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Unsung Heroes: The Archer of 'Robin Hood'

Michael C. from Serious Film here. As a rule, I don't indulge in nostalgic, "They don't make 'em like they used to" wallowing. I don't see the point. There was quality then and there is quality now. That having been said, it doesn't mean I can't geek out over one of the shining examples of classic Hollywood, which I will now do.


Watching The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley it is hard not to feel a twinge of longing for the studio system, Hayes Code and all. It was firing on all cylinders with this production and, man, is it glorious to behold. Everything is bold and colorful and exciting. It can go toe-to-toe with Singin’ in the Rain for pure joy of filmmaking on display. 

As a nine-year-old viewer it was enough to inspire lifelong devotion. More than anything I think I responded to the reality of the film. Not realism, of course. This is a Movie-Movie if ever there was one. I mean the tactile reality of the things physically happening on the set. This is what we are losing with CGI. When something isn't faked it reaches a viewer (especially a young one) in a powerful way. In this movie we have Errol Flynn’s athleticism - swinging on vines and scaling walls - the impossibly cool sword fighting. And the arrows. Above all the arrows.

Howard Hill (archer) with Errol Flynn (movie star)

No movie does archery like The Adventures of Robin Hood. Which brings us to the hero of this episode, one Mr. Howard Hill, archer. If the arrows here have an impact lacking in other movies there is a good reason for that. Howard Hill was actually shooting people with real arrows.

I’ll say that again.

For a bonus $150 stunt men would throw on a steel plate and some padding and Hill would shoot them with real arrows fired at actual lethal speed. They could get away with this because Hill simply never missed. Seriously, he has to be seen to be believed. You can look for yourself on the DVD extra features where he is shown in archival footage splitting twine from fifty paces. He even worked with the sound team shooting his own specially designed arrows past microphones to create that instantly recognizable high-pitched “whoosh” sound that arrows make in this movie and no other.

Now, if I had to decide whether it’s right for stuntmen to risk getting shot with arrows by anyone, no matter how skilled, I would have to be a killjoy and say no. But since the arrows in question all flew over 70 years ago, I feel at liberty to point out that this method is really, really cool. Not only does it come across brilliantly on camera, but it spares us all the tricks the director would have needed to get around fake arrows - the kind of minor slight of hand that viewers let slide but nevertheless take us out of the movie a tiny bit each time.

Legend has it Hill personally performed the unforgettable stunt of splitting the arrow in one take. I saw an episode of Mythbusters where they declared this an impossible feat for a variety of reasons. Call me naïve and protective of my favorite childhood movie but I’m not convinced. I would prefer Mythbusters amending their verdict to “Busted for anyone who is not Howard Hill.” 

previously on Unsung Heroes: Glengarry Glen Ross, Zodiac, Oldboy, The Iron Giant, Hedwig and the Angry Inch...

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Reader Comments (6)

Lovely piece. I had always believed Errol Flynn did the arrow shooting too, because well, I'm pretty much convinced that there's nothing Errol couldn't do. CGI has really ruined movie magic, sigh.

June 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJose

wow. i did not know this but suddenly it all makes sense. the swashbuckler/adventure type of film really died, didn't it. It morphed into the noisy action picture and it just ... well they have their charms but they aren't "charming". you know?

June 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

This was the first movie I ever saw, so it has always held a special spot in my heart. But even if remove myself from my childhood love of it, The Adventures Of Robin Hood is still a damn great movie. Those arrow shots are still thrilling 70 years later. I wonder if we'll be able to say that about ANY recent action film 70 years from now.

June 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTB

why are people acting like cunts to the present? im sure people were saying the same thing back in 1970. stop being such a winer.

June 17, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterehhh.

Winer and Dine her, that's what my tombstone will read.

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlex BBats

MOIRA Good is good, but better carries it.-Carl F. Bucherer watches Swiss

July 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVersace Sneakers less
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