Sad as it may be, the fact remains that younger generations rarely want anything to do with classic films. For some reason, audiences find it hard to relate to characters and stories without modern dress, manners, and technology. Of course, I can't say I'm above such juvenile snobbery myself. Growing up, I had little interest in films that pre-dated the late 1960s -- why would I want to watch a movie about a bunch of old dead people, with their silly morals and antiquated sensibilities? It has only been as an adult, after having been forced to sit through semester after semester of cinema history courses in film school, that I developed an true appreciation for the classics.
It was during one of those film classes that I was first introduced to the 1938 swashbuckler 'The Adventures of Robin Hood.' Getting past Errol Flynn's pageboy haircut and green tights, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Seventy-odd years on, it holds up rather splendidly as high adventure, a soaring love story and good, old-fashioned popcorn entertainment. So what if the sets look phony, the costumes goofy, and the dialogue sounds like something out of an 'Airplane!' movie? Today's big-budget, effects-laden snooze-fests would kill to earn even a tenth of the laughs, thrills, and swoons that this little baby manages, seemingly without even breaking a sweat.
Flynn was the perfect leading man. Though he was quoted later as having been "bored" by the role, after achieving stardom with earlier, similar efforts like 'Captain Blood' (1935) and 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' (1936), you wouldn't know it from his performance. No one could charge into a room, swish a sword and charm the ladies like he could -- they didn't coin the phrase "in like Flynn" for nothing. So iconic is Flynn's portrayal that it is always his portrayal of 'Robin Hood' that is parodied in satires, like Mel Brooks' 'Men in Tights.'
The supporting cast is also wonderful. Olivia de Havilland is a gorgeous, sly, and feisty Maid Marian. Flynn was reportedly a bit of a troublemaker on set, reserving most of his goodwill only for Havilland. Whatever the case, their chemistry is palpable on screen -- sweet, winning, and rather sexy. Basil Rathbone, the world's most famous Sherlock Holmes, is wisely cast against type as the villainous Sir Guy of Gisbourne. His performance is consummate in its wickedness and subtle wit, with Rathbone easily holding his own again Flynn (no small feat). Also look for a terrific ensemble of famous character actors, including Melville Cooper as the hilarious, sniveling High Sheriff of Nottingham; Warner Bros. stable standby Claude Rains as somewhat fey Prince John, and Alan Hale, Sr. (a dead-ringer for his son, future 'Gilligan's Island' skipper Alan Hale, Jr.) as Little John.
It's interesting that 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' continues to be considered the definitive telling of the classic tale, because based on the behind-the-scenes dramas that plagued its production, it should have been a disaster. William Keighley was the original director, hired mainly because he had worked with Flynn the year prior on 'The Prince and the Pauper.' Despite the studio's high hopes, his early dailies were underwhelming, and he was promptly replaced by another director, Michael Curtiz. Veteran of such hits as 'The Perfect Specimen,' 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' and 'Captain Blood' (the latter two again with Flynn), Curtiz's influence helped give the film its now famous light-hearted spirit and dazzling derring-do. Though 'Casablanca' (1942) certainly remains Curtiz's crowning cinematic achievement, followed perhaps by 'Mildred Pierce' (1948), 'Robin Hood' certainly ranks up there in a career filled with staggering achievements.
Ultimately, even those familiar with the Robin Hood character but unfamiliar with this particular version, will find something to love here. The film leaves nothing of the legend out -- the splitting of the arrow, the fight with Little John and the Sherwood Forest feast, not to mention the swordplay, the romance, and the plundering... it's all here in spades. 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' may not have modern special effects, airbrushed models instead of actors, and fast-cut editing, but even seventy years on, it remains cinema's reigning swashbuckler.
'The Adventures of Robin Hood' enjoyed a previous HD DVD release that was magnificent. Restored under the auspices of the "Ultra Resolution" process, this technological wonder allows for clean-up and re-alignment of vintage Technicolor negatives, returning them not only to their former glory but far surpassing any previous presentation in terms of clarity, color purity, and sharpness. The results of Warner's advancements have earned praise far and wide, and I'm certainly a huge fan. I continue to be amazed at how fantastic the recent Warner Ultra Resolution titles like 'Singin' in the Rain,' Gone with the Wind' and 'The Searchers' look, and now 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' can be safely added to that list.
As with the previous HD DVD, 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' is presented in its original Academy flat ratio of 1.37:1, with a repurposed 1080p/VC-1 encode. I'm again amazed at this transfer. From the first frame, it is almost impossible to believe that 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' is a film over seventy years old. Colors are simply brilliant. They are so rich, in fact, they almost look painted on. Granted, it's hardly a realistic look, but this is glorious Technicolor, which is the equivalent of cinematic cotton candy. Scene after scene is a joy to behold, particularly the "great feast" sequence in Sherwood Forest. The reds are remarkably brilliant, greens lush as a jungle, the purples royal, and yellows dazzling.
This Blu-ray, like the HD DVD, also offers a nice upgrade over the standard-def version, which was released a couple of years ago. The image is a bit sharper -- the DVD sometimes looked softer and more blurry from shot to shot, but consistency on the Blu-ray is superior. The level of depth and detail is also amazing for a film from 1938 -- indeed, it rivals many new releases for clarity and cleanliness. You'll still be able to spot some grain, but it is hardly excessive. After a minute or two, I didn't even notice it. Some might also find the image a bit "hot" -- it does have a high contrast look. Whites seem to teeter on the edge of being blown out, but never quite fall off the cliff. Though such a high-key look can give the appearance of being too edgy, I didn't see any actual edge enhancement or other post-processing issues.
The only reason I'm not giving 'Robin Hood' a full five-star video is because it may be just a smidgen less perfect, and not quite as sharp, as the absolute top tier of Warner's Ultra-Resolution titles, such as 'Gone With the Wind,' and the title I still hold up as the absolute reference-standard, 'Singin' in the Rain.' But that's a minor quibble. 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' looks fantastic.
Due to the age of the audio elements, and the lack of the original "stems" needed to create a full 5.1 surround remix, 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono. As with the HD DVD version, there just isn't much you can say about a mono mix.
Overall, fidelity is fine. The most apparent improvement is the high end -- gone is that shrill, ear-piercing flatness one usually associates with old mono mixes. Mid-range and low bass could still have used a bit of a boost, however. This is most noticeable on the brass-filled music score, which sounds rather flat. Dialogue holds up very well, though, if somewhat pinched. But like the image, any deficiencies in the audio are hardly excessive, and after a few minutes, you won't even notice.
'The Adventures of Robin Hood' was a fantastic package on HD DVD, with hours and hours of bonus materials. It's just as impressive here on Blu-ray, with all of the same materials (presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video) that are of very high caliber. Whew -- what a package!
'The Adventures of Robin Hood' is a lively, rousing adventure. Sure, it's from 1938, with plenty of silly costumes and hairstyles, but who cares when it's so much fun? This Blu-ray is magnificent. Warner continues to impress with its Ultra-Resolution remasters -- the video transfer in particular is a stunner -- and there are so many extras here it could take you days to get through them all. If you're at all a fan of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men, this Blu-ray is an absolute must-own.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.