The Adventures of Robin Hood: 80 Years Later and Still the Best

The Adventures of Robin Hood went through a director-swapping production yet is still the only Robin Hood movie that matters.

Errol Flynn rides in The Adventures of Robin Hood
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

In retrospect, it’s easy to see the formula that Warner Bros. pursued to make The Adventures of Robin Hood, the 1938 sweeping Technicolor classic. Conceived as a star vehicle for one of their biggest icons, as well as a picture that would be the chance for a reliable contract director to become a preeminent name in Hollywood, it should’ve been impossible for the project to run into any trouble. Yet it did since the movie was originally pitched as a Jimmy Cagney movie and was later assigned to director William Keighley, a terrific studio man from the golden age… but one who is no more Michael Curtiz than Cagney is Errol Flynn.

Eighty years later and it’s largely been forgotten that the most beloved and celebrated Robin Hood motion picture ever produced—and still the only one that matters—almost was an entirely different movie at its inception. And with a production that included director swaps mid-shoot, entire sequences getting filmed twice, and two beloved Hollywood stars sabotaging the others’ close-ups, it’s all the more impressive that its chaotic birth puts modern blockbuster upheavals to shame. For at the end of the day, Warner Bros. walked away with a bonafide masterpiece.

The reasons The Adventures of Robin Hood works well are so many that they could populate every tree in Sherwood Forest, or at least the wooded areas they filmed around in Chico, California. Produced at the height of the Hollywood studio system, the picture embraces the three-color dye technique of the original Technicolor process to eye-popping effect. With a visual color scheme as rich as the many shades of green, emerald, and sage that adorn Robin Hood and his Merry Men, the late great Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne long argued it was the best looking color film of the 1930s (even more so than the following year’s The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind). Yet for all its visual pizazz—which was also supremely aided by Milo Anderson’s costumes, the picture works brilliantly in large part because it is the only A-list film that has tried to genuinely tackle the original legends of Robin Hood with wit and talented grace.

To be clear, there have been a number of excellent Robin Hood movies, some more swashbuckling than others, such as Kevin Costner’s 1990s-drenched revival in Prince of Thieves having a more excitable gusto than Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn’s deconstructionist Robin and Marian (1976). However, the 1938 film is the only time Hollywood has sunk a large amount of capital into a production that tried to make a faithful narrative out of centuries of folklore, myth, and tall tales.

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Prior to the 1938 film, there was no definitive streamlining of these many facets, which date back to at least the 1370s when Robin Hood, the trickster, is referenced in Piers Plowman. But the lavish WB movie attempted to include all the favorite elements from a half-millennium of childhoods—the robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, the courtly love of Maid Marian, the archery contest, and the supplanting of Prince John, all of which were added over time—in a production where every aspect was finely tuned to perfection.

This is perhaps no better reflected than its cast, including the intensely intelligent Olivia de Havilland in a role that could have otherwise been a simply thankless Maid Marian, Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne (a character most folks mistakenly recall as the Sheriff of Nottingham), and Claude Rains as the effete Prince John, whose arrogance and avarice walk hand-in-hand with his incompetence. Yet above them all remains the casting of Errol Flynn in his definitive role. Four-fifths of a century later, and no one has even dared come close to the degree of confidence and swagger that Flynn exudes. This is all the more remarkable when one considers he almost wasn’t in the film.

James Cagney was originally pitched by WB costume designer Dwight Franklin, who penned in a letter to studio executives that the man most famous at the time for being The Public Enemy would make “a swell Robin Hood.” And to be honest, he probably would have. Cagney was then the studio’s golden ticket thanks to gangster pictures like G-Men and, the same year as Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces. But he was also a terrific song and dance man having gotten his start in Vaudeville, a feat he proved on the screen in a later Michael Curtiz picture, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Yet, as a fearsome presence who often inferred danger and chaos when he was on screen, it is nigh impossible to imagine him in the green sequined tights worn by Flynn, much less inside Flynn’s jovial and devil-may-care cadence.

Luckily for generations of Robin Hood fans to come, Cagney was in the midst of the first round of a lifelong animosity with WB studio head, Jack Warner, and a salary dispute led to Cagney being suspended for several years. It also opened the door for Flynn, who’d recently become WB’s action star after appearing in Captain Blood (1935) and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). The Australian-born thespian enjoyed naturally statuesque good looks but with an added charisma that escaped most matinee idols. His domineering presence being just as ingratiating as it is overwhelming is a rare star trick that eludes most other stars, even to this day. Despite his line readings being occasionally wooden, especially on his first production with Curtiz in Captain Blood, his athletic vigor was never less than authentic in his prime. And as WB approached with those green tights, he had but one request: do not hire Curtiz.

Indeed, the star had a complicated relationship with all of his best collaborators. It’s well-documented that de Havilland and Flynn had a hot-and-cold attraction, his increasingly exasperated co-star who was paired with the swashbuckler in nine films after Captain Blood, saw her chemistry and patience fizzle with ever more “damsel” roles being demanded of her opposite Flynn’s frequently debauched mood swings.

Curtiz, meanwhile, was a Hungarian-born director who seemed to master any genre he entered but rarely bore anything close to affection from the casts he treated with an authoritarian’s briskness. For every John Garfield, who admired the filmmaker, there were a dozen frustrated Flynns and de Havillands. Flynn particularly loathed how critics and journalists credited Curtiz (the director on his first two star-making roles) with his success… he also resented how Curtiz’s recklessness led to the deaths of multiple horses during stunt sequences on Light Brigade.

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further reading – Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is Darker Than You Remember

Jack Warner and Hal Wallis, WB’s chief head of production, acquiesced to Flynn’s request and hired Flynn’s pal William Keighley, a competent American director who nonetheless spoke with an English accent. This decision thus began a troubled production whose woes are echoed more by modern Hollywood studios playing musical chairs with potential helmers for Star Wars and superhero movies than it does how some might imagine the Golden Age assembly line.

The actual legal development of 1938’s Robin Hood was likewise an adventure unto itself. At the time, MGM had experienced some major success by adapting turn-of-the-century operettas into box office hits starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. After movies like Naughty Marietta (1935) and Rose-Marie (1936), the glitzier studio was anxious to adapt the 1890 operetta Robin Hood, except WB owned the rights to that stage production. Conversely, while developing James Cagney’s Robin Hood, which was intended to be a spiritual successor to the most popular silent movie era version of the bandit, Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922), the studio learned that MGM had already begun production on their own planned musical with research having been done by writers Bernard Conville and Philip Dunne. WB bought those rights for $23,000 while giving MGM the rights to the Robin Hood operetta… Except the 1938 movie was so successful and devastating in the cultural zeitgeist that MGM never made their musical.

On the road to this triumph though, William Keighley’s Robin Hood went through many problems, including Keighley’s demise in the director’s chair. Scheduled to begin production for four weeks of on-location shooting in the forests around Chico, California, the film wound up going nine days over schedule, even as Keighley helmed some of the film’s most iconic moments, like when Robin meets Little John atop a Sherwood bridge (character Alan Hale had previously played the very same role in Fairbanks’ 1922 version).

In the meantime, de Havilland, who was then desperate to screen test for MGM’s Gone with the Wind, found her mood darkening toward Flynn as his wife Lili Damita had come to set to keep an eye on the co-stars (she should have been more worried about the purported line of ingénues Flynn kept hidden on other productions). It likely didn’t help that he would constantly attempt to crack de Havilland up or distract her during her close-ups. De Havilland would return the favor much later in the production while filming their big romantic rendezvous inside a window sill (which was directed by Curtiz). With excessive passion, she sensually teased him during one take, so that the man in the green cloak wasted a shot when he got an erection in his even greener tights. Less comically, Flynn also led to a major confrontation between his pal Patric Knowles and the film’s executive producer.

In addition to being a hell of a drinking buddy to Flynn, Knowles celebrated Flynn getting him the Will Scarlett role in the film by teaching Flynn to fly small charter planes out of the nearby Chico Municipal Airport. But even if Knowles was a licensed pilot, Flynn, the notorious drinker and Hollywood bon vivant, was at best a distracted student. Needless to say the studio that was at this time spending upwards of $2 million on Robin Hood (then a blockbuster investment) was horrified—and vindictive as they threatened the lesser actor’s career. Still, Knowles and Flynn persisted in their aerial hijinks until Hal Wallis sent a letter complaining to the Screen Actors Guild that Knowles was behaving like an unofficial stuntman by flying with Flynn, and SAG in turn got Knowles’ pilot’s license suspended.

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All of this likely would have been fine if WB was confident in the film they were receiving from Chico. But after the production returned to Los Angeles for soundstage work, Wallis reacted to a specific daily of the Merry Men walking through the forest, uncut in 1600 feet of film, with this memo: “Keighley does not know how to shoot action sequences!”

William Keighley is a fine director, who would go on to have greater success at WB, including with The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), but The Adventures of Robin Hood inarguably benefits from Curtiz’s deft and eternally shapeshifting hand. Whether directing melodramas like Casablanca, musicals like Yankee Doodle Dandy, or gangster pictures like Angels with Dirty Faces, he always was able to bend his skills to what the studio wanted and, more importantly, to what the picture he was working on most needed.

On Robin Hood, Curtiz brought on his own cinematographer (Sol Polito) and a new energy that while perhaps hellish for Flynn and de Havilland nevertheless got better results from them than any of the swashbucklers they made with other filmmakers. And Robin Hood is the triumvirate’s crown jewel. As a picture so lush in its greenness that set designers were literally designated to spray paint actual trees and foliage a brighter shade of emerald, the picture’s visual palate is only matched by the tonal exuberance that is always achieved when Curtiz and Flynn’s oil and water mix.

Reshooting Robin’s gallant introduction to what we see in the final film, as well as helming all of the notable action sequences in the film, Curtiz’s influence on Robin Hood invented the visual language we have ever since associated with the term “swashbuckler.” It was Curtiz’s idea to emphasize Robin and Guy’s shadowy silhouettes during the climactic duel of the picture, just as it is Flynn’s boyish vanity that allows Robin’s defiance of Prince John during a massive banquet (also shot by Curtiz) to boil with heroic effervescence, as opposed to mawkish morality. Likewise, the fact that stunts were so straightforwardly done around these scenes, including with archery master Howard Hill actually splitting his own arrow in the archery tournament sequence, infuses the grandiose daydream with a palpable reality. (And in typical Jack Warner fashion, stuntmen were lowballed with an extra $150 for each arrow they had literally fired at their bodies, with only a little padding of metal and wood meant to block the otherwise lethal projectiles.)

In the book Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, biographer Alan K. Rode estimates the filmmaker directed between 50 and 67 percent of the finished film. Whatever the ratio, his and Keighley’s production was sandblasted and then refined by the original Hollywood studio system at its most omnipotent, as well as most convicted. For instance, the film does play up, if ever so subtly, the social concerns of its producers. The Jewish Warner brothers were the most vocal and adamantly opposed to Hitler’s rise in Europe, and theirs was the first studio to pull films out of German markets and make anti-Nazi pictures. In turn, The Adventures of Robin Hood emphasizes the Norman and Saxon divide within England to a much greater degree than later films, which uniformly simplify it to the rich versus the poor. And this is also reflected in the movie’s off-screen values.

further reading: Robin of Sherwood: TV’s Best Interpretation of the Legend

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One of the most striking elements of the finished film is of course Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score, a musical milestone that almost didn’t exist. Korngold initially agreed to write music for the picture in January 1938, even pausing work on his latest opera in Vienna, but after seeing a rough cut of the film upon arriving in Hollywood, he wrote to Wallis, “Robin Hood is no picture for me. I have no relation for it and therefore cannot produce music for it.” Three days later, the Jewish composer learned his native Austria had unified (and fell before) Nazi Germany. He shortly thereafter agreed to write what became one of the defining movie scores of the 1930s… if Jack Warner could help get the rest of his family out of Austria. Korngold’s son was on the last train out of the country before he’d need permission from the Third Reich (a formality that resulted in the trapping and eventual murder of millions of Jews).

The Adventures of Robin Hood literally saved lives like a green clad do-gooder, and that feat is reflected in its music, which no matter how painful for its author, boasts a relentlessly jolly disposition.

It is this quality that allows The Adventures of Robin Hood to soar as an unapologetic adventure movie that doesn’t try to rethink the wheel. Other films attempt to ground the material in historical reality, with Robin haunted by executing Muslims during Richard’s Third Crusade, or disastrously try to make his story a metaphor for the Iraq War while turning the rogue into a cross between a superhero and union leader. By contrast, The Adventures of Robin Hood embraces all the iconography—with Wallis even rejecting screenwriter Rowland Leigh’s first draft for excluding Maid Marian (Leigh wanted to honor only the earliest legends)—while wearing its fantasy heart on its brightly colored tights. It’s why all other versions are measured by this movie, and in turn why homages or satires of Robin Hood, most notably Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), always return to the well of this film. It is the definitive legend that shapes what Robin Hood is even supposed to look like a century onward.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.