These days the superhero movie is king at the box office. As I type this, "Captain Marvel" is no doubt destroying the competition in it's opening weekend. Back in the 1930's another genre was drawing in audiences and leaving them enraptured: the swashbuckling adventure. Obviously, we can deduce one undeniable fact from this information: rugged men in tights performing heroic deeds never goes out of style. But the similarities don't end there. Today's superhero movies have a hundred years of comic book mythology and audience pre-awareness fueling their success. Swashbucklers looked to several hundred years worth of literature and folklore for their inspiration. Clearly, Hollywood producers love it when they don't have to do the heavy lifting in the storytelling process. And you don't need me to tell you that both kinds of stories play on a person's innate desire to see good triumph over evil, and do so with style and a good bit of derring-do.
Swashbucklers had gained popularity during the silent era in large part thanks to the charismatic and acrobatic star Douglas Fairbanks, but had fallen off somewhat in the early years of talkies. By the mid-30's they were in the middle of a comeback thanks in no small part to the rise of the equally charismatic, but not quite as acrobatic, star Errol Flynn. So it probably didn't come as much of a shock to industry insiders when producer Hal Wallis decided to cast Flynn in the role of legendary outlaw Robin Hood, whom Fairbanks had played to great success in 1922 (the remake - another thing that never goes out of style in Hollywood). Though it is worth noting that the film was initially conceived as a vehicle for America's favorite movie gangster, James Cagney. The resulting film, "The Adventures of Robin Hood" is undoubtedly the greatest of all Robin Hood films. And quite possibly the most purely entertaining adventure movie ever made.
If you've been alive at any point in the past several centuries you probably have a basic understanding of the Robin Hood legend. He robs the rich to feed the poor. Or if you're a conservative who fears any implication of socialism, you might prefer to say he robs the government to feed the people. But either way you cut it, wealth is redistributed. As always, his main adversary is the usurper Prince John (Claude Rains), who has seized power and oppressed the people in the absence of his brother King Richard the Lionheart (Ian Hunter). One thing that's different from other Robin Hood movies is that John's main heavy is not The Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper), but Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone). But this is mainly a superficial distinction, since Sir Guy effectively functions in the exact same role The Sheriff does in other versions. Other than that, all the greatest hits are there. Robin romances Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland). He meets Little John (Alan Hale Sr.) at a river crossing, they cross quarterstaves. There's an archery contest, an arrow is split. You know all this stuff.
For a story that touches on some pretty heavy stuff--oppression, starvation, torture, and mutilation are hinted at if not openly depicted--the tone is kept remarkably light. None of the performers seem to be taking the material too seriously, and that's for the better. You have fun watching them because you can see they're having fun. The pacing is kept fast using title cards to fill in certain expository details that might've taken too long to dramatize. And Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Oscar winning score--which John Williams has said was the inspiration for his "Star Wars" score--really helps the material take flight.
The story goes that original director William Keighley was replaced by Michael Curtiz when the studio thought the action sequences needed to be beefed up. And beef them up he did. Curtiz had already directed Flynn in "Captain Blood" and "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and was known as someone with a strong, fluid visual style that was well-suited for filming such manly pursuits as swordfighting and stunt work. Part of the reason his action sequences hold up so well today is because they're basically real. When an extra gets hit with an arrow, they're really getting hit with an arrow. Marksman Howard Hill shot real arrows at real stunt people who used padding to absorb the impact and steel plates to stop the penetration. When someone swings from a rope or falls off a ladder they're really risking serious injury. It's a thrilling spectacle to behold. No amount of impossibly large-scale computer generated destruction can compare.
This was only the 16th feature length film to ever be shot using the classic three strip technicolor process. And it's one of the films that the term "glorious technicolor" was coined to describe. Everything pops off the screen. Sets, props, and costumes were designed to display every color of the rainbow. Clearly, historical accuracy was not high on the craftspeople's list of concerns. But, as Stanley Kubrick was known to say "real is good, but interesting is better." And this movie is always interesting to look at. Curtiz's signature shadow play even makes an appearance in a famous shot where Flynn and Rathbone duel their way out of frame to be replaced by their giant silhouettes on the castle wall.
There's a purity and directness in these old adventure movies that I find lacking in most of today's popular entertainment. Robin Hood is good and everything he does is right. There's little room for subtlety or nuance. Nobody's beating the audience over the head with messages or trying to sneak in some moral ambiguity to seem more respectable. Some superhero movies seem to be moving back in that direction--"Wonder Woman" gave us a heroine who was simply pure goodness, while "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Thor: Ragnarok" remembered that it was ok to laugh at these silly escapades--but I think a great many still get bogged down trying to convince critics to take them seriously as art. Or, even worse, they take the route of detached cynicism to try to seem cool. I guess my feelings can best be summed up with a line spoken by Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) in "Almost Famous": "The Doors? Jim Morrison? He's a drunken buffoon posing as a poet. ... Give me The Guess Who. They got the courage to be drunken buffoons, which makes them poetic." Well, "The Adventures of Robin Hood" has the courage to be unironic, uncomplicated entertainment. And that makes it art that's worth respecting.