the action begins with king richard the lionheart being held captive and his usurper of a brother, prince john, holding down nottingham castle (and the saxon populace of england) in the meantime. almost immediately, we are made aware of the cruel villainy of john's rule as his right hand man, guy of gisbourne, threatens a saxon hunter with death for the capital crime of poaching a royal deer. robin hood arrives just in time and sends the royal company packing, threats unfulfilled. robin shows up shortly after at the great hall of nottingham with a gift for the assembled.
take that, you effete clowns! errol flynn's greatest characteristic throughout this film, and the one that made him the definitive screen robin hood, is his unrestrained bravado. he's invited to sit and dine by prince john, which he does with gusto, when out of the corner of his eye he notices the guards moving to bar the doors. it is this precise moment that sets the tone for everything that follows. what plays across his face is just this side of joy at the notion of taking on a couple hundred of prince john's men single-handedly. the first action sequence of the film is underway and flynn moves through the scene, dispatching normans left and right, with an almost supernatural speed and skill. it's as if he is everywhere at once.
when not wreaking havoc in nottingham castle, he is roaming sherwood forest (which was actually the warner brothers ranch in chico, california) with his band of merry men. merry is quite the understatement, actually, and this is the other thing i find most appealing about the film. there is no sound heard throughout sherwood forest as much as that of hale and hearty laughter. even though the stakes were high - life and death, in fact - you will never see a more devil-may-care group. it's as if it's all a game for them, a complete lark, and the attitude is infectious.
the outlaw band manages to kidnap the party escorting the royal taxes, thoroughly humiliating gisbourne and the bungling sheriff of nottingham in the process, and giving robin and lady marian their first opportunity for some quality time. the love scenes are effective because they are the smallest element in the film. i don't mean small in terms of length of screen time or importance (because, as you will see, love eventually sets robin free in much more than a metaphorical way). i mean small in that they are modest and genuine. marian slowly, surely sees that robin is righteous, just and caring. there may have been no better actress at conveying loving devotion with just her eyes than olivia de havilland.
to avenge themselves upon robin, gisbourne and john develop a scheme to lure him into nottingham's nest of vipers with an archery contest. the fact that he goes for it is one of the primary reasons we as an audience find ourselves pulling for robin - for all his swashbuckling swagger, he's human. by this time he's already been dumped into the drink not once, but twice, by little john and friar tuck. he's not afraid to look foolish. and in this case, his pride is going to be his undoing. but not before he does this:
deal with that! of course, things play out the way you would expect. there are daring escapes, king richard returns to england, john and his toadies are banished from the kingdom and everyone else lives happily ever after. along the way, in what is my favorite scene in this final act, marian delivers a speech to john in which she is every bit as fearless and defiant as robin. there is no doubt that they are made for each other. each character's conclusion is inescapable and that's just fine. you don't go see this movie for left turns and convoluted logic. you go see this movie because it is everything that is great to your inner ten year old - swordfights! swinging on vines! eating food with your knife!
and i don't mean to downplay the artistry of it. the casting is pitch perfect. claude rains is the ideal mixture of vain and treacherous, basil rathbone is a proper bastard, melville cooper is perfectly incompetent and olivia de havilland is as virtuous as she is lovely. errol flynn simply has a vitality unmatched by any other action hero. ever. plus, you won't find more glorious scarlets, golds and greens in all of technicolor. and as melodrama it is textbook, sheer perfection. the bad guys are snakes, they lose. the good guys are solid dudes, they win and get the girl. after 102 minutes of thrills and derring-do the adventures of robin hood sets everything right, just the way a technicolor fairy tale ought to.
there's a great double-disc edition with a brilliant transfer and loads of extra features available here. watch it and see if you're not immediately seized by the urge go build a treehouse or jump off your roof with a sheet as a cape.