Dir. Michael Curtiz. Starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Claude Rains
“They don’t make movies like [x type of movie] anymore” is more often than not the most prosaic sort of movie criticism, a “Saturday Night Live had its best cast when I was sixteen” for film fogies. Typically it’s a statement of nostalgia more than anything else, although there’s certainly a strong case to be made that certain types of movies are being phased out of existence. Mark Harris has long been on the record that safe, big budget features are muscling movies for adults out of the playing field; similarly, Todd VanDerWerff has written about the several reasons why mid-budget romcoms are falling off the face of the map. They’re right, of course, that the mid-budget film is as endangered as the giraffe, and that our grandchildren will know about both only from the pictures. But to me, the movie that is most endangered – darn near extinct, in fact – is the fun for fun’s sake blockbuster.
The fun for fun’s sake blockbuster is a big-budget film with big-budget casts, effects, and settings; they are almost certainly “dramas,” in the sense that they are not primarily comedies. It is family friendly, with maybe a touch of violence that would make it a better fit for older elementary schoolers and up. It is easy to follow, without too much plot explication needed, nor does it necessitate endless discussion on the Internet about the actual order of events. It has special effects, yet not so many that we would call it an animated movie. But most of all, it needs to be fun. It is not gritty, grimy, dark, or “complicated.” It is mostly lighthearted throughout and has a happy ending. In my mind, and maybe this is an extraneous complication, the fun for fun’s sake blockbuster needs to be good, too. It should be a genuinely decent film, with evidence of craft and talent and forethought. In the 1980s, the fun for fun’s sake was not precisely ubiquitous, but some of the best beloved films ever are from this decade: The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, Back to the Future, The Princess Bride, E.T., The Wrath of Khan. Folks in film were swashing and buckling with the best of them throughout the ’90s until they suddenly weren’t anymore. Blame
In this century, the number of fun for fun’s sake blockbusters is fairly low. Guardians of the Galaxy is the standard-bearer. Ocean’s Eleven, as the very definition of a fun heist movie (though honestly less joyful than you remember it), is a charter member. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl skirts dangerously close to “dark” with its
idiosyncratic dumb horror-inspired elements, but on the whole I think it’s a good fit. Lord of the Rings is too brainy; Inception wishes it were too brainy; Mad Max: Fury Road is too inhospitable; The Hunger Games wishes it were too inhospitable. The Harry Potter movies threw themselves at “complicated” too often. Every live-action superhero movie this century has been some combination of aggressively mediocre (hello, Marvel!) or histrionically gritty (greetings, DC!). The Force Awakens comes fairly close to this standard, though I think the end of the film leaves you a little too cold; if you’re inclined to overlook the death toll, Rogue One is at least as worthy as the first Pirates movie. Avatar is a difficult case because of its length and of its removedness, and on the whole it probably works.
tl;dr – there have been five fun for fun’s sake blockbusters (Guardians of the Galaxy, Curse of the Black Pearl, Ocean’s Eleven, Avatar, Rogue One) in the past sixteen years.
All of this is to say that when you look at the blueprint for the fun for fun’s sake blockbuster, there’s no question that The Adventures of Robin Hood is the archetype. It features name-brand stars, daring action sequences, and an engrossing plot without ever bogging down the viewer with excessive detail or oppressive drama. Everyone is very stylish, but not a single element of the production, costume, or makeup design is “cool.” People are killed, but blood never flows. And it’s never in doubt who will prevail; Robin Hood (Flynn) is always going to win, and although the film comes close to hanging Robin Hood, any real concern that Robin will be hanged is thwarted purposefully with the meeting that Maid Marian (de Havilland) sets up with the men of Sherwood at a tavern. The film engages in stupid puns and smack-your-forehead wordplay. The sendoff is Robin’s reaction to a “command” given him by King Richard, to marry Marian. Robin hopes that he will follow all of the king’s commands with such joy, ha ha ha. This is par for the course, and it’s great. Nothing brings fresh air into a film the way dumb jokes like those do, and there’s a steady diet of them throughout. This is a movie where the hero wears green tights and a feather in his cap, where the villains look like they escaped from the dressing room of the Kilroy Tour, Olivia de Havilland looks like the Pink Power Ranger got lost in the Barbie Dreamhouse, and Una O’Connor, bless her, is dressed as a tube of lipstick late in the film. In the days when a color film caused the excitement that 3D did a few years ago, the shimmering, glittering, gaudy costumes the characters wear are like the punctuation for the dreamily dark walls of the castle, the yellow and brown town squares, the screaming bright greens of open fields and the handsome dark greens of Sherwood Forest. The gauzy Technicolor is like a fairy tale come to the big screen; there’s more interesting and better cinematography in other films, but Robin Hood has some of my absolute favorite colors and shadows ever for their total unironic zest.
In one scene about halfway through the film, it’s revealed that, perhaps a little arrogantly, a wagon train led by Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) will pass through Sherwood Forest carrying 30,000 marks which have vocally been earmarked for the ransom of King Richard, but which will in fact merely enrich Prince John. Robin and his men begin their preparations in earnest; they collect vines (vines? in England?) and tree branches, creating natural looking nets. And as the train comes into the trap and the trap is sprung, the result is at once rather impressive and totally hysterical. About half of the merry men are in hiding on the ground, behind bushes or tree trunks, and come out to fight Guy’s soldiers; the other half are hiding in the trees and literally fall out of the branches on top of the mounted troops, punching and kicking all the way. Make no mistake: they really are dropping themselves from some distance on top of people on horses, which adds some realism to the scene even though this a tactic lifted from the Battle of Endor. The foresters defeat the surprised soldiers without much trouble, and at the end Robin Hood himself appears in a tree…and then, Tarzan-like, swings to another equally good branch just for the effect. It’s ridiculous (and I want to know who came up with that stunt), but it’s entertaining enough to justify the seeming silliness. Later on, Much, the Miller’s son (Herbert Mundin) will use the same tactic on a lapsed knight who is en route to assassinate King Richard in Sherwood Forest; when Much does it, we recognize the tactical superiority of the move as well as the seriousness of the moment. It’s funny when a bunch of guys do it and no one, really, gets hurt, but Much is the only thing standing in the way of the downfall of just English governance. Reusing that gimmick provides a familiarity to the drama that, despite the desperate fight that ensues, gives us some kind of comfort as viewers.
What the fun for fun’s sake blockbusters tend to have in common are ludicrously charismatic frontmen. Perhaps that’s part of the issue with 21st Century interpretations; say what you will about George Clooney in Ocean’s Eleven or Felicity Jones in Rogue One, I think you’d be hard-pressed to call either one “ludicrously charismatic,” especially when Brad Pitt and Diego Luna are lurking. But in 1938, Errol Flynn is just palpitating with that eye-catching zeal onscreen. Part of Robin Hood’s appeal is his hubris – which Flynn did not need to act much to pull off – and significant sequences are based on Robin’s total disregard for prudent action. He’s the kind of guy who reads about Achilles in the Iliad and says, “Hold my beer.” My personal favorite is early in the film, when he gives Prince John (Rains, hiding under the worst fake hair in movie history) a declaration of war by walking in with a deer carcass over his shoulders, hits a pair of dudes with it who try to stop him entering the great hall, and then plops it down on the table in front of John, Guy, and Marian. He then proceeds to stick around and eat a whole chicken, by the looks of it, before fighting off an entire room of knights and foot soldiers with every trick he has up his sleeve. It’s not the last time he’ll wander into a castle and with a combination of bow, sword, fist, and surprising acrobatics, defeat all comers. Flynn appears to be moving in super speed as often as not; his duel with Rathbone at the end of the film has to be one of the best mano-a-mano series in a film, in which Robin declines to spear Guy early on, then gets stuck underneath a bunch of candles about halfway through, and then finally gets a thrust into Guy’s belly. It lasts for well over a minute at lightning speed which has all of the rehearsal and none of the restraint of other movie swordfights. As much as any other scene (with the possible exception of the self-bombing run mentioned earlier), this is the one that showcases the fun in The Adventures of Robin Hood. For a minute or two, the stakes are boiled down to successful lover against jilted suitor, outlaw against lawman, hero against scoundrel. Even with all the intrigue that is boiling with just a few minutes remaining in the film, the ability of the movie to seamlessly fold individual spectacle with filmwide stakes is what makes this movie engrossing and lovable.