The Adventures of Robin Hood

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Errol Flynn, Olivia DeHavilland, Claude Rains, Basil Rathbone, Alan Hale
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Outtakes, Cartoons, Galleries

In our post-"auteur" era of filmmaking, there's a tendency to dismiss the work of the big-studio contract director. The old movie moguls viewed motion pictures as generic entertainment and not a platform for personal expression. Yes, there were eventual breakouts like Preston Sturges, John Huston and Billy Wilder, but in each studio, there was also the director who, just by doing their job, created some wonderful movie magic. One such director was Michael Curtiz, born in Budapest and part of that legendary influx of European directors to America. Curtiz directed some of the greatest films of old Hollywood: "Captain Blood," "Mystery of the Wax Museum," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Angels With Dirty Faces," "Casablanca" (for which he won an Oscar for Best Director) and 1938's "The Adventures of Robin Hood," which he co-directed with William Keighley.

Curtiz's interpretation of the Anglo-Saxon hero was so successful and influential that, even today, many consider "The Adventures of Robin Hood" the template for not only all subsequent cinematic Robin Hood interpretations, but for the modern adventure film itself. So, it makes perfect sense that "The Adventures of Robin Hood" would be the first "golden age of Hollywood" title to bow on HD-DVD. And boy, did Warners get it right!

Distilled from "ancient Robin Hood" legends (per the on-screen credit), "The Adventures of Robin Hood" wastes no time in jumping into the action. Prince John (a charmingly villainous Claude Rains) is ravaging medieval England, consolidating his power while his brother, the virtuous King Richard (Ian Hunter), is off on the Crusades. Pitting the Norman (i.e. French-based) gentry against the Saxon (native English) populace, his policies of over-taxation and mis-representation are creating a nation of downtrodden, despairing citizens. Enter Sir Robin of Loxley (Errol Flynn), who — just because it's the right thing to do — declares his opposition to Prince John and Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) by swearing loyalty to Richard. Setting up base camp in dense Sherwood Forest, he organizes a popular revolt. Along the way, Robin finds help in such iconic figures as Little John (Alan Hale), Friar Tuck (Eugene Palette) and Will Scarlet (Patric Knowles). He also finds love in the form of Maid Marian (Olivia deHavilland), who at first despises Robin, but comes to recognize his altruistic motivations and nationalistic idealism. Ultimately, all the themes – good/evil, altruism/greed, cultural prejudice/national unity – engage in one final battle to determine the fate of Robin and Marian, his gallant band, even the future of England itself.

What makes "The Adventures of Robin Hood" so perfect is an exercise in the perfect match of actors, directors, screenplay, score, and technical achievements to a project. Let's not forget the timing. 1938 America was still in the grips of the Depression, the winds of World War II were gathering and everyday life seemed like an exercise in survival, a daily struggle soaked in black-and-white. (1938 was also the year Orson Welles caused a national panic with his "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast.) "Robin Hood" was an instant tonic for weary audiences – a nobleman fighting for the common man, promoting strength through national unity and swashbuckling in glorious, three-strip Technicolor. Despite Mel Brooks' 1993 declaration that Robin Hood and his merry band were just "men in tights," "The Adventures of Robin Hood" is pure, unadultered fun from opening credit to end frame. Also, in watching the film now, we can see easily how it influenced future film epics like "Star Wars," not the least of which is the heraldic music score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

First released on DVD three years ago, "The Adventures of Robin Hood" looked pretty darn good then. The transfer boasted Warner's "Ultra-Resolution" process and the disc hosted a forest-ful of special features. I'm happy to report that not only have ALL the special features from the SD been ported over to the HD-DVD, not only does the increased resolution of HD make for an even spectacular presentation, but the disc boasts another milestone – the first HD presentation of two bona-fide Looney Tunes cartoons! Not only do we get to see Errol Flynn in 1080i, but Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck too! How cool is that!!

"The Adventures of Robin Hood's" HD transfer is a wonder to behold! The feature is presented in its proper 1.33 aspect ratio, with black bars on the left and right. On regular DVD, three-strip Technicolor films were already eye-popping, but in HD, I'm scrambling to find the adjectives to describe just how beautiful and tangible the picture looks. The depth and detail of the image simply has to be seen to believed. Colors are over-saturated, but pure and solid. Details, like textures in the castle walls and wrinkles in the clothing, instantly pop off the screen. Deep blacks and shadow detail also are off the charts (in a good way). There are moments where the color registration is slightly off, but for a 70-year old three-strip negative to look THIS good and clear, I'm almost ashamed to cite any flaws, simply because they are SO few. In baseball terms, the transfer is a grand-slam!

The Dolby Digital Plus audio presents the original mono soundtrack. It performs on par for its seven-decade age: limited fidelity with occasional hiss and distortion. Clearly, there's been some restoration to the audio, as the hiss is occasional, and not always detectable. Dialogue is mainly intelligible and there are times when Korngold's score congests the center channel, but overall the audio presentation is what it should be: a faithful presentation of the original source. French and Spanish language mono audio tracks are available.

The supplements start with Rudy Behlmer's feature-length commentary track. Behlmer is a great film historian (I especially loved his commentary for 1932 "The Mummy" DVD release) and he's no less full of interesting anecdotes and factoids for "Robin Hood." Also concurrent with the feature presentation is a music-only track of Korngold's music score. The archery tournament fanfare still gives me goosebumps! Again, listening to the music one is reminded a great deal of John Williams' work on the original (or Episode IV) "Star Wars."

Another port from the DVD is Leonard Maltin's hosting of a "Warner Night at the Movies." Leonard amiably gives additional historical context to the feature by explaining that "Night at the Movies" represents how the typical 1938 moviegoer might have seen "Robin Hood." We are treated to a newsreel, a musical short subject, a cartoon and the original theatrical trailer for "Angels With Dirty Faces." The source elements are of varying quality, but it's interesting to run the cycle through its pace – but only for historical value.

Two documentaries explore the film and the Technicolor process used. "Welcome to Sherwood: The Story of 'The Adventures of Robin Hood'" and "Glorious Technicolor" each run about an hour. Hosted respectively by Rudy Behlmer and Angela Lansbury, the docs are informative and rich with information and insider info. The "Technicolor" documentary, originally created for TCM, is particularly good, especially for going into the background of Natalie and Dr. Herbert Kalmus, and how Natalie's name wound up on the credit of every Technicolor film…

Additional SD extras include two vintage short subjects, including one featuring Errol Flynn on his yacht Zaca, an "Errol Flynn Gallery" thirteen trailer reel, galleries with concept drawings, a radio adaptation of "Robin Hood" narrated by Basil Rathbone; costume design sketches, historical art, and posters; and an eight-minute "Outtakes" reel without sound and narrated by Behlmer. basically "all Errol, all the time." Of particular note here is a fifteen-minute short entitled "Breakdowns of 1938," a reel of on-set goofs and gaffes from various Warner Brothers movies. Finally, composer Korngold's piano sessions of the score's main themes is truly a time capsule, allowing one to imagine how, after Curtiz and company first heard the piano renditions, it would be translated into a full orchestral performance.

Now, the piece-de-resistance: the world premiere of two classic "Looney Tunes" animated cartoons in full high definition! Included on the HD-DVD is 1949's "Rabbit Hood" starring Bugs Bunny with a cameo by ol' Errol/Robin himself, and 1958's "Robin Hood Daffy," both directed by WB animation great Chuck Jones.
For my money, "Robin Hood Daffy" has some of the best lines ever uttered in a cartoon, as in Daffy's "Actually, it's a buck-and-a-quarter staff…" The cartoons are presented in 1080i with black side-bars, just like the feature, and both are spectacular in image clarity and color rendition. Bugs and Daffy look like they just got a facelift! Well, maybe not, but the idea of more Looney Tunes in HD, based on what's contained here, has me drooling with anticipation.

For anyone weighing the pros and cons of upgrading "The Adventures of Robin Hood" to HD-DVD, don't even think about it. Just do it. Highly, highly recommended.