Sunday, July 19, 2009

“I live in the forest with a few score good fellows who’ve everything in life save spiritual guidance.”

Now, a lot of the stuff I’ve been viewing at RMWC Headquarters has been made in the last thirty or so years. There are a couple of reasons for that. 1) Nostalgia for things I saw in my youth and/or for films that were made in that time period. 2) Price point. As much as I’d love to get a nice copy of Casablanca, the used video stores I frequent don’t get in copies of classic cinema often (or at an affordable price), but I will seek to view the classics at first opportunities. A boxed set of the Thin Man movies I’m looking forward to in particular.

That said, the Robin Hood story has been one of the cornerstones of my formative years. Not as much as the King Arthur legend, but the denizens of Sherwood Forest have been a part of my imagination since I saw the animated Disney version back when I was around seven. This review isn’t about the Disney version, but instead about the universally accepted granddaddy of Robin Hood films: the 1938 Errol Flynn vehicle The Adventures of Robin Hood, presented in GLORIOUS TECHNICOLOR!

I am going to pretend that this film takes place in an alternate history of England, one where King Richard actually liked the place, didn’t spend all of his free time in France and said that he’d sell London if he could find a buyer. Ok, see, the historian in me is placated.

The film begins with the people of England discovering that King Richard, on his way back from the crusades, has been captured by Duke Leopold of Austria. The king’s brother, John, usurps the regency of the kingdom, effectively taking charge and heavily favoring the Norman upper class nobility over the Saxon lower class. One Saxon noble, Robin of Locksley, takes serious offense to this, and impudently vows to make John and his lackeys suffer for their misdeeds. ADVENTURE! and IMPUDENCE! ensue for 102 minutes.

Robin of Locksley/Robin Hood: I usually like saving the film’s baddest badass for last, but when it’s the main character, I’m okay with exceptions. Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood is called “impudent” so many times that he becomes the living embodiment of it. Impudent, according to means offensive boldness, insolent or impertinent. Robin is all of these in spades. He storms into a feast Guy of Gisbourne is having for Prince John, dumps a deer carcass on the table, sits down and talks trash to the Prince until he has to fight his way out of the castle. Before recruiting Friar Tuck, he harasses the clergyman by both pranking him awake and then making Tuck carry him across a river on his back. It would be difficult to explain everything that makes Robin such a tights-wearing badass in this film, but it can be accurately summed up by calling him a magnificent bastard.

Lady Marian Fitzwalter: Olivia de Havilland plays a Norman noblewoman, the ward of King Richard, but under John’s current care. Marian is beautiful, but starts the film off as kind of an ice bitch. She doesn’t take kindly to Robin’s IMPUDENCE at the feast and only starts to like him when the merry men kidnap Gisbourne’s baggage train (with Gisbourne and Marian with it). She sees what Robin’s really fighting for, and it softens her up.

Prince John: Claude Rains brings a sophisticated weaseliness to the role of John. A cold blooded schemer who surrounds himself with men who will do the dirty work for him, he is the film’s real villain.

Sir Guy of Gisbourne: Basil Rathbone is the local lord who rules Nottinghamshire, Surprisingly enough, he’s much the impotent villain throughout the movie. Sure he glowers with the best of them, but he doesn’t really score any points for getting anything done. Most of his scenes with Robin Hood before the climactic fight scene are about trying to Hate Robin to death. Still, that climactic fight scene is quite epic, and Rathbone & Flynn get major points for doing most of it (aside from a few dives) themselves. It is among the great epic swordfights, and guess what? No slow motion laziness.

The Sheriff of Nottingham: Melville Cooper is the bumbling fool to Rains & Rathbone, the comic relief to their villain trio. He actually gets villain points for coming up with the idea to hold an archery tournament to capture Robin Hood.

Little John: Now, when I saw that Alan Hale was playing him, I thought, “no shit, the Skipper’s in this?” Well, no. Turns out it was Alan Hale Sr., the FATHER of the Skipper, though you can see the family resemblance. Aside from that, he’s an early recruit and probably the only one who bested Robin Hood in a fight.

Friar Tuck: Your standard Friar Tuck stuff; chubby friar, gets recruited, helps out. Turns out he’s a decent swordsman in this film and actually he & Little John become bro’s.

Much the Miller’s Son: A dumb peasant caught poaching deer on royal lands. Rescued by Robin Hood’s IMPUDENCE and one of his most stalwart recruits. He’s a comic relief character that didn’t do much for me and came close to irritating me at places.

Will Scarlett: Wears bright red, always by Robin’s side in big group shots, has a lute. That’s the extent of his characterization.

Visuals (Direction/Effects)
Two directors listed for it. William Keighley was the first, until he was booted off the picture, Michael Curtiz was brought in to finish things off. Filmed in California in Glorious Technicolor, the movie pops off the screen vividly. It is hyper-theatrical, but its done so exuberantly that it works. In some ways, the costumes look a lot like the kind of clothing that appears in manuscripts from the middle ages. How accurate it is to actual peasant dress, I’d say is pretty weak, but as far as the fancy pants nobles go, well, they liked dressing up in bright, pretty colors. While the movie chooses interesting visuals over gritty realism, I have to say, watching the explosion of colors in a medieval film is a welcome breath of fresh air from the bukakke of brown in more modern takes on legendary heroes. Yeah. I said it.

The action scenes are great, and there are a great many of them. The swordplay is of the theatrical kind, but even that’s an art form in itself, and the climactic fight is one for the ages, including some nice silhouette scenes (that have been copied by other movies since). Moreover, the archery stunts were all real, including the famous “splitting an arrow in the bull’s-eye” and performed by a master archer.

I can’t really blame the team of Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller for being a part of the King Richard the Lionheart cheerleading squad. The legend of Robin Hood has pretty much always been a PR spin machine for Rich. Besides, the movie more than makes up for it with awesome banter, fantastic pacing, and the sheer IMPUDENCE of Robin Hood. Even in his classic love scene with Marian, he’s a cocky bastard, and its outstanding.

Another thing the movie does is use text cards to bridge gaps between events. It’s fallen out of favor in recent times, but I think having a brief moment of text is a great way of maintaining the pacing by skipping over the boring stuff with a recap. The regent that Prince John kicks out, Longhcamps? He exists only in those recap cards.

The sound effects are fine, but the real winner here is the score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, which is a stirring piece of ADVENTURE! music. Korngold was one of the prolific golden age Hollywood composers, and the score for The Adventures of Robin Hood is a fine example of one of the masters of the form.

This movie really delivers on the title. It features ADVENTURE! and Robin Hood. The Adventures of Robin Hood is one of those gems of classic cinema that lives up to they hype I’ve read and actually impressed me with its staging, pageantry, wit and downright IMPUDENCE! Its rightly regarded as the gold standard of Robin Hood films, and the other films in the genre are going to have their work cut out for them.

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