This article was first published in the June 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine
Ridley Scott’s new Robin Hood (2010) promises to bring more grit, violence and computer-generated spectacle to the familiar story of the bandit of Sherwood Forest, but every generation has been free to reinvent this enduring legend.
Its origins – in 14th and 15th-century ballads, 16th-century May Day celebrations and stage plays, and 19th-century ‘penny dreadfuls’ – are both obscure and inconsistent, allowing considerable room for interpretation.
Nevertheless, says Mark Glancy, the best films have always shared an enthusiasm for Robin Hood as a reassuringly courteous bandit: a chivalrous outlaw, a gallant action hero, and a man who challenges authority in order to uphold it.
Dir: Allan Dwan, USA, 1922. With Douglas Fairbanks, Wallace Beery, Enid Bennett
There were at least five earlier films about Robin Hood, but Allan Dwan’s 1922 picture is a landmark in cinema history. Made at the then astonishing cost of $1.5 million, it features dazzling sets, costumes and action sequences that still impress today.
It is, however, Douglas Fairbanks’s film through and through. The athletic star wrote the scenario and ensured that it was an action-packed adventure in the manner of his earlier films, The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Three Musketeers (1921).
His Robin Hood is a leaping, climbing, bounding swashbuckler with a cheeky, boyish grin on his face. Much of the story concerns his campaign to save Lady Marian Fitzwalter (Enid Bennett) from the leering interest of Prince John (Sam De Grasse), but he seems more comfortable cavorting with Will Scarlett, Friar Tuck and Little John than he does romancing Lady Marian. A few violent moments aside, this light-hearted film characterises medieval England with pageantry, chivalry and jolly japes.
The story is located firmly within the reign of King Richard I (Wallace Beery). When the king and Robert, Earl of Huntingdon leave England for the Crusades, Richard’s malevolent brother, Prince John, assumes power. John and his creepy attendant, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Paul Dickey), are then able to wield power mercilessly, taxing the poor and meting out grisly punishments. The Earl of Huntingdon learns of this tyranny and, against the orders of the king, returns to England.
It is only then, some 70 minutes into the film, that the earl becomes Robin Hood, an outlaw living in Sherwood Forest while seeking to undermine Prince John and restore King Richard. He robs from the government so that he can return the belongings of the over-taxed poor. He frees the city of Nottingham from tyrannical rule, and he kills Sir Guy in a duel. In the ending, Robin Hood is captured by Prince John, but on the point of execution he is saved by the return of King Richard, who begs his forgiveness, blesses his marriage to Lady Marian and banishes John.
But is it accurate?
Various interpretations of the early ballads suggest that Robin Hood lived during the reign of Henry III or Edward II rather than Richard I. They place him in Barnsdale Forest (Yorkshire) rather than Sherwood Forest (Nottinghamshire). They identify him as a yeoman rather than a nobleman, and offer no references to Maid Marian. She first appears in 16th-century accounts, and, along with Robin Hood, she was soon elevated to the nobility.
This contained Robin’s rebellion within the existing power structure, and dispelled any whiff of revolution. Hollywood, seeking to establish its own middle-class respectability in the silent era, eagerly followed suit.
The Adventures of Robin Hood
Dir: William Keighley and Michael Curtiz, USA, 1938. With Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone
For all the merits of the previous film, it pales in comparison with its 1938 successor. It is not simply the addition of sound, Technicolor, and an even higher production cost ($2 million) that makes The Adventures of Robin Hood superior.
The script is pacier. The background to the story is explained within moments: Richard I is being held for ransom abroad, and Prince John uses this as a pretext to raise taxes while assuming power himself. This speedy exposition allows Sir Robin of Locksley to spring into action as Robin Hood much more quickly.
The script also has greater dramatic tension, focusing on strife between powerful Normans (led by Prince John) and oppressed Saxons (led by Robin Hood). This ethnic conflict can be read as an allegory for the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany, or, in the midst of the Depression, Robin Hood can be seen as a dynamic reformer of capitalism, akin to President Roosevelt.
These readings address the period in which the film was made, but even today the story carries more resonance than the melodrama of the Fairbanks film, which centres on saving a helpless Lady Marian.
The film’s secondary characters are more richly developed, too, although this is due in equal parts to the script and an exceptionally strong cast, including Basil Rathbone as a venomous Sir Guy of Gisbourne and Claude Rains as an effete Prince John.
The direction is also first-class: the vastly underrated Michael Curtiz replaced William Keighley midway through filming, but the film is shot with flair throughout. Then there is the star, Errol Flynn, proving that he can match Fairbanks in the action sequences and also convey feeling and conviction far beyond a boyish grin. Even though wearing the requisite green tights, leather tunic and peaked cap, he breathes real life and force into this fanciful role.
But is it accurate?
The early ballads do not cast Robin as the defender of Saxons, and at any rate conflict between Normans and Saxons had faded by the time of King Richard. Otherwise the film faithfully uses the best known incidents in Robin Hood lore, and it captures their look, feel and tone.
Indeed, it does this so convincingly that it has effectively superseded every previous incarnation of the stories. The Adventures of Robin Hood is the legend now, and every actor taking the role faces a comparison with Errol Flynn.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Dir: Kevin Reynolds, USA, 1991. With Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
This Robin Hood does not wear the familiar green tights, but instead dresses like a Hell’s Angel headed for a heavy metal concert. The film revels in the idea that medieval England was filthy (the bad characters have greasy hair and rotten teeth) and brutally violent, but that is as far as its quest for historical realism goes.
The story is far-fetched. Although it too is set during King Richard’s absence from England, Prince John appears to have been forgotten and it is the Sheriff of Nottingham who seeks to fill the vacuum of power.
The tone is wildly uneven. While most of the cast seems to be taking the story seriously, Alan Rickman plays the sheriff as a pantomime villain on the verge of hysteria (“Cancel Christmas!”, he cries in one of his many fits of anger).
The pseudo-liberal values of the 1990s also weigh down the proceedings. Robin is accompanied on his return from the Holy Land by a Moor (Morgan Freeman), who is termed a barbarian by the peasants but proves to be more learned and wise than everyone else.
Lady Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) greets Robin by kicking him between his legs – this is apparently the film’s shorthand for demonstrating that she is a post-feminist heroine rather than a damsel in distress. A witch (Geraldine McEwan) is introduced for a bit of New Age sorcery. And, in a plot twist that might have played out on The Jerry Springer Show, Will Scarlett (Christian Slater) reveals that he is actually Robin’s long-unacknowledged half-brother, the product of their father’s infidelity.
All of this would have been easier to take if Robin Hood himself was played with more charisma, but Kevin Costner delivers his lines in a flat, nasal tone and his physical presence is leaden. The only dynamic quality to be found here is in a shot of an arrow piercing through the air. This was the film’s most memorable moment, although many also enjoyed Sean Connery’s cameo as King Richard.
But is it accurate?
“Shut up, you twit!” is just one of the anachronistic bits of dialogue found in this historical farrago, and the errors and oddities come thick and fast throughout. The best that can be said of this film is that it pleased fans of the modern action genre. It bewildered admirers of Robin Hood, and Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe should have little difficulty in surpassing it.
Mark Glancy teaches film history at Queen Mary University of London. His books include When Hollywood Loved Britain (Manchester University Press, 1999).