Although detested by Ayn Rand, Robin Hood is, for my money, one of the classic Libertarian heroes. Here is a man who gives up the holdings his title affords him and joins ranks with the downtrodden to protest a tyrannical and unjust government. I have always enjoyed this story in its contemporary adaptations (the 1973 Disney version is particularly good) and so I decided to check out a kind of Hollywood source material – the 1938 Warner Brothers production starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Man, was this movie great.
The film begins with an expository panel detailing the situation in Medieval England. King Richard has gone on Crusade and the English people (mostly Saxon) are being ruled in his absence by his brother, Prince John (Claude Rains) and a class of aristocratic Noblemen (mostly Norman). Circumstances conspire to find King Richard held for ransom in Austria, and so Prince John decides to raise taxes on his Saxon subjects, ostensibly with the purpose of freeing Richard, but privately he is scheming of other ways to use the accruing funds. Enter Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn), a Saxon Nobleman who decides to unite with a team of plucky misfits and lead a guerilla war against the Prince and his policy of over taxation.
Flynn is fantastic in the swashbuckler role that made him into a household name. He is courageous, clever, and charming as the leader of the Merry Men. Especially of note is the scene where he is first introduced to Prince John and the Noblemen, as well as his love-interest, Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland). He enters the Prince’s presence with a deer poached from the Royal Forest over his shoulder and proceeds to call every man present a coward and a traitor.
The brazenness with which he courts the Lady Marian is delightful, as is her initial displeasure at his hi-jinks. The supporting cast is excellent, especially Basil Rathbone as Guy of Gisbourne, Prince John’s right-hand man, and Robin’s primary nemesis. A fantastic scene involves Robin and his men descending on Guy and his entourage and bringing them as prisoners to their secret woodland hideout. The production value is really on display here, as a hundred or so woodland rebels dance around merrily and feast on the Nobleman’s cargo.
What I enjoyed most about this movie is its unabashed sense of old-fashioned romance. The story is clear as to who the good guys and bad guys are, and while that may not be an accurate reflection of reality, it’s a fun persepctive to escape to every once in a while. The film also contains a satisfying love story, with agency on both ends, as the characters take separate turns rescuing each other. It was rumored that Flynn and Havilland had fallen in love during the course of shooting, and it certainly shows in their onscreen chemistry.
No review of the film would be complete without some commentary on the fantastic action scenes and set design. The swordplay is dynamic and the stuntwork is excellent. The action scenes feel real because they are real; the actors used physical weapons and did physical stunts – no CGI here. Camerawork during the action scenes is steady and clear, and the viewer is permitted the time and space to take in the full scope of each battle. There are a few lovely cinematic flourishes, such as during a climactic swordfight when the camera pulls out to focus on the torch-lit shadows of the duelists.
The film was shot in Technicolor, supposedly a painstaking process, but it pays off; the costumes are vibrant, the sets are rich and saturated and the tapestries break up the interior dark of the castles with striking flair. It’s a beautiful representation of Old Hollywood production design.
I believe “Robin Hood” is of particular interest to libertarians for the questions it raises. At what point are citizens obligated to rebel against an unjust government? At what point, and at what level of corruption in the economy, is a redistribution of wealth justified? At what point should we give up on trying to influence politics and start our own libertarian community deep in the woods somewhere? Okay, maybe that last one wasn’t so serious…but what if?
The film is also a pleasant and necessary escape from the modern world. I sometimes fear that we live in an age so used to passing off cynicism as realism that we’ve lost our sense of romance. Certainly, there were problems in Old Hollywood, but there was a heroism, a grace, and an enthusiasm for life that is lost in today’s cinema. For those who long for a return to that old-fashioned sense of adventure, “The Adventures of Robin Hood” is a fitting start.