This post is an entry in The Sauve Swordsman: Basil Rathbone Blogathon.
In a different blogathon post, I discussed Claude Rains’ portrayal of Prince John in the 1938, big screen, Technicolor adaption of the classic Robin Hood story. I stated that not even Basil Rathbone could steal the show from Claude Rains in the film—and that’s somewhat true. But even though Rathbone plays a more understated villain compared to Rains’ Prince John, there’s plenty of unpack about his performance and the character itself.
(I will say that my love for this movie as a whole knows few bounds and there are some things I want to share with you all about it that don’t have much to do with Gisborne. May slip them in here somewhere, may save them for another post. We’ll see!)
The initial appearance of both major villains opens with Prince John asking Gisborne a question. It sets up the relationship between the two of them. Gisborne is the prince’s subordinate but he’s also somehow who John relies on—and Gisborne isn’t afraid to stand up to John or let his true feelings and frustrations show (when others might have chosen to diplomatically cover their feelings).
Rathbone plays Gisborne as more dangerous and, yes, cool than either Prince John or the bishop (and certainly more formidable than the bumbling sheriff). Not even the rags in which the outlaws dressed him can make him look foolish. And he unflinchingly offers one of his men to Prince John to go kill King Richard—the bishop even balked at the idea of killing the king, but Guy quickly put him in his place.
Prince John may be the main villain of the piece, but Gisborne is the one who interacts the most with Robin. He’s the first antagonist to tangle with our hero and then there’s also the forest capture scene and the magnificent duel near the film’s end.
Gisborne also seems to have more a personal vendetta against Robin than Prince John does. John’s true enemy is Richard after all—but Guy has it out for Robin since their first eventful meeting. Robin made Gisborne look foolish and even perhaps cowardly in front of his men and Gisborne can’t forgive that.
Also, this is just a side note, but until the last time I watched (skimmed through) the movie I hadn’t realized that the castle where a bunch of the scenes take place is Gisborne’s castle. I feel like I might have known that before, but it slipped my mind. It adds to why Guy hates Robin, I feel—because Robin basically invaded the castle and thumbed his nose at Gisborne (more than once). Rathbone plays Gisborne with a ruthlessness and a hard, proud disdain for all those who he thinks are beneath him—especially Robin.
One big reason that Gisborne probably hates Robin is that Robin stole Marian away from him. Admittedly, Gisborne seemed to think more about his dinner than Marian, even when Prince John claimed that he (Gisborne) is in love with her. Guy doesn’t care about Marian until it appears he’s losing her to Robin (when she and Robin go into the forest together) and he ends up turning bitter against her (Robin telling him to thank Marian for saving his life probably didn’t go over so well). Eventually, he turns her in to Prince John—coldly and callously.
Of course there’s the big duel between Gisborne and Robin in the end. And of course Robin triumphs, because that’s the way it has to be. I can’t say that I’m sorry to see Gisborne go by the end of the film (his treatment of Marian alone is #notcool). But I wish I could spend some more screen-time with Basil Rathbone—even when he’s playing a villain.
Have you watched The Adventures of Robin Hood? What’s your favorite Basil Rathbone role?