Part 2: ‘Real Robins and Camp Followers’ (Part 1 HERE)
1969 was a momentous year marked by two major events, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon and Paul Newman kicked Ted Cassidy in the balls in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Of the two events it is the latter that has arguably proved to be more significant. The ‘kick in the balls moment’ marked a paradigm shift in Hollywood’s treatment of heroes and the public’s willingness to accept them, flaws and all.
Butch Cassidy was the mainstream success that cemented Hollywood’s version of ‘realism’ as the norm, even in historical subjects previously regarded as in some way exempted from even the most simplistic attempts at conveying period or recognisable human motivations. William Goldman’s screenplay for Butch may have ended in tragedy but at least he remembered to imbue his central characters with a sense of fun as well as playing with the conventions of the western. This was a trick that seemed to elude the writers of subsequent Robin Hood movies and for the next couple of decades at least Robin Hood films were split between the ‘realistic’ and the ridiculous. The light-hearted tricksterish elements of the traditional stories were siphoned off into broad farce and parody while the core tale of rebellion was dressed in muted colours and its hero invested with the primal motivations beloved of method actors and pop psychologists.
First to be made in 1969, though not seeing the light of a projector until given a limited cinema release by Hammer four years later, was ‘Wolfshead‘.
Produced as a pilot for a series that was never commissioned, it exemplifies the realist approach. New Zealander David Warbeck was Robert of Locksley (Newsflash: Russell Crowe, not the first Kiwi to play Robin!) a Saxon yeoman who incurs the wrath of the local Norman nobility by protecting a serf, in an opening that mirrors the Flynn movie before diverging into darker territory. Bleak North Wales locations stood in for Barnsdale (the Yorkshire setting of the earliest ballads rather than Sherwood) and Robin is motivated as much by revenge for the rape and murder of his sister as by any desire for social justice. Wolfshead was little seen at the time but proved to be influential in its grittier approach to the legend, some of those involved were also to contribute to later TV adaptations.
Running counter to the new realistic approach to the legend was a separate strand of productions that considered it fit subject for parody and satire and 1971 saw the first, and so far only, gay Robin as played in a cameo by Hugh Paddick in ‘Up the Chastity Belt‘. His Polari speaking Robin led a band of merry chorus boys that helped restore Frankie Howerd to his rightful place on the English throne.
Comedic interpretations were nothing new, and neither were cartoons, Robin had been played by Bugs Bunny (‘Rabbit Hood‘ 1949), Popeye (‘Robin Hood-Winked‘ 1948), Daffy Duck (‘Robin Hood Daffy‘ 1958) and appeared with Tom and Jerry (‘Robin Hoodwinked‘ 1958) as well as turning up in guest spots and short subjects ever since the Fairbanks film. Disney’s 1973 ‘Robin Hood‘ was a major animated feature with a starry voice cast directed by Wolfgang Reitherman who had previously delivered both ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘The Sword in the Stone’. His third take on an English classic is an entirely anthropomorphic affair, Robin and Marian are foxes, Little John a bear and Peter Ustinov’s Prince John a cowardly lion.
Phil Harris’ Little John is identical to his Baloo in the Jungle Book and the whole film feels like an exercise in the application of a tried and tested formula, albeit a successful one. The film is entertaining enough and continues the long standing Robin Hood tradition of employing English character actors as the bad guys. As with many Robin Hood adaptations it remains a firm favourite with those for whom it was their first exposure to the legend, and for many viewers probably their first exposure to film. The major crime that the movie commits however is that, at least in Disney’s marketing strategy, it overshadows their 1952 live action version which has never received the widespread home video and DVD promotion it deserves.
1975 was the year the bipolar approach to Sherwood arrived with a vengeance. The BBC’s six parter ‘The Legend of Robin Hood‘ was a surprisingly grim and violent affair for Sunday teatime viewing that went where no previous adaptation had gone before and ended with our hero’s death. David Butler, writer of ‘Wolfshead’ contributed one episode, Martin Potter was a dour Robin, Diane Keene played one of the most passive Marions ever seen, Paul Darrow was remarkably restrained (for him) as the Sheriff and the stand out turn came from David Dixon as an effete mother fixated Prince John.
‘When Things Were Rotten‘ was the flip side, Mel Brooks’ manic to the BBC’s depressive. The sitcom it starred Dick Gautier as Robin, head of a band of exceptionally dim merry men whose own incompetence was exceeded only by that of his adversaries. Brooks rehearsed some of the tropes he was to use later in ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’ but the focus of the show was character led farce rather than outright parody of other Robin Hood treatments. It lasted a single 13 week season before the axe fell. In the UK, ‘Robin Hood Junior‘ was the Childrens Film Foundation’s first foray into Sherwood starring a young Keith Chegwin in best cheeky varlet mode.
Richard Lester was a director on a historical roll following ‘The Three Musketeers’ (1973) and its follow up, ‘The Four Musketeers’ (1974). ‘Royal Flash’ (1975) was his third George MacDonald Fraser scripted costume movie in a row and his next project ‘Robin and Marian‘ (1976) might have been expected to exhibit a similarly rich mix of realism, incidental detail and moments of comic relief. The script for this project however was from James Goldman, dramatist of the acclaimed ‘The Lion in Winter’ and brother of Butch Cassidy author William. The movie’s original working title of ‘The Death of Robin Hood’ pretty much sums up the film’s approach to the legend.
It is the most emotionally mature version of the story yet put on film, a middle aged love story in both period and theme and a portrait of a force of nature who is unable to admit that his time has come.
Sean Connery’s Robin and Robert Shaw’s sheriff are both representatives of an old order soon to be swept away. It is Robin’s tragedy that he fails to recognise this and his actions precipitate the demise of all he has loved. The kick in the balls he administers to Kenneth Haigh is a provocation rather than a winning blow and in killing the sheriff he removes the one restraint on despotism that remains. It is Audrey Hepburn’s decisive, independent Marian that eases them both to oblivion as destruction descends. Robin and Marian is a fine and beautifully performed film that failed to find the wider audience it deserved at the time.
Meanwhile, in Soviet Russia Boris Khmelnitsky was proto socialism personified in ‘Strely Robin Guda’ (Robin Hood’s Arrows 1976), a film that drew much of its plot from the medieval ballad tradition and supplemented the soundtrack with modern Russian approximations. It proved popular with Eastern Bloc audiences whose grandparents had probably queued for Douglas Fairbanks and Khmelnitsky reprised the role in a 1983 version of Walter Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’ Ballada o doblestnom rytsare Ayvengo.
The Sherwood outlaw’s next two appearances were cameos in larger projects, John Cleese played him for comedy as an unrepentant toff (allegedly based on the Duke of Kent) in Terry Gilliam’s ‘Time Bandits‘ (1981) and David Robb was a straightforward Locksley in a prestige TV movie version of ‘Ivanhoe‘ (1982). Canadian comic Rich Little played Robin as Groucho Marx (and all the other parts as various Hollywood stars) in a 1982 TV special (‘Rich Little’s Robin Hood‘) and the CFF produced a sequel to their 1975 effort ‘The Adventures of Young Robin Hood‘ (1983).
In another part of the forest ‘Robin of Sherwood‘ (1983) was waiting to make his entrance.
Richard Carpenter’s series took the Wolfshead blueprint (he had been one of the writers slated to work on the proposed series) and pushed it into areas not previously occupied by the boys and girls in Lincoln green. There was realism but also elements of mysticism and the occult and there was a Saracen merry man for the first time. The new age ethereal atmosphere of the visuals was complemented by the Celtic soundtrack from Clannad. The bad guys were genuinely menacing, although it was their failures that provided most of the humour that punctuated the series. Gisburne was the blond public school rugby team captain to the sheriff’s besotted senior prefect. Michael Praed was a brooding, darkly handsome, Robin of Loxley and Judi Trott a sylvan Marian.
Tragedy was here as well, Praed’s Robin sacrificing himself in a hail of crossbow bolts at the end of the second season. Carpenter acknowledged the contradictory traditions of Robin’s social status by replacing Praed’s peasant hero with Jason (son of Sean) Connery’s noble Robert of Huntingdon, the title of ‘The Hooded Man’ being bestowed by Sherwood’s mystical guardian Herne the Hunter. ‘Robin of Sherwood’ easily bears comparison with the best of previous adaptations and remains an excellent entertainment.
‘The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood‘ (1984) is, by way of contrast, an acquired taste. Veteran writer Robert Kauffman took the Mel Brooks approach to the subject and upped the Jewish ante considerably, George Segal stars as Robin, whose merry men include a minstrel called Yehudi. Morgan Fairchild’s Marian is rescued by Robin aided by ‘some nice Jewish boys’ in rubber boats. Shot in the UK and featuring a host of familiar British character actors amid historic locations anachronisms are pretty much the point of the film.
1991 was the battle of the two Robins. Won at the box office by Kevin Costner in the blockbuster ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ and in the reviews by Patrick Bergin in ‘Robin Hood’.
Both have their admirers and both, with varying degrees of success, attempted to introduce humour and a lighter touch back into a mainstream take on the legend. ‘Prince of Thieves’ was hampered in this respect by a leading man incapable of expressing anything but earnest good intentions and a performance of such outrageous camp from Alan Rickman’s Sheriff that it made Nottingham Castle look like a more fun place to be than Sherwood. Patrick Bergin on the other hand positively twinkled with good humour and a joie de vivre not seen since Errol Flynn.
There’s a similar disparity in the two Marian’s on show, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio starts out as a typical feisty action heroine, first seen in armour kicking Costner in the crotch, she even gets to see him naked but her capture by the sheriff is easily accomplished and she has to be rescued from attempted rape at the top of a phallic tower. Uma Thurman by contrast disguises herself as a boy to join Bergin in the forest and fights on her own behalf when Robin arrives to stop her forced marriage to Jurgen Prochnow.
The best performance in ‘Prince of Thieves’ comes from Morgan Freeman as Azeem, Robin’s Moorish companion (an addition to the legend introduced in Robin of Sherwood). He gets to introduce the telescope, gunpowder and Caesarean birth to medieval England as well as rousing the peasantry and saving Robin’s life at the climax to the movie, Freeman’s achievement is to create a likeable human character from what is essentially a deus ex machina plot device. The two movies also have differing resolutions, Sean Connery’s King Richard arriving to oversee the wedding in a traditional conclusion to the Costner flick while Bergin and Thurman’s nuptials mark a mutually arrived at Norman/Saxon conciliation.
Mel Brooks returned to Sherwood for ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights‘ in 1993 a movie that managed the neat trick of lampooning the Costner vehicle while simultaneously riding on its coat tails.
It is more effective as comedy when it broadens its focus to the wider traditions of the legend rather than spoofing Costner or The Godfather movies and proved once again (after ‘The Princess Bride’ 1987) that Cary Elwes could have given Flynn and Ronald Colman a run for their money as a Hollywood leading man in the 30s. Another Sherwood misfire was ‘The New Adventures of Robin Hood‘ (1997) filmed in Lithuania it was an attempt to graft the sophisticated sensibilities (trust me on this one) that had informed ‘Xena: Warrior Princess’ (1995) and ‘Hercules: The Legendary Journeys’ (1995) onto Robin’s English roots. It has its moments and it has its fans, it had its chips after four seasons. ‘Back to Sherwood‘ (1999) was a Canadian TV series with a time travelling heroine descended from the outlaw and Keira Knightly first swashed a buckle not in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl’ (2003) but as Gwyn, Robin Hood’s daughter in Disney’s ‘Princess of Thieves‘ (2001).
A cameo in ‘Shrek‘ (2001) briefly confused five year olds into thinking that Robin was French before a new BBC ‘Robin Hood’ (2006) set them straight.
Jonas Armstrong ran around the Hungarian woods facing impossible odds and soldiers in lamé chain mail for three seasons before he and pretty much the entire cast were killed off. For Armstrong the major problem was not just that his Marian fancied Richard Armitage’s Guisborne but that most of the female audience did as well. There were excellent episodes throughout the series but overall the tone and quality varied wildly, slipping too often into mediocrity and the final season takes much of its time establishing a potential replacement Robin, a set up which was wasted when the show was axed.
Which, give or take the odd dragon fighting Robin in the SyFy Channel’s ‘Beyond Sherwood Forest‘ (2009) brings us round to Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott’s latest.
Article written by guest blogger David Evans.
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