The trend in today's movie marketplace is to complicate the classic heroes, to paint them in darker tones. It's an understandable and often fascinating approach for postmodern times, but it's also comforting to know that we can go back to basics by raiding the vaults. Before Ridley Scott unveils his own postmodern Robin Hood film (Nottingham), it's as good a time as any to revisit the screen version of the character that most consider definitive: 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn as Sir Robin of Loxley.
It's doubtful that a definitive version of the tale of Robin Hood is possible, given the legend's many variations, but Warner's Technicolor take remains an indelible swashbuckler. Billed as "Based Upon Ancient Robin Hood Legends," the screenplay by Norman Reilly Bane and Seton I. Miller has its own inventions, but they're so winning that they've become nearly inseparable from the oft-retold story. The basic story is familiar: with King Richard the Lion-Heart (Ian Hunter) waylaid following the Crusades, his brother Prince John (Claude Rains) seizes authority and makes plans to keep it indefinitely. John has the support of Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) in keeping the Saxons under the thumb of the Normans. But they haven't counted on Robin, a Saxon lord who takes to robbing the rich to give to the poor, as part of a larger campaign to halt the coup against rightful King Richard.
A rabble-rouser, a natural leader, and a crack archer, Robin presides over a loyal band of "Merry Men": right-hand man Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles), roly-poly Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette), and brawny fighter Little John (Alan Hale, reprising his role from the popular 1922 silent Robin Hood, starring Douglas Fairbanks). Robin is not only a smooth operator in battle, but also with women, namely the lovely Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland). Theirs is a classic romantic dynamic. She's apparently appalled at Robin's brash challenges to an authority she's blindly accepted, but she can't deny for long her animal attraction to the manly rebel. Sample exchange:
Maid Marian: Why, you speak treason!
Robin Hood: Fluently.
Soon she's learned her lesson, joined the cause, and shared a moonlight rendezvous with Robin, Romeo and Juliet-style. Flynn's performance may be a bit corny (as when he throws his head back and laughs), but he's irresistably self-assured in his vocal bravado and his confident physical performance, culminating in perhaps the best-remembered screen swordfight. Flynn battles Rathbone's terrific, seething, all-time villain on a grand staircase in Nottingham Castle.
The Adventures of Robin Hood hits the high points in a fleet 102 minutes: political intrigue, scenes from the class struggle, male bonding, romance, and justice dealt against justice in bold strokes. Warner's big-budget production is among the first color features ever made, and the vibrant Technicolor still dazzles, with verdant Sherwood Forest assisted by liberal application of green spray paint. The spectacle carries over into impressive stunt work (fights by Fred Cavens, archery by Howard Hill), striking art direction by Carl Jules Weyl, and dramatic photography (particularly the extreme high and low angles) by Sol Polito and Tony Gaudio. Topping it all off is a lush Erich Wolfgang Korngold score that helped to set the standard for film music.
Production concerns led to a handoff from director William Keighley (The Man Who Came to Dinner) to Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), but you'd never know it from the miraculous finished product, a rousing, high-spirited family entertainment rightly regarded as one for the ages.
Warner pulls out the stops for this beloved catalog title's Blu-ray debut, which preserves all of the bonus features from the 2-disc DVD. The image quality is quite stunning, especially considering the film's age. The image can be a bit soft, but only because of the source's diffused photography. There's some color bleeding, but the hues are spot-on and the image is lively and steady. The soundtrack is Dolby Digital mono, accurately and cleanly representing the original audio.
The bonus features are truly fantastic, offering a wealth of film history and added entertainment. Primary among the extras is Warner Night at the Movies 1938, a viewing option hosted by film historian Leonard Maltin. Select this option from the menu, and you get an "Introduction by Leonard Maltin" (2:39), followed by a program just like the one you would see at the movies in 1938: a Theatrical Trailer for Angels with Dirty Faces (3:22), a "Vintage Newsreel" (1:21), cartoon "Katnip College" (7:26 in HD), and short feature "Freddie Rich and His Orchestra" (11:05), all leading into The Adventures of Robin Hood.
The inviting feature commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer gives a complete history of the film's making, including bios of the cast members. The key points are elaborated upon in a great making-of doc from 2003, "Welcome to Sherwood: The Story of The Adventures of Robin Hood" (55:44). Among the interview participants are Behlmer, Maltin, literary historian Paula Sigman, film historians Bob Thomas and Robert Osborne, sword master Bob Anderson, WB art director Gene Allen, and conductor John Mauceri. The 1998 documentary "Glorious Technicolor" (1:00:05), hosted by Angela Lansbury, tells you everything you'd want to know about the fabled color film process.
Amazingly, WB has preserved silent "Outtakes" (8:24) from The Adventures of Robin Hood, invaluable glimpses into the additional footage shot. Even more incredible is "Breakdowns of 1938" (12:45), one of the legendary blooper reels produced by the studio annually for internal use. It's a must see for movie fans. "A Journey to Sherwood Forest" (13:16) offers up home movies shot by Basil Rathbone and Erich Wolfgang Korngold on the set, while "Robin Hood Through the Ages" (6:50) collects sample clips from the 1912 and 1922 screen versions.
The 1946 short subject "Cavalcade of Archery" (8:32) allows The Adventures of Robin Hood's resident archer, Howard Hill, to strut his stuff, while the 1952 short "The Cruise of the Zaca" (18:07) gives insight into Errol Flynn's love of sailing. Warner Brothers fans will also thrill to the inclusion of two classic Robin Hood parody cartoons in full HD: the Bugs Bunny classic "Rabbit Hood" (7:57) and Daffy Duck in "Robin Hood Daffy" (6:39).
The disc keeps on giving with Galleries of historical art, costume design, concept drawings, cast/crew photos, and publicity, as well as Audio Bonuses: the isolated Korngold score, "The Robin Hood Radio Show" (29:08), and Korngold piano sessions of some of his most famous pieces. Rounding out the special edition is a fully-loaded Errol Flynn Trailer Gallery. Those claiming to love movies owes it to themselves to get The Adventures of Robin Hood for their collections.
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