If you’re looking for a good definition of swashbuckling, look no further than Errol Flynn’s performance in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). A heroic, swaggering gentleman, slightly rough around the edges, flamboyant in his swordsmanship and unmatched in his command of the bow and arrow. Flynn’s turn as the titular folkloric hero earned him a reputation that surpassed that of his predecessor, Douglas Fairbanks Jr (who played the lead in the 1922 film version). But, on closer inspection, the film turns out to have lots more going for it than just its star.
Written in 1938, the year before the 2nd world war, The Adventures of Robin Hood was directed by Michael Curtiz (aka Manó Kaminer Kertész), a Hungarian Jew who left Europe before the rise of Nazism. Curtiz came to Hollywood in 1926 to work for Warner Brothers. He may have left Europe (two marriages, two children and other lovers), but Europe certainly never let him go. From 1938 onwards, Curtiz donated a generous part of his salary to the European Film Fund, a non-profit organisation set up to help refugees find work in Hollywood. But there was also a personal angle to his concern for those fleeing Nazi atrocities. His sister, Margaret, and her husband had remained behind and were later sent to Auschwitz. I’m speculating here, but it’s probably fair to assume that his own history and family connections had some part to play in the form of activism he displayed during those years. The American public and political establishment, however, were determined not to get involved.
Curtiz was brought on after the film’s original director (William Keighley) was kicked off the production. Working from a script by two American screenwriters, Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I Miller, he worked at pace to release the film by May 1938. It was Warner Brothers’ most expensive film to date ($800,000 over its $1.2million budget) and a lot was riding on it. Flynn’s pictures were doing well for the studio, and with that kind of investment, the money men needed it to reach a big audience.
Six years earlier, when the same American public were electing their new president, one of the policies advocated by the successful candidate, Franklin D Roosevelt, was opposition to membership of the UN’s predecessor, The League of Nations. Roosevelt’s critique was that it was too focused on Europe. I think one of his democratic contenders put it more succinctly: America first. For reasons to complicated to go into here, this is what the public wanted to hear.
How interesting then that in the 1938 version of the story, King Richard, returning to England from a holy crusade, gets captured in Austria. His brother, Prince John (played impeccably by Claude Raines) takes over the regency, and soon injustice spreads like wild-fire across the land. The Saxon poor are taxed, hanged and abused, and are utterly powerless against the Prince and his rich Norman cronies. Enter Sir Robin of Loxley, a Saxon nobleman, loyal to the King, and his merry band of…you know how it goes. But in this version, done at a very precise historical moment, when the world is on the brink of a war that will define the whole of the century – a war America wouldn’t join until 1941 – King Richard’s setback in Austria on his way back from a war in foreign countries takes on extra significance. Later, when the King returns in the 3rd Act, Robin unknowingly condemns him for neglecting his task of defending his people at home. This echoes all too strongly with the views of Roosevelt’s opponents the year America got involved.
Perhaps this was never intended. Perhaps audiences were just meant to be spell-bound by the lavish sets and costumes, the frenetic action sequences, the sizzling wit of the script and the dashing good looks of the leads. Perhaps. But I doubt it.