The first thing you notice about this DVD is the restoration of the transfer (full screen, 1.33:1) – it is magnificent, with all those lavish Technicolor details dripping on screen like an Impressionist painting. The vibrancy of the greens and reds – so important in this film – are stunning; it is quite possibly the most glowing Technicolor transfer I have yet seen (even outdoing the superb one given to Gone with the Wind), though it is also worth remembering that even twenty years after the film had been made many directors and cameramen suggested that the detail of colour given to The Adventures of Robin Hood had never really been surpassed, and it remained unsurpassed. Nothing has been washed out and it looks and feels as wonderful today as it did 65 years ago.
Nor has the impact of this adventure story diminished over the years. It is thrilling and spectacular in equal measure, dashing and comic, rousing and enchanting. No remake has equalled it since, and none ever will. In part that is down to a cast as near to perfection as you will get in any movie. Errol Flynn – who had made his Hollywood mark in Captain Blood in 1935 – was a natural for the role of Robin of Loxley: handsome, energetic and romantic. Yet, he was by no means first choice to play the part – that was originally to have gone to James Cagney. Olivia de Havilland, as Lady Marian, reinvented herself in the role no other actress of the day could have played with such vulnerability, tenderness and passion (and, it should be said, earlier in the film with such aristocratic haughtiness and arrogance). And that passion between Flynn and de Havilland was real, their off-screen romance every bit as important to the success of the film as their on-screen one.
And yet, it is the Prince John of Claude Raines and the Sir Guy of Gisbourne of Basil Rathbone which makes the film what it is. Rathbone was matchless as the scheming Guy, Raines imparting his Prince John with touches of effete humour here and there as if to mask the barely disguised ambition and evil of the king's brother. Alan Held's Little John, different from his assumption of the part in the Douglas Fairbank's 1922 version of the film (he was subsequently to play the part for a third time a decade later), is pure character acting, as is Melville Cooper's Sheriff of Nottingham, touchingly clumsy yet innately intelligent at the same time (it is, after all, his scheming which leads to Robin's capture after the archery contest).
Scenes stand out today as still being magnificently compelling. The archery contest has enormous tension (de Havilland is quite marvellous here), and the final dual between Flynn and Rathbone has an electricity that places it in a class of its own. That scene is notable for not just the stunningly real sword fight; it is also a tour de force of camera work (Tony Gaudio) with the lighting convincingly achieved (seemingly) by torches; and the unforgettable moment of the shadows of Flynn and Rathbone in action, cast in relief against a huge rotund pillar, is pure genius. Korngold's Oscar-wining score is genuinely thrilling here adding to the pace of this jaw-dropping scene.
Complementing the film is a second disc of extras (the first disc containing a feature length commentary by Rudy Behimer, a music-only audio track showcasing Korngold's score and an Errol Flynn trailer gallery). Of invaluable interest is an hour-long documentary, Glorious Technicolor, which analyses the evolution of the Technicolor process. The details that emerge are fascinating: the enormous cost of the process which made it prohibitive to use widely, the extensive use of lighting to bring the colours out which sent temperatures soaring in the studio to 100F plus, the unwillingness of many actresses to allow themselves to be filmed in colour for fear it would make them look unflattering, and the persistent belief from the studios that colour film in some way reduced the magnetism and mystery of cinema. Revealing insights highlight the differences between Technicolor and its successor, Kodak Eastern Color, and how in the latter, introduced widely in the 1950s, the reels faded and the colour became dissipated (when a make-up artist tried to highlight the red lipstick of an actress it appeared on film as brown, despite him using 30 different shades of red). And if you want to know why Technicolor films made in Britain were more atmospheric than those made in the United States the documentary will tell you!
Of equal interest are the documentaries relating to the film itself. Robin Hood through the Ages looks at earlier screen adaptations, Splitting the Arrow at costume designs (not actually strictly period), historical art and scene concept drawings. The most revelatory documentary is Welcome to Sherwood, a new 65th anniversary film chronicling the making of a classic. Flynn, it seems, did not do all his own stunts (although he claimed in his autobiography that he did) and moments of danger are highlighted that would probably not be permissible in movies today. People were hit with real arrows – their chests protected by a metal plate and a piece of wood into which the arrow was shot. To make the foliage greener, leaves were painted. The reason Olivia de Havilland is regarded as the patron saint of actors is also revealed. Korngold's score (along with the composer playing parts of it on the piano) is discussed in detail by John Mauceri, though that Korngold composed it at all remains a matter of luck rather than design. Originally he declined to write a score for the film considering it to be 90% action stating, "I am not an illustrator". What emerged, of course, is one of the finest scores ever written for an action film. . A new digital recording of the score (reviewed on these pages) shows just how wonderful it is.
So, a wonderful film has been given magnificent treatment in a release of breathtaking scope (though it is a pity that de Havilland, the only surviving principal actor from the film, is not interviewed). It is, though, without question the outstanding DVD of 2003 and sets a new benchmark for vintage film.