And yet I had never seen any Errol Flynn movies before. Clearly, all artistic merits aside, this was a must-see for me.
Perhaps it’s for the best that we’re putting artistic merits aside, really, because The Adventures of Robin Hood turns out to be one of those movies it’s all too easy to damn with faint praise, like the ever-popular “very good … for what it is.” And what it is, in this case, is a live-action storybook, a faithful rendering of classic folklore in bright, broad, crowd-pleasing strokes. If you were looking for a subversive interpretation, keep looking elsewhere. If you expected nuanced characterization, you will be disappointed. Plot twists? Nothing that couldn’t be predicted at the outset, and nothing that isn’t thoroughly explained via stilted dialogue. The Adventures of Robin Hood is as straightforward and earnest as they come, with one-dimensional heroes and villains, though at least the villains each get differentiated single attributes (Prince John is power-hungry, Guy of Gisbourne is cruel, the Sheriff of Nottingham is cowardly, the Bishop of the Black Canons is conniving, &c.) while the heroes are all equally noble and brave. The closest any character comes to having an emotional arc is Maid Marian, as she goes from disliking Robin Hood to falling in love with him.
So this is not a movie designed to make one think, either by challenging the audience to reconsider prior perspectives or by forcing a figuring out of things left unsaid. Nor is it a movie intended to provoke profound feelings, except perhaps the feeling of “yippee!” All in all it’s an artificial piece through and through; the sets look like sets, and the costumes look like costumes, and the actors act like actors. But it is, as I led with, a good example of all those things. What the sets lack in authenticity they make up for in establishing the storybook scenes (though I grant that, as an American raised on American movies and tv, I tend to be fine with California forests standing in for any environment, including Sherwood Forest; a proper Englishman would have every right to disagree with me there). However historically inaccurate the costumes may be, they’re so strikingly designed that they became the pop cultural visual shorthand for Merry Olde England forever after. And the acting, such as it is, is really secondary to the swordfights and stunts; my particular favorite sequence was Robin’s escape from his own execution, starting with leaping onto a horse’s back with hands bound behind his back and ending with cutting the rope connecting the portcullis to the winch, and riding the rope up the castle wall as the gate came down, cutting off the pursuers from Robin’s fleeing comrades.
And honestly, if there’s one must-see reason to watch this film, it’s Robin Hood himself, Errol Flynn (aka Charisma Personified). I hadn’t been avoiding his filmography for any particular reason, but now that I’ve finally started catching up, I definitely feel like I understand better how Flynn fits into the pantheon. Man, that cat is smooth. Immersed in all the ridiculous trappings of an outsized pseudo-historical melodrama, Flynn is effortlessly charming throughout. Don’t get me wrong, this cast is kind of a murderer’s row: Claude Rains as Prince John, Basil Rathbone as Guy of Gisbourne, Olivia de Havilland as Marian, I mean, come on. But Flynn steals the show, and rightly so, of course.
As much as we need art that pushes us outside our comfort zones and expands our horizons and begs us to reflect and examine and empathize and aspire, I contend that we also need alongside it art that is pure entertainment, too shallow to conceal anything, that even a child can understand the morality of and that increases the momentary pleasure of any person capable of feeling joy. The Adventures of Robin Hood is undiluted “yippee!” and that gets my stamp of approval.