Medieval Movie Review: The Adventures of Robin Hood

By James Turner The Adventures of Robin Hood’s bold and ambitiously realised aesthetics, iconography, and…

Medieval Movie Review: The Adventures of Robin Hood

By James Turner

The Adventures of Robin Hood’s bold and ambitiously realised aesthetics, iconography, and set pieces have caught the eye and fired the imagination of many imitators – including Bugs Bunny, Danny Kaye, Goofy, Q and Mel Brooks. It is a testament to the way the 1938 film has lodged quivering and arrow-like within the popular consciousness as well as its infectious charm and invitingly guileless sense of fun. While the memory of other films of that era has faded or been distorted by successive layers of remakes and reimaging, good-natured parody and replication have only served to polish movie’s legacy and enduring charms. It is a true swashbuckling adventure responsible for the bemused exasperation of mothers and caregivers the world over after inspiring generations of children to duel with sticks and push one another into streams. 

It is only proper and fitting that we begin this movie review by touching upon the historical context in which the movie is set before making any serious attempts to gauge its fidelity. One of the core tenets of the Robin Hood mythos, assiduously replicated and reinforced by this film, is that England has fallen prey to the ravages of injustice, cronyism and aristocratic cupidity in the absence of their otherwise just and beneficent monarch, Richard the Lionheart.

In 1191, less than two years into his reign as King of England, Richard sailed off to the Near East to fight in what is called the Third Crusade. He had made careful provisions for England’s administration in his absence, including appointing Bishop William de Longchamp of Ely to the position of chancellor. A career clerk and bureaucrat, Longchamp soon quarreled with other officials and soon took control of the kingdom’s administration. This was not overly popular with the nobility, a state of affairs that allowed Richard’s younger brother, John, to begin canvassing support. While an early clash between the two in 1191 was averted through compromise and royal intervention, John was eventually able to build on the outrage caused by Longchamp’s arrest of the Archbishop of York to drive the chancellor out of England and assume control of the royal government in his stead.

Richard tarried in the Near East longer than his fellow Christian princes, and while his efforts went some way to shoring up the military and strategic position of the remaining crusading polities, he was ultimately unable to retake Jerusalem. With the prospects of a quick and decisive victory rapidly slipping away and faced with the King of France’s opportunistic aggression in Europe and John’s attempts to monopolise power in England, Richard was forced to reluctantly abandon the crusade. On Richard’s return to Western Europe, persistent foul weather compelled him to attempt the journey overland, at which point he was captured and held for a colossal ransom, first by Duke Leopold of Austria and then by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV.

The ransom which Henry IV set at 150,000 marks was over twice the annual income of the English king and was, so soon after the levying of extensive tithes to fund Richard’s expedition, a heavy financial burden to place upon the people of England. Attempts to raise the money by Richard’s supporters, led by his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine and uncle Hamelin de Warenne, were somewhat complicated by attempts by King Philip II of France and Prince John to raise money in order to pay Henry to keep Richard imprisoned.

Medieval Movie Review: The Adventures of Robin Hood
Screenshot of the title screen of the trailer – Wikimedia Commons

The Movie

The timeline of these events is presented in a somewhat compressed form within the film. A distortion and dramatization which allows the audience to be introduced to the architectures of the oppression they are about to see in a manner that makes their ill intentions and avarice immediately clear. Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone give indulgently arch performances in the movie’s opening scene as Prince John and his confederate, Guy of Gisborne respectively. When they learn of Richard’s imprisonment, the huddled masses of the English peasantry are aghast and horrified. In contrast the two Norman aristocrats, eyes beginning to glisten with reckless cupidity and untethered self-congratulation as they increasingly confidently circle around John’s plan to seize power in England and enrich themselves with the money raised for Richard’s ransom. The movie’s incarnation of John doesn’t seem to consider what would happen if Richard were to be released. While this oversight might be justified by his attempts to monopolise and then subvert efforts to raise the necessary funds, it ultimately proves to be the unraveling of his scheme to take power. In a display of filmmaking that is both artful and on the nose, John spills his goblet of red wine with the two men continuing to laugh callously as the sanguine-coloured fluid drips onto the floor.

Usually excised from the mythos and numerous adaptations of Robin Hood as an unnecessary and irrelevant detail, Longchamp is actually mentioned by name in The Adventures of Robin Hood. During Prince John’s welcome feast at the terrifyingly cavernous Nottingham castle, he lays out to the gathered northern nobles the financial demands he intends to impose upon the region as a means of securing the king’s ransom. The prince further directs them to turn over these newly raised funds to him, at which point our steadfast and heroic Robin sardonically questions why John should be entrusted with these funds rather than Longchamps, who after all is the king’s rightfully appointed proxy. John jumps upon the opportunity to reveal that he has already exiled Longchamps, news of which is met by a chorus of frankly top-notch disbelieving gasps and mutterings from the assembled extras. The prince silences this outburst of implied protest by laying out his royal credentials and more to the point asking who’s going to stop him as he intimidates and isolates one prominent Norman noble after the other. It’s an opening which the uninvited guest, the habitually theatrical, Robin of Locksley can’t resist and the rest as they say is pseudo-history. Robin escapes in a thrilling action sequence, raises his band of merry men, is captured, rescued and stages a climactic final battle, all while finding the time to fall in love with the charming Maid Marian.

The role and presentation of Richard in this film, and indeed across all incarnations and adaptations of the legend of Robin Hood is of some passing historiographical interest. While many of his contemporises were critical of Richard for his propensity towards ruthless violence, subsequent generations within England would come to celebrate Richard as a great warrior and paragon. He was held up almost as a second Arthur, the English equivalent of Charlemagne and Caesar. Richard’s personal piety and actions during the Third Crusade were the keystone of the king’s status as a legendary and highly celebrated figure and regarded by a generally uncritical audience as an unambiguous good. While elements of this legend continued to be celebrated by the Victorian public, who were of course tremendously keen on assigning religious justifications to the military conquest of distant countries, Richard’s legacy began to suffer amongst historians.

Many Victorian historians, such as Bishop William Stubbs, had the unfortunate habit of conceptualising history as a series of rungs that civilisations must climb and progress through to reach their ideal apex state, British parliamentary democracy. It is a view of history which is hilarious, although somewhat affectionately, parodied in 1066 And All That in which each king or queen of England is arbitrarily brand good or bad based on a mix of nationalistic pride and the extent to which their reign facilitated the conditions which led to the rise of parliamentary democracy. Through the lens of 19th-century nationalism, Richard’s relatively short reign and participation in the Crusades could be viewed rather more critically. He had spent very little time in England, heavily taxed the country and allowed it to slide into conflict and disorder during his long absence.

Both viewpoints are echoed within the movie, albeit heavily filtered through the glossy and performatively egalitarian filter of early 20th century Hollywood. Robin and his merry men are presented as fiercely loyal to ‘Good King Richard’; at one point the band reacts in an outraged uproar to the suggestion that they keep their loot for themselves or distribute it to the poor rather than use it to pay the king’s ransom. Yet Robin also admonishes the king and holds him ultimately responsible for the inequities and cruelties his absence has allowed John to inflict upon the people of England. Richard as the archetypical good king takes this criticism gracefully and is impressed by our hero’s forthrightness and steady-eyed care for the common good. Savvy, but uncharitable viewers, may wonder if wandering around hostile Nottingham with a handful of followers wearing brightly coloured velvet capes worn directly over their crusader gear is really the best demonstration of Richard’s strategic acumen and leadership capabilities. On the other hand, with Robin’s help, Richard is able to decisively foil his brother’s plans to usurp the throne and it is hard to argue with results. Of course, modern historians try to shy away from making moral judgments and instead seek to understand and analyse medieval persons within the context of the systems and institutions which they inhabited. Yet the core of the old narratives persists in the popular imagination, reinforced in no small way by the portrayal of Richard in films such as The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Much ink has been spilled on the topic of Robin Hood’s historicity. It is worth noting that there is some evidence of thirteenth-century regional English courts using the name Robed Hood and a variety of alternates as a description or euphemism for criminals. Other than that, I intend to ignore the issue entirely since I’m worried such wild speculation would reflect poorly upon my important research into the Loch Ness monster’s attempt to be elected Bishop of Glasgow or Bigfoots role in the JFK assassination. Inevitably the plot of The Adventures of Robin Hood draws considerably from Ivanhoe, a romance-infused medieval adventure novel written by Sir Walter Scott in 1819 which has seen wide popularity and numerous adaptations. Wilfred of Ivanhoe is a Saxon noble and companion of Richard the Lionheart who returns to an England still bitterly divided between the Saxons and their Norman conquerors. Wilfred attends a tournament hosted by the foppish and antagonistic Prince John where Robin of Locksley wows with his skill at archery. Later in the story, Robin and his band of merry men help Wilfred besiege a castle in which his love interest is being held hostage. The Adventures of Robin Hood elevates Prince John to a position of less ambiguous and incidental villainy, while merging the somewhat loutish Robin with the noble and dashing knight of Ivanhoe.

Vexingly, one of the elements the movie most clearly carried over from Sir Walter Scott’s novel is the anachronic portrayal of the delineation and ill-feeling between the Normans and Saxons. The Normans of the film hate the Saxon peasantry they prey upon with the kind of fierce dehumanising contempt necessary to exploit a group of perfectly innocent people so mercilessly persecuted. Johns’ Norman knights are shown to laugh as Saxons are killed in front of them while their thuggish minions rob Innkeepers and craftsmen blind. Luckily this tyranny is swiftly repaid by a montage of avenging arrows launched from off-screen by Robin and his followers. These darkly emotive but brief vignettes are used to establish the passage of time and the manner in which Robin’s rebellion is becoming increasingly effective in challenging John and his proxies in Nottingham, the sharply pompous Guy of Gisborne and the bumbling High Sheriff of Nottingham.

The darker tone and content of these scattered scenes effectively establish the stakes of the movie, while complimenting the humour and rollicking action which pervades the rest of the movie. This contrast can be seen in the ambitiously staged and frenetic but wholly bloodless scene in which Robin and his men waylay Guy, the Sheriff and their guards, as they attempt to escort a shipment of the ransom money through Sherwood Forest. Perhaps the Merry Men’s Saxon ancestors would have done better at the Battle of Hastings had they been able to swing at the Norman knights from vines or engage in some synchronised vaulting onto the backs of their horses. This bout of extended horseplay ends with the capture and humiliation of the Normans. In its aftermath, Robin and his men live up to their name and engage in an enormous victory feast within the forest, filled with howls of laughter, merriment and righteous colour as they caper around in the ostentatious garb they liberated from the knights.

Robin uses this incident and the movie’s presentation of the persistent and institutional inequality between Normans and Saxons to kindle a romance with Maid Maron. Off put by his bravado, poor table manners and criminal status, the revelation that the Saxon peasantry is suffering under the yoke of Prince John’s newly instated reign opens Maron’s eyes to the outlaw’s kind heart. This scene, while effective overall, contains a degree of tonal whiplash and makes one wonder why the starving and abused people who have fled into Sherwood in search of Robin’s protection are not able to attend the enormous feast taking place on the other side of the glade. Perhaps Robin had simply asked them to stand around and look sullen on the off chance he could impress a damsel or two? Overall, it is fair to say that the true value of The Adventures of Robin Hood to contemporary medievalism is not in its engaging but historically woolly and cobbled-together plot. Instead, the film’s legacy can be found in its landmark cinematography and aesthetics which has exerted a powerful influence upon the manner in which popular culture has conceived of and visualised the Medieval period.

The film’s $2 million budget was, by the standards of late 1930s Hollywood, absolutely eye-watering. The production was a big gamble for Warner Bros. Pictures, who had risen to prominence off the back of low-budget and introspective gangster movies. The driving force behind the movie and the source of its essential creative impulse was Warner Bros. producer Hal B. Wallis. Born, Aaron Blum Wolowicz, he was the son of first-generation Polish immigrants and had established a solid track record of producing mid-budget thrillers but had never before tackled something quite on the same scale as The Adventures of Robin Hood. Bolstered by the success of Robin Hood, Wallis would go on to become a legendary Hollywood producer, the mind behind such landmark successes as Santa Fe Trail (1940), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Gun Fight at the O.K. Coral (1957), Becket (1964), True Grit (1969) and Anne of a Thousand Days (1969) to name but a few. In all, his films received 19 Oscar nominations for Best Picture but sadly never won one.

The movie was initially directed by actor turned journeyman director, William Keighley, who had prior to this stage worked mostly on comedies with some forays into the crime and spy thrillers that were a staple of 1930s Hollywood. He would soon be replaced, however, by the auteur Hungarian-American director Michael Curtiz who had become known in Hollywood for his unique visual style and unusually dynamic camera placement. Curtiz was already a prolific director in the Austrian film industry before his 1924 movie The Moon of Israel brought him to the attention of Warner Bros. after which he emigrated to America. Having directed a considerable number of movies for the studio throughout the 1920s and 30s, Curtiz established the Swashbuckling credentials which would lead him to Robin Hood in 1935 with the piratical adventure movie Captain Blood. Following The Adventures of Robin Hood, Curtiz continued to collaborate closely with Wallis, directing Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy and a variety of other hit movies with other producers such as The Sea Wolf (1941), White Christmas (1954) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960).

Much like the change of director, the film also changed writers early into production after the original plans for the movie did not conform to Wallis’ vision. The original script for the project was written by Rowland Leigh who had previously written Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). Leigh provided much of the story structure used within the final movie, however, the actual dialogue of the film was written in a highly overwrought and anachronistic almost faux Shakespearean manner. Feeling that this set the wrong tone for the charming action romp he had in mind, Wallis brought in two new writers, Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller to rework the script and overhaul the dialogue. It proved to be the right decision, the script still glimmers with a trace of poetry here and there but overall, the radical change in language makes the movie instantly more accessible to general audiences and its characters appear more at ease and naturalistic. On the other hand, Guy of Gisborne’s repeated use of the term ‘Wolfs-Head’, an archaic legal euphemism for outlaw, ended up baffling my primary school teacher when a classmate of mine burst into tears after I called him a wolfs-head for monopolising the last of the red paint.

Almost as important to the film’s legacy and success as Wallis’ decision to make alterations to the dialogue was the switch from the black and white, in which it was originally going to be shot, to Technicolour. The great joy of The Adventures of Robin Hood and its enduring contribution to modern medievalism is that it presents a vision of the Middle Ages that positively thrums with life and vibrancy. While there are always nit-picks and criticism to be found in Hollywood’s attempts at medieval costuming, and you may question why the Norman nobles attend dinner coifed and in chainmail, the Nottingham of the movie is riotous with colour. The heraldry and costumes of the ubiquitous Norman knights are bold, even gaudy, in a highly calibrated way that speaks to their immense pride and arrogance. John and Guy’s cupidity and lust for power are communicated in the ostentatiousness of their garb which contrasts with the humble Robin and his impoverished but good-hearted fellows. Indeed, Guy’s most iconic outfit of the movie is a fractal distortion of Richard’s gold and red, an instantly recognisable testament to his attempts to abuse royal authority to his own ends. Likewise, the Archery contest which John stages in order to capture Robin, at the suggestion of the much put upon High Sheriff, is laid out with a splendour and pomposity that matches and eclipses that of any tournament scene in cinema.

The film’s interpretation of Sherwood is an eternally light and breezy place filled with invitingly comfortable hedgerows, pristine glades and welcoming hidden pathways into its leafy and cool interior. This mirrors its role in the movie as a home.  This luminously lit Sherwood is a place of shelter and respite in which the Merry Men and their fellow Saxons can laugh and jest with one another safe from the deprivations and inequalities of the outside world. Johns’ followers repeat throughout the movie the sheer impossibility of locating and capturing Robin in the greenwood which they talk about as an otherworldly and fearful domain. We have already touched upon the wholly bloodless and almost playful manner of Robin’s ambush of the Norman patrol which reinforces the idea of Sherwood as a sanctum in which significantly no evil can occur.

This is contrasted strongly with the misery and evil we see inflicted in the rather drab and downcast city of Nottingham and the brutish looming presence of Nottingham castle itself. The castle broods squat and pugnacious on a broad hill opposite the city, its stark functionality a far cry from the welcoming and ever sunny boughs of distant Sherwood. This menace is carried into the chill, yawningly monolithic interior of the castle which is simultaneously instantly emotive and almost comically large. The villains’ plot around a fireplace, bickering and trading recriminations at the centre of a pool of light assailed by the stygian abyss which is the now all but empty great hall. At one point Robin and Guy sword fight around a pillar so large and Ozymandian in scale that it could only have held up the sky.

All in all, it is fantastic stuff. This bold and dramatically resonant visual language is perfectly complemented by the film’s relentless, almost febrile energy. The movie certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of extras whose presence and robust swaggering imbues scenes with a sense of life and dynamism.  This is most apparent in the pell-mell and uproar of the film’s action scenes which see people scatter in every direction, crashing about in a great tide of humanity. Amusingly, when Robin tries to escape from the tournament with his usual swashbuckling elan, he is simply dog piled under a mass of guards. The movie’s attempts at medieval combat are from a historical perspective woeful, yet the constant clashing of swords and acrobatic leaping back and forth makes for an energetic and thrilling spectacle. The archery in contrast was frightening realistic with specially armoured and padded stuntmen being paid thousands of dollars to allow master archer, Howard Hill, to fire real arrows at them. The pace and urgency of these action scenes, most notably the opening feast, ambush, tournament and climax are elevated by the movie’s energetic score composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold which at times feels like it is on the urge of washing the assembled cast and audience away with it.

All these production elements are brought together and elevated by an extremely able cast. Errol Flynn stars as Robin Hood, in what must surely be the most iconic role of his career. Flynn’s main contribution to the role is instilling Robin with a robust sense of confidence and effortless charm. Maid Marion is played by the truly wonderful Olivia de Havilland. de Haviland shared considerable onscreen chemistry with Flynn having already stared alongside him in The Charge of the Light Brigade and Captain Blood. The Hollywood of the 1930s, dominated as it was by the studio system and their stable of creatives, was evidently a small world.

As Robin’s foils and companions, the Merry Men, composed of Eugene Pallet’s Friar Tuck, Alan Hale’s Little John and Herbin Mulder’s faithful Much, play a crucial role in establishing the tone of the movie and all perform admirably. Unfortunately, Patric Knowles’ Will Scarlett isn’t given a huge amount to do other than nod genially and laugh but he performs both functions with verve. Interestingly, Alan Hale actually played the role of Little John in Robin Hood, a silent movie starring Douglas Fairbank as Robin which was released in 1922 and was itself hailed as a creative and financial triumph. As previously noted, a great deal of the film’s mileage and enjoyment can be derived from its triumvirate of villains. Veteran actor and future Phantom of the Opera, Claude Rains, imbues Prince John with a sort of languid villainy and lackadaisical arrogance which underpin his pretensions to power. Meanwhile, Basil Rathbone gives a masterful performance as Guy of Gisborne, a terse rigid man bristling at all times with barely concealed outraged inferiority. The trio is rounded out by the comedic but surprisingly cunning High Sheriff played by British screen legend Melville Cooper.

The Adventures of Robin Hood is above all else a fun action romp full of swashbuckling adventure remembered fondly for its charmingly approachable characters, energetic action and dynamic direction. Despite its Frankenstein and historically woolly plot, it is still of considerable interest to those engaged in the study of medievalism and its impact upon popular culture. The movie does not present us with a historically or materially accurate facsimile of late twelfth-century England. In truth, it doesn’t really try. What it does do is present us with a vision of the Middle Ages that, distorted though it may be, is vivid and alive. After the parade of self-consciously brooding, barren and grey movies set in the Middle Ages we’ve been presented with over the last few decades, I think that’s a vision worth holding onto.

James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.

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