Part 1: ‘When Sherwood was in Flower’
When Ridley Scott’s ‘Robin Hood‘ opened the Cannes Film Festival in May we were promised a new take on England’s greatest legend, a film to revitalise the outlaw’s movie career and even possibly start a lucrative franchise (or at least a sequel). The first of those expectations Scott’s movie definitely delivered (whether you enjoyed the film or not, it’s hard not to argue that it’s a fresh take on the oft-told legend) but whether Robin Hood proves to be the ‘Batman Begins’ of Sherwood Forest remains to seen.
But given the resilience and dogged persistence of the central character and his pursuit of justice, freedom and equitable taxation – even if this attempt never becomes a franchise it certainly won’t be the last we see of Nottingham’s greatest asset to tourism.
The Robin Hood legend has of course been around for centuries in the form of ballads, plays, pantomimes, movies, TV series and countless books for both children and adults. It is however unusual even among traditional stories in the range of variations and permutations permissible to the storyteller. Other than the heroic outlaw, no one incident, character or location is so important that it can’t be omitted, ignored or glossed over in favour of others more suited to the needs of the narrator. It is a legend that has genuinely accrued over time and what we regard as the traditional or ‘original’ version tends to be first that we are exposed to at an impressionable age.
It is a genuinely popular and populist entertainment that has largely been unsullied by ‘literature’, each version is allowed to be different and there is no definitive take on the story that overshadows the rest (except maybe in the movies but we’ll come to Errol Flynn later).
At the turn of the twentieth century Robin Hood was a hugely popular figure on both sides of the Atlantic, as many novels, plays and children’s books were being produced in the US as in Britain and the outlaw’s story had played a major part in shaping the way Americans were establishing their own mythology of the Wild West and its outlaw heroes. Even the French had got in on the act, Alexandre Dumas of ‘The Three Musketeers’ published two Robin Hood novels which were translated into English as ’Robin Hood: The Outlaw’ and ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ (sound familiar?).
The first silent short featuring the outlaw was produced in 1908 and every decade since has brought at least one major film or TV adaptation of the story to the screen. This article deals with the movies made up to 1969 when the major influences on treatments of the legend were the romantic, chivalric Victorian tradition that had produced the most popular versions of the stories. Part two will deal with what happened when movie ‘realism’ came to Sherwood.
The earliest Robin Hood films were all produced in a brief five year period between 1908 and 1913. Starting with a pair of single reel shorts ‘Robin Hood‘ and ‘Robin Hood and His Merry Men‘.
American and British studios split the difference in the number of films as they simultaneously increased the length and the budgets of their productions culminating in a flurry of films in 1912 and 1913 including two adaptations of Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’, the British version being renamed ‘Rebecca the Jewess’ for its American release. What these films did, whether filmed in Kinemacolour in Sherwood Forest itself (‘In the Days of Robin Hood’) or in a cardboard copse in California, was present in a piecemeal fashion all the elements that came to be involved in later feature movies, there were chases, disguises, a love rivalry over Marian between Robin and the chief villain, archery contests, escapes and the eventual restoration of order by the king. Of all these early films only the 1912 US production ‘Robin Hood‘ starring Robert Frazer survives, the rest are only known from stills, distributor’s catalogues and contemporary reviews.
OK, so that’s the cinematic prehistory of our hero dealt with, how about a movie with a major star that you can actually go out and buy or even see (if you’re lucky) on the big screen? And when I say a major star I mean globally famous, when he made his version of ‘Robin Hood‘ in 1922 Douglas Fairbanks was the biggest star in the world.
You could see Fairbanks movies in countries that didn’t sell Coca Cola, that didn’t have railways and where there were no purpose built cinemas. In places where the population would be hard put to name their own king or president they’d all seen Doug’s movies and they’d all heard of Robin Hood. It’s also not every star that gets to create an entire cinematic genre, but what we call the swashbuckler pretty much started with Fairbanks, it was Doug and his collaborators that took the art of stage sword fighting and developed it into a staple of cinematic spectacle, mixing it with gravity defying stunt work and romantic visions of a past that never was.
Fairbanks’ vision of medieval England was on an epic scale, the set for Nottingham Castle was the largest yet seen in a Hollywood production and the opening tournament scenes were pageantry writ large.
His Robin was a noble, the Earl of Huntingdon, the best of Richard the Lionheart’s knights who defeats the villainous (and cheating) Sir Guy of Guisbourne and wins the affection of Maid Marian in spite of being, as he says, ‘afeard of women’. He follows Richard to the crusades but returns to England to save Marian from the attentions of Sir Guy and the country from the ravages of Prince John, becoming an outlaw only after Marian’s apparent death (in fact she faked suicide and is in hiding in a nunnery). Hi-jinks, as they say, ensue with ambushes, rescues and fights against impossible odds as Doug bounced around the sets and set-ups like a man possessed. The result was a world-wide box office smash, breaking cinema attendance records in Moscow as well as New York. Robin Hood was no longer just a familiar story to put on the screen but a bona fide draw in himself.
Doug’s movie was on such a scale and so successful that rather than generate an instant stream of lesser imitators it seemed to put other studios off the idea of trying to emulate him and there were no more major Robin Hood feature releases until 1938. Instead there were a number of cartoons, spoofs and shorts made on both sides of the Atlantic and the first foreign language entry in the Robin Hood canon, the Japanese short ‘Robin Hood No Yume‘ in 1924.
One complaint made about the Fairbanks movie was that it was, ‘nothing like the book.’ To which Doug replied, ‘which book?’ for a great many people the Warner Brothers movie of 1938 starring Errol Flynn was to become ‘the book.’
Warners had two recent cinematic innovations on their side that could immediately set their version apart from the memory of Fairbanks, colour and sound. They also had their biggest male star at the height of his appeal in a role that was apparently tailor made for him (although development on the film had started in 1934 with James Cagney slated to star). ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood‘ is the best Robin Hood movie made to date and still thrills and excites as much as it did over seventy years ago. Anyone who says they find it ‘clichéd,’ ‘camp’ or ‘cheesy’ has no romance in their soul. Those ‘clichés,’ are the original building blocks of all future action movies being fashioned before your very eyes. Although the ‘camp’ is unacknowledged it is nonetheless intentional and audiences in 1938 were as adept at reading subtexts as we are today. That ‘cheese’ is sincerity, we’re just not used to it anymore and when we come across it we’re confused.
Flynn’s Robin is a man for the people, a knight rather than a noble whose russet and green costume (including the oft mentioned tights) contrasts with the gorgeous silks of Claude Rains’ Prince John and his Norman court. Given the times it is easy here to simply read Nazis for Normans but the politics of the film is more complex than that. This is also a film steeped in the myth of FDR and the Great Depression in which the restoration of good king Richard will obviate the need for Robin’s piecemeal philanthropy and instigate a ‘New Deal’ for Saxon and Norman alike. None of which means the movie is also anything other than a hymn to colour, light, movement, spectacle and one of the greatest triumphs of the Hollywood studio system working at the peak of its powers. I may also have omitted to say that it is above all enormous fun, a film possessed of pure joie de vivre. So next time it comes on TV watch it properly, devote your whole attention to it and, if you lack one, borrow an inner child from somewhere, you will be rewarded.
Following the war the success of the Flynn movie spawned a sequel of sorts and a rash of imitators in search of escapist subjects for Saturday matinee fodder. In 1946 Warners re-released Errol into the wild and Columbia followed him with Cornell Wilde as the son of Robin Hood in ‘The Bandit of Sherwood Forest‘. The same company cast Jon Hall as ‘The Prince of Thieves‘ in 1948 and John (future husband of Bo) Derek was another ‘son of’ in ‘Rogues of Sherwood Forest‘ in 1950 with Alan Hale amazingly giving his third and last portrayal of Little John, having previously been chief lieutenant to both Fairbanks and Flynn.
Hale’s achievement would be similar to the same actor playing Alfred in the 60′s Adam West t.v. show, Tim Burton’s Batman and Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins. i.e. – remarkable.
‘Tales of Robin Hood‘ (1951) was a US TV pilot that never made it to TV. ‘The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men‘ (1952) was Disney’s first and best take on the legend with Richard Todd in the lead, a cast of fine British character actors backing him up and Peter Finch an effective sheriff. It is the best of the post-war movies and an underrated gem that deserves wider recognition. Robin also turned up in MGM’s big budget ‘Ivanhoe‘ and was played by Don Taylor in Hammer’s ‘Men of Sherwood Forest‘ (1954) in which Reginald Beckwith’s Friar Tuck introduces roulette and strip poker to twelfth century England (it’s a long story).
Patrick (Dr Who) Troughton was the BBC’s first Robin in 1953 but the best known Robin of the 50s and 60s was undoubtedly Richard Greene.
‘The Adventures of Robin Hood‘ was UK commercial television’s first global success story, starting in 1955, running for 143 episodes and sold throughout the world (don’t tell me you don’t know the theme tune!).
Greene was Robin once more in 1960’s ‘Sword of Sherwood Forest‘, Hammer’s second bite at the legend. There was a female ‘Son of Robin Hood‘ in 1958 with June Laverick and Al (later David) Hedison and ‘Robin Hood e i Pirati‘ (1960) and ‘Il Trionfo di Robin Hood‘ (1962) were two Italian potboilers starring a post Tarzan Lex Barker and Don Burnett.
A big budget, major stars and musical numbers appeared in 1964, albeit translated to prohibition era, Chicago when Frank Sinatra was Robbo in ‘Robin‘ and the ‘7 Hoods and Robin‘ also got the musical treatment from Sanny Cahn and US TV in 1968s ‘The Legend of Robin Hood‘.
German TV also got in on the act with ‘Robin Hood der edle Räuber‘ in 1966 but the arbitrary prize for last of the old school Robin Hood movies goes to ‘A Challenge for Robin Hood‘ (1967) featuring Barrie Ingham, his toupee, unlikely feats of archery and a custard pie fight! It was Hammer’s third attempt at taxing the legend’s film-going public.
Part 2 begins with their fourth when movie ‘realism’ took to the woods in 1969’s ‘Wolfshead‘. Look for it tomorrow.
Article written by guest blogger David Evans.