Defying my own expectations, most of my contributions to MXDWN have been rooted in action cinema. As an avid movie lover, I often find myself talking about almost every other genre but action, exploring more cerebral themes, unique plots, and just about any interesting world to immerse myself in. However, upon being tasked to come up with original content each week, I’ve found action films begging to be explored. With so many of the best film critics investing their deep knowledge and passion into the “higher” artistic achievements in cinema, I find it necessary to shine the light on a genre that boasts just arguably as much cinematic brilliance, love, and even artistic quality as just about any other.
While I’ve reviewed modern action films, commenting on the rising potential the genre gains with each era while simultaneously acknowledging that there are not many action films chronologically overlapping with what many consider classic cinema. I do stand by this claim, with most of the oldest “action” movies having very different kinds of plots and toned down action, but there is a significant outlier. For the many years since I’ve first seen it, I am happy to champion Michael Curtiz’s ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (1938) as the first TRUE action movie.
Before our current era of action, riddled with violence, combat, revenge, etc, the genre really began to take shape around the late 1970’s, with ‘Star Wars.’ The importance of the ‘Star Wars’ franchise needs no elaboration but its direct connection to the story line of Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai’ has created an entire family tree of cinema. Westerns inspired the Samurai films which, in turn, inspired ‘Star Wars’ (which is accepted as a space western).
This is highlighted in the general plotlines for many of these films. Peril is brought upon a community, a savior shows up, unifies everybody, and they overcome the oppression from the beginning of the film. This is the plot of ‘Star Wars,’ countless action/adventure films since, and is recognized to start with ‘Seven Samurai.’ However, if you give ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ a detailed watch, you’ll realize that this is where it really all began.
Before the western genre became dominant, the prevailing adventure genre was the swashbuckler. With Douglas Fairbanks as the prominent lead in these silent era films, as the shift to sound happened, the genre eventually died. However, one swashbuckling lead, Errol Flynn, transitioned into the sound era and with his casting as Robin Hood, created a modern (at the time) and updated version of the genre.
With historical epics at a height, ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ takes place in the still underused medieval setting for opportune action. For those unfamiliar with the story of Robin Hood, it’s just like the above movies. The Normans are under oppression, Robin Hood shows up, enlists help, unifies the community, and takes down evil in a great battle, and of course, gets the girl.
While many might think that due to its era ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ lacks action, they are sorely mistaken. Beyond the daring stunts, with Flynn doing his own, there are countless exciting sword fights, stick fights, fist fights, etc. The choreography is terrific, defying the expectation that it would appear as staged dueling, with the characters really looking like they’re trying to best their opponent.
A trope of many great action films is that the main villain’s right hand man is the harder opponent to best than the main villain himself. This is exemplified in Basil Rathbone’s Sir Guy of Gisbourne, who frequently battles it out with Robin Hood while Claude Rains’ Prince John sits back to scheme. Also like many modern action films, the prized lady, in this case Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marion, actually begins as loyal to the villain. It is through Robin Hood’s charm, talent, and morals, that she immediately rejects the evils around her to desire the hero.
With that, we have to note the action hero pioneering that comes from Robin himself. Flynn portrays him masterfully. Even in his greatest moments of danger, he is calm, confident, and charming. We know that he’s always going to make it out alive, not because the rules of cinema say so, but because he’s simply too awesome of a character to lose. He will only be selfish when he knows that the only person at risk is himself. While he’s the most talent warrior in the entire film, his greatest weapon is that his moral compass always pointed in the right direction. Flynn’s Robin Hood exemplifies the joys of doing the right thing. Simply put, Flynn’s Robin Hood leads to Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn from ‘Lord of the Rings.’
Characters and action aside, the film looks absolutely marvelous. Medieval films are scarce but few look as stunning as this. The beautifully saturated coloring speaks for itself, making for one of the earliest and still best looking examples of color in film. However, it wouldn’t look so good if what they were shooting wasn’t already beautiful. Taking place in vast green fields, quiet forests, and magnificent castle set pieces, it look so REAL. You can feel the coldness of the castles, the comfort of the forest, and electric atmosphere of scenes like the archery tournament. A brilliant marriage of setting and shooting.
‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ will absolutely charm you. Its familiar story will feel so fresh, being the only one of its kind pre-‘Seven Samurai.’ The mixture of a timeless tale, mixed with the rare and beloved medieval setting, all topped by the classic appeal of a 30’s film makes for one of the most pure and enjoyable cinematic experiences that you could ever find. We owe it endless gratitude for crafting a storytelling format that we continue to celebrate to this day while still standing alone as its own lovable tale.