The Adventures of Robin Hood – The Best Movies of 1938 (#10)

Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland made a successful string of romantic adventures for Warner Bros. throughout the 1930s, but The Adventures of Robin Hood is one of their best and most beloved.  Flynn is, naturally, Robin Hood, battling against the tyrannical rule and excessive taxation of King John (Claude Rains).  John usurped the throne when he learned that his brother, King Richard, had been captured during one of the Crusades and launches a campaign of brutality and theft from his own people, ably helped by Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), a man whose greed is only overshadowed by his vanity.  He is so vain, in fact, that he believes the lovely Maid Marian (de Havilland) would actually find him attractive.


This must have been a rousing good time in 1938, as Hitler began to rattle his saber in earnest over disputed territory with Czechoslovakia after his successful annexation of Austria.  Fascism, a political ideology that must have looked, at least in practice, like King John’s tactics in this film, was also in control in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece with strong sister movements in other countries.  As Americans read about the persecution of Jews in Germany, how comforting must it have been to sit down and watch a film about noble Robin Hood with the courage to lead a loose band of men and stand up to injustice.


Flynn often embodied (and still does) a macho persona attractive to both men and women.  He had grace and intelligence without ever slipping into femininity.  In some ways he, like Douglas Fairbanks before him (who also played Robin Hood in 1922), stood as the polar opposite of later action stars like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, who exuded muscular machismo without a spark of wit or elegance.  Robin Hood is one of Flynn’s finest characterizations, balancing jocular verbal banter with stunning physical feats.

As always the chemistry between Flynn and Olivia de Havilland is irresistible.  They light up any scene they are in together, even as she expresses her disgust for his tactics.  But their romance bridges the gap between Marian’s jingoistic naivety to a seasoned political awareness.  Her journey mirrors the journeys of so many in Europe who began to understand the dangers of fascism too late.  Of course, they didn’t have Errol Flynn in flattering green tights and a jaunty feathered-cap to save the day from the Black Shirts.

Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains

The movie is also chalk full of rich supporting performances.  Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone do their best to out evil each other (I’m still not sure which takes home the prize).  They ooze evil.  But there are also great turns by some of my favorite character actors of the 1930s like Alan Hale, Una O’Connor, and Eugene Pallette, adding wonderful layers of comedy.  Pallette, with his trademark gravely voice, looks as though he had an especially good time playing the master swordsman Friar Tuck as he lumbers around looking for food to satisfy his ample appetite as well as injustice to thwart.


The movie is, in the end, a rousing and romantic action picture with a jubilance largely missing from what we see in gritty and often dour modern action movies.  There’s little concern for reality; this is a fun excuse for adventure, a prime example of what people mistake so many modern “escapist” movies, but really aren’t.  There’s no historical accuracy here and why should there be?  (Robin Hood was probably a mythical figure anyway.)  This world may not have existed, but we are better off having this historical approximation with us to remind us that action and adventure can still bring smiles instead of exasperated frowns to our faces.



Filed under 1938, Yearly Best Pictures

4 responses to “The Adventures of Robin Hood – The Best Movies of 1938 (#10)

  1. I love this movie – and was given the two-disc special edition for Christmas by one of my children, so am looking forward to seeing it all over again in even more glorious Technicolor. I enjoyed your review, Jason, and also your choice of stills – Claude Rains and Rathbone are both wonderful, as you say. And it must have been good to see Robin standing up to injustice at that time in particular, as you say. (I always like to see Robin standing up to injustice, but sadly the most recent Hollywood film didn’t really offer that.)

    It amazes me to realise that, straight after his swashbuckling tour de force in this, Flynn made Anatole Litvak’s ‘The Sisters’, opposite Bette Davis, where he plays a tearful waif-like boxing reporter with a drink problem who couldn’t very well be any more different from Robin if he tried – and he also did a good remake of great war movie ‘The Dawn Patrol’ the same year, as well as a newspaper comedy which I haven’t seen yet, ‘Four’s a Crowd’. Flynn doesn’t tend to be thought of as a versatile actor, but he had a good range of roles in 1938!

    • I had a feeling this would be a movie you had some affection for Judy. You mention the most recent film which just pales in comparison. I get that we would never accept the Robin Hood of Errol Flynn in a modern movie, that we demand something grittier, but I hope we still demand something good.

      I liked Flynn in “The Dawn Patrol,” though I still haven’t seen “The Sisters” or “Four’s a Crowd.” I didn’t realize he was getting such a range of roles, so I’m curious to see them. Now I have two more movies to add to my list.

  2. I can’t blame you for having this one aboard Jason, nor for Judy to second the motion. It’s one of the most popular and best-loved films in the American cinema, and to boot it represents stellar Golden Age craftsmanship across the board. All the names have been discussed here: Flynn, Rains, de Haviland, Rathbone, Curtiz, and one other you may have inadvertantly forgotten to bring up: composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose swashbuckler score here is one of the greatest every written in American movies.

    What’s that? Glorious Technicolor. Amen.

    • I didn’t mention the Technicolor or Korngold. I took both of them for granted and you are right to point them out. The color is gorgeous, much richer than other color movies that had preceded it. And Korngold’s score is worthy of mention as well, capturing all the adventure and fun of the story. Thanks Sam.

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