Few motion pictures have ever matched the 1938 Warner Bros. production of The Adventures of Robin Hood for sheer entertainment. Even today this film ranks high on any list of all-time favorites. Warner Bros. first considered filming The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1935 with contract star James Cagney slated for the title role, but in November of that year Cagney walked off the lot for a lengthy dispute and one month later the studio presented newcomer Errol Flynn in Captain Blood. After that film's extraordinary impact, The Adventures of Robin Hood was tailored for Flynn and given a budget of $1,600,000—the largest sum allotted to a Warner film up to that time. (The cost eventually reached $2,000,000.) Although non-stop action was the keynote of The Adventures of Robin Hood, there was also aboveaverage dialogue, spirited performances, and impressive spectacle. An important element in this unique mesh was the excellent casting, including the premier swashbuckler Errol Flynn, who at twenty-nine was at his peak and perfect for the role, with just enough seasoning. He was "hero" personified. Olivia de Havilland was by now his ideal screen romantic interest, having been paired effectively with Flynn in two previous films. Their romantic scenes were played with believable ardor, grace and more than a touch of humor.
In addition to all the other ingredients, Warner Bros. used the then-new three-color Technicolor process. It was a wise decision, as the legendary subject with its many lush forest scenes, costumes and pageantry, was perfect for full color. Seen today, the hues are still extraordinary and the film is one of the best examples of the old Technicolor process, which has been obsolete since the mid-1950s. Some of the favorite incidents of the Robin Hood legend were used on the screen for the first time: the bout with quarterstaves between Robin and Little John (Alan Hale) on a log spanning a stream, Robin's first meeting with Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) and his forcing the rotund cleric to carry him piggyback across the stream, and the King (Ian Hunter) coming to Sherwood disguised as a monk. Finally, all the various archery contests described in the many legendary versions were amalgamated into one major archery tournament, wherein Robin splits his opponent's arrow (actually accomplished by archery champion Howard Hill) and wins the Golden Arrow prize.
Robin and Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), chief conspirer under Prince John (Claude Rains), become rivals for Lady Marian (Olivia de Havilland), a Norman ward of King Richard the Lion Heart. This triangle, not present in any of the old ballads, originated in the popular De Koven-Smith light opera version of Robin Hood in 1890. Since there was a little something suggested from all sources, Flynn (or occasionally a stunt double) was required to engage in some lithe leaping, wall-scaling, vaulting, vine-swinging—and of course, swordplay—to take into account the Douglas Fairbanks heritage. Audiences then and now loved the movie, many people going back to see it time and again. During World War II, it was one of the most popular films shown to members of the armed forces overseas on bases or on ships. In 1948, ten years after its first release, Warner reissued the film in theaters everywhere with new Technicolor prints, treating it in the manner of one of their big, fresh attractions. The public flocked once again, the picture performing better than most new films at the box office and certainly better than the usual revival of an old movie. It was reissued another time—but in black and white only and on a more limited basis—just before being sold to television in the mid-1950s, where it has been a perennial favorite. In a poll taken in 1977 for TV Guide, program directors of television stations throughout the country were asked to name the ten most popular, most often shown movies in their markets. Robin Hood was number five, preceded by—in order of popularity—Casablanca, King Kong, The Magnificent Seven, and The Maltese Falcon.
The Adventures of Robin Hood avoids the pitfalls that plague so many other films in the historical romance genre. The subject had been extraordinarily popular for over six hundred years, and Warner Bros. had the good sense not to alter drastically the material or to make it seem considerably more than it was. All the elements are handled in a relatively simple and straightforward manner. The dialogue is not too flowery or archaic in an attempt to be faithful to the period; vigor and pace always offset the pomp and ceremony, and nothing tedious mars the proceedings. Rather than lasting two hours or longer, as so many costume adventure films do, Robin Hood runs its course in a brisk one hour and forty-two minutes. During that time, the film is crammed with incident and action—all of it pointed and interestingly staged. There is a prevailing humor, not forced or awkward, but light-hearted, impudent, and indigenous.
Relatively little about the picture dates, except in a charming way. The characters, costumes, castle, and forest are idealized, but then the film is not a document of medieval life; rather, it is a fairy tale illustrated by Technicolor. The "love interest," usually clumsy and arbitrary in costume adventure films, is here properly motivated and nicely woven into the plot fabric. And the rich Erich Wolfgang Korngold score serves as marvelous connective tissue, sweeping the film along and providing a splendid added dimension. Many other productions of the Robin Hood legend followed. Some, like Disney's live-action feature of 1952, The Story of Robin Hood, presented a substantially similar story with variations in the details. But the definitive Robin Hood for most people since 1938 is the Warner Bros. version, wherein many elements of popular entertainment are beautifully fused: fairy-tale romance, spectacle, color, action, pageantry, humor, the triumph of right over might, the exultation of the Free Spirit, the charm of the greenwood, and a vague nostalgia for a partly mythical age of chivalry.