I’m embarking on a journey through my all-time favorite films–the ones that I’ve awarded an A+.
For a film to earn that grade, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or, better yet, stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must of have known and loved the film for years if not decades.
I started giving my favorite films the A+ grade in 2009. The list currently has 56 films, although it may grow before I’m finished. I strongly suspect that Fargo will make the list next year.
I plan to go through the list roughly in alphabetical order, but I won’t stick to that. I’ve written about many of these films extensively before; for those, I’ll just include a link.
[12/14/2015 I have added a table of contents with links to my various A+ articles.]
And I’ll start, alphabetically, with what is arguably the most shallow, silly, and entertaining movie on the list.
The Adventures of Robin Hood
Not every masterpiece needs to provide a deep understanding of the human condition; some are just plain fun. And none more so than this 1938 Errol Flynn swashbuckler. For 102 minutes, you get to live in a world where virtue–graceful, witty, rebellious, good-looking, and wholeheartedly romantic virtue–triumphs completely over grim-faced tyranny. Flynn was no actor, but no one could match him for handling a sword, a beautiful woman, or a witty line, all while wearing tights.
If you look at it logically, everything about The Adventures of Robin Hood fails utterly. Robin Hood, the famous mythological rebel and defender of the weak, spends much of the film defending the monarchy. Much of the film, from the quiver that never runs out of arrows to Maid Marian’s idiotic way of hiding incriminating evidence, makes no sense whatsoever.
And the film makes violence look fun and helpful. There is a lot of action in the movie, and Robin and his men kill quite a few bad guys. But not a single good guy–not even an extra–dies.
And I won’t even mention historical inaccuracy.
And yet, when we watch it, we not only can but must forgive everything. We gladly accept this tale of medieval Europe not as it was, but as we want it to be. We imagine ourselves leaping about, fighting with sword, bow, and staff, making heroic speeches, and righting all wrongs by killing those who need to be killed.
This is, quite simply, the perfect swashbuckler.
A lot of people deserve credit for this masterpiece. It came off the Warner Brothers assembly line with two credited directors (one was taken off the film). You can’t call this an auteur film.
But here are the movie’s three best assets:
You don’t need to be a good actor to be a great movie star–Errol Flynn proves that beyond a doubt. His acting range was limited. But no one could buckle a swash like Flynn, and this was the movie he was born to make.
First of all, at this time in his life, he looked great; women swooned over him. He was not an acrobat (if you look closely, you’ll notice a lot of stunt doubling in Robin Hood), but he had an easy, natural and athletic grace, especially when he was leaping onto tables or fighting with a sword. And he spoke his lines with a simple conviction that made you believe the most outrageous lines. Consider this scene early in the film.
The movie gives Flynn not one, but three big entrances. With an audience, it’s almost impossible to not applaud for each one of them.
I recently wrote about Burt Lancaster’s swashbucklers. Lancaster was every bit as handsome as Flynn. He was an excellent actor. And unlike Flynn, he was an expert acrobat, thrilling audiences with his own impressive stunts. But he couldn’t quite pull off the dashing, devil-may-care personality that was Flynn’s stock and trade. When Lancaster gives a speech to his men, he comes off as human being (The Flame and the Arrow) or an actor trying too hard (The Crimson Pirate). Flynn comes off as the embodiment of graceful heroics.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold
The Adventures of Robin Hood easily has the best musical score of any action flick I’ve heard. It’s rousing, majestic, epic, exciting, and joyful. The fight theme matches the flavor of a graceful swordfight without trying to synchronize with it. And the score is beautiful in its own right.
Robin Hood not only earned Korngold his only Oscar; it also saved his life. A Viennese Jew and a respected Opera composer, Korngold just happened to be Hollywood, working on this film when Hitler took over Austria. Had he been home, he would probably have been swept up in the Holocaust.
Perhaps Korngold’s appreciation for the assignment helped him create this great and influential score.
Today we take color movies for granted, but in 1938, they were something special. And the people who made Adventures of Robin Hood went overboard to make it especially special–in a good way.
Warner Brothers shot Adventures in the three-strip Technicolor process, which was just six years old in 1938. Only a handful of previous features had been shot in it, and none of them seemed to delight in the new technology the way Robin Hood did.
The movie is a blast of color. Bright greens and reds flow through it. Aside from one scene where Robin is tossed into a dungeon, there’s always something bright and colorful, usually a costume or an ornament, on the screen.
That super-saturated Technicolor look, amped up by Carl Jules Weyl’s art direction and Milo Anderson’s costumes, help create the feeling of a storybook without ever pressing the point.
Cinematographers Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito also deserve credit.
And all the rest
But then, so did so many other people who worked on this film. Consider the supporting cast: Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone conspire and glower as the fun-to-hate villains. Olivia de Havilland makes a beautiful and love-struck Maid Marian. She comes closest to being a real person (not that close), largely because she gets to change her mind.
And then there’s Una O’Connor and Herbert Mundin as the second romantic couple, considerably older and homier than Flynn and de Havilland. They’re essentially comic characters, but Mundin’s merry man gets a couple of admirably heroic moments.
Finally, let’s not forget the exceptional fight choreography, done by swordsman Fred Cavens, director Michael Curtiz, and archer Howard Hill. The fights are graceful, exciting, thrilling, and not in the least bit believable.
But The Adventures of Robin Hood doesn’t earns its A+ by providing realism. It earns it by being fun.