Not for nothing is this swashbuckling classic widely reckoned the finest of all action movies. Sometimes all the elements just meld together perfectly - and this is one such occasion.
In the title role, the 29-year-old Errol Flynn was at the height of his powers; okay, so he could never really act, but in the face of such ebullient vitality who really cares? Olivia de Havilland makes a sweet, spirited heroine, and there's rousing support from Alan Hale (Little John), tubby Eugene Pallette (Friar Tuck) and the rest of the Merry Men. But great swashbucklers stand or fall by their villains, and here we have two of the ripest: Basil Rathbone sneering stylishly as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, and the ever-wonderful Claude Rains as Prince John.
And to think it could have all been so different. Direction was initially handed to William Keighley but, after a false start, Warner Bros turned to its most reliable helmer, Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz (Casablanca). He did a great job, the action bucketing along with scarcely a pause for breath, Robin running merry rings round the evil Guy in a succession of flamboyant set-pieces. The famous climax is especially heart-in-gullet stuff, Flynn and Rathbone locking blades on
a spiral-staircase face-off.
Yet there's more to Robin than ballsy performances and boisterous action: the dialogue is delectable Hollywood fustian at its best; the period Technicolor photography glows like a jewel; Carl Jules Weyl's cod-medieval sets are monumental; and composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold contributes one of the richest, most irresistible scores ever.
Korngold and Weyl both picked up Oscars, but Robin Hood lost out for Best Picture to Frank Capra's saccharine You Can't Take It With You. But time works its revenges: Capra's film has dated woefully, while Curtiz's joyous romp comes up as fresh, light-hearted and exhilarating as ever, impossibly mobile and breezy for a film made in 1938. And all this without a single explosion - - CGI or otherwise - - in sight. Eat your heart out, Bruckheimer...