a few quick thoughts on…The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

January 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

There are so many crutches to the plot, to the fabula, in the film:

  • staging: scenes with Robin Hood are dynamic, filled with movements and people; even when making love to Lady Marion, Robin Hood is walking among a crowd. By contrast, scenes with villains are static, dialogue-centered, the camera fixed on facial expressions.
  • sets: scenes with Robin Hood are outdoor: forest, archery tournament. Does he own a castle ? It is never shown. Scenes with villains are in Nottingham castle (except when they’re outside and meet with Robin Hood), renedered in huge volumes, massive masonry works (the very Faribanks-like* staircase), empty halls, long tall windows and slim windows.
  • colors: scenes with Robin Hood are green and brown, scenes with villains are in darker tones (dark velvets and the likes; even the white robes of King John are egg-colored).
  • themes: modern resonances are built into the story to purposefully take you far from the world of Saxons and Normans barons. The fight for ‘England’ (1938), the picture of Normans as proto-Nazis with their concern with ethnic identity (Normans see themselves as master race, while Saxons don’t care), the relaxed (American?) disregard for etiquette (Robin is his own man, even with his king)…

Such referencing and adapting and aesthetic distancing (even my kids could enjoy color for color-sake in the film, as in “look at that red robe” or “hey, his clothes are the same green as the leaves around him”), while absolutely not original in Hollywood films, is a symptom of how little value is placed on the plot itself. I think you could call that distrusting your plot: as if the implicit message was that the plot was hackneyed, well-known and well-used, a pretext for action sequences, a springboard for other concerns (aesthetic enjoyment, moral values and education, desires). The point is not really the fight of Saxons against Normans, but rather the contrast of happy, creative dynamism (another Fairbanks echo) with rigid, dull authoritarianism.

In other words, the classical Hollywood film is constructed as an artificial product: it does not believe it is telling the story of two real characters  (contrast with any modern Hollywood film, where the dialogue, the use of sets, the staging does its best to bring characters down to earth–and too often succeeds, thus producing boring films), it knows it is an artefact, a work of art in the simplest sense of the word, a work of craft. Its story is abstract, its colors are too vivid, its staging is too organized and methodical, its dialogues too crafted: everything screams “construct” in it. Its characters are from the theatrical tradition, as its plots. But that’s its greatest strength: this artistic, constructing distancing  from and reworking of traditional plot-lines. 

Even its naturalness is a construct–an artistic form to be tasted, and enjoyed, at leisure, with a wink in its eye. (I’ve approached the subject of the “twinkle in the eye” of American silent or sound, but so-called “classical” films here (about Lady of the Pavement) and here (about Pickford’s Sparrows), but one would have to mention Marion Davies too..)


* there is, of course, a LOT of Fairbanks in this Robin Hood: the constant smile, the jumping up and down, the sets, straight from the 1922 version.


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