The story of Robin Hood is a story of remakes. The character has evolved in countless ways since his origins in (maybe) 14th-century folk ballads. Familiar elements of the legend – Maid Marian, the Sheriff of Nottingham, that tricky second part of “take from the rich and give to the poor” – have accumulated over centuries of adaptation. There is no original Robin (probably) and certainly no one right way to tell a Robin Hood story. That said, The Adventures of Robin Hood set a standard 80 years ago that has yet to be matched.
The movie is, above all, a triumph of Technicolor. Robin Hood was released in 1938, the year after Snow White and the year before The Wizard of Oz, at the height of Hollywood’s first passionate fling with colour. Watching it today, it can still feel as though you are watching colour film for the first time. Even as some modern blockbusters are catching onto the idea that things can be colours other than grey and brown (or teal and orange), little today beats Robin Hood for sheer vibrancy in every frame.
The old three-strip Technicolor process was expensive and laborious, so Warner Bros. had every incentive to get the most out of it. The result is a pageant of picture-book wonders. Sherwood Forest (which looks in no way like Southern California) is sun-drenched green under bright blue skies; the soundstage sets are huge and packed with extras; and the costumes are something else entirely. Robin’s Lincoln-green getup and Will Scarlet’s tights go without saying; see also the knights wearing bright heraldic surcoats over their chainmail, and the spectacle of the aristocrats in Prince John’s court. Lady Marian and Sir Guy of Gisbourne in particular have wardrobes filled with shimmering, sparkling, 12th-century high fashion.
As thrilling as it is just to look at The Adventures of Robin Hood, it wouldn’t be worth watching if not for the performances, which anchor the spectacle and give life to the story. As Robin, Errol Flynn cemented his role as Hollywood’s swashbuckler-in-chief. Though he was working from the blueprint set by Douglas Fairbanks in his own Robin Hood (1922), and has been followed by 80 years of imitators, Flynn as Robin is one of a kind. He’s heroic, mischievous, sincere, and a little vulnerable. When defying the Prince and Sir Guy, he’s a swaggering showoff; when bested by Little John, he’s all humility and brotherly love; and whenever Lady Marian is onscreen he practically has hearts in his eyes. Plus, he nails one of the best witticisms in film history:
MARIAN: “Why, you speak treason!”
As good as Flynn is, Olivia de Havilland as Lady Marian is the secret star of this movie. The emotional arc of the film is Marian’s, as she transforms from Prince John’s loyal ward to a comrade of Robin and the Merry Men. De Havilland is magnetic in every mode, and her performance adds just the right amount of depth to an otherwise simplistic good-vs-evil tale. The fact that Marian actively decides to join Robin’s resistance to the aristocracy, and ends up leading the Merry Men to rescue Robin when he is captured, is one more way in which Robin Hood is refreshing compared to many later action-adventure films. Of course Robin and Marian end up together, but their romance feels essential and, well, romantic in a way your average love interest rarely achieves.
The quality of performances extends to the villains. As Roger Ebert points out in his “Great Movies” piece about Robin Hood, one advantage of the studio system was having a dependable stable of character actors, versed in making an impression without overshadowing the stars, letting the film “resonate with more than one tone.” Basil Rathbone, who had previously worked with Flynn and de Havilland on Captain Blood, plays Sir Guy of Gisbourne with a mix of cruelty and panache. He’s a pleasure to watch and a pleasure to root against. Claude Rains is typically excellent as Prince John, who is simultaneously the more comic and the more insidious villain of the pair. The Prince can only have his fun because his status insulates him from any consequences, and Rains masters that combination of joviality, privilege and malevolence.
The vividness of The Adventures of Robin Hood, both in its look and its characters, is what makes it stand out against the vast majority of films set in the middle ages. When we think of that time in history, we rarely think of anyone having fun. Granted, life in the time of feudalism probably wasn’t great, especially when there was a plague on, but we get an especially bleak picture of the era and its people from the portrayals we see in our media. The Robins played by Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe and now, for some reason, Taron Egerton, appear to live in a world of mud and shit, populated by violent maniacs. Because that’s what life was like before our glorious modern age – right?
When we desaturate the past, we devalue the experiences of the people who lived then in order to make ourselves feel exceptional. “Of course, those people were beset by war, famine, plague and tyranny, but that could never happen now.” The Adventures of Robin Hood is no more or less realistic than Costner or Crowe’s outings. Any Robin story is going to be a fantasy of some kind, but this relic of the Technicolor middle ages is a valuable antidote to the grim, macho “fantasies” of more recent filmmakers. By allowing itself such levity, sincerity and depth of emotion in between its swashbuckling, The Adventures of Robin Hood is by far the most human version of the legend.