I was prompted to think about the duel scene in The Adventures of Robin Hood by an email Tom Hodgins sent just this morning. In it he says:
“…years ago I mentioned on your Errol and Olivia blog that there is a moment in the Robin Hood duel where a sword fumble by Rathbone can still be seen in the film. Ralph Dawson edited it so beautifully that the eye can’t really catch anything, but, by pausing and freeze framing the image you can clearly see it. The only reason I made this discovery is because one day I thought I saw a slight blur on the film at that point, so I stopped my DVD to check it out. Voila—a boner by Basil that’s been on the film since its release without anyone having noticed it. (At least, I’ve never heard of anyone else having written about it). I’m sending you a couple of snapshots of the fumble taken on my computer off the DVD, just in case you never saw it for yourself. Basil, I’m sure, would not be pleased.”
I remember Tom mentioning this but never did think to follow up until the new prompting this morning. With Flynn lying under the candelabra, Rathbone says, “Do you know any prayers, my friend?” and Flynn responds, “I’ll say one for you!” and his next swing with the sword, as he’s lying flat on his back, is so ferocious that it catches Rathbone unaware and knocks the blade from his hand. It’s not supposed to, but that thing goes flying—which I didn’t notice in nine theatrical viewings of the picture and dozens more on the small screen. It’s only a few frames, literally like a quarter of a second, but it’s there with the sword tumbling high in the air end over end.
In general it proves how difficult the swordfights were to choreograph and how long it took and how exhausting for the actors, director, DP, and crew. Rudy Behlmer used some of the Rathbone color home movies to lead us through an examination of the filming of this duel scene in the bonus feature, Welcome to Sherwood, included as bonus material in the Robin Hood deluxe DVD package released years back.
We have all seen some fantastic cinematic duels, and for me this one is near the top of the list, with its terrific flow as the duelists fight their way out of frame to hack and slash in shadow and then re-emerge into view, still going at it furiously. They’re not fighting with foils but with heavy swords, their occasional, resonant clanking serving as reminders that these weapons are lethal.
In The Mark of Zorro there’s a fantastic moment when Esteban (Rathbone again) demonstrates his prowess with a blade to Zorro (Ty Power) by deftly slicing off a candle with a flick of his wrist. Then Zorro does the same and seems to miss because the candle is still sitting in place, but then he reaches out and lifts the sliced top off the remaining bottom and smiles innocently. Well, there’s no such gentlemanly foreplay in Robin Hood—when those big candles get hacked by the swinging swords, wax flies in all directions. In general, candles take a lot of abuse in the Robin Hood duel; not only are they hacked up by both combatants, but candelabras are tipped over and a candle is hurled as a missile by Robin at one point.
Wasn’t Basil Rathbone something? When the duel scene was shot, he was 45 years of age (17 years older than Flynn) and a heavy smoker, yet easily up to the rigors of shooting that scene. Two years later at 47 he nearly topped it in The Mark of Zorro. There’s a moment at the end of the Robin Hood duel that makes me frightened in retrospect for the safety of Mr. Rathbone and others in the cast, and that occurs after Sir Guy has been defeated and Robin hurries to the dungeon where he knocks the hand of the jailor holding the keys to Marian’s cell so hard that he bends his blade. He doesn’t bend it a little; he bends it a lot, demonstrating—what are we—78 years later how explosive Flynn was as a physical presence in his action pictures, and how wary stars and bit players alike would have been at the moment the director called, “Action!” and the film started to move in the magazine. That was when the money was spent, and when Errol would have been ready to make it look good, come what may for the other guy—as when he used muscle on the shot that Tom Hodgins pointed out, and Rathbone’s sword went flying. I know I’ve mentioned how Christopher Lee used to boast that Flynn nearly took off a finger shooting a duel scene during production of an episode of The Errol Flynn Theater, “and I have the scar to prove it,” Lee sniffed in an on-camera interview.
I’m tempted to say that Flynn just didn’t have self-discipline in any regard except maybe for tennis. Archival film footage shows he was an awfully good tennis player and, as any weekend hacker knows, tennis is all about discipline. And when you watch the Robin Hood duel scene and the extra footage as described by Rudy Behlmer, you see that the swordfights were meticulously shot over a course of days and through all those movements with exposed sword tips, Flynn must have had discipline there too or Rathbone and so many others would be dead or blinded for life. But they lived to act on, so Errol must have been doing something right. You can cite for me all the instances where Fred and Al Cavens were doubling for Errol and Basil but there’s still a heck of a lot of Flynn-Rathbone footage visible in the Robin Hood duel, so these two must be given the credit they deserve for making it look lethal from beginning to end.
The near-impossibility of shooting this duel scene is demonstrated when, in the middle of the duel, Robin moves aside and Sir Guy flies past him and off the winding stone stairway. Sir Guy’s sword flies far off as dictated by physics and lands a good 25 or 30 feet away, but in the next shot, it’s magically laying on the floor under Robin’s feet so he can kick it back to Sir Guy in an admirable display of sportsmanship. So, let’s think about that moment on Stage 1 (or wherever it was) in January 1938 after Curtiz called “Cut” and they assessed what had just been captured on film. There must have been 40 people who saw the sword go to a spot where it would be impossible to retrieve unless Robin spent 15 seconds walking down the stairs, picking up the sword, and returning it to Sir Guy after he had collected himself up off the floor and dusted himself off. Talk about sapping dramatic tension! So what was that moment like, and what led to the decision to cheat through it the way they did? Was the stunt man doubling Rathbone the key player? Did he say, “If I have to do that fall again, it’s going to cost you another $500,” which prompted Mike to decide that yes the sword flew off but print it anyway and we’ll cheat. Was it a safety thing where the stunt man said, if I’m falling this way, then I’m making sure the sword goes that way so I don’t impale myself. Actually, that’s more likely and could explain why there isn’t a memo to or from Hal Wallis about this situation—it was a safety thing and you either X the fall out of the script in red pencil, or you cheat. All of which speaks to the incredible challenge of staging a fight like this.
I will never forget standing in front of the edit booths under Jack Warner’s window on the Warner lot, thinking about all that used to go on in those rooms, all the sweat and missed meals and midnight oil burning brightly as deadlines neared. Can you imagine the pressure of cutting film by hand on 1937 equipment when the final still needed to be processed and prints run in whatever, 36 or even 24 hours? I’ve never counted the individual shots in the Robin Hood duel scene but each one had to be spliced into a continuous flow in the work print—down to the right frame. There was no iMovie or Avid or Premiere Pro back then; there were just a lot of men and women working themselves into an early grave slicing film stock on crude machines under the scrutiny of bosses like Hal Wallis and Mike Curtiz. All I can say when I think about those poor people is, yikes. Oh, and, they’re not paying you enough.
So that’s what came to mind this morning when I saw Tom’s two frames from the DVD of The Adventures of Robin Hood. I’m probably not the only one who missed this remnant of a flub and I smile thinking about Ralph Dawson in his little room in the dark in Burbank thinking about how to make the frames work with what came next. In the foreground is Flynn squirming out from under the candelabra, which is critical to show, and in the background the sword is flying when it’s not supposed to be. But Dawson made the right decision, because the classic remains a classic, and it took the eagle eyes of Tom Hodgins and the luxury of frame-by-frame DVD stop motion to spot the goof.