Friday, May 14, 2010

The Adventures Of Robin Hood

Sandwiched inbetween the dour joyless, yet somehow goofy as hell, Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves and the sure to be dour and joyless Ridley Scott’s Big Mistake (a movie I won’t be seeing as part of my Nightmare On Elm Street Inspired vow not to give my money to lazy movies preying on the apathetic), The Adventures Of Robin Hood is a breath of fresh air. A lurid Technicolor storybook come to life.

Depending on what day you ask me, and also dependent on whether or not I have a few in me. I’ll be liable to say that The Adventures Of Robin Hood is in some ways the apex of The Classic Studio system. Not the artistic apex perhaps, that title almost certainly goes to something by Ford or Hawks, or any of the other giants. And what I’m talking about here is the exact opposite of their strenuous individual achievement. I’m talking about the studio functioning and producing exactly as it was supposed to. Taking its endless resources, and tight cadre of artists, craftsmen, and day players, and bringing them together to create some kind of masterwork, before striking production and meeting again the next day to start on another one. It’s the height of art as an assembly line. And its blend of glorious Technicolor, matte paintings, star power, sets, and charm are less a product of Old Hollywood then a personification of it. Or perhaps to be more accurate, a day dream of it.

The film is exemplary of the studio system in more or less every facet. Though equally, if not more set bound then the pathetic Prince Of Thieves, the effect is exactly the opposite. While the latter strove for realism and fell into a sort of uncanny valley (AKA the Turkish Prison and “City” at the beginning), The Adventures Of Robin Hood embraces the artifice fully, turning the film into a kind of pageant. The effect is almost expressionistic, a legend writ large. Note too the narrative economy of the bygone age. While Prince wasted its time dithering in the crusades, and accusations of Devil Worship, and actual Devil Worship and blah blah blah blah blah, The Adventures Of Robin Hood has established its situation in two minutes, delivered all exposition and established its characters in five, and in ten Robin has waltzed into Nottingham deer slung across his shoulders and cheerfully declared Guerilla war.

And there is the man himself. The term “movie magic” is nearly an impossible one to say with a straight face. But if there is magic in film it resides to me at least in its ability to transform personalities. In his real life Flynn may have been a drunken, racist lout. But it hardly matters here. Glorious, charming, witty, with an acrobatic athleticism that can’t be faked. Most casts would end up blown off the screen. Luckily he’s matched here by Basil Rathbone at his reptilian best, and Claude Rains bringing all the softness he could, to the role of the spoiled Prince John. This is not even to mention Olivia De Havilland whose dark brown eyes become pools when shot in Technicolor.

And perhaps above all other things, The Adventures Of Robin Hood serves as a tribute to that most beautiful of film stocks. Every frame of the film (reproduced in Blu Ray in such saturated glory that it upholds Warner Brothers reputation as the best archivist company not named Criterion or Kino) is a sensuous delight (I love the way that water looks in real Technicolor).

Its all directed by Michael Curtiz. An underrated director more penalized for what he was not (an auteur though we’ll have words on that) then what he was. He was not a formalist genius like Wyler or Sirk, or a proto Wildman like Welleman, nor was he an a self proclaimed artist such as Minelli, or a self evident one like Ford. Though he was an émigré he lacks any real European flavor to all but his earliest work. He fails even at being a tragic filmmaker, working very happily inside the system to the end of his career. What he was was a successful cog in a successful machine who managed to make more good films then bad films. He’d probably be more or less forgotten today had he not accidentally made one of the most beloved movies of all time.

I always feel that critics are all to eager to strip artists of their identities and signatures when they decline to make it obvious. Its an argument I have time and time again with about Huston. Being adventuresome in style and genre should not be considered a detriment to a filmmaker. How a director chooses to tell stories is just as important as which stories he chooses to tell. Curtiz does have a voice, and even if it is a voice that is at least partially defined by its professionalism it is a voice nonetheless.

He has quite an eye for composition arranging scenes as tapestry, and a flair for the dramatic (note the shadows projected behind Flynn and Rathbone during their duel). And its his flair for theatricality, that makes The Adventures Of Robin Hood such a joy to watch.

As it will remain long after these later “more realistic” versions are long forgotten. Its the dreams that survive.

(So I really only intended to cover Prince Of Thieves and This in lieu of the Ridley Scott version. But after receiving requests for a certain Mel Brooks film, I've decided what the hell, and have arraigned a little impromptu Robin Hoodothon. I have three films on deck and I expect to fully enjoy at least one of them. Though I reserve the right to add more. In any case expect to see robbing the rich and giving to the poor to last you quite awhile.)


Matt Keeley said...

I think this film is the main reason I'm not particularly interested in the new Scott version. You really do not need another Robin Hood after this.

A few weeks ago, my father and I happened to find The Adventures of Robin Hood showing on TCM. We'd both seen the movie several times and we came into this mid-showing, but both of us sat enthralled until the end of the movie.

As you say in your review, Flynn is so charming that you not only forgive him for his "wicked, wicked ways" offscreen, you find it hard to believe that he could be such a jerk.

Bryce Wilson said...

Thanks Keele.

Flynn was always charming on film, even at the end when the alcohol started taking its toll he could still be great in something like Kim.