That wonderful trio of villains, Prince John (Claude Rains), Guy of Gisborne (Basil Rathbone) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) are first on our agenda. We were fascinated that Prince John never shows fear. Even when Richard returns, there is not a line of apprehension on his face - John is much too busy perfecting his "spin" on his actions to worry about a little thing like death. Rains plays John with the bravura of a man who knows he will ultimately be successful. And of course, historically John survived his brother by many years, and ruled England after Richard's death. Perhaps he was not England's most popular monarch - remember the Magna Carta - but his longevity (he ruled for 17 years) show he had nothing but time on his side.
On the other hand, the one character we expect to have a lot of nerve, Guy of Gisborne, does not. Watch Rathbone's face throughout the movie. Gisborne is afraid. And when he is captured by Robin Hood, he makes not a move to defend himself or Maid Marian. He talks a good line, but the only time he really seems confident is when he confronts Lady Marian. This Gisborne is a bully, pure and simple. And not even a smart one. Remember, it is the dim-bulb Sheriff of Nottingham who comes up with the plan to trap Robin, not Gisborne. Then again, one gets the feeling that Gisborne would just be happier picking on women and unarmed peasants than confronting a talented swordsman. Rathbone is so beautifully subtle in his portrayal that Gisborne's true character is just a hint rather than outright cringing. Were he too obviously a coward, John's regard for him would be laughable. This way, the audience understands Gisborne's nature. John can only suspect (as he does when Gisborne and the Sheriff return from their forest meal with Robin), but it's not anything John can prove.
On the good guy side of the equation, we have the always wonderful Alan Hale as Little John. With his hearty laugh and amiable manner, Hale is the perfect John Little. His best (and most famous scene) is the "duel" with Robin on the tree bridge. It's a thing of beauty to watch Little John take Robin down a peg. Robin seems to always have this air of invincibility; Little John lets him know that even for the best fighter, there is always someone a little better.
Similarly, Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck is another no-nonsense character, with nerves of steel. Overweight, years older, and a supposed man of peace, Friar Tuck confronts the Merry Men even when outnumbered, and fights boldly in all battles. He has brains but is a compassionate man of the cloth. Pallette, with his impressive voice and physique, make Tuck a memorable character.
Finally, Una O'Connor as Bess, is another gutsy character. Watch her in the ambush scene: her eyes fire when she believes her lady is in danger, and she is not afraid to verbally confront her attackers! Unlike Gisborne, she is more than willing to go toe-to-toe with any of Robin's men. Yet, she is immediately attracted to Much (Herbert Mundin), and flirts with him like a teenager. Her loyalty and devotion to Marian make her fearless; she risks all to save her lady, even when it is clear she will be killed if caught.
I'll leave you with a trailer from the film. Next time, we'll return to our usual discussion.