The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) is one of the greatest, most colorful costume dramas, swashbucklers, and romantically-tinged adventure films in film history. After the icy restrictions placed on the film industry following the establishment of the Production Code Administration (Breen Office) in the mid 1930s, Warner Bros. Studios decided to find relief from censorship by bringing about a renaissance of the historical-costume adventure film, with swordplay, sweeping action, and romantic charm.
Although its main star had portrayed a similar role in Captain Blood (1935) with the same dynamic director, Michael Curtiz, this film established 29 year-old actor Errol Flynn as a dashing, gallant, romantic, impudent but light-hearted, athletic legendary adventure hero - it is the Errol Flynn picture and the definitive film portraying the Robin Hood legend. [This was another of the twelve films that Curtiz ultimately directed with Flynn as star.]
Director Michael Curtiz was brought in by studio executives to quickly replace William Keighley when incapacitated by illness, according to Variety, while other sources claimed that Curtiz was chosen to create more engaging, impactful, fast-moving and action-oriented content when Keighley couldn't meet the tight production schedule. Both directors received screen credit for their work. [William Keighley had previously directed top-billed Flynn in the Warner Bros' costume drama The Prince and the Pauper (1937) a year earlier.]
It expertly tells the story of the heroic Robin and his Sherwood Forest followers, who saved England from royal treachery by scheming nobles during the absence of the crusading and captured-ransomed King Richard the Lion-Hearted. And it tells the fairy-tale romance with nostalgic chivalry, colorful pageantry, simple righteousness triumphant over villainous and evil might, and spectacular action.
There were at least six silent era attempts at the story. The Reginald de Koven-Harry B. Smith light opera version of Robin Hood was originally presented in 1890. And Douglas Fairbanks starred as the infamous outlaw hero and Wallace Beery as Richard the Lion-Hearted in an early silent version of the film directed by Allan Dwan - Robin Hood (1922), reportedly the most expensive film made up to that time (at .6 - 2 million). In addition to his daring stunt work (sliding down a drapery, engaging in archery and swordsmanship, and other acrobatic feats), Fairbanks wrote the screenplay (with pseudonym Elton Thomas) for the fast moving, epic silent film filled with medieval pageantry.
The 1938 Warner Bros. film is expensively mounted (at million, it was the studio's largest budgeted film), and beautifully photographed in glorious and brilliant, three-strip Technicolor (Warners' first use of color) by cinematographers Sol Polito and Tony Gaudio, especially in the Sherwood Forest sequence [filmed in Bidwell Park in Chico, California] and other scenes of costumed pageantry. [During preliminary plans for the film, it was originally expected that James Cagney would star as the legendary outlaw and contract player Guy Kibbee would play Friar Tuck.]
The spectacle includes superb casting of memorable characters, a light-hearted, but spirited story, exciting dueling and action scenes requiring extensive stunt work, and the ideal love team of de Havilland and gallant Flynn with their witty and tender romantic scenes together. [It was their third of eight films together - the first two were Captain Blood (1935) and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) - and this was the first of their pairings in color.] Flynn did most of his own dueling and other action stunts except for the expert archery shooting, and was coached by fencing master Fred Cavens.
Oscar-winning Erich Wolfgang Korngold (who won his second award) created the richly orchestrated, lush score that effectively provided the musical backdrop for the action and the rich settings, and the literate screenplay was co-written by contract writer Norman Reilly Raine (who won the Academy Award in 1938 for the prestigious The Life of Emile Zola (1937)) and Seton I. Miller (who was co-author of The Sea Hawk (1940), another Flynn swashbuckler).
The film was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Interior Direction (Carl J. Weyl), Best Original Score (Erich Wolfgang Korngold), Best Film Editing (Ralph Dawson), and Best Picture, and lost only its Best Picture recognition to Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You (1938).
Disney produced two Robin Hood versions: The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952) (Disney's second made-in-Britain production) and the animated Robin Hood (1973). And Hammer Studios produced three Robin Hood movies in the 1950s and 1960s: Men of Sherwood Forest (1957), Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), and A Challenge for Robin Hood (1968). The 1938 film had a sequel of sorts, Robin and Marian (1976), with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as middle-aged lovers. And Kevin Costner starred as the title character in Kevin Reynolds' Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991).
During the titles and credits, the viewer is informed that the quasi-historical story of the rogue outlaw is "Based Upon Ancient Robin Hood Legends," although the film also borrowed from old English ballads and Sir Walter Scott's 1819 novel Ivanhoe, with its emphasis on the oppressive treatment of the Saxons by the Norman knights.
[Historically, Richard left England in late 1189, continued onto the Holy Land in mid 1190, was seized by Austria in late 1192, and returned to England (in a state processional acknowledged publicly) in March, 1194, when Prince John was in France (or Normandy). The Prince's Nottingham Castle was seized by King Richard himself while John was still absent.]
The film opens with a lengthy historical prologue, setting the film's time period in late 12th century England:
In the year of Our Lord 1191, when Richard, the Lion-Heart, set forth to drive the infidels from the Holy Land, he gave the Regency of his Kingdom to his trusted friend, Longchamp, instead of to his treacherous brother, Prince John. Bitterly resentful, John hoped for some disaster to befall Richard so that he, with the help of the Norman barons, might seize the throne for himself. And then on a luckless day for the Saxons...
A proclamation is read by a town crier to a crowd that news has arrived from Vienna that King Richard the Lion Hearted (Ian Hunter) has been captured in Austria by Emperor Leopold and held for ransom while returning from the Third Crusade in the Holy Land. The news at Nottingham Castle is welcomed by Richard's brother, the sly, scheming, evil and despotic Prince John (Claude Rains) - who has usurped power and declared himself Regent of England (heir-apparent to the British throne) by self-appointment during the King's absence and imprisonment.
[Note: The motion picture, beyond its entertainment value, also served warnings against oppression toward the dictators of the late 1930s - counterparts of Prince John.]
Ruthless Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) - the ruler of the city of Nottingham, the ineffectual High Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper), and other ruling Norman nobles and knights in the upper class (with Prince John) plot to brutally subjugate and overtax the Saxons (pretending that the money will pay the King's ransom) and take over power in the kingdom.
In Sherwood Forest located near the city of Nottingham [filmed in Chico, California's Bidwell Park], Sir Guy and a group of knights discover Much the Miller's Son (Herbert Mundin) poaching a royal deer, an offense punishable by death. When asked if he knows "it's death to kill the King's deer," Much replies indignantly, denouncing their tyranny:
Yes, and death from hunger if I don't, thanks to you and the rest of you Norman cutthroats at Nottingham Castle...You can beat and starve our Saxons now, but when King Richard escapes, he'll take you by the scruff of the neck and fling you into the sea.
Gisbourne moves to strike Much with his mace, but the weapon is shot out of his hand by an arrow out of the bow of the dashing, athletic, and heroic Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn). Robin, wearing a green outfit with brown woodman's cap and hunting boots had viewed the entire encounter with partner Will Scarlet (Patric Knowles). Gisbourne also threatens Robin with the death penalty for opposing him. Robin asks: "Are there no exceptions?" as he draws a second arrow and aims it at Gisbourne's heart, forcing him to back down and gallop off with his party of knights. Grateful for having his life saved, Much pledges himself to Robin's service:
From this day on, I'll follow only you. Why there isn't a poor Saxon in all of Nottinghamshire that doesn't know and bless Sir Robin of Locksley. Take me as your servant. Why in all the forest, there isn't a hunter as good as me. I ask no pay, just to follow you.
To introduce the next memorable scene, another description:
The great cold hall of Nottingham Castle, the stronghold of Sir Guy Gisbourne, knew an unaccustomed warmth this night, for Prince John and his friends were met to celebrate a promising future.
Prince John holds an extravagant evening banquet at Nottingham Castle for the ruling Norman barons that are assisting him in his conspiracy. Prince John speaks to the gathered throng:
Well, this is what we Normans like - good food, good company, and a beautiful woman to flatter me.
At the head table with Prince John is the lovely Norman ward of King Richard (before he left on the Third Crusade), the seemingly demure and innocent, yet regal Lady Marian Fitzwalter (Olivia de Havilland). She is an unsuitable match for an arranged marriage with Gisbourne. With tongue-in-cheek humor, the matchmaker Prince John suggests Gisbourne for her love interest, but she graciously defers:
Prince John: Was it worthwhile, coming with me from London to see what stout fellows our Nottingham friends are? Take Sir Guy. He's from London, one of our most renowned defenders of the realm.
Marian: Must I take him, your Highness?
Prince: Why, you like him, don't you?
Marian: Well, he's a Norman, of course.
Prince: Is that the only reason for liking him?
Marian: Isn't that reason enough for a royal ward...?
Prince: Nay, I not force you, my lady. But he's our most powerful friend in these shires. And he's already in love with you. If I could promise him marriage to a royal ward, it might help my plans.
Marian: Perhaps when I know him better.
Prince: Of course. You're a very wise young woman.
Without real concern or sincerity, the Prince asks everyone: "Any more objections to the new tax from our Saxon friends?" One of the nobles responds:
Noble: Objections your Highness? With a Saxon dangling from every gallows tree...?
Prince John: Well said...but not too many mind, else we'll have nobody left to till our land or pay the tax.
Sir Guy Gisbourne tells of his encounter with the notorious Sir Robin of Locksley - one Saxon noble he is unable to subdue. The Prince responds that he has heard "precious little else since I've been here." Then he asks: "What's his latest outrage?" Sir Guy admits it was something of a problem for him to take him prisoner. Lady Marian demurs and mocks him: "A Saxon a problem?" Robin is considered:
...a reckless rogue who goes around the shires stirring up the Saxons against authority, and he has the insolence to set himself up as the protector of the people.
The Prince orders his Sheriff of Nottingham to immediately capture Robin and hang him.
At this point, introducing himself with a dramatic entrance, the handsome, but uninvited, devil-may-care Robin unexpectedly bursts through the gate to the great banquet hall with the body of a slain deer draped across his shoulders. Robin throws the deer on the table before host Prince John, who reacts in an amused, gracious fashion:
Let him approach...By my faith, but you're a bold rascal. Robin. I like you.
Robin is introduced to the beautiful Lady Marian - she immediately detests his company: "What you hope can hardly be important!" Typical of the entire film's jocular tone, Robin replies wittily:
What a pity your manners don't match your looks, Your Highness.
The Prince invites Robin to sit in a chair at the table in front of him, and orders:
Prince John: Bring Sir Robin food! At once do you hear. Such impudence must support a mighty appetite.
Robin: True enough, your Highness. We Saxons have little to fatten on by the time your tax gatherers are through.
The Sheriff asks Robin if he feels the Saxons are overtaxed, to which he honestly replies:
Robin: Overtaxed, overworked and paid off with a knife, a club or a rope.
Marian: Why, you speak treason.
Involved in the evil machinations of the Prince, the Bishop of the Black Canons (Montagu Love) retorts: "I'd advise you to curb that wagging tongue of yours!" Lady Marian is unimpressed by Robin's treasonous activities, even when Robin boldly announces resistance: "We Saxons aren't going to put up with these oppressions much longer." Prince John explains the reasons for the taxes - to collect the ransom to release the King from imprisonment by Emperor Leopold. He also announces he has deposed Longchamps as Regent and appointed himself to take charge.