What does it say about the state of American action films that most of them still need to attend a few lectures from The Adventures of Robin Hood 101?
So back in 1938, Warner Bros. released what was at the time the most expensive movie they'd ever produced, a lavish production of the Robin Hood legends shot in full-color photography and staring the up-and-coming Errol Flynn. . . and in doing so cemented the blueprint for a perfect action movie. One followed by the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard, and The Matrix, but not nearly enough others.
As was sometimes the case under the old studio system, two directors ended up headlining the project: William Keighley and Michael Curtiz (of Casablanca fame) shared credit on the film, the latter responsible for the now-legendary action sequences. And while plenty of other directors have aped some of the movie's trademarks (such as the Chatty Swordsmen or the iconic Dueling Shadows), most seem to have forgotten the care that went into the rest of the film to make a truly perfect action film.
So here are some Cliff's Notes:
1. Make me root for the hero
This should really be a no-brainer, as it's a cardinal rule in pretty much all of fiction. If a main character isn't likeable as a person, they should at the very least be compelling enough as a protagonist that the audience is invested in their success. In your average action movie, you really need both - the hero needs to be a good guy (or gal) and this must be established as early as possible. Ideally, they're also compelling because of a perspective they must gain, a goal they must accomplish, or a redemption they must earn.
Stakes should be clear, established early, and reinforced often, and the easiest way to do this is to create a hero that audiences can get behind. Luke Skywalker manages this in about 5 minutes of screen time, even though we've already met Vader, Leia, and the droids before we meet him.
And Lucas studied the master class for this. In Flynn's film, the very first thing that the audience sees Robin of Locksley do is to save the life of an innocent miller from the hands of clearly-established unscrupulous villains. He is both bold and sure in his convictions, but also cavalier about the consequences to himself. This tells the audience that he places more stock in the life of someone he just met than the possible reprisal he could suffer for it.
He's also funny.
2. Make me root against the villain
Now we can all name plenty of worthy heroes in all genres of film, right? The modern action genre certainly has its fair share - but it seems like you have to go through several John McClane's to get a genuine Hans Gruber. There are always two sides to every conflict, and when a single character personifies the audience and their hunger for good to triumph against evil, the neatest way to balance this is to create a villain who's defeat will feel both necessary and earned, a worthy endeavor for the hero.
A good antagonist needs to be the hero's equal, even the better in some key ways (more experienced, more powerful, more wealthy, etc.). They should be as well-established as the hero (ideally introduced to the audience around the same time), and while they can be despicable and evil, they should also be as compelling as the protagonist. Something about them needs to keep the viewer interested beyond just "They do bad things, they must die." Darth Vader was a masked wizard shrouded in mystery. Agent Smith was an enforcer of the Matrix struggling against his own programming. The well-received (but historically under-appreciated) Mask of Zorro stacked its deck with TWO entrancing antagonists - one a superstitious psychopath and the other an obsessed father certain he's the real hero of the piece.
Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains are the first characters the audience meets in The Adventures of Robin Hood, their gleeful scheming setting the board for the entire rest of the film, and their continued conspiratorial collusion is what Robin must constantly contend with. They are the driving force of the film, a force to which Robin must react or perish. In many cases, introducing the villain first (as seen here,The Matrix, The Mask of Zorro, Star Wars, Captain America: The First Avenger) is a perfect way to immediately set the stakes. If the bad guy is this bad, the audience is going to want a hell of a protagonist to take them down.
3. Build to the final confrontation
Film Crit Hulk (of the site Bad-Ass Digest) has already touched on the importance of escalation of action, so I don't want to go over familiar ground too much, but building a great action movie is all about successively more complex and impressive set pieces that also have successively higher stakes. The first conflict in The Adventures of Robin Hood is barely a conflict at all, but is the first step along to a pitched battle in a besieged castle. Along the way, every action sequence built to this, upped the stakes. At first, Robin is either helping himself or a member of his supporting cast. At the end of the second act, things escalate to the point where Robin is rescued from certain hanging at the last minute by his men, and things culminate at Guy of Gisborne's keep in a bid to stop a coronation, save Maid Marian, and restore King Richard to his throne.
Everything becomes more complex and more personal as the film goes on, and the truly great action films of the late 20th century do the same. The original Die Hard goes nearly 20 minutes without a single gunshot fired and ends with the roof blowing off a 40-story building, a crashing helicopter, and a man jumping off the top of a skyscraper with a fire hose wrapped around his waist.
And it's not just about making bigger and better fights to watch - by the end of the movie, the audience should be frothing at the bit for the hero and villain to clash. This dance around and toward the conflict for both characters happens in Robin Hood, it happens in Die Hard, in The Matrix, and even in all three original Star Wars films. Have you ever seen an action film's final confrontation and thought "That's it?" That's because someone didn't follow this rule.
4. Keep the action fresh
In some ways, this is even more important than escalating action. At no earlier time in film history can audiences experience such a wide variety or amazing scope of visually thrilling sights as they can now at the multiplex, but that doesn't mean a damn thing if they get bored by it. And they will.
I hate to tar and feather Michael Bay over this (partly because everyone does it and it's really tired at this point, but mostly because the guy genuinely knows his shit when it comes to staging and shooting action), but he's an easy example of this, particularly in his most recent films. The Transformers movies feature epic clashes of literally larger-than-life warriors laying waste to cities and millenia-old landmarks of civilization, but by the end of the third act it's in real danger of just being so much noise. Ditto the final duel in Revenge of the Sith - while it SHOULD have deep character and narrative significance, it just goes on so long with so much of the same thing that it's a chore to watch.
The more of something you show an audience, the less they want to see of it. Joss Whedon's Serenity (made for less than half of what even a "cheap" tentpole costs these days) never delivers the same sort of action scene twice. Neither does The Adventures of Robin Hood: there's a castle brawl, a chase, a staff fight on a log, a sword duel in a river, a forest ambush, a harrowing escape, the taking of a fortress, and a final hero/villain showdown. Every action scene offers something genuinely new, in terms setting, in terms of execution, and most importantly in terms of narrative and character.
Which leads to easily the most important rule of action film-making:
5. There should be no pointless action beats
Cardinal rule, and most action films (especially American ones) break this all the time. Yes, explosions and slow-mo shootouts and kung fu fights are cool, but they need to be about more than just the fireworks. Action in a film should always serve at least one of three things:
- Tell us something about the characters
- Move the narrative forward/ raise the stakes of the story
- Provide catharsis to the audience by resolving a building conflict (Hero/Villain showdown)
The very best action films manage to do more than one of these (or even all of them) at the same time. Robin Hood does this continually, but as I've mentioned when and how already, I'm going to use what may be the best modern American example of this rule in action (bad puns, love 'em) to date.
1999's The Matrix.
There is not a single superfluous action scene in this movie. From the beginning to the end, every time there's wire-fu or effects-enhanced gunfighting going on, the movie is telling us something. We're learning about the world, first about its different rules and different factions, then about seemingly-superhuman powers and the personalities of the people who use them, and finally there's a culmination of everything: of a character accepting a destined mantle, the narrative coming to a head with the highest stakes in the film, and a masterfully constructed confrontation that brings everything together for a perfect crescendo to the film. Smith vs. Neo in the subway is literally everything a final action scene should strive to be.
Say what you will about the sequels (goodness knows I have), but the Wachowski's original follows every last one of these rules to a "t" and it's for that reason - not for the cool-but-tiresomely-copied slow-mo effects or the gorgeous martial arts choreography or nifty philosophical/spiritual bent - that the film was so captivating and game-changing. It simply did everything right.
Obviously someone was taking notes from the Class of '38.