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A History of Robin Hood in Film and Television 1938-2005

2 October 05 words: Nathan Miller

We take a look at the long history of the original gangster on both the big and small screen...

Robin Hood is the ultimate high-concept folk hero. It’s all there in one perfect tagline: “Rob from the rich. Give to the poor.” There’s obviously something about that mix of lawlessness and radical economics that strikes a chord with Tinseltown moguls and makes for good wholesome family entertainment, as the story has been told on screen since movies began.

The ‘Golden Age’ Robin of early cinema was either a moustache-twirling, swashbuckling pirate-out-of-water, the Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn type, landlocked in the forests of the East Midlands, or else plying his trade under an assumed name in westerns like The Robin Hood of Texas or The Robin Hood of El Dorado. 

Without doubt the standout Robin Hood picture of this era is 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. In many ways Errol Flynn’s performance in this film (all twinkling teeth, ardent romance and deft skill with a foil), has become the definitive screen image of the character. The best scene involves him gatecrashing a banquet with an entire deer draped over his shoulders in an act of glorious macho-camp (the prequel to yet another enormous swordfight). Claude Raines and Basil Rathbone provide strong support as the villains and the film was one of Warner Bros’ biggest ever hits at the time of release.

Hollywood’s jolly swashbuckler vision of Robin prevailed through to Richard Greene’s homely performance in the much-loved 50s TV series, also called The Adventures of Robin Hood (this was the show which first gave us the notorious “riding through the glen” theme tune, that for years played before Forest games at the City Ground).

But in the 60s and 70s the most significant versions of the tales were the ones which shifted the familiar characters out of their usual context. Frank Sinatra starred as ‘Robbo’ in the Rat Pack musical Robin and the 7 Hoods with a cast including Bing Crosby and Peter Falk and the setting transposed to prohibition-era Chicago.

Unfortunately, it’s clearly the work of people who’d rather be doing something else than making a film, which is a shame since it’s an interesting curio and much better than Ocean’s Eleven. Sean Connery was more successful playing a downbeat, grown-up outlaw with Audrey Hepburn as a mature nun and a script by William Goldman in Robin and Marian, but despite the star billing, the film was hardly a blockbuster.

Disney’s 1973 cartoon animal version had much more box office clout, and is actually one of the best Robin Hoods from around this time. The story is the conventional taxation, disguises, archery contest stuff, but the accents are a strange mix, ranging from southern US drawl to inauthentic cockney.

Despite that there are some fine vocal performances, must notably Peter Ustinov’s oedipal cowardly lion for Prince John, and Phil Harris (the voice of Baloo from The Jungle Book) as Little John. Robin himself has the rich tones of an aging matinee idol provided by Brian Bedford and he is portrayed here as a fox. Catchy songs too, and as a whole well worth a watch (especially if you’re five).

After all this frivolity (and not to mention 1969’s The Ribald Tales of Robin Hood), in the 80s it was time for Hood to get tough. Michael Praed re-established the character as a staple of Saturday teatime telly in Robin of Sherwood, and was later replaced by Jason (son of Sean) Connery.

Whilst on the surface it may have seemed the series was most interested in showing us just how perfectly sculpted the leading man’s hair was, underneath it was all muddy leather trousers, shamanic wood spirits and two-fisted hard men like Ray Winstone and Clive Mantle.

The series was also notable for inventing the character of Nasir the Saracen, marking the first appearance of an Arab or Moorish character as one of the Merry Men, though a version of this character has often been included since, most notably Morgan Freeman’s older Azeem in the Kevin Costner smash Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

1991 actually saw Hollywood produce two rival Robin Hoods, but despite losing the race to be first into cinemas, Prince of Thieves had enough blockbuster savvy and marketing muscle to stomp Patrick Bergin’s grittier effort at the box office. One redeeming feature of an otherwise mediocre film is Alan Rickman’s scenery-chewing turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham, stealing every scene he’s in. The rest of it isn’t really much to write home about, not even the trip from Dover to Sherwood via Hadrian’s Wall or Christian Slater in a catapult.

Two parodies worth noting also appeared around this time. In 1993 Mel Brooks’ response to Costner, Robin Hood: Men in Tights was released to universal disappointment. Some people have claimed it marks a low point not just in Brooks’ career, but also in the history of cinema.

More happily, in 1989 Tony Robinson’s response to Robin of Sherwood was shown on CBBC and it turned out to be probably the most straightforwardly enjoyable version of the tales since Errol Flynn. In Maid Marian and her Merry Men, Robin is a soppy posh boy and practical tomboy Marian (Kate Lonergan) is the real brains behind the outlaw gang.

More interesting than the gender reversal, though, are the laugh out loud gags and huge quantities of mud. There’s no escaping the fact that it’s a show for kids, and people who find Blackadder too silly may not quite be able to stomach it, but there’s not much else on this list that’s as much pure joycore fun to watch.

So what next? It seems as though Robin may be about to make another return to Saturday Nights, with the BBC announcing plans for a new series after the successful revival of Doctor Who. Inevitably, the announcement brought up speculation over who might end up filling the famous green tights, speculation which has, worryingly, included the name ‘Robbie Williams.’ Make of that what you will. What’s certain is that having been part of the national consciousness since the Middle Ages and not having exhausted that killer high-concept yet, we’ll still be telling tales of Robin Hood for a long time to come.

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