Monday, January 17, 2011

#25 The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)



The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

"A seminal classic"

Aside from Dracula, perhaps the most done, most invoked, and most referenced character in film, would in all likelihood that of Robin Hood. From a dashing 30s action star, to a cartoon fox, a Mel Brooks parody, to…Russel Crowe, it certainly feels like every film studio and their mother has done some Robin Hood film/tv show/short or another. It is quite interesting that a character such a Robin Hood has gained such a prevalence in American society, though it is not at all surprising. The idea of fighting for the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden against the oppression of the rich is an idea that is very congruous with the American psyche. While not the first Robin Hood movie ever made, the one I am about to review – that with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone, is perhaps the most famous. It is certainly the most important, establishing many of the tropes, ideas, and clich├ęs that have become and entrenched and required part of any good Robin Hood film.

This Robin Hood movie contains the same story as basically every Robin Hood movie ever made so I’ll just give it a quick gloss job. Basically, Good King Richard is off on the crusades, and on his way back gets captured by Leopold of Austria, and Bad King John uses this opportunity to take over the realm, installing heinous taxes, and egregious treatments upon the goodly Saxons in the process. This is something for which Robin of Lockesly cannot stand, and so he pledges himself to outlawry in order to better the lives of the poor Saxons. After many daring adventures, he accrues a number of partners and companions such a Much, Little John, and Friar Tuck, and with the aid of these, and many more friends, entraps numerous nobles and tax wagons in the forbidding folds of Sherwood Forest, taking from the rich to give to the poor, in the process winning the adoration of the lovely Maid Marian. Eventually, frustrated by the clever schemes and insurgent tactics of Robin Hood, the Sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisbourne hatch a clever scheme to draw out Robin Hood, involving an Archery Contest, with a golden arrow presented by Lady Marian as the prize. Naturally Robin is drawn to the contest, and is caught by John and his forces, and set to be hung immediately. Robin’s gang, with the help of Marian launch a daring rescue attempt, saving Robin, and making John again look the fool. Finally, Richard returns, Guy is killed, John is deposed, Robin and his gang are pardoned, and Robin lives happily ever after with Marian. Sound familiar?

In terms of acting this film is simply spectacular. Errol Flynn is just superb, easily one of the best movie action stars of all time. Not only are his fight scenes superb, but his delivery of lines is impeccable and the way he carries himself just exudes Robin Hood. In addition, Olivia de Havilland gives an equally superb performance. The absolutely gorgeous de Havilland does a superb job carrying Marian’s haughty initial disdain for Saxons, and her subsequent change of heart I felt was equally heartfelt, albeit slightly abrupt. This is de Havilland’s third time playing opposite Flynn, and it’s easy to see the excellent chemistry the two have. Still better than Flynn and de Havilland, I felt though, were Basil Rathbone, who played Sir Guy of Gisbourne, and Claude Rains, who played King John. They just make supremely great villains. They don’t really play the dickish evil villains that you get nowadays, it’s more the hammy, failure-prone haughty and arrogant villains of classic film, and they’re just so much fun to watch. They really define that type of villain for me.

This film was directed by Michael Curtiz, who is quite the monumental force in 30s and 40s film, directing such films as Captain Blood – another Curtiz-Flynn-de Havilland action movie, and Casablanca, and I thought he did a superb job with this film. While I didn’t think the cinematography was anything particularly eye-opening like Citizen Kane or 2001 were, there were some cool shots, such as the first film in which King John spills some wine, and the camera pans down on it, or at the end of the film when the camera plays with shadows to show the climactic action scene between Gisbourne and Robin. For the rest of it, the cinematography was efficient, and it got the point across and kept the movie moving, which is probably the most important in a film like this. One thing I really liked about this movie – apart from the absolutely spectacular musical score – was the tone. This movie is rather upbeat throughout its course. It has this very happy-go-lucky feel, and while this backfire a little in that it also for me meant that there was never any real suspense or tension in the film (I never once felt that Robin was in any real danger), it was good for the film, as the light nature of the film makes for excellent casual viewing. I really like the way the action scenes were shot. While in more modern, post-Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon films I tend to be rather condescending on the style of constantly zooming in on the actors’ faces while a fight is occurring, in this film I absolutely love it. It is done in a modest, and sensible manner, and it really works. I also felt that the pacing was excellent in this film. I was never once bored. Additionally, I really liked the scope and scale in this film. The number of extras in this film is just mind boggling, and the sets are quite well done. Especially when you consider that this movie was made in 1938, in an era before blue screen and computer generation made epic scale a relatively inexpensive process in film, it becomes all the more astounding. While many dislike the costumes in this film, and I will admit they were rather silly, I liked them in the context of the film; they fit well with the lightheartedness of the overall film.

I think the thing I liked most of all in the movie was the dialogue. The wit, and the ability and speed with which the lines and banter were delivered in this film felt a lot like something you’d see in a Shakespearean play. The lines are just absolutely hilarious though. “Such imputence must support a mighty appetite”, or “‘Why you speak treason!’ ‘Fluently’”. It is like this for the entirety of the film, and it really contributed significantly to the tone of the film, and helped keep me engaged in the film from start to finish.

This movie I watched thanks to the University Library. I was originally going to watch it on DVD which I had borrowed from my local library, but the disc turned out to be scratched, so I watched the film at UCSC’s media center when I returned for classes. I watched it on laserdisc, and it was my first experience with the medium. Needless to say, it was a very interesting experience. To those of you who have never before used a laserdisc, it basically looks like a giant DVD that is about the size of a dinner platter (or about the size of an LP if you know what that is). The quality was about that of a VHS tape, that is to say, poor, grainy, and very jarring to those of us who are accustomed to the HD of DVD and Blu-ray. It was jarring at first, but I got used to it. What was more peculiar to me was that, like an LP, a laserdisc is double sided, and you have to flip the disc over half-way through. The problem with this is that the flipping occurred in the most arbitrary manner ever, literally the movie just cut off smack-dab in the middle of a fight scene. It was very annoying. Anyway, all media aside, I liked this film, and while it doesn’t have the artistic mind-blowosity of films like 2001 or Seven Samurai or Citizen Kane, it more than makes up for it in acting and just being a perfectly effective action movie. It encapsulates everything that the 30s action genre stood for. It’s just a great way to spend an hour and a half and not be troubled trying to figure out what a particular scene means. I’m sure I’m going to get nailed for underestimating the artistic quality of the film, but I just felt like it was a fun film through and through.

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