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.
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.