I could discuss all the ways people might find The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) dated. The violence is toned down, the heroes single-mindedly noble, the villains one-dimensional thugs and cowards, the romance simplistic, and never mind the jokes we've all heard about a bunch of men in tights living together in the woods. Plus, how many different versions of this story have we already seen? Surely, a tale is long in the tooth once Mel Brooks gets his hands on it.
But to do so would be a grave disservice to one of the liveliest, most light-hearted, and most fun swashbuckling adventure movies I've ever seen. Forget all the other version of Robin Hood you've seen; this one remains a joyous film only the most narrow-minded cynic could fail to enjoy.
I don't think I need to recap the plot too much. After King Richard is captured after leaving England for the Crusades, his brother Prince John (Claude Rains) seizes power with his ally Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), imposing high taxes on the Saxon peasants and terrorizing the towns. Robin of Loxley (Errol Flynn) organizes his band of merry men to oppose the tyranny, robs from the rich to give the poor, and finds time to romance Maid Marion (Olivia de Havilland). Yes, we've seen it all before every other version, but to see it here is to see it done the best.
Two things struck me about this version of Robin Hood. The first was the nature of its hero. Today, we've become so accustomed to the brooding anti-hero, the lone gunman with a haunted past and scarred by tragedy. Consider the success of Batman, Blade, and even modern interpretations of Robin Hood, most prominently Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe. But Errol Flynn is so exuberant, so full of life and wit, and just so sure of himself. Even in fights to the death, he seems likes he's toying with his enemies and having a good laugh. In comparison, modern-day action heroes are morose and self-pitying.
The second was the film's use of color. I've often heard (and agreed) any movie could be made better simply by being in black-and-white, but after watching this, I don't think that applies here (after consideration, The Wizard of Oz is another great example of how to use color). Shot in three-strip Technicolor, The Adventures of Robin Hood is gorgeous to look at. The feudal pageantry comes to life, and the costumes and scenery, rather than sticking out as silly, fit right in. It's not realistic, nor is meant to be; it feels like a legend come to life.
I was also impressed how well the action scenes hold up. Sure, they're aren't as complex as some of today's stuff, but they seem more grounded in reality. We don't see today's frenzied quick cuts and computer generated imagery; we see real people engaged in real-time action and stunts. It's clearly defined and not propped up by technology. That really looks like Robin swinging on the rope while handling a sword because Errol Flynn (or his stuntman) really performed the feat. In one scene, Robin drops down from a great height, and I actually winced at the impact because he obviously dropped down. That connection to physical reality separates the compellingly thrilling and the gee-whiz of cartoon effects.
The Adventures of Robin Hood certainly holds up after more than 70 years. It's still exciting, adventurous, and funny. It's a prime example of how great Hollywood was during its Golden Age.