This blog is devoted to all those pieces of 20th century culture too often pooh-pooh'ed by the so called 'high brow' crowd. The stuff that conjoures words like 'vibrant', 'garish' and 'lurid'. Cheap paperbacks, b-movies, exploitation, fantasy, horror and hokey sci-fi - all have a place on this blog where the trash of yesterday is recognised as the classics of today.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Robin Hood - A Journey

The character and legends of Robin Hood played a major part in my childhood. I was about 6 years old when I watched The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) for the first time and it's remained a favorite movie of mine ever since. This was about the same time that Lego were releasing their 'forestmen' sets which was basically a way of introducing Robin Hood into their Castle line and I loved them to bits. I can remember faithfully trying to recreate every scene of the Errol Flynn movie with those little men in green with the various knights and soldiers filling in for the bad guys. Not much later the Kevin Costner version of the movie hit cinemas and I fell in love with an all new version of the legend. There are innumerable such versions of England's boldest outlaw, the most recent being of course the Ridley Scott/Russel Crowe job which I only just got around to seeing (and I think it's great, incidentally). But I thought I'd take a look at four Robin Hood movies from my childhood that had a huge influence on me and my imagination.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
There were versions before this including the silent one starring Douglas Fairbanks, but Errol Flynn in green tights set the standard here and became the measuring stick to which all subsequent versions have been held. An early Technicolor effort, Robin Hood is a glorious thing to behold. The colour palette is striking from the greens of Sherwood Forest to the extraordinary costume design. The only rival that comes close is The Wizard of Oz (completed a year later).

And then there is the cast. The leading trio from Captain Blood (1935) are reunited once more with Olivia de Havilland as a stunning Maid Marian and Basil Rathbone making his mark as one of cinema's greatest villains in the role of Sir Guy of Gisbourne. The Sheriff of Nottingham is relegated to a bumbling buffoon of a character played by Melville Cooper who provides much of the comic relief and Claude Rains is fantastic as the ginger-bewigged Prince John who is intent on seizing his brother's throne while the King is a prisoner on his way home from the Crusades.

I absolutely love this movie. For me, it's right up there with Star Wars (1977), and largely for the same reasons. It moves along at a great pace with stunts and sword fights that still hold up today (the final duel between Sir Guy and Robin has to be one of the greatest duels in cinema). Flynn swings around and does all manner of cool things like hacking through a rope holding up a portcullis and riding it all the way to the top while his horse gallops underneath. And the score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold is brilliantly rousing and endlessly hummable. It was this movie that made me love pretty much anything with swords in.

Walt Disney's Robin Hood (1973)
Clearly hoping to recreate some of the success of 1967's animal caper The Jungle Book Disney tried its hand at medieval England with its cast of critters donning tunics and caps with feathers in. The results were mixed, but personally I love it. It's totally daft with Robin and Marian played by foxes and a strikingly familiar looking bear (voiced by Baloo's Phil Harris) as Little John. What used to really crack me up when I was a kid was the interaction between cowardly lion Prince John (or 'PJ' - voiced by Peter Ustinov) and his slippery aide, 'Sir Hiss' who is totally useless and only serves to irritate his master to bursts of rage.

The animation is very similar to The Jungle Book and lends itself well to the high-action tomfoolery that an animated take on Robin Hood demands. The archery tournament and the ensuing chaos that results from Robin's unmasking and the nighttime mission to free prisoners from the castle are great set pieces. And the facial expressions are hilarious. But the songs are surprisingly unmemorable for a Disney production with the exception of Alan-a-Dale's narration and whistling opening tune that was forever stuck in my head as a kid.

Robin Hood (1991)
Totally lost in the shadow of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves that also came out in 1991, this version is surprisingly good. What I admire most about it is its attempt to turn in an historically accurate version of the legend. Prince of Thieves is often accredited for dispensing with the tights and campy posturing in favour of a more grounded Robin Hood, but this version got there first with a decent stab at costumes fitting the period and a mossy, misty Sherwood Forest replacing the fairy-tale greenwood that we've seen before. This Sherwood (or is it Barnsdale?) is no studio back lot or national park. This is England in all its wild, bleak beauty.

The story is also refreshingly original. The usual villainous trio of Prince John, Sir Guy and the Sheriff are replaced here by two Norman nobles called Baron Daguerre and Sir Miles Folcanet with Prince John only making a cameo appearance. The hero of the piece is a certain Robert Hode, Earl of Huntingdon; a Saxon who is chummy with his Norman overlord Baron Daguerre. After a run in with Folcanet over a Saxon poacher, Robert Hode is given the heave-ho from his lands and title and takes to the forests with his friend, Will Scarlett. Falling in with Little John and a band of thieves and outlaws, Hode comes to be called (somewhat inexplicably) Robin Hood, and the usual rabble-rousing against the oppressors begins. Uma Thurman puts in a great pre-Pulp Fiction performance as Maid Marian.

The character of Robin is pretty different too. He is no heroic freedom fighter in the spirit of Errol Flynn. In fact, it is Will Scarlett who prompts him to save the poacher in the beginning; the very act that leads to his banishment. And the whole robbing from the rich to give to the poor concept comes very late to the party, with Robin spending most of the film as a common bandit! Patrick Bergin seems an unlikely cinematic hero with his moustache and curly black hair, but in fact gives a great portrayal as the devil-may-care bandit who gradually comes to see the plight of his people.

Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991)
This one gets a lot of flack but I've never really understood why. Some say its too Americanised and too showy. Perhaps I'm just blinded by the fact that I loved it too much as a kid and don't see it's flaws even now. But then, there are other movies I liked as a kid that I can't watch now (like Hook). Anyway, I've always found this to be a huge amount of fun and can watch it over and over. Sure, Kevin Costner and Christian Slater seem a bit out of place in medieval England, but at least the film isn't bogged down by too much light-hearted comic relief as so many pseudo-historical family movies are (such as the Pirates of the Caribbean series or 1993's The Three Musketeers).

What struck me about Prince of Thieves as a child was the gritty realism of it all whilst still retaining the fun and action of the legends. It's violent (the hand-chopping scene in the beginning gave me the heebie-jeebies as a kid) and often brutal as in the river fight between Robin and Little John. The swords are big and heavy and the landscapes (mostly shot in Ireland) are truly stunning.

But my favorite thing about the movie by far has always been the music. The Late Michael Kamen turned out, in my opinion, one of the finest movie scores ever. It really deals out a sense of the legendary and the medieval as well as being heroic and bombastic. Fantastic stuff. Unfortunately it isn't used in the trailer below, but the Willow theme is almost as good, right?


Lazarus Lupin said...

Funny that you mentioned "Hook" because I think that's the key. Kevin gives a good performance, but his still is low key and down to earth. He might have done a very realistic protrayal of an English bowman, but what people want in robin hood is something with just a touch of Peter Pan. The feeling of a fleetness, speed, almost flying through the woods. The dashing prince of thieves. It's a tough balance you want him to be light but not light in the tights.
I liked the Kevin version, but I can see why he didn't jibe with what people wanted in a robin hood, the latest version is even worse in that respect.

Lazarus Lupin
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Anonymous said...

What about "Robin and Marian" with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn? In my opinion the outstanding Hood-Movie of it all. But, looks are......
Nice day,....