After almost 70 years and countless subsequent adaptations of the same historical legend, Warner Bros.' 1938 production of The Adventures of Robin Hood still remains the definitive filmic telling of the Robin Hood story and the benchmark against which all tales of swashbuckling adventure are measured. The movie has action and intrigue, intrepid heroes and beautiful maidens in distress, volleys of flying arrows, thrilling swordplay, and derring-do aplenty. It's the template by which all epic adventure films are set, and even if it's been surpassed over the years by bigger and (sometimes) better spectacles, the movie holds up as an entertaining thrill ride as well as a charming piece of nostalgia.
Errol Flynn stars as the dashing, do-gooder bandit, and makes it his signature role with an intriguing blend of feminine softness and haughty masculinity all wrapped up in one package. The radiant Olivia deHavilland is at his side as Maid Marian. The villains are played by Claude Rains as the cruel Prince John and Basil Rathbone as his right hand henchmen Sir Guy of Gisbourne (a position often filled in many versions of the story by the Sheriff of Nottingham, a character reduced to Gisbourne's subordinate here). Even amidst all these larger than life personalities, every bit as big a star of the show is its gorgeous Technicolor photography, a riot of impossibly vibrant hues that leap from the screen as spryly as Robin leaps across castle walls and trees.
All the familiar elements of the tale are here. In the absence of their beloved King Richard the Lionhearted, who ventured off to fight in the Crusades, the English people have been subjugated under the will of his power-hungry brother Prince John. The only man who will fight for their rights is the valiant Sir Robin of Locksley, a master swordsman and unrivaled archer whose tongue is as sharp as his blade. With the help of his band of merry men including Will Scarlett, Friar Tuck, and John Little, Robin will (you know the drill by now) steal from the rich and give to the poor. He'll also woo the at-first sheltered and skeptical Marian, and lead the people in a stand against their oppressors. Many arrows are launched, swords are clanged, and castle battlements are climbed in the process.
The Adventures of Robin Hood features an aggrandized, theatrical style of acting no longer in favor and many flamboyant costumes that I suspect must have always seemed a little silly (how practical could it be to prance around through the forest in bright green tights?). Its pacing and action choreography are also a little slack by modern standards. I don't think I've ever understood the plot turn in which Robin allows himself to be captured during the archery tournament and has to be rescued later by his men; he knows it's a trap and willfully walks right into it, for what purpose I have yet to deduce. Nevertheless, the film is a grand entertainment, just as enjoyable now as the day it premiered. The production by William Keighley and Michael Curtiz is impressively lavish and fantastical. This is a classic film, but not the stuffy type you slept through in school. Its makers may have all passed on, but the movie is as vibrant and alive as ever. In the ensuing years there have been many other versions of this story put to film, some redundant, some revisionist, even some animated, but none have yet topped this Adventures of Robin Hood.
The HD DVD:
The Adventures of Robin Hood debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Warner Home Video.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Adventures of Robin Hood HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical Academy Standard aspect ratio of approximately 1.37:1 with pillarbox bars on the left and right sides of the 16:9 frame. The opening credits and prologue text have been additionally windowboxed with bars on all four sides, a process I'm not particularly fond of, but the windowboxing goes away once the movie proper starts.
Sourced from the same Ultra Resolution transfer as Warner's Two-Disc Special Edition DVD released in 2003, this is a truly remarkable restoration for a film from 1938. Completely rejuvenated to its original Technicolor glory, the film elements have been scrubbed clean of all the dirt, grime, and physical defects usually seen on movies from the era. Colors sparkle like they haven't in decades, and flesh tones are never less than robust. The clarity of this image is just terrific, rivaling productions from recent years, much less something nearly 70 years old.
Film grain is frequently visible, which should be no surprise, but it's been well digitized to retain the original celluloid texture and isn't noisy at all. Nor does it ever overwhelm or obscure the image. This is the original photographic grain, not age-related degradation. The picture exhibits quite good sharpness and detail, though the movie was shot in a sometimes gauzy, romantic style, and some of the wide shots may look a bit soft in comparison to the better close-ups. The new transfer also exposes the day-for-night scenes as patently artificial, a detail often obscured by the poor quality of most prints over the years.
The DVD edition looked excellent for that format's potential, but the HD DVD steps things up to that next level of detail, clarity, and precision where you can see even minor source-related defects. There's a brief color shift at approximately the 1 hr. 23 min. mark, which is there if you strain to look for it on the DVD but barely visible, yet quite apparent here. That should be taken as a compliment to the power of the High Definition resolution, not a knock against the transfer. This disc looks wonderful.
The Adventures of Robin Hood HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate HD DVD picture quality.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 1.0 format. Audio technology in 1938 was of course quite primitive by current standards. The disc's soundtrack cleans it up as much as possible but can't overcome some of the limitations inherent to the source. Dialogue sounds thin and the music is a bit brittle, but the track is clear and has only a minimal amount of hiss. There isn't much dynamic range, and obviously the mix is limited to mono, but this is about as good as The Adventures of Robin Hood has ever sounded.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French or Spanish DD+ 1.0.
The disc automatically opens with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. The interactive menus are accompanied by annoying clicking sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it).
All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression, except for the Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes cartoons which have been remastered into full 1080p HD with VC-1. Almost all of the supplements from Warner's Two-Disc Special Edition DVD have carried over, and they amount to quite an extensive handful that will take the better part of a day to dig through. The organization of the features in the menu system is different on the HD DVD than the DVD and I don't necessarily agree with all of the changes (why aren't the Looney Tunes grouped together anymore?), so the way I'm going to list them off here may vary a bit from where they're actually found on the disc.
As far as I can tell, the only things lacking from the DVD edition are some awards and cast & crew info in text format. They're certainly not much of a loss. The DVD's fancy packaging is missed, however.
- Audio Commentary - Film historian Rudy Behlmer discusses in detail both the movie and the historical Robin Hood legends. He's a good speaker and the track is a fascinating listen.
- Music-Only Track - An option to watch the movie listening to just the Oscar-winning score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold without dialogue or sound effects.
- Warner Night at the Movies (25 min.) – An intriguing attempt to recreate the 1938 theatrical experience by compiling the type of material usually screened before the start of a movie. A brief introduction by Leonard Maltin explains the concept. Following that are a vintage theatrical trailer for the James Cagney gangster flick Angels with Dirty Faces, a newsreel, a musical short subject featuring Freddie Rich and His Orchestra, and the Merrie Melodies cartoon Katnip College. The cartoon has been fully restored and remastered into High Definition and is an order of magnitude brighter, sharper, and more colorful than the same piece found on the DVD edition.
- Classic Cartoons - The famous Looney Tunes shorts Rabbit Hood (8 min.) and Robin Hood Daffy (6 min.) have likewise been remastered into HD and look terrific. Their quality puts the same cartoons on the DVD edition to shame.
- Vintage Technicolor Short Films - In Cavalcade of Archery (9 min.), Robin Hood's archery master Howard Hill demonstrates his trick shooting abilities, including a gasp-inducing bit where he shoots a prune off a live person's head William Tell-style. This short also includes excerpted footage from Robin Hood that didn't make the final cut. Next, Errol Flynn takes us on a yachting travelogue in The Cruise of the Zaca (20 min.). Ostensibly on a scientific expedition, there's quite a bit of unintentionally amusing footage of the crew manhandling delicate sea life and arrogantly observing the quaint rituals of Caribbean natives. Neither film's elements were preserved well over the years and both are in pretty rough shape.
- Errol Flynn Trailer Gallery - 12 vintage trailers are provided, including titles such as Robin Hood, Captain Blood, The Prince and the Pauper, and The Sea Hawk.
- Glorious Technicolor (60 min.) – An excellent, in-depth documentary narrated by Angela Lansbury about the history of the Technicolor process. The only disappointment is that the movie clips seen in the documentary are often in poor shape and don't truly represent the best of Technicolor quality. The footage from Robin Hood doesn't look anywhere near as good as the restored feature film on this disc.
- Welcome to Sherwood: The Story of The Adventures of Robin Hood (55 min.) – Another very good documentary, this one originally produced for the Turner Classic Movies network. Rudy Behlmer and Leonard Maltin walk us through the production of the movie. Covered topics include the original concept (James Cagney was supposed to star as Robin!), scripting, shooting, stunts, music, and the replacement of first director William Keighley with Michael Curtiz.
- Robin Hood Through the Ages (7 min.) – A brief history of the Robin Hood legend on film, this piece is primarily a comparison of the silent 1922 movie starring Douglas Fairbanks with the Flynn version.
- A Journey to Sherwood Forest (13 min.) – Behind-the-scenes home movie footage shot on the set. Since the footage is silent, Rudy Behlmer narrates.
- Outtakes (8 min.) – Flubs and deleted scenes, again silent and narrated by Behlmer. It's interesting to see just how many 2nd Unit directors actually shot scenes for the movie.
- Breakdowns of 1938 (14 min.) – A studio blooper reel featuring outtakes from all of Warner's major productions in 1938. A number of prominent classic movie stars swear when they flub their lines, which is something you don't get to see very often.
- Audio Vault - Two vintage audio recordings: The 5/11/38 National Radio Broadcast of The Robin Hood Show (28 min.) and an Erich Wolfgang Korngold Piano Session (16 min.).
- Splitting the Arrow Galleries - Several still image galleries of historical art, costumes, concept drawings, publicity material, posters, and cast & crew photos.
You've got to love Warner Bros. for digging into the breadth of their catalog when releasing titles on HD DVD. The studio has made it their mission to prove that High Definition benefits more than just action flicks and sci-fi pictures. Classic movie lovers should be thrilled with this release of The Adventures of Robin Hood, which features an amazing restoration for the movie that looks terrific in HD, as well as an astounding wealth of bonus features. Warner even went to the extra effort of restoring the Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes cartoons into HD quality significantly better than the same pieces on the DVD edition. This is truly a package for collectors and easily merits our highest DVDTalk Collector Series rating.
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