In 2010, The Adventures of Robin Hood was named by The Guardian as 15th best in its roundup of the best 25 action and war movies of all time, coming in under Die Hard, but above The Searchers (and beating out Gladiator and The Incredibles, no less), and the summary is perhaps the best I’ve yet read regarding the film, as well:
“Plot-wise, it’s Walter Scott (he who first split arrow with arrow) meets the gruff, left-inclined Warner Brothers writing unit, with Hood’s ‘rob-the-rich-to-feed-the-poor’ ethic striking a particularly popular-frontish chord in the late stages of the Great Depression, from which this movie was surely a delightful and transporting 102 minutes of relief and escapism – and all that in sparkling Technicolor!”
Not for nothing is the Robin Hood we’re all familiar with the one from Scott’s Ivanhoe. John J. O Connor, writing for the New York Times in 1997, called Sir Walter Scott “the man who virtually invented historical pulp fiction,” and it’s patently clear just how much Scott’s 1819 novel set the stage for the portrayal of Robin of Locksley going forward: that “splitting an arrow” scene portrayed in so many adaptations is taken straight from Ivanhoe, although it’s the titular character who does it. Essentially, while Ivanhoe only features Robin Hood as a side character, his and Ivanhoe’s story have basically been conjoined in the intervening two centuries, and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King‘s portrayal of Robin Hood manages to bring a bit of Errol Flynn’s verve and panache to the novel, as well.
Going back to glorious Technicolor, though: the reason The Adventures of Robin Hood stands up so well is the fact that this was one of the first uses by Warner Brothers – if not the first use – of the Technicolor process. It was very time-consuming, and very expensive, as it required big, bulky cameras owned by the company which developed the process. They shot three separate strips of film, each capturing a different bit of the color spectrum (green, red, and blue), which would then be combined to create one color picture. The results were intensely vibrant – see also The Wizard of Oz or the aforementioned The Searchers for more examples – but it meant that there was a lot more work involved.
However, the end result of the time and effort means that The Adventures of Robin Hood looks as good as did when it was first released. It’s interesting that so many action-adventure movies look superlative, like Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Mummy, whereas your more standard action films have a bit of dark and dank to them. Not for nothing are the more swashbuckling action films meant to highlight the spectacle taking place in toto, taking in the setting, the costumes, and the massive casts, whereas your Van Damme / Schwarzenegger / Stallone / Adkins films are designed for you to focus on the immediacy of two dudes beating the snot out of one another.
In David J. Moore’s The Good, the Tough & the Deadly: Action Movies & Stars 1960s–Present, the author describes an action film thusly: “What an ‘action’ film is really pertains to the events that happen in the picture, and how they are presented.” While the book is a look at “action stars” – men and women who “embody a standard found through athleticism, martial arts, and sports, with very few exceptions” – and whose scope falls far outside 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, the Michael Curtiz and William Keighley-directed, Errol Flynn-starring film definitely counts as an action film under those minimalist criteria.
Also, while The Adventures of Robin Hood likely falls far outside the usual suspects of the action genre, as Moore details in his introduction describing the standard action star, the athleticism and prowess on display in this Warner Brothers classic make it indisputably an action film. While Wikipedia might classify it as a swashbuckler – wherein our hero with a sword rescues a damsel in distress – not for nothing is it also described as a subgenre of the action film.
This is a lot of going around and around in circles to justify the inclusion of Errol Flynn’s finest work in this column, but let’s face it – action movies are like horror movies, in that fans have very definite definitions of what they expect, and everything else becomes something else. Alien and Event Horizon are “really more sci-fi, actually” than horror, and The Adventures of Robin Hood is “really more of an adventure film, because it’s right there in the title, you know?”
To hell with that. This is an action film. If it’s not an action movie, then why do all of the more action-y movies rip it off so thoroughly? As Steven Padnick, writing for Tor.com, points out in his piece “‘Our Young Saxon Cockerel Here’—The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “if you think of the archetypal Robin Hood adventures—the quarterstaff fight with Little John; the archery contest; the climactic sword fight on the castle stairs—they’re all in this movie.” Basically, every major action setpiece from the 1938 version would be reused in every other Robin Hood film going forward. The archery contest is the big centerpiece of the Disney 1973 Robin Hood, and 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves goes so far as to combine 1938’s version of the Little John quarterstaff fight and Robin’s swordfight with Friar Tuck into one riverside donnybrook.
Per a documentary on the deluxe DVD release, fencing master Fred Cavens (who choreographed the sword fights and taught Flynn) is mentioned to have said “it should look like a fight, not like a fencing match,” in regard to such scenes as the final epic battle between Robin Hood and Basil Rathbone’s Guy of Gisbourne. I could watch that fight every single day and find new things with which to be amazed by. There’s a point where Rathbone and Flynn are completely out of frame, with the fight still being shown, but by the projection of their 20-foot high shadows on the castle wall which is positively brilliant, only to be later usurped by Robin kicking Sir Guy’s sword back to him after it’s struck from his hand, in order to continue the fight, winning it properly.
The Adventures of Robin Hood is sweeping, grand, epic, and above all, fun. While perhaps lacking the big muscles to which we’ve become accustomed, the absolute grandeur and enduring punch of the film places it in the bedrock of the action genre. It did it all, and it did it all first. ★
Action Week continues tomorrow! ICYMI click here for our “food for thought” intro to the Into Action! column.