The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Directed by Michael Curtiz. Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone (102 min).

Swashbuckling thrills abound as insouciant outlaw Robin Hood challenges Nottingham authority, robbing the rich to give to the poor, an intoxicating Depression era concept.  Nobody has ever beat Flynn’s dash and daring in this timeless Technicolor adventure.   “Made with sublime innocence and breathtaking artistry…this great 1938 film exists in an eternal summer of bravery and romance” (Roger Ebert). “Ravishes the senses, tantalizes the tastebuds and stirs up the blood” (Swordsmen of the Screen).

The historical sources for the daring exploits of Robin Hood are murky, although historical characters, like Richard the Lion Hearted and his brother, John were real people.   Minstrels spread tales of an outlaw who robbed the rich to give to the poor starting in the early 1300s.  There were stories, ballads, plays and novels over the centuries, but the real origin of modern Robin Hood lore dates to his inclusion in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) and the book, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire, written and illustrated by Howard Pyle, first published in 1883, which included most of the now familiar characters and incidents.   The most direct cinematic antecedent was Douglas Fairbanks’ epic Robin Hood in 1922. But he shunned most of the traditional episodes of the outlaw, choosing to do an original story, which he then copyrighted to avoid imitators.  This allowed Warner Brothers to use these more familiar tales.

Hilariously, Warner Brothers first became interested in Robin Hood as a follow up for James Cagney to showcase his versatility, after his turn as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  When Cagney walked out of the studio on one of his periodic contractual disputes, the role was given to 27-year-old Errol Flynn, who had recently impressed in the title role of Captain Blood. The script went through numerous revisions under many scriptwriters, as the stories, ballads, novels and film versions were distilled down to their essence.  One primary source was an 1890s operetta, and dialogue was jiggered to make sure that it had an old-fashioned courtly air without being too fussy for modern audiences.  One studio memo highlighted passages such as “Oh, M’lord, tarry not too long for, I fear, in her remorse, she may fling herself from the widow, some harm will befall her, I know!” (Behlmer 18).  There was also concern that the film did not drown in pageantry, the way Fairbanks version had.  More dash, less jousting.

Meanwhile, stunt extras were hired and trained to use broadsword and quarterstaff by Fred Cavens (and his son, Albert) the masters of onscreen swordplay.  Howard Hill, a skilled archer, arrived to train Flynn and double some archery shots.  Hill also played the Captain of the Archers on screen.  He  had won 196 consecutive field archery tournaments and retired when nobody would compete with him.  Extras who agreed to be padded and shot in the chest by one of Hill’s arrows received a fee of $150.00 per hit, as it was quite dangerous.  Historical advisors cautioned that the word “ouch” as an expression of pain dated from the 19th century, so wounded combatants were to say “Ai-eee” instead (Meyers 145).

This scrapbook image can easily be dated to 1938.

And, the consultants worked a veritable miracle with their advice.  Even the persnickety author of The Hollywood History of the World sighs, that it is “a near-perfect motion picture, quite the best evocation of a folk legend every put on the screen…I call it near perfect because I cannot think of any film which realized so well what its makers were trying to do or so satisfied the audience’s expectation.  For this simply IS Robin Hood of the ballads and childhood lore and the world’s imagination.  For once history does not matter” (Fraser 65).

Although Warners first cast starlet Anita Louise as Maid Marian, Olivia de Havilland, who had partnered Flynn so memorably in Captain Blood was eventually assigned the part.  Basil Rathbone, probably the best fencer ever to appear on screen (and the highest paid free-lance actor in Hollywood) was cast as Sir Guy, and distinctive WB contract players filled out the cast.

Birdwell Park, a 2,400 acre forest preserve in Chico, California would play Sherwood Forest.  Art director Jules Weyl had crew amend the forest with additional plaster of Paris trees and rocks, and wound vines around intrusive telephone poles.  Real grass was removed as a fire hazard, and artificial grass was added with plantings of bushes, ferns and flowers.  The Merry Men camped near the largest living oak tree in the world, 92 feet high, with branches reaching 149 feet and a trunk almost 29 feet around. Location costs were expensive.  Supposedly the production spent $25,000/day in Chico, and according to publicity, 10 carloads of props and costumes, as well as 50 horses, were shipped by special train. This included 10,000 arrows, long bows and cross bows, battle axes, lances, daggers, maces, lutes, armor, imitation ducks, 12th century furniture, plates, knives and forks (Higham 67).

On location in Chico, CA. Director Keighley has his hand on the shoulder of cameraman Tony Gaudio.

William Keighley was the director, but as he lagged behind schedule, Warners replaced him with Michael Curtiz, who better knew his way around a swashbuckling adventure, as well as how to stage a dramatic scene without dramatically increasing the budget.   Apparently Keighley directed most of the exterior scenes, and Curtiz the interiors, with some of the action sequences done by veteran 2nd unit director B. Reeves Eason. Flynn did some of his own stunts, but the difficult ones (like jumping onto the back of a horse with his hands bound behind him) were doubled by Buster Wiles.  The only on set mishap was when the stuntman doubling  Basil Rathbone’s fall  in the climatic duel broke his ankle, adding an extra degree of realism. The film took about four months and over $2 million to complete, it was the most expensive Warner Brothers production to date.

Director Michael Curtiz at left, cinematographer Sol Polito on the right.

The score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold is one of the most memorable in cinema history, even though, as a serious musician, he balked at scoring an action film.  He was a child prodigy, and a celebrated classical composer in his native Austria.  Given the rare privilege of working on a week to week basis, and able to quit at any time to have his score finished by another composer, should he choose to do so,  he contributed a magnificent, rousing score.  And, he was grateful to be in California when the Nazis marched into Austria and confiscated his home.

This begins my series on fabulous costume in film, so I’m going to give you a bit of an introduction.  You probably know the name of Edith Head of Paramount and Gilbert Adrian at MGM.  But, there were many madly talented designers working in classic Hollywood.  The costumes in tonight’s film are by Milo Anderson, who seems to have taken a lot of the historical films that the leading WB designer, Orry Kelly, who preferred modern dress, passed on.  Anderson worked at Warner Brothers from 1932-1953.  The costumes here, bathed in the brilliant hues of 3 strip Technicolor, take a lot of leeway with historical design.  Robin and the Merry Men look resplendent in their forest greens, contrasted with Sir Guy’s peacock blue. There were no stretch fabrics in medieval times, however, and the hose on Flynn’s shapely limbs would have been much thicker and baggier.

Maid Marian’s clothes, as fetching as they are, owe little to 12th century fashion.  Hammered crepe, metallic lame and bias draping make these gowns perfect for 1938, but less so for the historical era in which the film is placed.  Her delightfully tip tilted headwear is also pure 1930s.  Actresses often lobbied for more contemporary hair and make-up so they wouldn’t look unfashionable, as is the case, here.

Continuity costume still for Maid Marian.

And here is my version, for Moviediva, jr.’s 2005 Halloween.

Anderson looked on Maid Marian’s clothes as he would contemporary fashion, “It’s a bold designer who forecasts future fashion facts.  No man can say what feminine whimsy will reject or welcome.  Every time a dress appears in public it will have a new disguise,  It will wear a dashing bolero, a winding sash, a Robin Hood tabard or cavalier gloves.  With the high low waistline gaining in importance the cummerbund should continue to encircle it.  The double girdle such as Olivia de Havilland wears in The Adventures of Robin Hood gives the impression of a high low waistline.  When wrought in metal and set with gems, it should have an evening vogue” (Landis 114).  Other films he designed include Captain Blood, Yankee Doodle Dandy, To Have and Have Not and Mildred Pierce.

Obviously, it was a bit of an issue that de Havilland spent so much screen time in corsets and petticoats.

Anderson had to devise chain mail that would not create a racket; he settled for woven string sprayed with metallic paint, an old theatrical trick. Flynn complained about his wig, hating the center part and bangs, and insisted he get a better one, with a side part (even though he rarely cared about such matters).  And, over studio protests, he grew his own beard, asserting that Robin Hood never would have been clean shaven in the forest.

Director William Keighley, and Errol Flynn in the first wig he hated.

Cut from 193 minutes to a lean 105, the film, greeted by rave reviews and audience rapture, never stops moving.  Part of the film’s success is owed to the Warner Brothers studio philosophy, which seamlessly incorporates the spirit of their 1930s social problem films about the downtrodden masses during the Depression into the cowed backs of the peasantry in medieval England. The Technicolor photography (still rare, an often reserved for musicals) is exquisite, and the sets and costumes superlative.  But, the film would be nothing without the mythic dash of Flynn, and the tender affection between him and de Havilland.

A.O.Scott in the New York Times recently posed a question, asking “which screen kiss do you first remember with affection?”  The embrace between Maid Marian and Robin Hood film might very well be mine, which is why, even though Flynn was a naughty boy, I won’t be telling any shocking tales about him.  The 13 year old me likes to think he is the romantic outlaw of tonight’s film.

There are lots of lovely fan magazine photos from the 1930s and 40s of Flynn.

Here’s another photo from the same scrapbook, in costume for The Prince and the Pauper, and reading the book he authored about his sailing exploits (expurgated, no doubt).

“Not only is The Adventures of Robin Hood a great film in its own right, but it is also the best cinematic adaptation of material from the ballads, an unsurpassed, timeless evocation of the storybook Saxon versus Norman version of the legend.  Although the film is outstanding in every department, its reputation among the masses rest primarily on the Lincoln green clad shoulders of Errol Leslie Flynn, who is at the height of his powers” (Nollen 118).

Director Keighley, cameraman Gaudio (in cap) with the stars.

“Relatively little about the picture dates, except in a charming way.  The character, costumes, castle and forest are idealized, but then the film is not a document of medieval life, rather it is a fairy tale illustrated by Technicolor.  The “love interest” usually clumsy and arbitrary in costume adventure film is here properly motivated and nicely woven into the plot fabric.  And, the rich score serves as a marvelous connective tissue, literally sweeping the film along” (Behlmer 39).

The Adventures of Robin Hood won three Oscars, for the score, the swift and muscular editing and the superb Technicolor art direction.  But as Jeffrey Richards says in his superb Swordsmen of the Screen, no version of the folk talks will ever measure up to it, since there will never be another Errol Flynn or Basil Rathbone.

Robin Hood: A Cinematic History of the English Outlaw and his Scottish Counterparts by Scott Allen Nollen, The Adventures of Robin Hood, edited and with an introduction by Rudy Behlmer, Errol Flynn: Satan’s Angel by David Bret, Inherited Risk: Errol and Sean Flynn in Hollywood and Viet Nam by Jeffrey Meyers, The Casablanca Man: The films of Michael Curtiz by James C. Robertson, The Hollywood History of the World by George MacDonald Fraser, Swordsmen of the Screen by Jeffrey Meyers, Those Glorious Glamour Years: The Great Hollywood Costume Designs of the 1930s by Margaret J. Bailey, Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film edited by Edward Maeder, Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, on set photos from America’s Favorite Movies by Rudy Behlmer.