As impressively mounted as the battles are and as memorable as many of the film’s images are, it’s easy to be caught off guard by just how funny this version of Robin Hood can be. Blockbusters before they were blockbusters (which this was, making back almost double its $2 million budget) aimed to please crowds with a bit of everything – excitement, romance, spectacle and plenty of humour. Robin verbally sparring with the nobility in addition to drawing his sword or releasing an arrow at them (“You speak treason” / “Fluently”) is a strategy deployed throughout, and in a particularly fun moment while escaping from his beloved Marian’s tower after a late night tryst, Robin debates for a while which of the guards in the courtyard below will best cushion his fall, in the end settling for the group standing in a circle talking. Having jokes and asides doesn’t cheapen your material, it merely keeps it from getting too monotonous.
The most iconic scene other than the archery contest featuring Robin beating an unbeatable shot by splitting an arrow down the middle (a feat actually achieved in-camera, but not by Flynn) is the climactic sword duel between man in green and the crafty Guy of Gisbourne (accomplished fencer Rathbone definitely had to dial down his skill level in the sword fights to make Flynn look better). Pretty much every movie sword fight since from The Princess Bride to the Star Wars Prequels has been chasing the speed, dexterity and character interplay shown here, their clash throwing exciting expressionist shadows against the castle walls, with the good guy showing chivalry by giving his opponent his sword back after a fall and the bad guy cheating to win.
This film’s take on this iconic character, especially Flynn’s performance, is so memorable that Robin Hood was voted the 18th greatest hero in Hollywood film by the AFI. And yes, it is this movie’s fault that we have confusingly sexy foxes courtesy of Disney’s animated remake with anthropomorphic animals that came along 40 years later.
We’re likely never going to see a production like this again. This was back when the only way to do an epic battle scene between hundreds was to have hundreds of costumed stuntmen (record-breaking at the time) acting out a complicated melee on screen, and the easiest way to have your hero release volleys of arrows at the baddies was to pay your extras wearing extra padding a bonus for each time they were actually hit by the professional archer employed on the film.
The Adventures of Robin Hood is rightly regarded as the definitive version of this centuries-old English folklore story, and in addition to timeless themes of fighting inequality through redistribution of wealth you get some fine performances, lush production design, thrilling sword fights, and (with Robin losing his arrow and some poor stuntman bracing himself for impact) one of the greatest sound effects of all time.