#114. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

I’m writing this at a café I’ve been avoiding for about a year. It’s a nice place but after so many months of writing at the counter nearly ever morning, sitting with the same drink at the same time in the same spot, the regulars started factoring me among them and approaching while I worked on stuff, trading pleasantries, asking what I was working on. They wanted to be friendly. And that’s fine. But once you open yourself up to it, make yourself totally approachable, it can become a nuisance if you’re trying to get things done. Especially if, like me, you’re bad at turning people away. There was one guy in particular, his name was Dougie or something equally ridiculous, who worked in real estate and appeared to be Very Successful, living in Gables by the Sea (a fancy gated community), managing an office a couple blocks away that, according to him, practically runs itself. He told me he could just as easily work from home. But Dougie had the restlessness of a guy who doesn’t really wanna be home for some reason. I always figure adultery with these people. Anyway. Guy’s a chatterbox. Talked to me once for two hours about the sneaky evils of Scientology (he’d just seen the documentary). I barely said a word from the moment he greeted me. Not only that: I had a laptop open in front of me, annotated pages all around me, a pen poised in my hand literally the entire time. But he just kept talking.

It’s been about a year since I came here for anything. But now, over the winter holiday, I’ve been coming around more often. No particular reason. Just came by, popped in my headphones, and got to work. The baristas are all pretty much the same as before. Some of the regulars appear to’ve moved on. But today, fourth visit in a row, I saw for the first time in a long time this woman who, as I recall from a year back, normally comes in with her husband. They both look to be in their 70s or thereabouts. She’s very skinny and her back ahs the tight upper curl of a bicyclist. She’s got that bulging vascularity in her calves. Her walk is a bit f a waddle, looks pained.

She was in line ahead of me today while I was waiting to get my second drink and she made banter with the cashier throughout her transaction, and then stayed there talking with him throughout my transaction too, smiling and eager, until the third person in line came up with a flock of children and a complicated order that commanded the attention, resources, and patience of everybody behind the counter.

The cashier stolen away from their conversation, the bicyclist took a few quiet steps to the bar. She looked around at the other people waiting for their drinks. Everybody was on their phone or talking with a companion. She’s looking at faces, trying for eye contact, finding none. She does something like to straighten her posture. Turns her attention to the barista, smiles.

He smiles back.

They start talking.

They gab and gab about how the place is kinda quiet in these few days after Christmas, cuz everyone’s broke, and they go on and on like old friends until she gets her drink and then on and on still, for several minutes thereafter. Dude’s a renaissance man: moving without a pause from one tricky concoction to another without ever losing the thread of conversation. She’s the one to say goodbye after a while, smiling. Takes her drink to one of the iron tables outside and sits down and looks out toward traffic while sipping.

It’s breezy out.

            [Editor’s note from the future: a couple days will pass before I ask a barista if the bicyclist didn’t usually come in with her husband, and I learn that he’s recently died.]

Anyway. This was all before I settled in to watch The Adventures of Robin Hood for a second time. It’s the first fully colorized feature on the List and I originally watched it about a year ago, on the treadmill, but I forgot tow rite the essay and I needed a refresher. And, just as I remember, it’s a totally delightful breeze f a movie. It’s about 90 minutes long, quick and pretty and charming, and the action scenes are exciting.

A movie about Robin Hood is a movie about Robin Hood. To the extent that any iteration is different from the next, they’re differentiated only by cast, quality, and McGuffin. In this case the bad guy is oppressing the poor and working class with a harsh tax, but it may just as well be landgrabbing or profiling. It’s all finally about a guy who comes and stands up for the poor. In this case a big part of the thrill is that the movie is in color, and we see an artsy use of that color in the opening scene, when the king’s brother (a hardly-recognizable Claude Raines), toasting his devious plan to choke the Saxons with taxes, spills wine over the table’s edge and onto the floor, foreshadowing bloodshed.

It’s exciting! The color isn’t just being enjoyed as a luxury here, a prettifying accent to the cinematography, but actually functions as a narrative tool! The introduction of color for the length of a feature doesn’t feel as momentous as the advent of sound did in ’28, where it pops up for the musical bits in The Jazz Singer, but it’s interesting to notice just how much the pastel-like composition of the forest adds to the movie’s feeling of whimsy, or how the drab gray walls of the high-ceilinged castle, juxtaposed against the glitzy outfits of royalty, make the setting feel more sinister.

robin hood 3 I think it takes a Project like this, moving chronologically through the history of film, to see what each technological innovation affords the medium. Though it evades words, or at least my talent with them, the use of color gives The Adventures of Robin Hood something that simply could not have been achieved in black and white. A pitcturebook quality that complements its intentions.

The three focal players are the same as in our last swashbuckling adventure, Captain Blood (1935): Errol Flynn is the dashing and heroic Robin Hood, Olivia de Havilland is his love interest Maid Marion, and Basil Rathbone the villainous Guy de Gisbourne. Their dynamic is basically the same, too. A love triangle with a villain, a maiden, and a hero.

The movie is a delight. I almost wanna blame its strength for the subsequent eighty years of tiresome adaptations. Everything feeling like its touched with an extra vibrancy due to the use of color, feeling so amplified, I started thinking suddenly, during a fight scene, about the influence of violent media on audiences, and the debate over whether/how it begets violence in real life; wondering whether the santizied violence of a movie like The Adventures of Robin Hood is any more or less harmful than a gorefest of something like Braveheart. Because the spill of wine in the opening scene here isn’t a false promise: lots of people die in this movie. Robin makes a vow to the king’s evil brother – who’s taking the throne while claiming that the real king has been kidnapped in Austria – that he (i.e. Robin) and his band of rebels will take a life for a life. For every Saxon who’s killed by a royal guard, he’ll kill one of those guards. And he keeps his word, as the best archer in town, and starts picking off the pillaging brutes one by one (a particularly great instance has a candle’s flame burning out when an arrow flies through it to kill a potential rapist).

Animated GIF-downsized But when Robin shoots an arrow into a man’s lower abdomen, the man simply slumps forward, as though into a sudden sleep, rather than clutching this thing that’s skewered his intestines, tendrils of digestive muck probably blooming out into his blood, writhing and thrashing, sweaty, gritting his teeth and settling in for the long agonizing death ahead of him.

Maybe kids should see that. The real-world consequences of such violence. Suffering.

Or not, ahdunno.

Good movie.

(Also, Errol Flynn was an abusive douchebag and I suggest anyone with an interest in old Hollywood listen to this terrific episode of the consistently outstanding podcast, You Must Remember This, to learn more about him.)


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