Usually, when a film director is fired and replaced halfway through a production, the result is a cinematic turkey.
But not in the case of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which overcame a jarring change in management to become one of the greatest swashbuckling movies of all time.
This Warner Brothers production began filming in 1937 under William Keighley, who had risen through the ranks of the studio’s contract directors thanks to successful titles like The Prince and the Pauper and The Green Pastures.
Flynn and de Havilland had been successfully paired in Captain Blood (1935) and The Charge of the Light Brigade (’36) and would go on to share the screen in a total of eight features, including Dodge City (’39) and They Died with Their Boots On (’41).
Keighley first took the company 500 miles out of Los Angeles to Chico, California, so that he could shoot the Sherwood Forest exteriors in the lush woodlands of Bidwell Park.
But the suits in the front office became worried when delays (some caused by poor weather) nudged the budget above $2 million. There were also concerns that Keighley was badly handling his first foray into Technicolor movie making.
With so much on the line, a decision was made to replace Keighley with Michael Curtiz, the Austrian who already had proven his ability to handle both action and the party-hearty Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and ...Light Brigade.
Though they made numerous films together (Dodge City, Essex and Elizabeth, The Sea Hawk, Santa Fe Trail, Dive Bomber, Virginia City), there was no love lost between Curtiz and Flynn. The director thought of the movie star as a little more than an attractive puppet, while Flynn saw Curtiz as a humorless slave driver.
But both men, perhaps suspecting that Robin Hood could be a career changer, were on their best behavior for this project.
Curtiz, who was usually a rugged individualist, swallowed his ego and did his best to duplicate the lighthearted mood established by Keighley in the early footage. He was so effective at this that the film slides seamlessly between his scenes and Keighley’s (for the record, almost all of the location footage is Keighley’s, while the interiors were shot by Curtiz on a Warner's sound stage).
The results were more than anyone could have hoped for. Not only was The Adventures of Robin Hood the studio’s biggest moneymaker of the year, it became the film against which all Robin Hood movies must be judged.
It has yet to be knocked from its perch. Not even Douglas Fairbanks' epic silent version is as enjoyable.
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New York Times reviewer Frank Nugent deemed it “A richly produced, bravely bedecked, romantic, and colorful show ... it leaps boldly to the front of this year’s best and can be calculated to rejoice the eights, rejuvenate the eighties, and delight those in between.”
According to Flynn biographer Lionel Godrey: “Its brilliance shows in all aspects, and it has stylistic bravura and panache that have rarely been captured in any other production. Time has dulled neither its elan nor the beautiful Technicolor tints of a process that is no longer used. The screenplay is elegant and pointed, the plot tight, and the characters straightforward without being insipid.”
A huge part of the film’s success is due to Flynn, an Australian who seemed less to act than to simply be the archetypal heroes he often played.
Flynn had little technique. But watch his eyes. They say everything a Flynn character is thinking. Plus, he oozes athletic energy and irresistible charm.
De Havilland’s prim loveliness offers the perfect counterpoint to his suave assurance.
Off screen Flynn was a notorious consumer of women, alcohol, and drugs. His autobiography was entitled My Wicked, Wicked Ways. His career barely survived a 1942 trial for statutory rape.
Yet those who knew the man dearly loved him.
Patric Knowles, who played Will Scarlett in Robin Hood and thereafter was one of the star’s closest friends, described Flynn as “a puppy, an overgrown, healthy puppy...
“He hurriedly sniffed here, and then over there. Such a wide variety of things to do, wonderful and delightful things. He would run from pillar to post in a frenzy of eagerness, love, and laughter...”
Occasionally in his eagerness for new experiences, Flynn would find himself in hot water. But, according to Knowles, “Flynn never knowingly did anything vicious or hurtful to anyone in his life.”
Flynn was dismissive of his hit movies (he called them “mediocre vehicles”) and yearned to show his acting chops in “serious” films. He got his chance late in his career with productions like The Sun Also Rises and The Roots of Heaven, where his real life downward spiral dovetailed perfectly with the dissipated characters he portrayed.
But ultimately it was those “mediocre vehicles” we remember because they caught Flynn at his most virile and charming. Also, because they were period pictures they have a certain timelessness. Unlike their star, they have grown old gracefully.
Certainly that is true of The Adventures of Robin Hood. After more than 60 years, it seems not to have aged a day.
Other films in the series “Kids’ Classics”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- September 1: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Not Rated
- September 8: The Black Stallion (1979) Rated G
- September 15: Mary Poppins (1964) Not Rated
- September 22: A Little Princess (1995) Rated G
- September 29: The Secret Garden (1993) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.