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Adventures of Robin Hood, The Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 November 2006

ImageIt is the year 1191 and King Richard the Lionhearted has departed England to lead the Crusades and has placed the regency in the care of trusted friend Longchamps, instead of his treacherous brother Prince John (a wonderfully fey Claude Rains). When Richard is seized by the King of Austria, John uses the opportunity to unseat Longchamps and, backed by the loathsome Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and fellow Normans, begins a program of oppression and cruelty against the poor Saxons. Sir Robin of Loxley (Errol Flynn), outraged by the oppression, unites the dispossessed and loyal Britons into a ragtag band. These Merrie Men live deep in Sherwood Forest and do whatever they can to upset Prince John’s treacherous plans and to defend the downtrodden Saxons.

Warner’s lavish, exciting Technicolor delight, directed by both Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, is cinema’s slickest and most entertaining version of the oft-filmed legend. Errol Flynn is an athletic, brash and charming Robin and his playful chemistry with Olivia de Havilland (Maid Marian) is great fun; it’s the third of their seven co-starring movies. It’s filled with classic Hollywood star performances and it’s as fun today as it was back in 1938. The supporting cast is jammed with great character actors. Alan Hale is a joyous Little John, gravelly voiced Eugene Pallette is an enjoyably incensed Friar Tuck, Montagu Love is the memorably sneaky Bishop of the Black Canons, and Una O’Connor (as Bess) and Herbert Mundin (as Much, the Miller’s son) make a cute couple. Even the horses are memorable; the beautiful palomino that Maid Marian rides soon became Roy Rogers’ famous Trigger.

Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains are wonderfully loathsome baddies. Rains is clearly having a ball with the role and he plays it with a bemused and effete detachment. Rathbone’s Sir Guy is a thug in fine dress, and he’s a perfect foil for Flynn’s Robin. The dialogue is filled with snappy repartee which all the leads deliver with a sharpness as pointed as their swords. While there are dark implications and violent events in the story, the mood is kept buoyant, and the story is playful and fun. (One does wonder why the Merrie Men are quite so merry, what with the eye-gougings, ear-loppings and torture they’ve been subjected to.) The acting is played very broadly and it’s perfectly appropriate for this production; bold performances to match the bold palette of the Technicolor imagery.

Warner’s HD DVD transfer is a stellar achievement. It’s the first Hollywood classic release on HD DVD and it’s presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The pin-sharp level of detail constantly on display is a revelation. While the standard DVD Ultra-Resolution restoration a few years back was a revelation, this HD rendition of the same restoration is glorious. There’s some grain on display (especially in the opening title cards) but it’s an aspect of the film elements and not an authoring defect. It could be eliminated through electronic means, but it would strip the movie of its filmic look and give the constantly moving ribbon of images an unnatural stillness. The transfer is so sharp, one can discern facets of the production never before seen on home video. You can literally count the links in the chainmail and see facets of the make-up and ornate costumes that one could never get outside of a theatrical screening. It’s so pristine, in fact, that one can clearly see how just how shallow the focus is set in some shots, and you can tell which actors are shot through softening filters (Rathbone as well as de Havilland, which is a surprise) and which aren’t (most of the supporting cast).

The audio is presented in its original mono and is rich, clear and warm. It’s a dated track, obviously, but the exciting and catchy Erich Wolfgang Korngold score sounds terrific.

This disc must contain the most substantial amount of video and audio features on an HD DVD disc to date. There’s over 200 minutes of video extras, plus a radio show, audio commentary, music tracks, galleries, etc. It’s a completely comprehensive, voluminous and satisfying collection of materials, and nothing has been omitted from the standard edition 2-disc DVD. The making of documentary “Welcome to Sherwood” is appreciably substantial and thorough, and the rest of the bonus featurettes offer a treasure trove of rare footage, home movies shot on-set and revealing insights. The “Glorious Technicolor” documentary (which relates the history of the ground-breaking color process) was produced for Turner Classic Movies and has an instance of picture break-up, accompanied by audio pops, about 15 seconds into it. This was also present on the TV broadcast and on the previous DVD release, so it’s apparently part of the master tape. I’m surprised it wasn’t fixed for this disc, though.

One of the highlights of the bonus materials is the first high-def renditions of classic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes. “Robin Hood Daffy” and “Rabbit Hood” have been upgraded to 1080p and they look stunning. The colors are boldly saturated and vivid, and the level of detail is so sharp one can see the little motes of dust caught between the animation cels during production. One hopes the “Looney Tunes Golden Collections” will make their way to HD DVD if the picture quality here is any indication of what to expect. “Rabbit Hood” sounds fine, but the audio track for “Robin Hood Daffy” has a some audible popping throughout.

A collection of twelve Errol Flynn trailers rounds off the disc. This delightful HD DVD presentation of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” has spoiled me for standard definition DVD and I’ll be first in line when further Errol Flynn classics are released. Hopefully, “The Sea Hawk” isn’t too far down the road…

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