Time to go back to one of the classics of the Golden Age of Hollywood to continue my series on cinematic representations of the famous English outlaw, this time with The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Those of you who follow such things might remember that this one stars Errol Flynn as Sir Robin of Locksley, the fictitious nobleman who becomes a folk hero. Flynn is a bit of a controversial figure, though not for the reasons typically associated with him. If you have ever seen The Rocketeer (1991), you might have notice that Timothy Dalton’s Neville Sinclair bears a striking resemblance to Flynn in almost every conceivable way. Disney went so far as to show him filming scenes from The Adventures of Robin Hood, with sets and accompanying actors that look like they had been sitting there waiting to be used again since 1938. This may sound rather innocuous until you consider that Neville Sinclair’s character is portrayed as a Nazi spy, something that has been posthumously attached to Flynn’s career. Apparently, these allegations are based on hearsay and no actual physical evidence. One thing that is alike between the Flynn and his later cinematic mimicry is their womanizing. Anyway, food for thought as you peruse this review.
As with Disney’s cartoon version, The Adventures of Robin Hood begins with a historical note meant to set the scene of twelfth century England. King Richard I (Ian Hunter) is away, this time a prisoner in Austria on his way back from the Crusades, and his brother Prince John (Claude Rains) is acting a dang fool. Put more directly, he is raising taxes all over the country that is becoming a heavy burden on the poor and destitute of the land. This time, though, there is much made about the difference between the Norman ruling class and the Saxon, well, everyone else. The first example we see of the Norman tyranny is when Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) is out hunting one day, and he comes across a deer poacher named Much the Miller (Herbert Mundin). For taking an animal, Guy is about to summarily execute Much until Robin intervenes. In response, Robin is called before Prince John at Nottingham castle, but Robin doubles down on his defiance by calling Prince John’s attempt to rule in Richard’s absence treason. There is an attempt to seize Robin, but he and his companions flee into Sherwood Forest to become outlaws. Thus, you get the expected series of raids on Prince John’s interests. In this version, Lady Marian Fitzwalter (Olivia de Havilland) gets to know Robin because she is captured by his men while part of a convoy they attacked. Being Richard’s ward, her loyalties, like Robin’s, are with the absent king. This serves as the beginning of their relationship. This budding interest is noticed by Guy and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper), and thus they plan the famous archery tournament in order to lure Robin out of hiding. This succeeds in capturing Robin for a short period, until his escape is assisted by Marian. Seeing the danger of her staying, Robin tries to convince her to run away with him. Instead, she elects to stay behind and spy on Prince John for his sake. Shortly thereafter, Richard returns to England, but in disguise so as to ascertain his brother’s doings. Unfortunately, his presence is discovered by Prince John anyway, who sends an assassin to kill Richard. Marian hears of this plan, and attempts to warn Robin to find Richard and protect the king, but is found out before she can send the message. Still, it is picked up by Marian’s maid Bess (Una O’Connor) and eventually relayed to Robin. As it so happens, Richard is already in Robin’s company, the king having purposely traveled through Sherwood Forest in order to meet the man who had been so bravely protecting his interests. Richard then reveals his true identity to Robin, and together they make their way to Nottingham Castle. They gain entrance by disguising themselves as monks, part of the retinue of clergy sent to the castle to make Prince John the new monarch. Once inside, Richard doffs his concealment, and a fight breaks out between opposing forces. In the midst of it, Robin and Guy face off against each other, with Robin slaying his foe. In the aftermath, Richard banishes Prince John, restores Robin’s position and promotes him, and orders the former outlaw to marry Marian.
Let us delve into some of the historical context of The Adventures of Robin Hood, something I could not really do with the Disney version given its intended audience. The biggest thing that needs to be addressed is this supposed divide between Normans and Saxons. The Normans were the last people to conquer England, and they did so in 1066. Or at least that is the Cliff’s notes version of events. In reality, the famous Battle of Hastings where William the Conqueror defeated the sitting king of England, Harold II, was only the beginning. It did pave the way for William to sit on the throne next, particularly since Harold died at the battle. Yet, William’s reign thereafter was not a peaceful one as he extended in the reach of his rule throughout the land over some recalcitrant locals. It was over by 1072, and William kept control by putting strong Norman leaders in charge of different parts of the land. Now, I do not mean to get too technical here, but it should be noted that this all took place over a hundred years before the events typically depicted in these films. Keep in mind, too, that the revered Richard I, or Richard the Lionheart, was Norman. For all the carrying on in the film about the hated Norman and their tyrannical ways, which would have not have been as much of an issue by then anyway, their precious monarch was a part of that hated group! In fact, he spent a great deal more time on the mainland of Europe, or in fighting the Crusades, than he did in England. He is not even buried in the country that supposedly loves him so much. This sort of subtext runs through my brain when I watch films like this one.
The other subtext that is consistently attuned to aspects of films is, of course, my Catholic Faith. With The Adventures of Robin Hood, I was especially interested in the character of Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette). When he first appears on screen, he is seen with a helmet and is said to be the finest swordsman in England. And then Robin goes on to defeat Friar Tuck pretty easily in a brief spar. Friars are members of religious orders, particularly ones that take vows of poverty. Friar Tuck certainly appears impoverished, if only in his tattered robes. His girth would suggest otherwise, but we will gloss over that fact. As such, it is difficult to understand how such a person would be so armed. At the time, there were religious orders of knights, like the Templars and Hospitallers, who were started during the Crusades. Roughly speaking, their ministry was to provide protection for Christians going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. For our purposes, Friar Tuck is not meant to be a part of either of these. When Richard I shows up at the end, his bodyguards were wearing Templar robes, though I doubt those making the film made that connection. At any rate, I find this portrayal of Friar Tuck puzzling.
As I watched The Adventures of Robin Hood, I soon grew tired of the endless, mirthful laughter of Robin Hood and his followers. They really leaned into the “merry” of Merry Men. At one point I said aloud in frustration, “Stop laughing!” Anyway, if you need to watch a piece of classic Hollywood, then I suppose go for it. Otherwise, it is kind of silly.