Who does not like Robin Hood? He’s the stuff of romance - he robs the rich to give to the poor, helps the needy, fights against oppression and is an all round good guy. Naturally, that isn’t what makes him so popular at the box office. His other good qualities are responsible for that - he is tall and handsome, shows off to good advantage in tights (how many men can do that?), can fight with any weapon (guns excluded), keeps cracking jokes while vigorously fencing with foes, and is extremely chivalrous. In short, filling Robin of Locksley’s shoes is no easy job, even though Errol Flynn makes it look like it is! Of course, you all know the story of Robin Hood, but I’ve just finished watching this beautifully restored film and need an excuse to post the screen caps. So I will tell you the story all over again, with LOTS of screencaps!
Once upon a time, in the reign of Richard the Lionheart , the Normans and the Saxons lived peacefully in England. But then, the King left for the Crusades (1191) and his evil brother, Prince John (Claude Rains), started making plans to usurp the throne. Richard played into John’s hands by getting captured and imprisoned in Vienna. So now, John’s way was clear. He seized the Regency and imposed new taxes, ostensibly to pay for Richard’s ransom, but really to pay the nobles for their help in capturing the throne. Having taxed the peasants out of home and hearth, he then proceeds to subject them to untold cruelties. Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn) – a Saxon nobleman - is an outspoken opponent of John’s reign of oppression.
While hunting in the forest, Guy of Gisborne (Basil Rathbone) catches a poacher (Herbert Mundin) and is on the verge of arresting him for unlawfully killing the King’s deer. But Robin saves the man by claiming to have killed the deer himself. He himself evades arrest by out-archer-ing Guy. That evening, Robin gate-crashes a banquet that Guy is hosting for Prince John. He walks in, bold as brass, and presents the disputed deer to the prince. Not only that, he manages to flirt with the King’s ward, Lady Marian (Olivia de Havilland), while poor Guy, who is besotted with her, looks on helplessly. John is amused by Robin’s effrontery and invites him to sit down at the banquet. While he lets Robin feast and voice his political views, Guy has him surrounded by his soldiers. But Robin isn’t that easy to capture. In a dashing fight sequence, he manages to evade a castle-full of soldiers and make his escape. But not before he’s proclaimed to John and his Norman nobles that he will raise a rebellion against them!
John’s reaction is swift – he declares Robin an outlaw, confiscates his estates and puts a price on his head. And that’s how Robin Hood is born. Robin takes to the forest with his squire Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles) and passes the word to other wronged Saxons to come join him. Sherwood Forest is soon full of his followers. He still needs good fighting men, and comes across them in the strangest of places! One evening, as he is crossing a river by way of a fallen tree-trunk, he finds that the other end of this make-shift "bridge" is blocked by a large stranger (Alan Hale). The man refuses to make way for anyone but his "better" and Robin and he fight it out to decide who is better. The man who defeated a castle-full of soldiers is speedily bested by this big man. But Robin is nothing if not enterprising. He turns his defeat to good account by recruiting his opponent - Little John - into his band of Merry Men.
Robin, it turns out, has a penchant for recruiting men in water! That’s how he recruits Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette). After months in the forest (without any onset of winter!) he decides that his band needs a churchman to look after the souls of the men and their families. So, when he sees a fat friar sleeping under the tree, he decides that he’s found just the man. On sword-point, he gets the friar to carry him across the river. But midstream, Robin discovers that the man is more of a holy terror than a holy man! The two men fight it out in the water, and soon the Merry Men acquire a fighting friar.
The recruitment drive over, Robin turns his attentions to making England too hot for Prince John. A big part of John’s treasure – the "ransom" he collected for Richard - is being brought to Nottingham. The Sheriff of Nottingham, Lady Marian and Guy are part of the heavily guarded convoy carrying the treasure. Robin and his men ambush the convoy as it passes through Sherwood forest, and succeed in capturing the whole party. Robin is much taken with Lady Marian, but she makes it clear that he is no more than a lowly outlaw to her. The proud Robin is moved to defend himself. He shows her the plight of the people oppressed by John and his nobles, and finally manages to convince Marian that he is a patriot, fighting for justice and the true King (Richard)!
Having successfully captured his treasure, Robin lets everybody go. Prince John has been having a hard time combating the rebellion fostered by Robin, and this theft is just the last straw. Guy’s humiliating capture makes him more determined than ever to annihilate Robin, too. But it would take a huge army to comb Sherwood forest for the outlaws! The only way to capture Robin is to lure him away from his forest stronghold and capture him while he is alone. So John, Guy and the Sheriff devise a clever plan. They proclaim an archery competition, and announce that the winner’s prize will be a golden arrow, to be presented by Lady Marian. They know that Robin, an ace archer, will be unable to resist trying for the prize. Once he’s been lured into Nottingham Castle without his men, they can easily capture him. Marian does not suspect this plan until Robin is captured, after a stirring display of archery.
The conspirators are happy at having captured their chief opponent and plans are underway to hang him as soon as possible. Marian is distraught! She hates seeing the proud Robin in shackles, with his life about to be snuffed out. And so she springs into action. She makes contact with his men, and suggests a rescue plan to them. Do I need to tell you what happens next? To say that Robin will be rescued, that tyrants will be fought off, that everything will end happily-ever-after, is hardly a spoiler!
The best part of the film is not the story which is too well known for any surprises. It is the execution on-screen that makes it such a pleasure to watch - the beautifully composed frames with their jewel-like colors (it was filmed in "glorious technicolor"), the lavish and painstakingly detailed sets, the lovely costumes, and most of all, the sheer exuberance of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Errol Flynn has never been my favourite swashbuckler. He always struck me as more comical than heroic, and I’ve always wondered at his popularity. So I was surprised at how much I did like him here. He plays Robin Hood with so much energy and dash, and slips into all the swashbuckling antics with such verve and grace that it is impossible to stay unmoved. It’s no wonder that this is his most celebrated role.
The rest of the cast was very good too, but that is not surprising considering who they were. Basil "Sherlock Holmes" Rathbone is great as Guy of Gisborne. He is wicked and snooty (and handsome!) and manages to keep Guy from turning into a cartoonish villain. It’s hard to recognise Claude Rains in the scheming and manipulative Prince John. Rains is one of those actors who disappears into his parts and is the character he is playing. He has the most ridiculously girlie red wig on, but "girlie" or "ridiculous" are the last words you’d apply to the evil Prince John! Olivia de Havilland is the only member of the cast that I did not warm up to. She’s always struck me as somewhat milque-toast-y, and lacking sparkle, and it's no different here. But then, Lady Marian isn’t really required to do more than smile, look disdainful, or cry – something that de Havilland does pretty well.
If you haven’t watched this already, delay no more! It’s such a happy and pretty movie that you are bound to feel good after you see it.