Release Date(s)1938 (August 26, 2008)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: A+
Watching this film in HD is an event far removed from the conditions under which I first saw it – in black and white with the first two reels omitted so that a local television station could shoehorn a showing into a 90-minute time slot with commercials. It’s not hard to imagine the improvement that Warners’ two-disc special edition DVD of a couple of years ago brought to my viewing of the film. Now here we are in late 2008 with the film just released on Blu-ray Disc and while I anticipated good things, I was unprepared for the sheer breath-taking beauty of this Technicolor production in the new medium. Almost 70 years after it debuted, it’s amazing that this film vies with the likes of recent hits Batman Begins, The Polar Express, and Mission Impossible III for the best looking image available on Blu-ray. Of course, the film itself is head and shoulders above any of this current fare – a superb production and an endlessly repeatable piece of entertainment arising from the happy coincidence of so many talents.
The Adventures of Robin Hood was conceived in the mid-1930s – a time when Warner Bros. was in the process of expanding its efforts into more prestigious productions beyond the gritty street-smart films of the Pre-Code era. The studio had just completed a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream using its stock company for the cast and then looked to the Robin Hood saga for a follow-up. James Cagney would play Robin Hood with Olivia DeHavilland as Maid Marian. While I bow to no one in my admiration for Cagney, fortunately for us the studio eventually turned to Errol Flynn instead. The role is one that Flynn was born to play and it is indeed the role by which he will always be remembered. There has never been an actor who looked better in period costume or more able to make his playing of such roles completely natural and believable. To his characterization, Flynn brought flair, charm, and athleticism that made for an unbeatable combination with a natural acting style too frequently underestimated.
But Flynn is only the tip of the iceberg when it came to the casting decisions. In addition to him, there are a number of players in the film that were associated with Warners throughout much of their careers – Olivia DeHavilland as a beautiful and defiant Maid Marian, Claude Rains as a delightfully scheming and malevolent Prince John, and Alan Hale as an altogether satisfactory Little John. Added to these are admirable freelance casting choices such as Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisburne, Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck, and Ian Hunter as King Richard. All are so right in their roles that it now seems impossible to imagine anyone else portraying the many familiar characters that the Robin Hood saga involves.
Warners also made a wise decision in insisting on a screenplay that relies on several of the original Robin Hood legends that so many have grown up with. Thus we see recreated the wooden stave fight between Robin and Little John on the log bridge, the recruiting of Friar Tuck where he’s discovered fishing in a river, and the archery contest that Robin wins by splitting his opponent’s arrow. Filmed in stunning three-strip Technicolor, these scenes take on a magic that no other film version of Robin Hood (of which there have been many) has ever managed. Nor does the film disappoint in its action scenes; from battles in Nottingham Castle and Sherwood Forest to the climactic sword fight between Flynn and Rathbone – all are briskly staged and well-photographed under the direction of Michael Curtiz who assumed responsibility for the production after Warners became disenchanted with the efforts of the director initially assigned to the film, William Keighley. Flynn and Rathbone make for a superb pair of antagonists and the sword play between them – a combination of Flynn’s enthusiasm and athleticism and Rathbone’s fine technique arising from his personal interest in swordsmanship – is exhilarating.
One cannot watch The Adventures of Robin Hood without also being aware too of its magnificent score written by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the art decoration by Carl Jules Wehl, and the costume design by Milo Anderson. The film won Academy Awards for both of the former as well as editing (Ralph Dawson), but missed out for Best Picture when an Academy brain cramp gave the award to Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You (enjoyable as that film was).
Five years ago, this film was released on DVD, with the benefit of Warners’ Ultra Resolution process, as part of The Warner Legends Collection and was universally hailed for its superb transfer and outstanding collection of supplementary material. It seems only fitting then that for its Blu-ray release, the same superlatives are once again appropriate. The initial scenes of Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone plotting and the encounter between Flynn and Rathbone in Sherwood Forest show us what we’re in for – images with incredible depth and beauty. The colour saturation is very strong and the three-dimensionality is striking. One keeps looking for some letdown as the film progresses but it never occurs. Blacks are deep and luminous; image detail is amazing in its ability to convey small texture differences effectively; and authoring errors such as edge effects are non-existent. The film’s natural grain is well handled, and the only things preventing a perfect score for the video are minor occurrences of some image softness.
The improvement of the Blu-ray mono sound over the standard DVD presentation is not as dramatic overall as for the video. There is, however, increased clarity in any dialogue that has to compete with background noise or music. Otherwise the audio presentation is warm and pleasing though obviously subject to the limitations of 1938. Background hiss is virtually non-existent. Korngold’s score is well presented, with a quite acceptable degree of fidelity. French and Spanish mono and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
The disc retains all the supplements previously available on the DVD version. The only difference is the fact that three cartoons (Katnip Kollege, Rabbit Hood, Robin Hood Daffy) are now presented in 1080p, a welcome occurrence for HD enthusiasts looking for supplements especially mounted for the new technology. All look very good, whetting the appetite for more Looney Tunes in HD. Other supplements too numerous to mention are highlighted by a thorough and very listenable audio commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer; a “Warner Night at the Movies” feature hosted by Leonard Maltin (including a coming attraction trailer for Angels with Dirty Faces, a newsreel, and a short), documentaries on the making of the film and on the Technicolor process (Glorious Technicolor, hosted by Angela Lansbury), an Errol Flynn trailer gallery, outtakes and home movies shot during production, and the isolated Korngold score.
Very highly recommended and the current benchmark for other HD discs.
- Barrie Maxwell