Movie Review: The Adventures of Robin Hood

Posted: September 15, 2012 in Movie Review, Reviews
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Movie Review: The Adventures of Robin Hood

1
The Adventures of Robin Hood/1938/ Dir. Michael Curtiz & William Keighley

Oh yes, the tights, we must always go back to the tights! Easy for a man to look tough wearing 35 pounds of rubber and latex armor, but it takes a real man to look badass in tights. Not just tights, but tights and what amounts to a velvet mini-dress. You could call it a shirt, or a jerkin, but if anyone wore it today, we’d call it a mini-dress. We’d also call it pretty hot if a girl wore something that short. Point is, TIGHTS! You’ve got to talk about the tights first thin out of the gate, because otherwise it becomes the elephant in the room. Beyond that, this is a pretty great movie. Yes, the costumes and manners make the Renaissance Festival look like Game of Thrones. Yes, it’s about as historically accurate as a Walt Disney cartoon. Yes, yes, yes I’ll agree to most the criticism… BUT! This is also the single best movie about Robin Hood, and is still the most iconic. There are only a few Robin Hood movies that are any good, and this is the best.

The chief problem with Flynn’s portrayal of Robin Hood is that he plays him like the slacker hero in some 80s or 90s college comedy. He’s just arrogant and haughty, teasing the bad guys instead of actually doing much to defeat them. He just grins at the baddies, who are forced do shake their fist and go “Oooh, I hate him” before going on their way. You could almost see this part being played by John Cusack, Adam Sandler, Pauly Shore, or any other number of guys who played the part of the cool guy telling all the squares they need to lighten up. It was a comedic trope, even at the time, to have a clever guy outsmart the bad guys at every turn. In a way, he’s almost like a semi-serious version of the character Groucho Marx was playing at the time. He’s clever, and the girl likes him for some unaccountable reason, and he’s always got an answer. As a result, I like him less than I think I’m supposed to.

2
TIGHTS!

The other problem is, quite frankly, Errol Flynn isn’t a great actor. Don’t get me wrong, he was a FANTASTIC movie star, but not much of an actor. That’s a problem when your villains are Claude Raines and Basil “The Man” Rathbone. I used to think it was just the sword fighting scenes where Rathbone (a fencing master) was working as hard as he could to let Flynn win. Because in reality, Basil could have taken Errol in his sleep and still had time to woo a lady. In all honesty though, he’s acting rings around Flynn as well, and trying is damnedest not to look like he is. That isn’t to say that Flynn is bad here though, he isn’t, he’s just not as good as his competition. He’s fine a Robin Hood though, because most of it is how he looks in the part and he looks fantastic. Oddly, I’ve never been that bothered by him before. I never was that into him, but watching as a 36 year old I was really sort of struck by the fact that I am not an Errol Flynn fan.

What does work is the rest of the cast. Everyone in this movie knows exactly what kind of movie they’re in, and that helps. You rarely get that these days, when everyone understands exactly what kind of movie this is and what part they have to play in it. In fact the whole tone of the film radiates a sense that everyone involved knew exactly what kind of film this was to be. Many young whippersnappers won’t understand this, but before the 70s, camp wasn’t a bad thing to be. It was okay to be light hearted and a little silly back in the day. Of course, this isn’t actually camp because they’re not being deliberately silly here. Still, the point is that it was okay to have the tone they have and still be considered a good movie. Oh, and I’m not going to talk about the two directors because other than the fact that one guy got pulled and replaced, I have nothing to say about it.

3
This is an odd shot. They don’t do these anymore.

A point about the costumes, they are sort of accurate. They’re heavily researched, but then they’ve been romanticized. I once heard a complaint that the costumes in Robin Hood look very old fashioned, which is why people wanted Robin Hood Prince of Thieves to look different. But if that’s what the clothes looked like (note: they did) then surely that old fashionedness is part of it being old, yes? Actually, if any of the costumes are just plain wrong it’s that… thing Olivia De Havilland is wearing throughout the movie. To some extent though, that’s what I mean when I talk about the romanticization. There was a time when everything would be mildly improved for the movies. Hollywood did that, on a regular basis. It wasn’t just with period pieces either. Look at how big apartments are in movies sometime, they’re huge. But that used to be okay. It’s less accepted now, even though it’s still done. Camp sort of made it impossible to go back and do it in a way that’s not self-aware and referential. If you did try, you’d end up feeling like a straight face parody. It used to be an accepted part of playing this game is the point though. In fact, to some extent it’s done in reverse. It’s over grim overly gritty, to the point of being just as romantically interpreted as the world used to be for the goodness. There is an extended post in there, but I’m talking about Robin Hood right now.

The style of storytelling and of acting is kind of old fashioned though, and not in a mediaeval way. It presents itself in a sort of stilted half for the stage and half for the 30s movie audience way. It can be hard for a modern viewer to take some of these characters to their heart, partly because they’re being portrayed in an odd fashion an partly because even their modernizations seem odd to us now. It’s easy to throw words like hokey around, or to label the whole thing as pre-camp. That’s not entirely fair, but it’s also not entirely false either. The question is, how much of it bothers you? Or, perhaps, how much do you like it is a better question. There are people who love the stagey, kind of naive way the movie presents its subjects. Some people would rather something more to their own modern tastes. I’m not too thrilled with the women in the movie, because their portrayal is to the view of a 30s audience and as such gives them the place of childish ornaments. Even granting the place of noble women wasn’t great during the time of Richard the First, it was better than this. But, again, this is for a different audience.

4
SWORD FIGHT!

Before we end, let’s talk about the technical aspects. The movie was an early Technicolor film, and as a result it still looks magnificent today. The restoration of Technicolor films has netted some glorious results. Because there are three sets of negatives, any problems with any single image can be helped along by the other two. There is very little discolorization, because each negative strip holds only one color and as such there is very little bleed. The current video release looks magnificent, and that’s one of the reasons to watch this. It looks great. People worked on this at the height of their powers, both in front and behind the camera, and it really shows.

Should you watch this movie? Yes. Will you like it? That depends. It is possible to understand what all the fuss is about, but not actually like the movie. I honestly don’t care much of The Wizard of Oz these days, but I still own it and still recognize why it’s one of the most beloved fantasy films of all time. You probably should see it, to educate yourself about cinema. Come to that, you should probably also watch Wizard of Oz and Seven Samurai too. There are movies I think people should probably watch if they want a fuller understanding of cinema. Not in a “OMG! You MUST watch this to be considered a person.” but rather in a “If you want to have an informed discussion about movies, it’s helpful to have at least seen these things.” If you like those movies as well, that’s a bonus. I really like the movie, and I would highly recommend it.

Official Score:
88 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

5
They just DO NOT make them like this now, and that’s a shame.

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