The Adventures of Robin Hood

Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



15 June


King John “signs” Magna Carta, 1215

On this day in 1215, the king of England put his seal to Magna Carta (the Great Charter) at Runnymede, near Windsor, England. It is in effect a bill of rights, one forced on the king by feudal barons unhappy with the levels of taxation, John’s abysmal record when it came to fighting wars and his supine relationship to the Pope. Designed as part of a powerplay to unseat the king, it proposes limits to the power of the king, making that power more contractual in nature, and denies the king the power to act arbitrarily – he must act according to the law of the land. The late judge Lord Denning, who was given to grandiloquent pronouncement, once called it “the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.” As soon as the barons had withdrawn from Runnymede, having got the agreement of the king, John renounced the most onerous passage of the charter (known now as Clause 61 – granting barons the right to seize the king’s properties, if necessary). The Pope also declared the Magna Carta null and void – how could a king chosen by God, sanctioned by the Church, be tethered? The Barons went to war against the king, during which struggle the king would die, of dysentery, while on the campaign trail. His successor, the nine-year-old Henry III, would be forced into re-issuing Magna Carta (now reduced from 61 to 42 clauses and with the seizure clause removed) in an attempt to remove the casus bellum. It worked, and a version of Magna Carta passed into law.




The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, dir: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley)

In spite of the efforts of Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe, it is the 1938 version of the story of Robin Hood that remains the one to beat. And, watching the Scott/Crowe film, you can see that they know it. Everything that the 1938 film does one way the 2010 film does another – Errol Flynn wears cloth, Crowe wears chainmail; Flynn sings his lines, Crowe grunts; Flynn is an air spirit, Crowe earth. I could go on, but let’s focus on the original, an “only in Hollywood” number made with wide-eyed sincerity and brilliant technique, shot in the most lustrous Technicolor and starring Errol Flynn, the Australian whose thighs alone would have won him the role (and to think James Cagney was meant to play Hood). Both Flynn and Technicolor were new to Hollywood, Flynn having become a star three years earlier with Captain Blood, followed by The Charge of Light Brigade. Casting is in fact this film’s great strength: Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian, radiating wholesomeness and virtue; Basil Rathbone’s scheming Guy of Gisbourne; Claude Rains’s despotic Prince John. Even the merry men – Patric Knowles’s goodly Will Scarlett and Eugene Pallette’s Friar Tuck. Pallette’s Tuck is still the gold standard Friar, as Flynn is the gold standard Robin Hood. And what a lot of plot the film effortlessly compresses into its 100 minutes or so running time – from Robin Hood’s origins, to getting the band of followers together, to the love business between Hood and Marian, to the big swashbuckling finish in the castle, it’s the sort of thing that Peter Jackson would undoubtedly manage to stretch out to three three-hour films. Why does it all work so well? The casting, the brilliance and the economy of writing, the technical skill on display, they’re all important, not forgetting the music of Erich Korngold, whose pioneering style is still being copied by the Hans Zimmers and John Williamses and James Newton Howards of today. But it’s the way the film plays to the back row of the cinema, an upward tilt of the head here, a big bold gesture (Hood dumping a stag on the Prince John’s table, the splitting of the arrow scene), the swordplay, the swinging on ropes, all lit brightly and cleanly so it’s obvious what’s going on. And because, paradoxically perhaps for a film that is cod medieval to its plywood backdrops, the film has a mythic quality that unites it in some way with the lost legends going all the way back to the Green Man of English antiquity, where the just-about plausible and the surely supernatural jostle for precedence. We’re in no doubt either, which side Flynn’s Robin Hood is on – no dark psychological backstory for him, no issues with his parents, no “wrestling his demons” bullshit. How boring would that be? For answer to that question, see the Scott/Crowe film.



Why Watch?


  • Technicolor – one of the best examples of it ever
  • Errol Flynn, still lithe, bright and handsome
  • Its superb support cast
  • Erich Korngold’s score


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Adventures of Robin Hood – Watch it now at Amazon





The Charge of the Light Brigade

Errol Flynn in lancer's helmet in The Charge of the Light Brigade


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



28 March


Crimean War escalates, 1854

On this day in 1854, Britain and France declared war against Russia. Russia and the Ottoman Empire had been at war since October the previous year, when conflict had broken out ostensibly about the rights of Christians in the Holy Land – being restricted by Muslim Ottomans and being protected by Orthodox Russian if you accept the Russians’ diplomatic rhetoric. In fact the war was about territory, the Turks being on the decline after centuries of dominance in the region, the Russians keen to continue their expansion west into Europe and particularly south to the Black Sea, which offered them “warm water” ports which wouldn’t freeze in the winter. As one of the major planks of the foreign policy of both Britain and France had been the containment of Russia at least since the Treaty of Paris in 1815, both countries felt compelled to join after the Russians destroyed the Ottoman fleet at the Black Sea port of Sinope. With Russia now masters of the Black Sea, which led into the Mediterranean (which both Britain and France saw as “theirs”), the campaign to stop Russia focused on the Russian fortress Sevastopol, home of the Tsar’s Black Sea fleet, though battles were also fought in the Caucasus, the Baltic, the Pacific, the White Sea and Greece. The war continued until early 1856 with the loss of around 350,000 lives on all sides. It was the first European war to be photographed and the first to use the telegraph, which allowed rapid communications both on the battlefield and between the theatre of war and the public back home, via the newspapers.




The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936, dir: Michael Curtiz)

The actual charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava (a light brigade being lightly armoured troops mounted on horses – ie no cannons) was a disaster, with under-armed men being sent off in the wrong direction thanks to a communications cock-up. So instead of taking on a retreating Russian artillery regiment they found themselves heading into the line of fire of a completely different artillery battery, this one dug in and ready to let loose. The result was a rout of the British, a change in public opinion back home, a famous poem by Tennyson and the birth of the “lions led by donkeys” myth. It’s the “lions” aspect that is played up in this swashbuckler by Michael Curtiz, who spends time hooking us in emotionally with the story of two brothers (Errol Flynn, Patric Knowles) fighting over the same girl (Olivia De Havilland) before hitting us with one of the most spectacularly staged battle scenes of the period. “A testament to the virtuosity of the second unit” is how critic Pauline Kael described it. There’s no point looking for historical accuracy. Indeed memos from Jack Warner suggest he was more concerned with the shade of Flynn’s moustache. And it’s not even as if the film has simplified the facts to make things easier for the audience. Much of the action takes place in India, where a roguish Rajah who is secretly working for the Russians can be factored into the confusing plot. Though of course the Charge itself took place in the Crimea, which is 2,500km or so away. Sticklers for history might counter that actually Britain was worried about Russian ambitions in her empire yadda yadda. Let them have the debate. Meanwhile, India is where Flynn, De Havilland and Knowles do their warm-ups before the big number, which is the whole point of the thing. This was the second of seven films on which Curtiz, Flynn and De Havilland would collaborate – between Captain Blood the year before and The Adventures of Robin Hood the year later. It’s the film that made Flynn a superstar.



Why Watch?


  • Because Michael Curtiz’s films always are worth watching
  • One of the great Flynn-Curtiz-De Havilland movies
  • An early screen credit for Hollywood composing legend Max Steiner
  • That second unit work


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Charge of the Light Brigade – at Amazon