The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938): A Classic Movie Review

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)Prior to 1938 Warner Brothers Pictures didn’t make big-budget films. They were known for their low-budget gangster films and weepies. All of this changed when they gave The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) a $2 million budget and made the big leap to Technicolor. Luckily, they made $4 million at the box office; unfortunately, I found their use of Technicolor to be an assault on good taste.

 Carl Jules Weyl won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction for his castle and forest creations, and for a well-designed archery contest. Who am I to argue with the Academy? Perhaps they have higher sensory perception than me, because it was especially difficult for me to enjoy Weyl’s set designs when I was optically defiled image by Milo Anderson’s costume designs. There, I said it—the costumes are beyond horrible. I expect that someone at Warner Bros. told Anderson that they were spending a helluva lot of money on Technicolor and that he’d better make one damn colorful film. This is the only legitimate reason I will accept as to why he chose to dress grown, virile men in bright greens, reds, and yellows. There are many reasons the historical period this story takes place in is called the Dark Ages!

The Robin Hood story is well known. While King Richard the Lionheart (Ian Hunter) is off fighting the “infidels” in the Crusades, his debased younger brother Prince John (Claude Rains) engages in such nefarious acts as over-taxation and murder. John favors the Normans and persecutes the Saxons (no history lesson will be provided as to why). Along with his henchmen, the Sherriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) and Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), the Prince plans to usurp the throne and decimate all those who stand in his way—notably Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) and his band of merry men, who are ensconced in Sherwood Forest. As a result, arrows fly and swords clash, and the fate of England rests in the hands of men wearing tights and extremely bright colors.

 It is the fight scenes that set this film apart. Relying on an enormous cast of extras, directors Michael Curtiz and William Keighley do an excellent job of staging their action sequences. The story moves at a whirlwind pace, which is expertly managed by Ralph Dawson’s Academy Award-winning editing. Who doesn’t like watching Flynn shooting arrows at his enemies while riding on horseback or trying to avoid capture inside Nottingham Castle? Of course, with any film where Flynn and Rathbone are sworn enemies there must be a swordfight—and this one does not disappoint. The most spectacular shot in the entire movie takes place when they finally cross swords along the stairways of Nottingham Castle. Interestingly enough, what makes the shot so great is that it is done in shadow (with neither men colorfully displayed for all to see)—just black shadowed images!

Oh, and there’s a love story! The King’s ward, Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland), comes off haughty in the beginning, but Robin in his gleaming green glory eventually turns her head (HOW couldn’t she notice him?). Thankfully, de Havilland doesn’t look nearly as bad as her male counterparts in Technicolor. Still, there was a point when I began wondering if we’d ever see her without a veil. Fortunately, we do eventually get to see that Marian has hair! Her wardrobe, however, leaves one to wonder if tapestry was for more than walls in the 12th Century. Her scenes are wonderfully complemented anytime Una O’Connor makes an appearance as her nurse, Bess. For my money, O’Connor is one of the best things about the entire movie.

Overall, I was not overly impressed with The Adventures of Robin Hood. It was a passable adventure story, with some nicely staged action sequences. The story itself was not especially compelling, and the acting could not be classified as nuanced (which is a shame because there were some pretty good performers in it). And, the garish use of color to extol the virtues of Technicolor was jarring to every optic nerve I have.

 Kim Wilson is a history professor and the author of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die blog (


  • Clint Techmeyer

    I realize critics feel the need to criticize–too bad Wilson can’t enjoy a movie for its “feel good” intended affect! Korngold’s music score is great, good triumphs against evil’s overwhelming odds, worthy King Richard the Lion Heart is restored to his throne—not by an army, mind you, but by the people—the loyal and devoted common villager-types who’ve determined they’d rather risk their meager lives to stand up against and stop the injustices and evils committed by the power-mongering Norman noblemen and their army of thugs and murderers.
    Whenever I feel particularly “down”, The Adventures of Robin Hood is my go-to movie for inspiration to never give up in the face of overwhelming odds! The critics can pick it apart and feel oh-so superior, but I love Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling movies and his great core of fine actors who portrayed their parts with fervor and style! Una O’Connor and Melville Cooper add humor, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains are the supreme bad guys, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland are perfectly romantic together, the sets are delightful and the costumes are colorful. What’s not to love about this great movie?!?!?!

  • Blair Kramer

    ROBIN HOOD is an over the top action adventure film. You might even think of it as a fairy tale for the entire family (in fact, I understand that the character of Robin Hood will soon appear on the soap opera fairy tale TV series called ONCE UPON A TIME). In any case, ROBIN HOOD certainly isn’t film noir. Therefore, there is no doubt about the fact that it should have been filmed in color. And after all is said and done, along with everything else, the technicolor Sherwood Forest looks great!

  • Michelle Malkin

    What a sourpuss! I bet Mr. Wilson didn’t like the Wizard of Oz, either. For Peter’s sake, this version
    of Robin Hood is a fantasy. It wasn’t meant to be historically accurate. I love the costumes, sets and adore the music (which wasn’t even mentioned). Everyone in this movie overacted and it was perfect for this movie. Not every historical movie has to be leaden, dark and dank. And, thank goodness it wasn’t shot in black and white. That would have killed the whole feel of the movie. It is perfect the
    way it is. I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

  • Tom Webb

    I agree with the others comments here, about what a sourpuss the reviewer is. We’re all entitled to our own opinions, of course– though the writer’s views on the film seem to be in the minority, as most modern critics and audiences love the movie. As has been pointed out, this is a kind of fairy tale, of what life could or should have been then, not a documentary. It was made for a mass audience during the Depression, and no doubt those folks didn’t want a dreary historical account of late-12th Century England, but a rousing entertainment, which is what the film is. It was part of the Errol Flynn cycle of adventure films made by Warners, and audiences knew what to expect from such a movie. The reviewer says that previous to this film, Warners was known mostly for “low-budget gangster films and weepies.” I don’t think that’s completely true. Warners WAS the premier gangster film studio, and made their share of emotional dramas, but they were also known for “socially conscious” films like “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” and “Black Legion.” They were also noted for their Busby Berkeley musicals like “Forty-Second Street” and “Golddiggers of 1933,” as well as historical dramas with George Arliss and Paul Muni.
    “Robin Hood” may have had the biggest budget of any Warners films to date, but it wasn’t the film that caused Warners to change course. I would say it was “Captain Blood” in 1935, Flynn’s first big movie, that set the studio off on making bigger-budgeted films. It was followed by “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in 1936, and “The Prince and the Pauper,” 1937, both with Flynn, and both expensive productions. “Robin Hood” was the icing on the cake, and after that, the studio went with a number of expensive productions– “Dodge City,” “The Sea Hawk,” etc.
    “Robin Hood” was a nominee for Best Picture in 1938, and won in three categories, including Best Musical score, for Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s wonderfully operatic music. I don’t think this film has ever been surpassed in terms of the music, tongue-in-cheek acting, sets, costumes, swordfights, etc. I don’t find the costumes to be too garish at all. You read that people did wear colorful costumes in the Middle Ages, and while the colors might be exaggerated, the film is a fantasy, after all. And as Technicolor was so new then– the first Technicolor feature was made in 1935– no doubt the studio did want to showcase it. But I’m sure audiences loved those colors then, and didn’t expect them to reflect reality. Reality was drab, the movies were colorful. “The Wizard of Oz,” Betty Grable musicals, etc. The Dark Ages may have been dark in some ways, but I believe the Dark Ages are reckoned to have ended in the 10th Century, and this story takes place in 1189 and after– the time of the Third Crusade, the Middle Ages. I’m not an expert on costumes, but I’m guessing not everyone moped around in drab-colored clothing then. But it’s not an important point, as this is an adventure film.
    It has been pointed out that Warners, the socially conscious studio, injected some contemporary happenings into the film. In 1938, with fascism on the march, we have Robin and his Merrie Men fighting evil tyrants, and standing up for the little guys. Sort of swashbuckling Frank Capra heroes. Good King Richard, the Lionheart, is whitewashed for the film, but he makes an effective contrast to his conniving, evil brother John. And it seems that appeasement isn’t the answer, you have to stand up and fight against oppression, a pretty good reminder for audiences in 1938.
    Anyway, I don’t get the reviewer’s problems with the film. Of course the performances are not nuanced, that’s the point. Everyone is supposed to be larger than life, out of a storybook. I believe Warners based the costumes, sets, design of the film, on artist Howard Pyle’s illustrations in his then-famous Robin Hood book. If you look at the adventure paintings by Pyle and N.C. Wyeth, you can see where much of the feeling of the Flynn swashbucklers comes from. There may be more realistic Robin Hood movies, but I bet this is the one that will be remembered in a hundred years time.

    • emmylou1313

      I too am amazed by Mr. Wilson’s “review” of “Adventures of Robin Hood” . One of the most enduring fantasy – adventure films of all times, and he’s trashing it??? As a reviewer of the film content itself, his credibility is clearly very questionable. He’s a history professor? History of what?, And where? This is NOT history, it is legend. It is fantasy. My Lord, the prospect of even looking inside of Mr. Wilson’s film book, let alone reading it, is unfathomable.

      But then to gripe about the use of three-strip Technicolor is simply unbelievable. The film was designed to look as it does, brighter than life. I believe this was Warner’s first major Technicolor presentation, one of the first EVER, It works in every way. The costumes were supposed to look as they do, the make the film pop off the screen. I’m wondering if Mr. Wilson has ever seen a restored three strip Technicolor film on the big screen? I’ve been lucky enough to see this movie on the big screen twice, with pristine new prints. Both audiences, with big smiles, raved about the amazing color. Yellows, reds, purples, all were eye candy to audiences at a time, when very few had seen color on the silver screen.

      He must also despise those costumes, fire, dress which actually was made of curtains and sunsets in 1939″s “Gone With The Wind.” As for “The Wizard of Oz”, another 1939 fantasy Mr. Wilson in case you didn’t get that one either, well I’m assuming he’s not going to follow the yellow brick road. Your loss sir.

      I certainly don’t mind if one prefers the darker, more muted looks of “Robin and Marian”, and the recent Russell Crowe version of Sherwood Forest. Different time, different place, different audiences. I like them all, but the ultimate film version of this fictional story has been and will remain the Errol Flynn classic. In TECHNICOLOR!

  • mike jaral

    mr. wilson, you have taken one of the finest movies made for pure enertainment and tried to destroy it. but that won’t fly. cause you are wrong, and because of your very bad synopsis of this movie, your credability of anything else you ever review will never to be taken good or bad.

  • Cara

    The only great Robin Hood. Perfect cast. Perfect film score. Perfect climax with right conquering wrong. A joi de vivre and innocence that captivates this viewer. Errol Flynn, young, vibrant, also with a youthful innocence. You’ve totally ignored the place this movie has in the annals of film history. It’s romance and adventure polished and shaped to a luminous shine.

  • Rex Bobinette

    Wilson is an idiot … Hood is as good as it gets … and the costumes are dazzling!!!!!!!!!!!1

  • Archie

    One of the worse reviews I have ever read. As I watch it for a third time on blu-ray I really love the garish use of colors. I certainly would think twice about reading his 1000 other reviews.

  • Town_1

    Horrible review of a classic film. “The Adventures of Robin Hood” is an incredibly influential film. Its three-strip Technicolor was groundbreaking. Kim Wilson is a fool.