For May Day: A Round-Up of Robin Hoods

Happy May Day!

In America, May 1 is at best a proto-holiday, identified with two things: 1) International Workers Day, with all of its leftist associations; and 2) the traditional English Pagan holiday, with its rituals of the May Pole, Morris Dancing, and the election of a May Queen. Many don’t realize that there is a mythical figure associated with the day who very much ties the two concepts together, and could potentially represent the day in much the same manner as Santa Claus does Christmas, Cupid does Valentine’s Day, and a fairly terrifying human-rabbit hybrid does Easter. I speak of course of Robin Hood, who in England was associated with May Day in some regions in the 15th and 16th centuries. During those years, there was what we would now call Robin Hood cosplay, with celebrants dressing as the folk character and others from his legend, as well as Robin Hood games and such-like. It makes a kind of coherent sense; this time of Spring reawakening being associated with the Lincoln-green-clad forest figure. And naturally, an outlaw who steals from the rich and gives to the poor, forcibly redistributing wealth, is entirely relevant to the workers movement.

The character originated in folklore of course, so it is impossible to pinpoint when and where it was created, although the first known reference to him is in William Langland’s Piers Plowman, ca. 1370s. The tradition originated orally, and was shared in ballads, poems, prose tellings and plays going back to late Medieval times. And the story evolved over time with many variations, although it eventually codified into an arc involving his antagonists the usurper King John and his crooked lackey the Sheriff of Nottingham; Robin’s lady love Maid Marian; and his band of Merry Men, whose numbers include such colorful characters as Friar Tuck, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Alan-a-Dale. In some versions there is an overlay of outside oppression, presumably to downplay the potentially revolutionary character of the story. In other words, tweaking it to be less about class struggle in general, than about an insurgency by Anglo-Saxons against Norman invaders. Thus Robin of Locksley is himself a Saxon aristocrat, but a benevolent one. In this insidious way, it diffuses the critique of the existing aristocratic order. In that version, some kings and lords and plutocrats are good; others are bad. True enough I suppose, but it conveniently leaves out the general unfairness of how wealth and power is distributed.

In the modern era, some authors and poets took up the romantic theme of Robin Hood, including Sir Walter Scott (in Ivanhoe), Alexander Dumas, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. A favorite version among children was Howard Pyle’s 1883 The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. And then of course film and television. Thus in the spirit of our posts on Peter Pan, The Three Musketeers, A Christmas Carol, The Phantom of the Opera, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Tarzan, etc we take a look at some notable portrayals of Robin Hood on screens big and small.

Robin Hood (1922)

There had been earlier, short screen versions of the Robin Hood tale, such as a 1908 one by Percy Stow (who also did an early Alice in Wonderland we mentioned here), another 1908 version produced by Kalem; a 1912 version released by Universal starring Robert Frazer, later of White Zombie (1932) and The Vampire Bat (1933); and a 1913 one by Thanhouser starring William Russell. But the first feature was the classic United Artists one starring Douglas Fairbanks, then in the swashbuckling phase that also included such things as The Mark of Zorro and The Three Musketeers. Building on Fairbanks existing screen persona, this silent feature helped establish the image of Robin Hood as a cheeky, irresistible fellow, the kind of a hero who is above petty hatreds even of the villains of the story. (He is righteously angry with them, but not vindictively punitive. Hollywood seems to have lost this virtuous storytelling perspective BIG time). Directed by Allan Dwan, this version also includes Enid Bennett (Fred Niblo’s wife) as Maid Marian, Wallace Beery, Billie Bennett, and Alan Hale as Little John, a role he would reprise in this version:

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

This remains the best screen version of the Robin Hood tale to the present day, because, not coincidentally, it is one of the best movies ever to come out of the Hollywood studio system. That system wasn’t perfect, but I’d show this film to anybody as an example of what the studios did right when all of the pieces were in place. I would also show it to young people, as an example of just how entertaining classic movies can be. I put it in a class with my favorite film of all time, MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, and for many of the same reasons. It is a dream-like fairy tale with a perfect cast inhabiting an idyllic setting, shot in that beautiful Technicolor, which instils in the memory images that never leave. Co-produced by Hal B. Wallis for Warner Brothers, co-directed by Michael Curtiz, the film stars key members of what we now call the Warner Brothers stock company, as well as some smart hires from outside that studio. It is a strong contender for the best movie cast in history: Errol Flynn (foremost heir to the Fairbanks tradition), Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Eugene Pallette, Melville Cooper, Una O’Connor, Montagu Love, and, for the second time, Alan Hale as Little John — this time with sound so we can hear his hearty laugh! More remarkably, we still haven’t heard the last of Alan Hale as Little John…

Robin Hood of the Pecos (1941)

This is of course not the original tale, but a very natural, perhaps inevitable transplantation of it to the wild west, not unlike what the western serial The Three Mesquiteers did with the Dumas yarn it puns on, or what Zorro does with The Scarlet Pimpernel. The names are all changed of course, but it’s still about a bandit who gives away his ill-gotten booty. Robin Hood westerns are a bit of a can of worms, and one can easily get sidetracked — you could get an entire book out of all the B movie westerns with a Robin Hood theme. (One of them, William Wellman’s Robin Hood of Eldorado with Warner Baxter, came out two years before the Flynn movie, and another, Red River Robin Hood with Tim Holt, came out in 1942). And these, by the way, are without necessarily including all of the Jesse James tales, for the real life saga of the Dastardly Dingus was usually twisted to turn that outlaw into a good guy with noble motives, which is taking galaxy-sized liberties with the truth. At any rate, Robin Hood of the Pecos starred Roy Rogers, Gabby Hayes, Roscoe Ates, Jay Novello, and Marjorie Reynolds (this was before Dale Evans became Roy’s leading lady).

The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946)

Cornel Wilde was also associated with swashbuckling roles, and would later play such storybook characters as Aladdin and Sir Lancelot. This one is an excursion into the “Son of…” sequel subgenre, based on a novel called Son of Robin Hood. Wilde plays Robin Hood’s son, charged with saving the Magna Carta and a young prince of the realm. Russell Hicks plays the actual Robin Hood. Also in the cast Anita Louise, Edgar Buchanan, Henry Daniell, George Macready, Lloyd Corrigan, John Abbott, et al. That is a killer cast, almost as good as the 1938 classic, though, in spite of the Technicolor, this one is nowhere near the class of its much better remembered original. Still it is better than the next two we’ll treat of, which, like this one, were produced by Columbia.

The Prince of Thieves (1948)

This one recycled several of the sets from The Bandit of Sherwood Forest and was based on Alexander Dumas’ 1872 novel Le Prince des voleurs. It starred Jon Hall, normally associated with “South Seas” pictures, and featured some well known names like Alan Mowbray, H.B. Warner, and comedian Syd Saylor. Reinforcing the second rate nature of the enterprise, it was shot in Cinecolor, a poor alternative to Technicolor, which could not faithfully convey hues of green — a fatal omission in telling this particular tale, wouldn’t you agree?

Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950)

Our third, and perhaps weakest, Columbia Robin Hood outing features John Derek as the hero, with George Macready again, Billy House as Friar Tuck, Billy Bevan as Will Scarlet, and, for no less than the THIRD time, nearly 30 years after his first outing in the role, Alan Hale as Little John.

The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952)

This is Walt Disney’s second live action feature, and like his first one, Treasure Island, it was shot in England. It starred Richard Todd, fresh off of Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950) and Peter Finch. Lacking the magic of either Treasure Island or the 1938 Warner Brothers version, it has long since been eclipsed by Disney’s own 1973 animated version of the tale (below).

Miss Robin Hood (1952)

Okay, this is not a proper version of the tale, not even a gender-reversed one, apart from starring Margaret Rutherford (who’s best remembered screen character is Miss Marple) as an old lady who commits heists. It’s a silly comedy in the British tradition, directed by John Guillermin, whose much better known films came two decades later, things like The Towering Inferno (1974), King Kong (1976) and the original, much superior, version of Death on the Nile (1978).

Hammer Hoods (1954-1969)

We typically associate Hammer with its great second-wave horror classics starring Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy etc, sometimes forgetting that they also produced films in other genres. Their Robin Hood films included The Men of Sherwood Forest (1954), Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), A Challenge for Robin Hood (1967) and Wolfshead: The Legend of Robin Hood (1969). The last three were no doubt propelled into existence by the great popularity of this TV show:

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-59)

This British series starring Richard Greene was the first to be produced by Sir Lew Grade, and became an international favorite in syndication (in the US it aired on CBS). Beatles fans know it because the catchy hit theme song was performed by Dick James, who later was the publisher of the LennonMcCartney song catalog. The Robin Hood scenario is of course PERFECT for a series, as it provides infinite possibility for subsequent adventures over and above the canonical. There were subsequent Robin Hood TV series in 1975, 1984-86, 1989-94, 1997-98, and 2006-2009. Though those of us of a certain age are inclined to remain attached to this one, just as we are with, say, The Adventures of Superman.

The Son of Robin Hood (1958)

The principle twist in this retelling is that the “son” is actually a daughter, played by June Laverick. The sight of her in the Lincoln green Robin Hood outfit evokes Shakespeare’s As You Like it — a play in which Robin Hood is amply referenced. Also in the cast is David Hedison (The Fly) as the buddy who helps her, because apparently you could only take a feminist concept so far in 1958.

Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964)

The inevitable Rat Pack Robin Hood, which naturally folds in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as well as elements of Sinatra’s previous Oceans 11 (1960), and Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961), which was originally supposed to star Sinatra. It transplants the concept to 1920s Chicago (“My Kind of Town”). Rat Pack members Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr join Sinatra. Peter Lawford had been slated to be in the cast as well, but after the infamous JFK snubbing, he was replaced by Bing Crosby (in his penultimate big screen performance). Why no Joey Bishop or Shirley MacLaine I don’t know, but we are compensated by a wealth of other major stars. The fetching Barbara Rush is Marian. And we also have Edward G. Robinson, Peter Falk, Victor Buono, Allen Jenkins, Jack La Rue, Hans Conried, Tony Randall, and Sig Ruman.

The Archer (1966)

This character was one of the lamer villains on the hit TV show Batman. Played by Art Carney, the characterization displays none of his usual comic genius, nor any of the campy archness displayed by Cesar Romero’s Joker, Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, Burgess Meredith’s Penguin or any of the three Catwomen. I also always found it too close conceptually to the DC superhero Green Arrow. I mean, what happens if the Green Arrow and The Archer get into a fight? How do they tell each other apart? Oh, one has a mask, that’s right.

The Legend of Robin Hood (1968)

This 90 minute made-for-TV musical featured songs by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, who, probably not coincidentally, had written songs for Robin and the Seven Hoods. The cast included David Watson (Beneath the Planet of the Apes), Steve Forrest, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Arte Johnson, Roddy McDowell, Walter Slezak, and, once again, Victor Buono.

Robin Hood (1973)

Conceivably this animated Disney film may well be the best known screen version of the Robin Hood legend. I would not be shocked if some (unlikely) market survey revealed that to be the case. Many regard it as a classic, though I’ve always thought of it as representative of the Disney studio’s period of decline, dating from Walt’s death (1966) to the so-called Disney Renaissance (1989). I find the picture very enjoyable, although conceptually muddled. Like, what’s with the country-western motif? Why does that equate? And, animals, fine I guess, but it seems pretty random which beasts are assigned to which characters. Lots of great voice-over actors, though: Brian Bedford, Monica Evans (Cecil Pigeon from The Odd Couple), Phil Harris, Roger Miller, Andy Devine, Peter Ustinov, Terry-Thomas, Pat Buttram, George “Goober” Lindsey, Ken “Festus” Curtis, Johnny Whitaker, John Fiedler (another Odd Couple vet!), Candy Dandido and J. Pat O’Malley!

Now here’s an interesting phenomenon. I know several grown women who have revealed that as little girls they had CRUSHES on the anthropomorphic Robin Hood fox voiced by Brian Bedford. Who can say why? They sure can’t, they just know that it’s true. I can’t cast aspersions, ladies, for I have long had a thing for BOTH Snow White and the Wicked Queen.

When Things Were Rotten (1975)

Mel Brooks’ first parody version of the Robin Hood legend, a short-lived sitcom on ABC. I wrote about the show here.

Robin and Marian (1976)

This is an amazing example of cinema magic — more a bit of Robin Hood fan art than part of the traditional legend. It’s a love story and a tragedy (in the traditional sense of the word) penned by James Goldman (The Lion in Winter) and directed by Richard Lester of the Beatles films and The Three Musketeers. The story concerns the last days of Robin (Sean Connery) and Marian (Audrey Hepburn in her first film since 1967’s Wait Until Dark). The unbelievable all-star cast includes Robert Shaw, Nicol Williamson, Richard Harris, Denholm Elliott, Ian Holm, and comedian Ronnie Barker of The Two Ronnies.

“Jolly Good”

John Cleese in Time Bandits (1982)

The most hilarious Robin Hood ever. More about the film here.

The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood (1984)

Robert Kaufman (Love at First Bite, How to Beat the High Cost of Living) wrote this superfluous made-for-tv spoof, which featured George Segal, Morgan Fairchild, Tom Baker (my generation’s Doctor Who), Roddy McDowell, and Roy Kinnear.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

I am not a knee-jerk Kevin Costner hater like so many are. I think he is a good actor and a greater star, though he is naturally best in the right roles, which have tended to be cowboys or other All-American types. I also don’t object to an Americanizing of Robin Hood, at least not as far as accents go. It is of course manifestly a tale of Ye Olde England, but Hollywood has told many a Roman epic starring actors from Ohio, and let us not forget Tony Curtis in ANYTHING historical. So on the face of it, I didn’t mind his casting as Robin Hood as many did, at least not in terms of his performance. But there is something VERY absurd about him in the traditional Robin Hood outfit, which looked like the sort of thing he might turn up to a costume party in. If they had gotten more creative with the costume, something more along the lines of Russell Crowe’s 20 years later, it might have worked better. As it was, there was a good bit of critical ridicule at the time. The fact that Costner was then still at his height certainly cushioned the blowback, and the film was a financial success, much like his other hits of the time. It had plenty to commend it. The casting of Morgan Freeman as his Muslim war-buddy seemed like a masterstroke of inclusion at the time (even if in retrospect it seems more in line with Hollywood’s long tradition of magical, if expendable, black sidekicks). Naturally, Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham is genius. Sean Connery’s cameo as King Richard is inspired stunt casting. And there’s also Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Christian Slater, the divine Geraldine McEwan, and Jack Wild (of H.R. Pufnstuf and Oliver). I’m inclined to think of this as the first “modern” telling of the Robin Hood tale, for what it’s worth. Still, one can see it as an early chink in Kevin Costner’s armor. The film was directed by Kevin Reynolds, who later helmed Waterworld (1995), which proved the true turning point southward.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

Mel Brooks took the qualified success of Prince of Thieves as a green light to dust off his When Things Were Rotten concept and revive it. Though this film did okay at the box office, it is the centerpiece of what might be called Brooks’ Dreadful Decade, sandwiched as it is between Life Stinks (1991), which easily stank as much as life does; and the unkindest cut of all, Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), his last picture. Men in Tights is terrible for a million reasons, none of which includes the cast, which was distinguished by a lengthy list of top talent: Carey Elwes (of the not dissimilar The Princess Bride), Richard Lewis, Roger Rees, Mark Blankfield of Fridays, Tracey Ullman, Patrick Stewart, Dom Deluise, Dick Van Patten (who’d been on When Things Were Rotten), Brooks himself, Avery Shreiber, and Chuck McCann. Most egregiously, however Brooks took Morgan Freeman’s presence in Prince of Thieves as license to include some stereotyped black characters played by an early career Dave Chapelle and a late career Isaac Hayes (employing stereotypes which were themselves 20 years out of date). Not anyone’s best moment. (It makes me wonder if the British Carry On franchise ever did a Robin Hood spoof? And if not, why not? They, above all, could have done justice to this most English of comedy fodder. )

Robin Hood (2010)

I actually really love Russell Crowe as a star but I do think he is leagues too macho for Robin Hood. Robin Hood is about the lightness of arrow quivers; Crowe is about decapitating you with a broad sword. This version was penned by my fellow Rhode Islander Brian Helgeland, auteur of the BRILLIANT A Knight’s Tale (2001), among much else, and directed by Ridley Scott, who had directed Crowe to better purpose in The Gladiator. This version breaks new ground by being “gritty” and attempting “realism”. But of course there was no “real” Robin Hood, so I’m not sure what the point is in throwing mud at it. Still it made a substantial profit and didn’t hurt the director’s reputation any. And the cast! I guess it’s not hard to convince great actors to do a Robin Hood movie. This one has Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow, William Hurt, Oscar Isaac, and Danny Huston.

Robin Hood (2018)

This bungled and critically panned attempt at an origin story was the rare Robin Hood film to lose money (and a lot of it) at the box office. It starred Taron Egerton (who played Elton John in Rocketman), Ben Mendelsohn, and, as the now de rigueur black character, Jamie Foxx (as a Saracen Little John). I only even deign to mention it here because — think of the year it came out, and where we are today. Trump, Boris Johnson, billionaires, a gap between rich and poor at historic highs. What a perfect time for a militant, Brecht-style telling of the tale, eh? Instead of more needless Hollywood junk? I believe there were some Soviet bloc productions back in the day, but those countries were tyrannies. To be true to the spirit of the story, the hero would need to rob Communist party bigwigs! But now would be the perfect time for a film in which swine-like plutocrats are stripped down to their underwear and left by the side of the road in a puddle while poor people highjack their wheels and make off with their trunk full of mad money. Maybe sometime soon, if there is a soon.

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