While numerous Robin Hood movies have been made, my dad steadfastly refuses to watch them. “There’s only one Robin Hood,” he says. He’s talking about Errol Flynn, of course, and this 1938 classic.
The story is a familiar one. King Richard has been taken captive in Austria, on his way home from the Third Crusade. Meanwhile, his nefarious brother, Prince John (Claude Rains), plots to take the crown, and generally do bad things to good people. All that stands in the way of Prince John and his evil cronies are the followers of the outlawed Robin Hood (Flynn). Of course, there is a romantic entanglement — a good story isn’t complete without one. In this case, it involves Robin and the king’s ward, Marian (Olivia de Havilland). Opposite Robin is Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone). Gisbourne is a sort of anti-Robin, haughty and cruel; allusions are made to the effect that he is also a rival for the hand of Marian.
Flynn plays Robin with panache, always laughing heartily, and never a hair out of place. His very manner seems to say, “I’m having so much fun! Don’t you wish you were me?” In contrast to that, Rathbone as Gisbourne never cracks a smile. Rathbone is one of my favorite screen villains; he exudes evil. In his hands, Gisbourne is a villain you love to hate. Rains is reptilian as Prince John, conniving, underhanded, but weak. De Havilland’s treatment of Marian is understated, playing her as demure and reserved, yet with a core of iron.
An assortment of character actors flavor the story. Frequent Flynn sidekick Alan Hale appears as Little John, and gravel-voiced Eugene Palette weighs in as Friar Tuck. Melville Cooper is a delight as the smarmy, incompetent Sheriff of Nottingham.
As might be expected in any Robin Hood film, there’s plenty of action, especially from Flynn. He climbs walls, jumps on horses, and swings from vines with aplomb. Good fight scenes, of course; with fencers the caliber of Flynn and Rathbone, the final duel between Robin and Gisbourne can be nothing less than riveting. Palette also appears to have been a respectable fencer, judging from one all-too-short segment where Robin and Tuck brawl in a river. There’s a lively quarterstaff bout between Little John and Robin, too.
The romantics won’t want to miss the scene in which Robin climbs the ivy to Marian’s balcony for a kiss.
The good guys are good. The bad guys are bad. There are loads of action, and even passion. Classic Hollywood. Dad’s right. There is only one Robin Hood.
(Warner Brothers, 1938)