Olivia de Havilland in The Adventures of Robin Hood

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades

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Years ago, I spent an afternoon walking around a college campus with actor Basil Rathbone. He was older by then and wore bedroom slippers to ease his aching feet. He chuckled as he recounted his movies with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.

“Errol and I were always swordfighting. Funny thing is, he was not very adept at it. I, however, am an expert fencer. I could have run him through at any given moment.”

Rathbone and Flynn appeared together in such films as “Captain Blood,” “Dawn Patrol,” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”

On February 11, “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) will be showing at Tropic Cinema as one of the films in the week-long (February 10-17) Olivia de Havilland Retrospective. An All-Access Pass will provide entry to all seven films being screened – including the documentary “The Rebellious Olivia de Havilland.”

Rathbone considered Olivia de Havilland to be “a fine actress.” Errol Flynn, not so much. Flynn drank a lot on the set, he explained.

Nonetheless, Flynn was magnificent in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” – relying on his good looks and natural athleticism. De Havilland was mesmerizing as Maid Marian, her talent bubbling out of a “romantic interest” role. And Rathbone had a breathtaking sword battle with Flynn in the film.

As The Baz (the Basil Rathbone Blog) puts it: “Read almost any study of the Golden Age of movies and sooner or later you will probably come up against a reference to the ‘classic pairing’ of Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone as swashbuckling duelists. They are the go-to names and imagery for the genre. When you want to illustrate a classic swordfight – you use a still from ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood.’”

However, Flynn was not really trained or skilled with the blade. For that reason, he was teamed with Basil Rathbone, an award-winning competitive fencer and an expert with foil and epee. (Nearly every sword fight in films of that era included Rathbone, it seems.)

Flynn was not fond of swords. He had this to say about actors with swords, including himself:

“Professional actors are the most dangerous people to have a duel with. If Rock Hudson, David Niven or Anthony Quinn challenges me to a duel we are all in trouble, because we don’t know how to handle ourselves. We are thespians, not fencers. We come out charging, whirling all around, forgetting the planned routines of the swordplay.”

Not only was Rathbone a fine thespian, he was a former British Army Fencing Champion. And he’s been called “the greatest fencer in Hollywood history.”

Flynn admitted, “I don’t know much about fencing, but I know how to make it look good. You only have to stand still, your head proud, and let the sword point straight out, you and the sword both unmoving, and it is dramatic. Let the sword point dip two inches, and the gesture can look very clever and dangerous.”

How many films did Flynn and Rathbone duel in? Believe it or not, just two – “Captain Blood” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”

Flynn made more swashbucklers without Rathbone than he did with him. Rathbone made more movies with Vincent Price and Boris Karloff than he made with Flynn.

Directed by Michael Curtiz in 1938, “The Adventures of Robin Hood” is the best adaptation of Robin Hood ever made by Hollywood. Forget Kevin Costner in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” Forget Sean Connery in “Robin and Miriam.” Forget Russell Crowe’s “Robin Hood.” Yes, even set aside Mel Brooks’ “Men in Tights.”

Based on English folklore, Robin Hood is a heroic outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. According to legend, he was a highly skilled archer and swordsman.
The movie’s storyline depicts “the Saxon knight Robin Hood, who in King Richard the Lionheart’s absence in the Holy Land during the Crusades fights back as the outlaw leader of a rebel guerrilla band against Prince John and the Norman lords oppressing the Saxon commoners.”

The film won three Academy Awards. “It is cinematic pageantry at its best,” opined Variety. “A highly imaginative retelling of folklore in all the hues of Technicolor.”
A reviewer for Motion Picture News concluded, “The duel in the closing scenes between the hero and his arch enemy is the most exciting ever filmed.”

Though Olivia de Havilland was an early front-runner for the role of Maid Marian, for a time, the studio vacillated between Anita Louise and her for the part. De Havilland was ultimately chosen because “Captain Blood” proved the pairing of Flynn and de Havilland could deliver box-office success.

This was the third film to pair Flynn and Olivia de Havilland (after “Captain Blood” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” They would ultimately star in eight (actually nine) films together.

Olivia said of Errol Flynn: “Errol was a proud, sensitive man, and though every bit as adventurous as his screen roles, I think he was rather more complex than these.”

She once demurely added, “We were very attracted to each other and yes we did fall in love. I believe that is evident in the screen chemistry between us. But the circumstances at the time prevented the relationship going further. I have not talked about it a great deal, but the relationship was not consummated. Chemistry was there though. It was there.”

Email Shirrel: srhoades@aol.com

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