Remembering Other Robin Hoods

If you ask my daughter, there’s only one Robin Hood that matters: the Disney animated feature from 1973 with Phil Harris (channeling Baloo the Bear from The Jungle Book) in the role of Little John. If you ask me or most of my film-buff pals we’ll reflexively point to Errol Flynn in the ageless Technicolor swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), as perfect a movie as one could ever ask for, with superb production values and a cast that can’t be beat. Yet I wonder if some moviegoers in 1938 approached that film grumbling that no one could replace Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. After all, Fairbanks was the movies’ first great swashbuckler, and he put his indelible brand on such characters as Zorro, D’Artagnan, and Robin Hood. (Indeed, in his New York Times review on May 13, 1938, Frank S. Nugent was obliged to observe, “Mr. Flynn is not the acrobatic Robin Douglas Fairbanks was some years ago. He doesn’t slide down tapestries or vault the balustrades with—

—the Fairbanks pere’s abandon. But he moves swiftly when there’s need and Guy of Gisbourne rues it.”) If you’ve never seen Fairbanks in action, you really should: he’s great fun to watch, although even some of his fans thought he was dwarfed, to some degree, by the sheer scale of the sets he built for his 1922 production of Robin Hood.

It seems every generation has its own Robin Hood, from Fairbanks in the 1920s to Kevin Costner in the 1990s. Sean Connery even played an aging hero opposite Audrey Hepburn in 1976’s Robin and Marian. It’s not hard to understand why: he’s a very appealing character and it’s difficult to mess up his story, even as each film brings its own variations to the saga.

When I was growing up the first Robin Hood I encountered was handsome Richard Greene, a British actor who’d enjoyed a degree of success in Hollywood. In the 1950s he returned to England and starred in a black & white half-hour series that enjoyed great popularity here in the States. One reason was its catchy theme song, which you can hear HERE.

The show lasted five years and was well done, given its meager budget, but it has earned a footnote in film history for unexpected reasons. In later years it was revealed that its executive producer, an American ex-pat named Hannah Weinstein, gave work to blacklisted Hollywood writers like Ring Lardner, Jr. and Ian McLellan Hunter—and, reportedly, Adrian Scott and Robert Lees—as well as hiring such up-and-coming British directors as Lindsay Anderson, Terence Fisher, and Don Chaffey. You’ll find similarly interesting credits if you research her other series—which also enjoyed success in America—like Colonel March of Scotland Yard, The Buccaneers and The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. Little did anyone dream that some of these family-friendly shows were written by notorious blacklistees!

After the series concluded, Greene—whose personal popularity soared as a result of the series—starred in a theatrical feature, Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), made in color, which featured Peter Cushing as the Sheriff of Nottingham. It has just been released on DVD by Sony, along with four Columbia B pictures of the 1940s and 50s that traded on Robin’s enduring reputation: The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1948), with Cornel Wilde as the son of Robin Hood (and character actor Russell Hicks as his aging father), The Prince of Thieves (1948) starring dashing Jon Hall, and Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950) with John Derek. The latter film earns some distinction among these lesser efforts because it cast hearty Alan Hale as Little John—for the third time. Hale first played the character in Douglas Fairbanks’ elaborate 1922 silent film, then did it again opposite Errol Flynn in 1938. His mere presence gave Rogues of Sherwood Forest a much-needed boost, although all of those Columbia programmers benefit from their rich rosters of character actors. (For those who don’t know, Hale’s son, Alan Hale, Jr., later gained a different kind of pop-culture immortality as the skipper on TV’s Gilligan’s Island.)

Robin Hood has never dropped out of public consciousness, thanks to these and many other television and film incarnations, including parodies by such masters as Bugs Bunny and Mel Brooks. But if I were to pick the Robin most deserving of rediscovery it would be Richard Todd in Walt Disney’s 1952 British-made adventure The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men. Disney’s own animated movie, made some twenty years later, put this live-action film further in the shade, a fate it doesn’t deserve.

Having enjoyed great success with his live-action Treasure Island in 1950, Walt Disney continued producing films in England, largely because the British government wouldn’t allow him or other Hollywood producers to take the pounds their films had earned out of the country.So Walt hired a first-rate team of British filmmakers to create a series of costume pictures under the supervision of Walt’s man from Hollywood, a creative producer named Perce Pearce. Their Robin Hood is a delight. As its director, the late Ken Annakin, explained to me years later, there was great concern that they not copy specific elements of the Errol Flynn movie—so veteran screenwriter and playwright Lawrence Edward Watkin (who’d done such a good job on Treasure Island) devised some clever new ideas (like singing arrows) to bring distinction to this Disney treatment.

Richard Todd became a Disney favorite, and he’s surrounded by first-rate actors including a young Peter Finch as the Sheriff of Nottingham, James Hayter as Friar Tuck, Hubert Gregg as Prince John, Martita Hunt (the unforgettable Miss Havisham of Great Expectations) as Queen Eleanor, and burly James Robertson Justice as Little John. Joan Rice makes a lovely Maid Marian.

If you, or your children, have never seen this film, you owe yourselves that experience. It’s quite different from the violent, gritty, historical-minded Robin Hood that opens in theaters this weekend. But then, that’s the beauty of this character and his legend: it lends itself to so many different interpretations.

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May 2024