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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: The Adventures of Robin Hood

* * * *

Winner: Best Art Direction, 1938

Director: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley
Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Raines

I'll probably end up seeing the new version of Robin Hood but I have to admit that I have my reservations. It looks very dark and serious and the Robin Hood story should be lighter, more fun. There's a reason why The Adventures of Robin Hood is a beloved classic, and there's a reason why many have a fondness for Robin Hood: Men In Tights (don't let yourself think of the song, it will be stuck in your head all day. Trust me) - they're fun. There's just something inherently campy about the story of a man who robs from the rich to give to the poor along with his band of merry men. To go dark and serious with it seems contrary to its spirit.

The set up for the story is thus: King Richard the Lionheart has been taken captive, allowing for his brother Prince John (Claude Raines) to make a power grab. Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn), a loyalist to the King, wages a campaign against Prince John and his allies, stealing their ill-gotten wealth in order to ransom the King. Since he must live in hiding to avoid arrest, he takes up residence in Sherwood Forest and is joined by his gang: Will Scarlet (Patrick Knowles), Little John (Alan Hale, Jr.), Much (Herbert Mundin), and Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette).

After being humiliated by Robin in front of the fetching Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland), the Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) and his right hand man Guy of Gisborne (Basil Rathbone) come up with a plot to trap the wily outlaw by hosting an archery competition. Meanwhile, Robin and Marian fall in love and the King sneaks back into England disguised as a monk. After a few twists and turns, the film reaches its climax with a fabulous sword fight and the triumph of the forces of good over the forces of evil.

Released in 1938, when color films were still the exception rather than the rule, The Adventures of Robin Hood is like an explosion of color. Even today the costumes and photography seem almost impossibly vibrant and lush. It is also a very high energy film, with plenty of action and humor and just a general feeling that everyone involved is having a blast. The tone that the film is able to maintain throughout makes it a crowd pleaser but it achieves this without sacrificing anything of the story, which can be a rare feat. It finds the right balance between the action and adventure and the romantic plot and it allows the characters to flourish and take on lives of their own. Technically and artistically, this is an exceedingly well made film.

The Adventures of Robin Hood marks the third screen pairing of Flynn and de Havilland, who co-starred in eight films all together. They're a good match and de Havilland is able to make Maid Marian more than just "the obligatory girl" and even gets to be a bit feisty. As for Flynn, he resets the bar for Robin Hoods (originally set by Douglas Fairbanks in 1922), creating a good mix of righteousness and roguishness, which is exactly what Robin Hood needs since he's the good guy doing things the bad guy way. He keeps it light, never seeming to take himself too seriously, and that goes a long way towards the film's success. Thanks in large part to Flynn's performance, this classic film remains an eminently enjoyable experience.

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