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 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 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 as 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 he 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 by perhaps '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' is one of the latest Warner catalog classics to undergo the studio's newly-patented "Ultra Resolution" restoration process. This technological wonder is able to clean-up and re-align 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. (Note: 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' was shot at the Academy flat ratio of 1.37:1. It is presented here in a windowboxed 4:3 aspect ratio, and 1080p/VC-1 video. So don't worry about those black bars on the sides -- it's supposed to look that way.)
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 HD DVD version 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 HD DVD is superior. The level of depth and detail is also amazing for a film from 1936 -- 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 did not 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-Plus 1.0 Mono. Aside from the increased bitrate (640kbps), there is little real advantage here over the standard-def DVD version. And 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' on HD DVD replicates all of the bonus features found on the two-disc standard-def edition, and it is quite a package. This set is so brimming with supplements that it is a real wonder that so much material can fit on a single disc. But it does -- and I don't know where to begin!
Let's start with the 'Warner Night at the Movies" option. This allows you to watch the film in the context of a movie theater program, as it would have been exhibited at the time of its original release. Introduced by the ubiquitous Leonard Maltin, this option precedes the film with a Vintage Newsreel; a musical short subject from Freddie Rich and His Orchestra; the Merrie Melodies cartoon "Katnip Kollege" (in full 1080p video) and a theatrical trailer for 'Angels with Dirty Faces.' It's a very fun way to kick off the movie, and a terrific addition from Warner.
Next is the audio commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer. His name should be familiar to any fan of classic cinema, as he's contributed to numerous DVD supplements and documentaries. Admittedly, his track here can be a little dry. He's so well prepared he seems to be reading off of already-written material. But you can't argue with the breadth and depth of his knowledge. He sticks to the movie at hand, and covers just about every aspect of the production, from conception to casting to shooting to release. Perhaps this is not for casual viewers, but diehard fans of the movie shouldn't miss it.
Two full-length documentaries are also included. "Glorious Technicolor" runs 60 minutes and is hosted by Angela Lansbury. It's a fascinating, very well-produced history of the Technicolor process, from its glory days in the '30s and '40s to its slow and painful demise -- by the end of the '60s, it was all but dead. Too sad. (Another nice bonus from Warner: the doc has its own chapter search function. Very handy.) More specific to the movie at hand is "Welcome to Sherwood: The Story of 'The Adventures of Robin Hood.'" Running 55 minutes, this documentary was produced in 2003 to celebrate the film's sixty-fifth anniversary, and it is an elegant and reverential affair. Though the vast majority of the film's principal players are deceased, Warner amassed an impressive army of historians, writers, and film buffs to honor 'Robin Hood,' including Rudy Behlmer, Leonard Maltin, Robert Osborne, Paula Sigman and Bob Thomas, plus John Mauceri (an expert on the film's composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold), and the only surviving crew member to participate, art director Gene Allen. Both of the above docs are presented in 4:3 windowboxed video and 480i video.
A huge archive of historical material begins with a clutch of rare and never-before-seen footage. Behlmer returns to narrate an 8-minute series of Outtakes, plus "Breakdowns of 1938," a 14-minute studio blooper reel. Both are without sound. "A Journey to Sherwood Forest" clocks in at 13 minutes and is an assemblage of on-set footage and home movies made during the film's production. Finally, "Robin Hood Through the Ages" runs 7-minutes and offers a brief history of Robin Hood's earlier screen adaptations, most notably the 1922 Douglas Fairbanks silent version.
There are also three very impressive audio-only supplements. "The Robin Hood Radio Show" from 1938 is just that, and is quite a bit of nostalgia. Though I'd never heard this actual program before, I grew up without a television until I was about 8 years-old (guess I'm making up for lost time being an HD reviewer!), so listening to this radio show was like being a kid all over again. Also included are a few outtakes of Erich Wolfgang Korngold piano sessions, and best of all, a complete music-only track of the composer's Oscar-winning score. As was the case with the feature, the audio here is presented in Dolby Digital mono as well.
No, we're not done yet. Presented in full 1080p video is the "Splitting the Arrow" animated still gallery. I counted over a hundred stills, ranging from historical art and costume designs, to scene concepts and cast & crew photos. This one is very easy to navigate with your remote's basic control functions.
Next up are four different short films and cartoons. All are presented in 1080p video, too (sweet!). Sit back and enjoy the Looney Tunes classics "Rabbit Hood" with Bugs Bunny, and "Robin Hood Daffy" with Daffy Duck. Then, there are two vintage short subjects, "Cavalcade of Archery" and "The Cruise of the Zaca." Alas, my lack of classic film knowledge is showing -- I didn't recognize any of the performers in these shorts.
The fun finally comes to an end with an Errol Flynn Trailer Gallery, featuring spots for 'The Adventures of Robin Hood,' plus the aforementioned 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' and 'Captain Blood.'
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 HD DVD is magnificent. Warner continues to impress with its Ultra-Resolution remasters, and there are so many extras here it could take you days to get through them all. If you are at all a fan of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men, this disc 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.