When I saw Pirates of the Caribbean a few weeks ago, I remarked that it was the kind of movie that just wasn't made anymore: the genuine swashbuckler. The Adventures of Robin Hood is the prototype for such a movie, and on revisiting it in a gorgeously remastered DVD edition I can see why. It's a light-hearted genre, the product of an age where movies like Jackass or Terminator 3 would be unthinkable. You cannot make a movie with real joy in its heart unless you play it totally straight, and there isn't a whiff of irony or audience sarcasm to be found in Robin Hood.
This movie is one big, unbroken smile from start to finish. That lack of a smile was one of the things that sunk the Kevin Costner remake — aside from Costner being far too somber and glum to play someone as Puckish as Robin Hood, and many other mistakes I won't go into here. No other movie version of the tale has the same zip. There was the thoughtful Patrick Bergin / Uma Thurman TV production which lost out to theaters against the Costner version, but it's still nowhere as much fun.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is casting. Errol Flynn always looked like he was getting away with something, even when he was just standing there. Actors today rarely embody a feeling so shamelessly; they always seem to be curbing themselves against looking too into it, and therefore being gauche. Flynn is having as much fun here as we are (something that I also felt coming through in Johnny Depp's exhilaratingly goofy performance in Pirates), and doesn't feel like an actor in a costume on a set. He would be Robin Hood if he could get away with it. There is a scene early in the film where he barges into Prince John's castle with a poached deer across his shoulders, swinging the carcass around, using its antlers to shove away the guards. And he's smiling.
So many things about Robin Hood work that it's no wonder the film is rightly regarded as a classic.& nbsp; Aside from be ing a translation of popular myth to film (always good for a hit), it has just enough of a modern sensibility to be engaging without being distracting. The producer, Hal B. Wallis, was also responsible for I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, 42nd Street, Little Caesar, and the equally-swashbuckling Captain Blood, all critical and financial successes.
Wallis's original choice for Robin was James Cagney, but Cagney abandoned the movie (and the studio), and Wallis elected to go with Flynn from Captain Blood. He also insisted on using Technicolor, despite its cost and technical complications (indoor scenes required far more lighting; the cameras were difficult to work with), and was instrumental in having Michael Curtiz (of Casablanca) come in and help complete the movie when the original director, William Keighley, fell ill. (Allegedly, Keighley wasn't a very good action director, and Curtiz was also hired to give the swashbuckling a little more buckle, but I'm not sure how much truth there is to that.)
One of the interesting differences between golden-era Hollywood and modern-day is in the way casts are assembled. Roger Ebert pointed out in his review that most movies today are dominated by a single mega-star and complemented with a group of other relatively minor stars. But look at the cast for Robin Hood: Flynn, Havilland, Rathbone, Raines. Four actors all distinguished enough to be recognized by their last names only. We have Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisborne, in what would best be described as the mustache-twirler's role, and he never mobs the screen the way someone like Christopher Walken would. Most movies with such a prestigious cast today would be considered a Mulligan stew; can you imagine Arnie, Stallone and Jackie Chan all being asked to star in the same "vehicle"? They wouldn't be able to stay off each other's toes. Here, the actors assume their roles and blend with each other naturally, instead of still being their recognizable acting personas.
Sporting an Irish accent, but born in Tasmania, Flynn was even more outlandish in real life than in the roles he played. He lived to excess and wound up facing everything from IRS audits to charges of statutory rape. The party-hearty mentality took its toll on his career and his good looks; by the time he reached the Fifties, where he made an attempt to transit into serious dramatic roles, he was a pallid, alcoholic shell. So dependent on alcohol was he that he eventually settled for injecting vodka into fruit and eating that as a way of getting around bringing a bottle onto the set, and he even wound up playing his old friend (and co-boozer) John Barrymore in the all-too-aptly-named Too Much Too Soon. He was not, however, a Nazi sympathizer as Charles Higham charged in his fradulent biography (one of the many things that was recycled into the Flynn-like character in the film The Rocketeer).
Aside from Flynn and Rathbone and Raines, there is also Olivia de Havilland, a name I fear is unknown to most of the current generation of moviegoers. Maybe this movie will refresh their memories. She's given adoring closeups all throughout, and is as gorgeous as she was in Captain Blood (where she was als o paired up with Flynn). Instead of being enamored of Robin from the beginning, as was the case with the Walt Disney animated take on the legend, she finds him to be insufferable at first — until she sees firsthand the fruits of his labor in the forest. (When she hears Robin cheerfully denouncing the corrupt regime, her response is "You speak treason!" His reply: "Fluently.")
The film is just plain fun, but with an undercurrent of social commentary woven into it — probably obligatory for a modern treatment of a story like this. Sometimes the directors use a visual motif: when Prince John tells his accomplices about his new plans for England, the camera tilts down to show wine dripping on the floor like blood. Later, at a feast to celebrate John's ascendance to power, the shot lingers on a dog tearing apart table scraps. When the swashbuckling hits the screen, though, it's with a vigor that is still largely unmatched (although the excellent Mask of Zorro came close!) and many of the creative uses of props and scenery have become staples for endless other movies to copy and reinvent. (Many of Jackie Chan's movies are clearly inspired by Flynn's swashbucklers, especially Chan's "period" productions like Project A.)
Movie technology buffs point to Robin Hood as being one of the crowning examples of the Technicolor system, which used three sets of black-and-white negatives run through filters and a special dye-imbibation process. The colors were so fierce and brilliant they seemed surreal; they made the perfect palette for the musicals, fantasy-adventures or animated films that became Technicolor's mainstay. It also provided all the more of a contrast to black and white, which until the Sixties was a mainstay of realistic drama, snappy character-oriented comedy, and gritty noir. In an early scene in Robin Hood, Prince John is eating a pomegranate in a room with candlelight; the candle flames and the red of the fruit are so vivid they seem to have haloes.
I think we gravitate naturally to folk heroes that reflect part of our society's underlying assumptions about life. Robin Hood endures more as an American myth than as a British one, I've noticed; he's an embodiment of the kinds of romantic notions we have about justice. Rather than justice being handed down from on high, it's brought about by one of us — a guy who's chosen to cast his lot with the people rather than become part of a corrupt power machine. However, the movie also makes it clear that once the legitimacy of power is restored, he ends his criminal ways, and asks for forgiveness from the king for him and the rest of his men. Hollywood in the Thirties may have been populist, but it certainly wasn't anarchist — although today, an ending where Robin decides to keep slugging instead of throwing in the towel would probably pass without a blink.
After watching the film, I wondered: How receptive these days are people going to be to a hero who isn't tormented, cynical, conflicted or nihilistic? All of Robin Hood's enemies are external; he's perfectly at ease with being the outlaw he is, albeit for a higher purpose — and he gratefully resigns from that work once it's no longer needed. But most importantly, he's happy, and not just because he has a purpose to fulfill. He embodies joy, like the film that contains him. It's something of a rarity.
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