The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn and directed by William Keighley and Michael Curtiz in 1938, has long been one of my favorite movies. The sumptuous Technicolor photography, the charisma and chemistry between its stars (Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland), the sense of fun and adventure, have all been well documented. There is no need for me to go over these elements of the film again except to say that if you have never seen it, you must.
However, I have an anecdote related to a screening of the film that will help clarify my intention in starting this blog.
Several years ago I was standing in line prior to a screening at Film Forum in New York City. They had released their new repertory calendar, and featured was a new 35mm restoration of The Adventures of Robin Hood. The person standing behind me had never seen the film, and his friend was encouraging him to go, saying that he would really enjoy it. He described it as two hours of pure fun, and a film not bogged down by social consciousness or political ideology at all.
He had it half right. The film is certainly two hours of pure fun, but to say that it is void of social consciousness or without a political point of view is naive. Certainly, as a centuries-old tale, the story of Robin Hood is seemingly divorced from the realities of 1938 America. However, Warner Bros. studios, the screenwriters, directors, etc. chose to tell this story at this time because it resonated with them, whether consciously or not, at that time. Not only did they choose to tell the story of Robin Hood, contemporary issues persuaded them (again, whether consciously or not) to highlight various aspects of the legend.
Let’s begin with the fact that the US was in the midst of the worst economic downturn in its history. The Great Depression had begun in 1929, and the economy experienced an additional recession in 1937. There were two causes for this: many of FDR’s New Deal programs had been declared unconstitutional by a conservative Supreme Court, and FDR attempted to balance the budget. (I do not intend this as a discourse on the current economic situation, but I think the parallels are obvious.) In this socio-economic context, a story about a man robbing from the rich to feed the poor, and I might add being branded an outlaw for it, has a certain relevance.
But I think there is more. In the film there is a subtext of nationalism and racial superiority as the tyrannical Norman Prince John (Claude Rains) seizes power illegally, and persecutes the Saxon citizens of England. 1938 is the eve of World War II. Hitler and his gang of thugs had seized power in unorthodox ways just five years earlier. Kristallnact was that same year, and in 1939 the Nazis began their long-feared crusade across Europe. Clearly world events informed the choices that the producers, writers and directors (many of whom were of European descent and Jewish) made in creating this film.
Notice that I have not engaged in any highly-academic analysis here. However, being aware of the context in which films are made, and the audiences for whom they are intended, can enrich the viewing experience.