Saturday, July 8, 2023

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

The 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Eroll Flynn was the second feature film recounting the legendary story of Robin Hood. It was preceded by the 1922 silent Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr (and several earlier short silent films). There have been countless subsequent Robin Hood movies but the 1922 and 1938 versions remain the best. Both are superb movies, with the 1938 version perhaps having a very slight edge (it’s certainly paced better than the 1922 version).

It offers not just Errol Flynn in swashbuckling hero mode but Basil Rathbone in super-villain mode. Plus Claude Rains being sly and sneaky and creepy and underhanded and duplicitous.

There’s not much point in saying too much about the plot. Everyone knows the basics of the story. Good King Richard (Richard Lionheart) has gone off on Crusade, leaving England in the care of a Regent. The king’s untrustworthy brother Prince John (Claude Rains) gets rid of the Regent, declares himself Regent and plans to make himself king. Prince John’s most important ally is the cruel and ruthless Guy of Gisborne (Basil Rathbone).

The people of England are mercilessly exploited by John and his supporters. The Saxons suffer the most under the rule of the Normans. The Saxon nobleman Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn) is outlawed and assembles a private army in Sherwood Forest. He and Lady Marian (Olivia de Havilland) fall in love. Prince John’s supporters try to capture Robin by tempting him into an archery contest and later Lady Marian is accused of treason for aiding the notorious outlaw.

There are lots of narrow escapes and lots of action. The action sequences are exceptionally well handled.

This movie was shot in Technicolor and it looks lavish and expensive (because it was expensive).

Flynn was at his swashbuckling peak, and while there have been other fine swashbuckling stars no-one has ever quite equalled Flynn in those rôles. He could make a swashbuckling hero come to life. Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains are excellent. I’ve never been a great Olivia de Havilland fan but she’s very good here. The fine supporting cast includes Alan Hale as Little John.

Oddly enough when Warner Brothers first came up with the idea of a Robin Hood movie they had James Cagney in mind for the lead. That fell through and the project was shelved. By the time the idea was revived Captain Blood had made Errol Flynn a huge star and he became the only possible choice.

Shooting the film in Technicolor was a late decision but a very good one. The Adventures of Robin Hood was always going to be a hit but making it in Technicolor ensured that it would be a gigantic hit.

William Keighley was hired to direct. Halfway through shooting he was replaced by Michael Curtiz (who probably should have been chosen in the first place). Curtiz’s arrival meant a change of cinematographers as well, with Sol Polito replacing Tony Gaudio.

The Adventures of Robin Hood is an object lesson in just how good old school effects could look in the late 30s. The matte paintings are superb. The movie is a mix of such effects and plenty of location shooting. The action scenes are inspired.

When you watch it you have to remember that it was until the1922 Fairbanks movie that all the elements that we now think of as comprising the Robin Hood legend were brought together, and in the 1938 version these elements still seemed fresh. Scenes such as the quarter-staff battle between Robin and Little John and the archery contest have been endlessly copied, homaged, referenced and parodied but in 1938 they had not yet become clichés.

The Robin Hood story as we now know it is an amalgam of mediæval ballads, 15th and 16th century embellishments and additions made by 18th and 19th century writers such as Sir Walter Scott (particularly his great novel Ivanhoe). Many of the most familiar elements were not present in the earliest mediæval ballads (Maid Marian was a very late addition and King Richard and Prince John played no part in the early versions of the tale). This 1938 movie assembles all these elements into a very satisfying whole.

Errol Flynn at the top of his game, spectacular visuals and dynamic pacing make The Adventures of Robin Hood one of the great adventure movies, and the definitive Robin Hood movie. Highly recommended.

This movie is very easy to get hold of on both DVD and Blu-Ray.


  1. Dee, a good write-up of an all-time Great Classic Movie, which I can always view. I first recall viewing THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD on tv in 1965 on Memphis, Tennessee's WREC Channel 3 EARLY MOVIE. The movie was shown a lot during the 1960's and 1970's in my neck of the woods.

    To me personally, no one has ever quite measured up to Errol Flynn when it comes to "Swashbuckling." My apologies to Douglas Fairbanks, I didn't view his silent movie swashbucklers until years later. Although, my first Robin Hood was Richard Greene in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD(1955-60) on tv in 1963. Memphis, Tennessee's WMCT Channel 5 aired it on the weekend.

    1. Walter, I agree. When it came to swashbuckling Flynn was number one. Fairbanks Sr was great and he'd be number two in my book.

      As for number three, I'd probably go for Stewart Granger.