Good-natured if supremely silly, Michael Curtiz’ The Adventures of Robin Hood is a swashbuckling romp in the vein of this year’s Pirates of the Carribean, a light-hearted trip through the Mirkwood we all love from childhood stories or other versions. Now Film Forum gives us a cleaned-up 35mm print, preserving and enhancing the original flashy Technicolor. This isn’t a trivial restoration, since there was a mad scramble to get the film made back in 1938; directors and actors glided in and out of the project, and even the composer took convincing to come aboard. Contract disputes and other such obstacles removed William Keighley and James Cagney from their positions as director and lead actor respectively. Eventually the studio settled on Errol Flynn as Robin and Curtiz to direct, and he presents the story pretty routinely. From the camera movements down to the loopy characters, Curtiz follows the prototypical Hollywood formula of visuals—plenty of shot-reverse shot, workmanlike framing, etc. Yet despite this rather mundane approach, Curtiz still succeeds in injecting pizzazz into the action scenes, particularly the archery match and the capture of Sir Guy midway through. What results is an entertaining 100 minutes that’s well worth the price of admission, even if it’s flawed in several respects.
The main problem is the casting of Flynn as Robin Hood. Not that his performance is weak—it’s quite good, actually. What’s missing is the aura, the style, the suavity required of Robin of Locksley. Flynn simply doesn’t look the part, with his slender build and dorky face. In fact, it seems that the casting of Robin is quite difficult to pull off; Kevin Costner was unbearably drab in the 1991 version. As screwy as it may sound, my favorite Robin performance is Cary Elwes in Mel Brooks’ spoof Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Flynn gives a noble effort but comes up short. The supporting cast fares better, particularly Alan Hale as Little John and Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy.
The script is generally solid, and takes an interesting angle regarding the relationship between Robin and Maid Marian. In the versions I’ve seen and read, Marian appears to become infatuated with Robin almost immediately. Here, Marian is initially disgusted by him, only falling for him after seeing the results of his good deeds and carefully scrutinizing his actions. While this version is probably the more plausible of the two, I can’t help but prefer the former, with its almost orgasmic resonance electrifying the relationship. It’s difficult to criticize The Adventures of Robin Hood on this count since it does a good job of making the relationship convincing, but the romantic spark just feels absent, unlike the flair that permeates throughout the archery competition and several other scenes. As a pleasurable diversion, The Adventures of Robin Hood succeeds on most counts. It’s a pretty safe adaptation, so don’t go expecting a spicy version like Luis Buñuel’s depiction of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. The Film Forum showing is also preceded by an extremely clever Bugs Bunny short entitled Rabbit Hood, which adds to the charm of the entire production. Not having seen the original print, I can’t say for sure how much the restoration accomplishes, but I’d wager it’s a pretty drastic upgrade, considering the chaos that reigned over the early stages of the production.