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The Hood, The Bad and the Ugly: A Century of Robin Hood on Film

28 July 21 words: Thomas Griffiths

It’s been well over a century since Robin Hood first graced the silver screen. Since then, the revered revolutionary has been portrayed by Hollywood legends, Soviet stars and a cartoon fox. We take a look at the most memorable movies from the leader of the Merry Men, as well as some of his more disappointing depictions...

At the turn of the twentieth century, cinema was realised as the perfect medium for telling the story of legends; the tallest tales of history could be bigger than ever before. One character, more than any other, felt perfectly suited for the screen - Robin Hood fit so perfectly, in fact, that the legend would go on to feature in every decade of cinema’s history. 

Robin and his Merry Men (1909) presented the first cinematic depiction of the hero of Sherwood. Though a simple plot of rivalry and honour, the film sets the stage for a character that would soon be captivating audiences many times over.

Robin Hood (1912) saw the second attempt at the tales, this time introducing the key characters of Marian and Guy of Gisbourne. While the plot is typically simple for its time, the film takes a great step forward in the storytelling potential of a Hood motion picture, namely the romance of Robin and Marian and the rivalry of Robin and Guy, both factors that would later make or break future cinematic iterations of the stories. 

With key characters, romances and rivalries, humour and action, Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood could learn from earlier attempts and bring the tales alive in full feature length production. After the success of Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Three Musketeers (1921), Hollywood’s brightest silent star chose Robin Hood (1920) as his next subject. These three films dramatically increased the size and scale of storytelling while retaining a focus on character and morals. With sets designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright and distribution courtesy of Charlie Chaplin’s United Artists, the film became one of the greatest financial successes of the twenties. Its ambition paid off and proved that cinema could elevate century old stories to new heights and continue to find relevance in ever changing times. Perhaps most importantly, the 1922 film demonstrated that an ideal Hood picture must balance action with character.

This trajectory of ever grander storytelling arguably reached its peak when Robin Hood was projected in Technicolor for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Elevating previous standards set by Fairbanks, this time Errol Flynn brought the character to life and, for the first time, into the era of sound and colour. Now audiences could hear the iconic character and see the green leaves of Sherwood in “glorious technicolour”. Through the direction of Michael Curtiz, the supporting acting of Olivia DeHavilland and Claude Rains, and Academy Award winning editing, music and set design, these stories, first told 800 years prior, were now perfectly fitting of the time. Again, the clear values presented alongside captivating action proved a winning combination, off the back of the Great Depression and approaching the dawn of WWII, these moral values had greater relevance than ever before. The iterations of the story released on screen in the following decades would fail to match the success of the 1938 film, often falling off the balancing act of action and character by leaning too far into humour and pantomime, the vivid greens of technicolour then looking more garish than heroic. 

As is often the case in cinema, the success of one film leads to a succession of copycat films to be created in the following years. All in all, ten Robin Hood films were created in the following thirty years, some so blatant in their copying that they borrowed sets from one another’s films. This period from the forties through to the end of the sixties offered nothing new to the story, gone was the method used in 1922 and 1938, the character had entered a stage of fatigue and belonged more on afternoon TV than the big screen. 

With this in mind, we can appreciate even more the originality of Disney’s Robin Hood (1973). Finally a new take on the story had arrived, returning to the tale’s roots and working with the best elements of Flynn’s portrayal of the character 35 years prior. This iteration, although featuring no people at all, is perhaps the most human take on the tale. It is interesting to consider the cartoon’s ability to bring stories of this kind to life; we are able to empathise with animated animals far more than the overly theatrical acting of the forties and fifties Hood films. Though Disney’s was the first feature length animated Robin Hood, there had already been many cartoon Robins. From Looney Tunes to Popeye, the humour of the character translates well to animation. It is however, of all these animated versions, the Disney picture that manages the essential feat of humour and heart. For these reasons it is the only Robin Hood feature that often rivals Flynn’s portrayal for the best performance.

After Disney’s version of the now staple story of cinema one could easily wonder where to take the tale next. Robin and Marian (1976) provided another alternative take on the familiar characters. Where the film is weak on action, and often also in plot, its post-Crusades setting and ageing characters create heartfelt performances of Hood’s final years. Cleverly adapting the theories that Hood was poisoned by a prioress at Kirklees Priory, the film slowly paves the way for emotional scenes that Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn hold completely, with Hepburn delivering an iconic final monologue. The film is a great testament to the more human elements of the tales - the dying outstretched arms of Robin and Marian failing to reach one another is imagery that is worthy of the best performances put to both of the iconic characters throughout any of their on screen incarnations. Through Connery’s performance, Hood becomes an unexpected cautionary tale of the hero, failing to know when his fight is over and forced to live up to exaggerated legend. The film poses new questions towards the actions of the Crusades and the morality of the life of a legend, an impressive feat for a story that had now been shown on the screen for 70 years.

By the arrival of the nineties there had been no Hollywood production of Robin Hood for fourteen years, the longest period so far without the character in Western cinema. However, in the East the story was finding new relevance. Themes of robbing from the rich to help the poor struck a chord in Soviet Russia with The Arrows of Robin Hood (1975), while Aaj Ka Robin Hood (1988) proved a successful Indian film. 

Back in the west the studios were eager for a Robin Hood picture fit for the nineties, so much so that in 1991 there were two Robin Hood films released only one month apart. The American production would be Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves while the British would release Robin Hood.

Enough has been written about Kevin Costner’s take on the character, so instead it’s interesting to examine the British attempt. With Robin Hood we find Patrick Bergin sporting a questionable moustache, not as Robin Hood but as Robert Hode, a character that fires more corny one liners than arrows. There are none of the usual faces of Guy or The Sheriff, and Robin (or Robert), cares more for stealing Marian than money for the poor. The cinematography is nicely English and Bergin offers an alternative take on the character, yet both of these films represent a complete shift of approach, barely recognisable with the original stories. 

Since the nineties we have seen the tales told again and again, each desperately trying to achieve something new while ignoring the key strengths of the stories. 2010’s Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe is utterly devoid of character or humour, and the story is unrecognisable as a Robin Hood production. Whereas Otto Bathurst’s 2018 version, Robin Hood, is an equally unnecessary attempt that could perhaps mark the final shot fired by a 21st century Robin Hood. 

Looking back over 100 years of Robin Hood on screen it’s impossible not to wonder where the story will head next. What is certain is that the perfect picture would, like the legend himself, have to be a collection of all these past tales. The ambition of the silent feature film of 1922, the direction of Curtiz seen in 1938, the warmth of Disney’s full length 1973 feature, and perhaps the sense of loss and fear displayed by Connery and Hepburn in 1976. Only through combining all these factors into a tapestry of tales, much like the earliest collection of stories over 900 years ago, can the perfect Robin Hood film of the 21st century be produced.  

When we study a century of Robin Hood productions we can’t help but also study the history of cinema itself. Each Robin Hood film is a product of its time, whether it be the biggest film of the silent era, a technicolour glimpse of hope after the world’s worst financial crisis, or a cartoon fox that brings new life to a near 1000 year old story. Through these films we see how cinema and it’s audience has changed but equally how it remains the same, still hungry for the same old legends.

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