"Why, you speak treason!" exclaims Marian.
"Fluently," replies Robin.
OK, forget about Errol Flynn's pageboy hairpiece, admittedly a difficult obstacle to overcome but not entirely impossible, and, Doug Fairbanks notwithstanding, you get the most swashbuckling hero in the history of movies.
In fact, "The Adventures of Robin Hood" from 1938 may be the most exciting retelling of any vintage legend ever filmed, an almost perfect blend of adventure, romance, and high good humor. That it took so long after the introduction of DVDs for the film to make it to disc was a remarkable oversight, but the Special Edition DVD of a few years back and now the HD-DVD help make up for any past lapses. Warner Brothers have done up the film wonderfully well, with a fully restored and remastered print and a good high-definition picture. A swashbuckling adventure is more than ever a swashbuckling treasure.
Hair styles aside, "The Adventures of Robin Hood" is as nearly perfect a costume action epic as one could hope for. Flynn was the perfect leading man; the supporting cast is equally distinguished; the directors, two of them, keep the pace moving along at a healthy clip; the scenery and costumes are sometimes breathtaking; and the musical score, art direction, and editing all won Academy Awards. If the romance seems just a bit stilted today, it's the film's only minor drawback. This is mostly fun for everyone, young and old.
I mentioned Doug Fairbanks, who essayed the Robin Hood role earlier, but Flynn eclipses even the great silent-screen star in his spirited daring-do. Although Flynn professed to have been bored with the role, no one could handle a sword, fly from a chandelier, or charm a lady quite like Flynn, who came to the part after playing similar roles in "Captain Blood," "The Prince and the Pauper," "The Charge of the Light Brigade," and you might say a similar role in real life insofar as charming the ladies was concerned. The term "In Like Flynn" was not invented for nothing. As a movie hero, Flynn couldn't be better: Tall, slim, dashing, impossibly handsome, and unlike a certain boy-next-door American who portrayed Robin more recently, Flynn was an Australian, born in Tasmania, who had lived in England and had a proper accent, a characteristic not lost on Mel Brooks when he made "Men in Tights." One can hardly imagine the studio's first choice, cocky little Jimmy Cagney in the part, but serendipity struck when Cagney was unavailable and Flynn stepped in. The world has been safe for swashbucklers ever since.
The supporting cast is no less felicitous. The beauteous Olivia de Havilland plays the beauteous Maid Marian, coy, flirtatious, and a year away from the much more prime Melanie in "Gone With the Wind." Basil Rathbone is the consummate villain, Sir Guy of Gisbourne, the actor also a year away from his most famous continuing role, Sherlock Holmes. Here Rathbone is the very epitome of the evildoer and every bit the match for Robin. Warner Brothers standby Claude Rains is the corrupt and somewhat effete Prince John, trying his best to usurp the throne in the absence of his brother, King Richard the Lion-Heart. Eugene Pallette is the Friar Tuck I grew up with, and he's still the only person I can picture in the role. Likewise, Alan Hale is the only Little John I can imagine, a role he played in three different motion-picture versions of "Robin Hood"; although people today may be more familiar with his son, Alan Hale, Jr., as the skipper in "Gilligan's Island." Melville Cooper plays the comically sniveling High Sheriff of Nottingham, and Ian Hunter is the noble Richard. Patric Knowles as Will Scarlett is the odd-man-out, never quite establishing himself so indelibly in one's mind. The studio had wanted David Niven for Scarlett, but he was unavailable. Our loss.
William Keighley was the original director of the film. He had directed Flynn in "The Prince and the Pauper" the year before, and WB expected big things of him. However, when the rushes began coming in, the studio felt the action scenes lacked requisite zip; so they brought in veteran Michael Curtiz, who had directed Flynn in "Captain Blood" (1935), "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1936), and "The Perfect Specimen" (1937), to take over. They were right; Keighley did fine with some of the dramatic encounters, but Curtiz was ideal managing the derring-do.
Most of the picture was made on the Warner Brothers lot, as might be expected, with the big soundstages utilized to their fullest for things like the banquet scene. But the outdoor settings in Sherwood Forest needed a more convincing aspect, and WB found it in a number of Southern California locations and one Northern California spot, Chico's Bidwell Park, the second-largest municipal park in the country. If you ask a Californian what the little town of Chico is most noted for, the respondent is apt to mention the State University, Velveeta, and Bidwell Park. Don't ask; do a Google search on Chico and Velveeta.
Then there were the Oscars, well deserved for the film's music (Eric Wolfgang Konngold), art direction (Carl Jules Weyl), and editing (Ralph Dawson, who may be as responsible as anyone for the movie's fast action and excitement).
A trivia note from John Eastman in his book "Retakes" (Ballantine, New York, 1989): "His (Flynn's) frequent tardiness on the set annoyed cast and crew, and most of his speaking scenes had to be reshot several times because of his bad memory for dialogue. With costar Olivia de Havilland, who had carried an unrequited torch for him for three years, he teased and bantered, kissing her far more ardently than the censors would pass, thus requiring more retakes. Flynn's habits provoked constant arguments between himself, director Michael Curtiz, and studio chief Jack Warner, who wanted to fire him but was tied by contract--fortunately, for the film became a minor classic."
Whether or not you're familiar with this particular "Robin Hood," you'll find everything here you always remembered about the legend: Robin's fight with Little John, Friar Tuck's rotund rascality, the rescue from the gallows, the romance, the swordplay, even the famous splitting of the arrow, a feat reputedly done with almost no special effects. "The Adventures of Robin Hood" is, indeed, the quintessential movie swashbuckler.
Several years before this HD-DVD release, Warner Bros. had fully restored the film, eliminating age marks, scratches, lines, spots, and flecks, correcting the color, and issuing the results in a two-disc Special-Edition set. The 1938 movie was among the earliest to use three-strip Technicolor, and thanks to WB's restoration the image looked almost as good in SD as it probably did when it was new. I thought the colors were a little bright, but they were still fairly natural and realistic. My only serious concern about the standard-definition transfer was a somewhat soft object delineation and a small degree of grain in darker scenes and against wide, flat backdrops.
Now, in direct comparison, the HD-DVD version slightly sharpens and clarifies the image, making the standard-definition rendering look all the more soft and blurry. Colors in HD are as brilliant as ever, with blacks and reds remarkably deep, as are the royal purples, dazzling golds, and gleaming whites. The great feast in Sherwood Forest is one of the most-colorful, most-impressive visuals in the film. One can continue to find grain, though, as one should, considering the grain is undoubtedly native to the original print, but it is never severe enough to mind after the first few minutes of viewing. And what do you mean, Is it in widescreen? The movie is pushing seventy years old.
On the SD disc I found the Dolby Digital single-channel monaural sound a tad hard and edgy, with a hint of background noise in quieter sections at higher volume. The same can be said of the new Dolby Digital Plus 1.0 sound, although like the improved picture, the sound is also sharper and clearer than before. Korngold's dazzling musical score could still use more mid and lower bass to fill it out, as well as more frequency and dynamic range, although the trumpets ring out boldly at Nottingham Castle and appear quite realistic. What's more, because the DD+ sound has the advantage of being exceptionally clear, it makes dialogue easy to understand, even if voices are a touch pinched and nasal at times. Background noise seems a little more prominent now, given the moderately greater clarity of the DD+ delivery, but as with the film grain, one hardly notices it a few minutes into the movie. Remember, this was 1938, little more than a decade after the introduction of sound to pictures. Given the circumstances, the audio comes off quite well.
The bonus items on the HD-DVD duplicate the materials found on WB's two-disc Special Edition, and they are quite formidable, several of the items in 1080 high definition but most in 480 standard resolution, and in total time lasting over twice as long as the main feature. First, there is an audio commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer. It can be a little dry, as though he were reading a script to a college film class, but it is filled with an abundance of substantial details, and it really is fun to listen to. After that is a Warner "Night at the Movies 1938," introduced by Leonard Maltin that includes a vintage newsreel; a musical short subject from Freddie Rich and His Orchestra; a Merrie Melodies cartoon, "Katnip Kollege" (HD); and a theatrical trailer for another Warner hit of the day, "Angels With Dirty Faces."
Moving on, we find two fairly recent documentaries. The first is sixty-minutes long on the coming of color to the movies. Called "Glorious Technicolor," it is the story of the evolution of the Technicolor process, divided into chapters for easy access and hosted by Angela Lansbury. The second documentary, "Welcome to Sherwood: The Story of the Adventures of Robin Hood," is a sixty-fifth anniversary affair on the making of the classic, with historians, writers, and film buffs Rudy Behlmer, Leonard Maltin, Robert Osborne, Paula Sigman, and Bob Thomas, Korngold expert John Mauceri, and art director Gene Allen. It's fifty-five minutes long and takes the viewer through every stage of the film's production from casting to final screenings.
Further, there is an eight-minute series of outtakes (without sound) also narrated by Rudy Behlmer, plus a segment called "Breakdowns of 1938," a studio blooper reel that provides fourteen minutes worth of flubs from various films of the period. "Robin Hood Through the Ages" is a seven-minute look at Robin Hood's earlier screen adaptations, most particularly the 1922 Douglas Fairbanks silent film. Then there's "A Journey to Sherwood Forest," thirteen minutes of on-location, behind-the-scenes home movies made during the film's shooting. Two classic Looney Tunes cartoons follow that parody Robin Hood: "Rabbit Hood" (HD) with Bugs Bunny and "Robin Hood Daffy" (HD) with Daffy Duck. Then, there are some vintage short subjects, "Cavalcade of Archery" and "The Cruise of the Zaca," followed by a gallery segment called "Splitting the Arrow" (HD) that includes historical art, costume designs, scene concepts, cast and crew pictures, and the like. An Errol Flynn trailer gallery includes trailers for twelve Flynn movies. And, finally, there are three audio-only bonuses: "The Robin Hood Radio Show" from 1938; some Erich Wolfgang Korngold piano sessions; and a music-only track highlighting the film's Oscar-winning score.
As usual, the HD-DVD comes with English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired. In addition, there are twenty-nine scene selections (but no chapter insert); pop-up menus; a zoom-and-pan feature; an indicator for elapsed time; and an Elite Red HD case.
"The Adventures of Robin Hood" has been called "A splendid adventure story, rousingly operatic in treatment" (Leslie Halliwell, "Halliwell's Film Guide"), "Cinematic pageantry at its best" ("Variety"), "One of the most splendid entertainments ever devised" (David Shipman, "The Story of Cinema"), "The quintessential swashbuckler" (Steven H. Scheuer, "Movies on TV"), "The definitive swashbuckler" ("Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide"), "To most film buffs...the Robin Hood" (John Eastman, "Retakes"), "Among the very best adventure films" (Mick Martin and Marsha Porter, "Video and DVD Guide"), "The stuff of which Saturday afternoon dreams were made" (Scott Meek, "Time Out Film Guide"), and "the greatest costume adventure of all time" (Danny Peary, "Guide for the Film Fanatic").
They're absolutely correct. And did I mention the movie looks and sounds better than ever? It does.