Adventures of Robin Hood, The (1938): Michael Curtiz Directs Errol Flynn in Iconic Role

One of the greatest adventure films ever made, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Michael Curtiz’s 1938 saga, features the swashbuckling Errol Flynn at his prime and most handsome.

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Perfectly cast as Robin Hood, Flynn gives a charismatic, athletic, and dashing performance in a production where each and every role is suitably cast, particularly Olivia De Havilland as Maid Marian, Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, and Claude Rains as Prince John.

Warner first considered making a Robin Hood picture in 1935, with Jimmy Cagney in the lead and Guy Kirbee as Friar Tuck. But Cagney was then in dispute with the studio, and, more importantly, Errol Flynn made a splash that year with “Captain Blood.”

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Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller’s scenario was different from that of the 1922 silent version, which starred the legendary Douglas Fairbanks in one of his most famous roles. Since Fairbanks’ version was copyrighted, the studio couldn’t use any of that picture’s ideas or situations (mostly fabricated, in any case).

The 1935 script is an amalgam of various literary sources, plays, ballads, and books about Robin Hood, and historians may have good reasons to complain about authenticity. However, studio head Jack Warner knew what he was doing, wishing to make an engrossing epic spectacle that would reflect the technical innovations of the film medium up to the moment.

When King Richard the Lion-Hearted (Ian Hunter) is captured by Austrians and held for ransom, the evil Prince John (Rains) declares himself the ruler of England and fails to secure Richard’s safe return. Though John is surrounded by nobles and their armies, it doesn’t sway a single knight.

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Enter Robin Hood (Flynn), who swears allegiance to Richard and sets out to raise the ransom money by stealing from the rich people hat cross through the Sherwood Forest. Robin is aided by his love, Maid Marian (De Havilland), and his band of merry men, which includes Little John (Alan Hale) and Friar Tuck (Eugene Palette), as he battles the false monarch to return the throne to the legit and rightful owner.

With a wicked sense of humor and dazzling acrobatics, Flynn gives a vastly entertaining performance, at once delivered with greater assurance and panache from his work in “Captain Blood.”

His adversaries are just as memorable villains, particularly Rathbone as the conniving Sir Guy of Gisbourne.

Curtiz had assigned an expert-fencing instructor to work with the cast, and the climactic duel between Rathbone and Flynn is nothing short of breathtaking, easily one of the most exciting battles ever filmed.

Warner’s largest-scale picture at the time, “Adventures of Robin Hood” benefited from its big budget of $1.6 million, which in the end of the day, escalated to over $2 million, way above the norm. But the technical values more than justified the expense. The whole production is colorful, spirited, extravagant, and a little over the top, but all in good taste, servicing the mythic legend of Robin Hood while popularizing it for the masses.

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The Academy, like the mass public, responded with an appreciation of four Oscar nominations, winning three (see below).

As was the norm at the time, Warner assigned a dialogue director, Irving Rapper, to coach the cast. Rapper later became a director, best-known foe his Bette Davis melodramas of the 1940s, such as “Now, Voyager.”

Oscar Nominations: 4

Picture, produced by Hal B. Wallis and Henry Blanke
Interior Decoration: Carl Jules Weyl
Original Score: Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Editing: Ralph Dawson

Oscar Awards: 3

Interior Decoration
Original Score
Editing

Oscar Context

Errol Flynn had never been nominated for an Oscar. The winner of the 1938 Best Picture was Frank Capra’s comedy, “You Can’t Take It With You.”