Directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley
Screenplay by Norman Reilly Raine, Seton I. Miller and Rowland Leigh
Starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathone, Claude Rains, Alan Hale Sr., and Melville Cooper
Everybody knows the story of Robin Hood, or at least the one-sentence tag they think is the story of Robin Hood – steal from the rich and give to the poor. Not surprising, that tag is overly-reductive, and grabs one line from the movie in an effort to summarize it, almost at random, ignoring that Robin Hood is complicated and less-interested in stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, than he is about protesting tax policy, and religious and ethnic persecution.
What It’s Really About
Whilst off on the crusades (religious persecution) King Richard is captured and held for ransom. In his absence, and acting under the guise of trying to free the King and gather the ransom, Prince John, usurps power and immediately starts raising taxes and suborning the Normans (ethnic persecution, tax policy), all for his own benefit. He also makes clear to those around him he has no interest in paying the ransom and prefers the brother to die. How else can he become King?
In the midst of this, one of the King’s knights, Robin Hood, assembles a band of men and begins a terror campaign against Prince John. Occasionally, Robin gives lip-service to stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, but really, he’s more interested in doing battle over taxation and persecution.
In the end, Richard returns, Prince John is squashed, and Robin is appointed Baron, with Maid Marion at his side.
What’s to Love?
Mostly everything, actually.
As in most movies, it’s the performances that make the thing work – without good ones, everything calls into caricature. The collected bad guys are magnificent, top to bottom, with each performer playing his part with restrained gusto. Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy, Melville Cooper as the weakling Sherriff of Nottingham, and Claude Rains as Prince John himself are all superb. Rather than chew the scenery, as most villains are wont to do, each is slimy and sniveling in their own ways and, even if they didn’t literally twirl their moustaches, you don’t need it.
Errol Flynn, of course, is outstanding as Robin. He’s playful, yet determined, both driven by his ego and also hampered by it to a certain degree. That he’s complicated makes him believable and makes us want to take his side.
The toughest role in the movie, of course, is Olivia De Havilland as Maid Marian. In another film, where she’d be uncovered and allowed to fully emote, she’d have all her physicality at her disposal; here, she’s covered nearly from head to toe throughout the movie, and is forced to be very reserved, meaning that her emotions need to be communicated largely with her eyes and a look. That she manages to be stern and attractive and warm and tender to any degree, and most of all has spirit, while wearing long dresses and with her arms and head covered, shows true skill. It’s all the more impressive when you remember that only a year later she would play the ever-mousy Melanie Hamilton in Gone With The Wind. Plus, she has good chemistry with Errol Flynn, which is the thing.
While the performances sell it, they’d have nothing to work with if not for the writing, which is excellent. It’s greatest triumph is the script makes the villain’s motivations clear. In many other movies you find the bad guys simply want to blow up the world, for no other reason than they can – in other words, they are simply insane. In contrast, these men had clear reasons to do what they did, and for the steps they took, and clear objectives – mostly power and profit. Throughout the film you could honestly understand where they were coming from, and why they did what they did, even if you wouldn’t have done it yourself. In other words, their actions were not insane. And this should be a lesson to writers everywhere: just as your good guy’s must have clear and reasonable objectives, so must the bad guys.
In addition, the writing never bogs down in the seriousness of what it’s doing, i.e., it’s not afraid of a joke. At every turn it willingly throws in humor and turns of phrase, all to help the action move along. My favorite passage comes when Marian accuses Robin of speaking treason, to which he replies, “Fluently.”
Prince John laughs at this, then immediately needles Gisbourne because, “Here’s Gisbourne, so in love with Marian he daren’t say “boo” to her… and this saucy fellow [meaning Robin] gives her better than she sends.”
Quite lovely and witty indeed.
The direction, of course, is key to this sort of film. Too many times a film like Robin Hood can go off the rails and turn ridiculous or maudlin in some way – you can peruse the other adaptations of the story for yourself and decide which is which. But under the direction of Curtiz – yes, he’s credited with another, but I think history has borne him out to be the primary director – the story keeps a light, playful touch. The action of the scenes are shot coherently, with the occasional wide-shot giving scale, and the close-ups showing how visceral they are. Besides that, the direction doesn’t let us forget the bad guy is charming, which is key. It isn’t enough for him to be bad – bad men generally don’t get anywhere in life on badness alone. No, you need followers, and in order to get followers, you need to be able to charm them. Fortunately, with Rains in the role, what could have been petulant, is quietly charming.
In all, for a film that that hinges on political intrigue and taxation, it’s really quite light on its feet.
Because the film was meant as a romp, it is decidedly sanitized and mostly bloodless. Neither stab, nor arrow, wound seems to produce any the red stuff, and the only time we really see any is on one of the men’s heads when he’s had a fight in the woods on the way to tell Robin the King has returned to England.
If this movie came out today, I suspect it would serve as the movie that launched a thousand think-pieces about the way Friar Tuck is fat-shamed, and how the treatment of Tuck tends towards bullying. After all, when he first meets Robin, Robin forces Tuck to carry him across a river, to keep his own feet dry, and later another of Robin’s men makes a point of saying how hefty Tuck is.
That being said, Tuck is no pushover and gives as good as he gets. Rather than carry Robin across the river, he promptly dumps him in the water. And when the one man pats him on the belly and says, “It’ll take all the deer in Sherwood Forest to fill that belly!” Tuck merely pats the man on the head and says, “And twice that to fill your empty head!”
There’s Something Here For Everybody
There’s broad silliness for the kids, adventure for the fathers, romance for the mothers – it’s got everything for the whole family. It’s even got everything for folks of all political persuasions. The Tea Party folks will love the storylines about unjust taxation and corrupt governments, while the 99% folks will love the occasional lip-service paid to stealing from the rich to give to the poor.
Alan Hale Sr., who played Little John, had a son, Alan Hale Jr. Junior’s most famous part? The Captain on Gilligan’s Island. He also had a small part as a blacksmith who joins the posse that inadvertently hangs the wrong man in Clint Eastwood’s Hang ‘em High.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
Also, don’t be afraid to have a look at the thing that inspired this, The Best Picture Project.
 I use the word ‘terror’ on purpose, because there really isn’t much difference between revolutionary activity, a la the continental army fighting the British in America in the late 1700s, or Robin Hood, and modern-day terrorists. The only real difference is that historical terrorists wound up the winners and therefore got to write themselves as the good guys. But if they’d lost, they’d merely be terrorists.
 A lot of this plot sounds like Star Wars, which was also a plot that revolved around politics and trade routes.
 This movie could have easily felt like a Star Wars prequel, if it wanted to.
 Robin sees this as harmless fun, just poking fun as a soon-to-be-allie, but of course, the bully always seems to think things are harmless fun.