At some level, we must concede that Michael Curtiz was more of a filmmaker of efficient craftmaking than superlative artistic ambition; this sense of getting-the-job-done pervades even his masterpiece, Casablanca, but gosh darn it, well-oiled-machine filmmaking has never been more delectable than Michael Curtiz filmmaking. The perpetually underrated master of the craft was no auteur, nor did he want to be, but his films sparkle with single-minded clarity and blunt craft like nothing else from the Hollywood machine in its early days. Again, he was a studio guy for Warner Bros and he always operated with a sort of humility to his stories that saw him not so much take control of them and do with them as he would; rather, he focused on a propulsive forward movement to his tales, a sort of inescapable quality that made the stories feel like they were telling themselves first and foremost. Yet Curtiz was always there, making functional filmmaking the food of the gods and cutting through the fat to produce films that, if not entirely perfect or challenging in the most overt of ways, were at east the most perfect versions of themselves.
With that: The Adventures of Robin Hood, a golden-child, the-prophecies-foretold example of cinematic entertainment if ever there was one, and a film that works primarily for the same reasons that Curtiz’s previous film Captain Blood “worked”. Except, of course, the big one: color. Technicolor existed in 1938; it likely wasn’t a revolution to anyone in the theater come The Adventures of Robin Hood, but it was still enough of a novelty to serve as a de facto selling point. More importantly, it was still new enough to work as a genuine artistic tool rather than a given. Like sound in, for instance, Fritz Lang’s M, color in the late 1930s (and into the forties, as evidenced by the works of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) was still a wilderness of exploration and manipulation, a means of experimenting and distilling and transforming mood and performance rather than simply a technique for slathering sweet nothings onto the camera.
At a most basic level, Curtiz’s stylistic use of color serves a number of purposes in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Obviously, it gives it a necessary “pop”, but the technicolor sheen (lensed by all-time cinematographer Tony Gaudio and the less well known Sol Polito) does more than simply pull the characters off the page. Along with Eric Wolfgang Korngold’s supremely spry, sarcastic score, the color galvanizes the pageantry of the material, the children-playing-in-the-backyard subtext of the film that works as a happy accident of the time period’s more genteel pomp and circumstance. It creates a certain theatrical air, filled in with blotches of genuine pop and smarmy, excitable line readings from the likes of Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn. It also gives us a dream, providing us with the exaggerated minds of children let loose on a screen, always dreaming in color in a way day-to-day life in the Depression couldn’t afford. At some very basic level, that is the essence of cinema at its earliest, back when all it needed was to dream.
Of course, if all it did was dream, without having the panache and energy to pull off the dream on screen, cinema would have been but a foot-note in world history. If The Adventures of Robin Hood was merely color thrown on the screen indiscriminately, it would be a trifle (well it is a trifle, but a wondrous one at that). What Robin Hood has going for it, in addition to the color, is purpose and filmmaking to match. Firstly, it is a story of such highfalutin tomfoolery so as to earn the color (it isn’t exactly as if Bergman would have been a sublime fit for a day-glo Technicolor enhancement). The story is elegant in its simplicity, focusing on Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) and his merry men confronting the snidely Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and Prince John (Claude Rains, always at the top of his form in theatrical roles like this, where he introduced a layer of playful melancholy seldom present in the form). In doing so, Hood and co stand up for righteousness and the impoverished, doing harm to the aristocratic villains and spreading the joy around. It is a perfect slice of everyday fantasy and purposefully vague gestures, broad stokes of a narrative that capture less a reality than the way dreams and fantasies fade in and out of action and jump to the good bits as they wander around wallowing in exuberance.
Now, this doesn’t mean the script is undernourished. Rather, it’s rather lovely how it distills down the questionable understanding of human activity that forms the backbone of a child’s dream and wraps it up in a way that works on the screen. So much of this has to do with the dialogue, which is one of the other chief reasons why The Adventures of Robin Hood trumps the previous effort for all involved, Captain Blood. When Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland, given too little to do as with Blood, and similarly making the most of it) informs our main character “My you speak treason”, he responds “fluently”, the film captures that magical mixture of brash rejection, smarmy self-superiority, combative elegance, and frisky bemusement so necessary for the live-action Disney aesthetic this film epitomized. Not that the Disney aesthetic was any sort of fully understood beast in 1938, despite Snow White’s release one year before-hand, but we have the benefit of hind-sight now, don’t we.
Which brings us to the performances, filling the roles with passionate, immediate life-blood even as they subtly hint at and even flaunt the film’s almost explicit theatricality. Flynn, as he always did, chews up the material, and Rathbone and Rains are arguably even better. Each of them takes up a type present in Captain Blood (usually the type they played in that very film, although Rains replaces Atwill) and pushes it to its breaking point, never sacrificing one ounce of genuine passion and joie de vivre to playing dress-up in front of a gen-u-ine movie camera. They work, and the film does, because none of them ever for one second reduce the material to anything less than purity and honesty at its fullest; they understand the goofiness of the material, but they never approach it with anything less than vigorous seriousness. Jokes – even slightly surrealist ones – abound, such as when an arrow seems to pop up on screen every thirty seconds or so from out of nowhere as if to say “that Hood fellow sure does get around, doesn’t he”, but it is never played for mockery. No one acts like they exist above the material; they become one with it.
All of it comes together in the literal derring of the derring-do: the sword fights. Foolish larks today, the film gives them a smirk by positioning them less as actual honest-to-god duels to the death and more as elaborately constructed wordplay matches where the swords are little more than extensions of the verbal wit propping them up. We get the sense that success and defeat has nothing to do with murder and death, but everything to do with wounded egos and Shakespearean jabs. For a film of such pageantry, for a work that accentuates and subtly critiques the way English theater has a suspect habit of announcing and literalizing its characters emotions and internal conflicts, this approach to intermixing physical fighting with mental combat via words says all we need to know about the connections between Robin Hood and centuries of theater. It introduces the film into a proud tradition and lightly pokes fun at this tradition all in one breath, extending the cheerily subversive air of Captain Blood to new heights. Just watch the scene where Robin Hood duels an opponent on a bridge and one of his merry men plays a lute in the background like he wants to make love to that particular instrument. Entertainment, and entertainment beget by Curtiz and his sly, even naughty sense of theatrical style backed up by the colossal behemoth of the Hollywood Studio System in full-on shouting “Entertainment!” at the top of a mountain, doesn’t get much better than that.