three to be filmed in Technicolor. The other two are Captain Blood from 1935 and The Sea Hawk from 1941, and all three were directed by the great Michael Curtiz. In addition to Flynn the film includes his long-time partner Olivia de Havilland, as well as Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains. But the star power continues with a long list of well-known supporting actors including Ian Hunter, Patric Knowles, Alan Hale, Eugene Pallette, Melville Cooper, Montagu Love, Herbert Mundin and the great Una O’Connor. Like Flynn’s other two swashbucklers, Robin Hood also boasts a film score by the brilliant Erich Wolfgang Korngold. My vote for the greatest director of Hollywood’s golden age, Hungarian born Michael Curtiz, is assisted on the film by co-director William Keighley and the terrific cameraman Sol Polito. It’s a wealth of talent that could only be gathered by Warner Brothers and remains one of Flynn’s most popular films.

The film begins with England still clearly divided between the Normans who own the land and the Saxons who work it. The king, Ian Hunter, absent on the Crusades, has been kidnapped in Austria and his brother, Claude Rains, has begun to collude with the Norman landowners, one of whom is Basil Rathbone, to tax the Saxons into destitution, all with the goal of eventually taking over the country. Errol Flynn, as Sir Robin of Locksley, confronts Rains at the castle of Rathbone and swears he’ll organize revolt until Hunter returns. There he also meets Olivia de Havilland as Lady Marian. She knows nothing of the campaign against the Saxons and initially believes Flynn to be an outlaw. He’s almost captured, but Flynn and his men disappear into the vast expanse of Sherwood Forrest and escape to fight another day. Flynn is sentenced to death in absentia by Rains, but at the same time he begins to gather his inner circle, Patric Knowles as Will Scarlett, Alan Hale as Little John and Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck. When de Havilland is captured along with Rathbone and Melville Cooper as the Sheriff of Nottingham, she sees the suffering of the people and begins to understand what Flynn is really doing, and also begins to have feelings for him.

With Rathbone having been humiliated, and Rains having his tax money stolen, they plan a way to capture Flynn that uses his ego as the finest archer in England. They hold an archery contests, sure that he will enter in disguise. At the same time, Ian Hunter has managed to make his way back to England in secret, but keeping his own disguise lest spies of Rains’ kill him before he makes it back to London. When the film was first being packaged, James Cagney was tabbed for the role of Robin Hood, but during the lengthy amount of time the film spent in pre-production Cagney had walked off the lot in one of his many disputes with Jack Warner. Meanwhile, Flynn had become a breakout star in Captain Blood so he was quickly slotted into the lead role for this film. Likewise, director William Keighley had been initially assigned the film on the strength of his work with Flynn on The Prince and the Pauper, which also starred Claude Rains. He had filmed the exteriors in the forest and the archery tournament, but when the production kept getting further and further behind schedule and going over budget, Michael Curtiz was brought in to replace him and finished the film.

Composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold had been preparing his last opera in Vienna when he was asked to come to Hollywood to score the picture. When he saw the film he refused, but then learned that Hitler was taking over Austria and, had he still been there, would likely have wound up in a concentration camp. Robin Hood saved his life, he always said. And his score, one that deals with helpless people being abused by the powerful, reflected his feelings at the time and is one of his greatest, earning him his only Oscar. Alan Hale, who played Little John in this film, also had the distinction of having played the same character in Douglas Fairbanks’ silent production of Robin Hood and then again in his last film, Rogues of Sherwood Forest in 1950 for Columbia. The other interesting aspect of the supporting cast is that the comedic relationship between Herbert Mundin and Una O’Connor was one that they had done together before in the Academy Award winning film Cavalcade from 1933. The Flynn picture was nominated for four Oscars, and though it didn’t win for best picture, it won the other three awards. The Adventures of Robin Hood is one of the most beautiful films, both aurally and visually, ever made and one of the most entertaining to boot. They don’t get much better than this.

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