The “REEL” Robin Hood & The Real Robin Hood
By David Barnett

Perhaps the greatest shot in cinematic
history was not fired in Stagecoach
or High Noon, but rather by a mysterious archer in a romantic 1938 Warner
Brothers movie called The Adventures of Robin Hood.

The shot is best remembered by archery
fans for the dramatic impact of splitting an
arrow already firmly centered in a bull’s eye.
The colorful scene appeared in the ever popular
and legendary film which is still viewed on
television, and is presently celebrating its
golden anniversary. It is likely that no picture
in movie history has done more to popularize
archery than The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Errol Flynn starred as the dashing Saxon
outlaw and swashbuckling advocate of social
justice and human rights. Robin Hood was undoubtedly
one of the most splendidly photographed and visually exciting films of the late
1930s. The New Republic wrote that “the production is done expensively and in all colors
the rainbow forgot?

Filmed in eye-dazzling technicolor, the
movie had Errol Flynn romancing the lovely
Maid Marian (Olivia DeHavilland) and battling
Norman treachery and black villainy,
personified by Prince John (Claude Rains)
and Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone).
Newsweek noted, “Taken in the spirit in
which it was intended, this colorful pageant of
fairy tale twelfth century is a grand film .”

Appealing to moviegoers of all ages, The
Adventures of Robin Hood covered the Saxon
hero of folklore from nock to tip. The movie is
set in that period of English history when
Prince John usurped the crown of his brother,
Richard the Lion hearted, who was abroad in
the Holy Land. Prince John and his henchmen
ruthlessly taxed the Saxons and the poor of the
realm, adding tothe already fat purses of the
Normans. Incensed by the excessive taxation,
and by the law decreeing that the poor cannot
hunt deer in the royal forests, Robin Hood organizes
a band of green-clad, hearty eating
Merry Men to fight the oppression until Richard
returns from the crusades to reclaim the
throne.

The Adventures of Robin Hood was a beautiful blend of romance and flair. The film was
replete with ambushes in a pristine-looking Sherwood Forest, deadly swordplay in
Nottingham Castle, mighty hand-to-hand fights, a pole fight on a log and a daring rescue from
the gallows. The high point of the picture, and the scene that is best remembered by movie-
goers, however, involved an archery tournament.

Tournament A Trap
Angered by their inability to capture
Robin Hood on his own turf, Prince John and
the sinister Guy of Gisbourne devise a scheme
to lure Robin Hood out of Sherwood Forest.
The plan calls for an archery pageant to be
held to determine who is the greatest archer in
the land. The winnerwill be awarded a golden
arrow by none other than Maid Marian. Since
the conspirators know that Robin Hood is secretly
wooing Marian, they are sure he will
appear and they are positive that they can capture him.

The best archers of the realm all assemble
on the plains outside Nottingham, including
Robin Hood in disguise. Through a process of
elimination involving target shooting, all but
two archers are eliminated — King John’s best
and Robin Hood. King John’s archer shoots
first. He draws his longbow, aims and fires.
His arrow is true and hits the center of the
bull’s eye. Tension builds. Robin Hood steps
up to his mark, draws his bow, aims and fires.
The scene has since become a part of movie
folklore and the name Errol Flynn has often
been thought synonymous for “archer” in
popular culture.

When Robin Hood was originally released, critics
of the period took immediate
notice of the archery pageant. said,
“Some hundreds of extra players are engaged
in several of the scenes, notably the archery
tournament. . .” Commonwealth wrote that
Flynn had the “swashbuckling flair for shooting
a mean arrow. . He also related that the
film was a “bow twanging tecchnicolor” saga
in which Robin Hood “betters Prince John’s
best in archery. . .”

Although there isn’t any doubt that the arrow-splitting
scene was the dramatic point of
the film, archery enthusiasts who have seen
the picture will recall that there are numerous
other scenes which are replete with ferociously
flying arrows and trick shots.

Wanted: Expert Archer
When the head honchos at Warner Brothers reviewed the screenplay of The Adventures
0f Robin Hood, they were quick to take notice of the many scenes which would require
extremely skillful trick archery. Fearful that Flynn and the other stars of the movie would
end up killing themselves or somebody else with arrows if they were actually allowed to
do the archery scenes, the studio decided to hire an expert archer to do all the shooting.

With the tacit support of the National
Archery Association (but largely through the
notorious Hollywood grapevine), the director,
William Keighley, eventually assembled
the 50 best archers in America at the Warner
Brothers studio in Burbank, California.
Keighley held a tournament (not unlike that
seen in Robin Hood) to decide who could be
entrusted with the lives of his cast and crew.
The 50 archers held a shoot-off until the number
was reduced to five. Keighley then handed
each archer six arrows and told them to fire as
rapidly as possible at a faraway target. One
archer named Howard Hill not only took the
six arrows that Keighley handed him, but
grabbed seven more from the director for a
total of 13. Hill quickly lined up all 13 arrows
on his bow and fired them simultaneously at
the target. Of the 13 arrows, nine hit the bull ’s
eye and the other four hit sevens. Amazed,
Keighley immediately hired Hill and jokingly
told him that, while Errol Flynn was the
“reel” Robin Hood, Hill was truly the “real”
Robin Hood.

At the time that The Adventures of Robin
Hood was produced, Howard Hill had acquired
the reputation of America’s greatest
trick archer. In The Complete Book 0f the Bow
and Arrow, G. Howard Gillelan noted, “During
the depression, the great Howard Hill
made movie shorts of his extraordinary feats
with the bow.”

Hill had won numerous national archery
tournaments and was known to hunt shark,
crocodile and bear with his bow and arrow.
He also gave many archery exhibitions in
which he would shoot a cigarette from the
mouth of a courageous cohort. He even, like
William Tell, shot an apple off the head of a
dauntless subject. Hill did both the
aforementioned tricks at 60 paces.

“big five” with the 115-pound longbow,
“Grandma,” on display in the museum.
Press clippings from the era identify Hill
as “the most widely known big game hunter.”
His friendship with stars like Flynn, DeHaviland,
Rory Calhoun and Basil Rathbone only
added to his fame, and when Hill taught his
Hollywood friends to bowhunt, it was great
publicity for the sport.

Tens of thousands of people saw Hill in
person at shooting exhibitions he put on coast
to coast; millions more learned about archery
and bowhunting in the 23 short subjects Hill
filmed to run before features in movie houses
of the era.

Visitors examining “White Eagle,” the 85-pound longbow Howard Hill used in
exhibitions, would probably be surprised at the visible imperfections. Handmade, the equipment
lacks the uniformity today’s consumers have come to expect from mass-produced
merchandise. “Howard built this bow for himself, not for the public ,” his nephew explains,
and he shot every bow he owned enough to know exactly how it would perform.

As a young man, Jerry Hill remembers pointing out some flaws in a bow built for
himself. “His advice to me was to ‘quit looking for boogers and go shoot the hell out of
it.”’

When William Keighley mentioned the arrow-splitting scene to his newly hired archer,
Hill said that shooting at a stationary target was simple and that he would have no
difficulty with the shot, In the scene, Hill actually doubled for Flynn. From 100 paces, Hill fired
at the target and split the arrow in one take. The flight of the arrow is not seen, however,
because of the inability of the camera equipment of the time to track the path of the arrow.

Instead, the camera shows Hill (Robin Hood) and then quickly cuts to the splitting of the
arrow. To this day, the rare arrow in a target that splits another is referred to as a “Robin
Hood .”

Winning Their Trust
Hill was such an amazing trick shooter that he quickly won the confidence
of the entire cast. In another scene, for example, he is called upon to shoot a steel mace out of the
hand of Basil Rathbone. The director called for a stunt double, but Rathbone refused, stating that
he had complete confidence in Hill ’s excellent archery skills. Hill also did that
scene in one take.

In total, Howard Hill was called upon to perform 11 trick shots in Robin Hood. Of the
11 shots, however, he only did the previously mentioned two in one take. The other nine
shots had to be done in a number of takes, largely because Hill was required to shoot
more than one arrow at a time, in rapid succession, and hit precise targets through
moving crowds. The exact timing of the shots was imperative because many lives were at stake.

In the August 8, 1938 , edition of Collier Ls, Howard Hill claimed that his toughest shot in
the movie was shooting a man off a rapidly moving horse. “‘The target I had to hit,” Hill
said, “was moving up and down and coming forward at a terrific speed —— all at one time! ”
For the 21 weeks that Hill worked on The Adventures of Robin Hood he was paid $150
per week, plus $100 for every trick shot. In between scenes, he also taught archery
to Errol Flynn. “Errol Flynn learned archery so fast that he even went
out and bagged a bobcat,” Hill related.

What influence did the movie, Errol Flynn’s acting ability and Hill’s archery expertise
have on the growth and popularization of archery as a sport in the United States? The
exact influence, of course, is impossible to calculate. It can be ascertained, however, that
a year or so after the movie was released, the National Field Archery Association
was organized. Also, in the early 1940s, a number of states passed laws legalizing bow and arrow
hunting, thus opening a new phase for archery.

It should also be noted that between the time the NAA held its national tournament in
Los Angeles in 1934 and the end of World War II, the estimated number of bow-twangers in
the United States grew by more than 1.7 million people. Surely, The Adventures of Robin
Hood must have been a factor in this explosive growth.

Consequently, in 1988, as The Adventures of Robin Hood celebrates its 50th anniversary,
a golden arrow should be awarded to the picture for being not only an excellent film, but
also for being the greatest archery movie in cinematic history. As Robert E. Morsberger
wrote in Magill Ks Survey of Cinema, “Of all the films of 1938, “The Adventures of Robin
Hood’ is the most enduring. . .”

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