' ' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: The Adventures of Robin Hood

Friday, May 14, 2010

My Great Movies: The Adventures of Robin Hood

"In these cynical days when swashbucklers cannot be presented without an ironic subtext, this great 1938 film exists in an eternal summer of bravery and romance. We require no Freudian subtext, no revisionist analysis." - Roger Ebert

Maybe it's because I have more hopelessness than even the most hopeless of hopeless romantics. Maybe it's because I'm too damn earnest. Maybe it's because CGI does absolutely nothing for me. Maybe it's because I was raised in a house with a framed black and white photo of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland (see: directly above) displayed prominently. Maybe it's because of all these reasons and more that I still think "The Adventures of Robin Hood", filmed in Technicolor so sumptuous it should be served in a tumbler, stands as the definitive silver screen story of Sherwood Forest's most infamous outlaw, and one of the finest action/adventure films of all time.

No doubt it is of a much different era, an era when heroes needed no existential motivation and spent no time in despair, even in the most despairing moments, because, well, heck, they were the heroes. The Sherwood Forest of co-directors Michael Curtiz and William Keighley's creation is colorful, alive, a true reflection of its take on Robin of Locksley (Flynn) and his band of merry men, whimsy replacing torment, the lot of them so loyal to Richard the Lionheart that when they abscond with the treasure of Prince John's (Claude Rains) tax money they never think to take any for themselves.

Consider the sequence in which Robin and Little John (Alan Hale) do battle with sticks atop the log stretched across the winding creek. Robin bears no ill will, specifically stating he merely wants to see what Little John is "made of" and as the two joust Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles) sits off to the side and strums his lute. When the tete-a-tete has finished - Robin getting dunked in the water - the trio sits and laughs. Loudly. There is a plethora of laughter in this movie, deep, full-bore guffaws. Probably eighty percent of Robin's proclamations are met by the merry men's merriment. (Why can't extras in this day and age be allowed this sort of laughter to highlight the main characters?) Later, when Maid Marian (de Havilland) has been made the outlaws' captive - a captive to whom no harm is ever intended - she watches Robin bite boorishly into a cinematic turkey leg. He catches her look and she looks away, feigning disdain. But then she mimics his boorish bite and, seeing it, Robin roars with laughter so over-the-top that I roared with laughter. Modern day viewers might view this scene as outdated. Ah, and so it is, which is precisely why I cherish it so.

The now oft-told story is that the title character was set to be played by one James Cagney until Cagney - clearly at the insistence of the movie gods - stormed off the set and was quickly replaced by the rising Tasmanian star Flynn. He embodies the role to such an immense degree I dare say he has become how we perceive Robin Hood. Whatever the basis for this figure may have been - and that is up for debate - Errol Flynn re-wrote the rules so that they became hard and fast, so that all actors who followed in his footsteps would also loom in his shadow. Actors of the here and now simply could not - in any capacity - get away with this performance. Cary Elwes gets away with hauling a deer into Prince John's heavily guarded castle in Mel Brooks' 1993 "Men In Tights" specifically because it's a spoof. Flynn gets away with it in a dramatic film because he can convince us of it. To kill a deer is death - to enter that castle is death - but he projects such light-heartedness as he challenges Prince John and his cunning lackey Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), gladly dining across from them, openly telling them he will lead a revolt and standing up to Maid Marian's initial disdain.

Marian: "You speak treason."
Robin: "Fluently."

The romance. Oh, the romance. Sweet, simple, true. So true. My mom is a noted amateur Errol Flynn historian and my favorite story she ever told me in relation to the repeated pairing of Flynn & de Havilland (read about the de Havilland Decision at your leisure - that woman is/was stone cold cool, and she is why an actress like Kate Winslet, years later, could get to make "Hideous Kinky" if for no other reason than she wanted to) was how he would constantly and purposely mess up the makeout scenes simply so he could make out with her again. (Though they never actually hooked up in real life.) Look at the scene where he has ascended her balcony Romeo-style (which, admittedly, in the midst of a bold, beautiful long take has an awkward cut). That's not just chemistry, man, that's legitimate infatuation.

Robin: "Will you come with me?"
Marian: "To Sherwood?"
Robin: "I've nothing to offer you but a life of hardship and danger. But we'd be together."

Swoon.... But Marian remains at the castle because she knows she is the only one present who can keep an eye on vile Prince John and report his dastardly doings to those revolting against him. And that's what struck me most on my viewing of the film in preparation for this post - the fact that de Havilland's Maid Marian - despite being in a movie made all of eighteen years after women earned the right to vote - was no damsel in distress. It is she who thinks up the plan to rescue Robin when he is scheduled to be hanged after his capture at the redoubted archery tournament. She does not merely fall in love with Robin Hood because, you know, she's Maid Marian and he's Robin Hood, she is allowed to progress from scene to scene, outright dislike to cautious suspicion to hesitant flirtation to flickers of love to let's get married.

And when she figures out what Prince John and his cohorts are up to she does not stand around and wait for others to save the day. Nuh uh, she gets involved, she fights back, and she has a totally awesome scene that I realized was the precedent for Madeline Stowe's Cora Munro telling off her own father in my favorite movie ever fifty-four years later wherein Prince John discovers her treasonous aid of his prime adversary.

Prince John: "You'll be sorry you interfered."
Marian: "Sorry? I'd do it again if you killed me for it."

In short, this Maid Marian, the only Maid Marian that will ever matter, was kind of a bad ass.

That said, stories of this sort still require the hero to save the heroine at the end and so it will come to pass. With Prince John set to swear himself in as King with reports of his brother Richard out and about in the countryside and with Maid Marian locked up in the dungeon and waiting death when the swearing-in is done Robin, the merry men, Richard, and his knights will finagle their way into the castle for a large-scale stunt-laden showdown that purports to be between all the Normans and all the Saxons but really is just an imaginative excuse for Robin Hood and his arch nemesis Sir Guy of Gisbourne to face off with swords drawn and see what's what, who's who and exchange witty repartee ("Do you know any prayers?" - "I'll say one for you.") in the midst of thrusts and parries and climaxing with, first, one of the finest shots in the history of cinema as momentarily the dueling duo is seen only by shadow and, second, the conclusion atop the spiral staircase which only reinforces the notion that every swordfight (including Olympic fencing matches) should conclude atop a spiral staircase.

The latest incarnation of the story hits the big screen today. Director Ridley Scott has apparently said it will be the most historically accurate version yet. Russell Crowe, taking on the title role, has advised there will be no tights in the film since "They weren’t invented until quite a few hundred years after when the story takes place." Well, that's nice. Maybe that's what people want. Maybe it will be huge. If it is, good for them. But I won't be seeing it.

Pardon me very much but I'd prefer to hold on to the romantic myth.

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