Rogues of Sherwood Forest

Rogues of Sherwood Forest
Rating: **
Origin: USA, 1950
Director: Gordon Douglas
Source: Columbia / Sony DVD

Rogues of Sherwood Forest

Like The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946), this is another story of the son of Robin Hood, of King John, and of the Magna Carta. Young Robin (John Derek) has inherited the title of Earl of Huntingdon, and has just returned from the Crusades with Little John (Alan Hale, Sr., reprising the rôle he played opposite Fairbanks in ’22 and Flynn in ’38). He encounters treachery at the tournament where, under the eyes of the exceedingly blonde royal ward, Lady Marianne (Diana Lynn), Robin is to joust against a Flemish knight with the absurd name of Sir Baldric. (Right?) Baldric’s lance is secretly pointed where Robin’s is bated, but Robin wins anyway, which vexes evil King John (George Macready). Curses!

Angry John repairs to the same castle set we see in all these postwar Robin Hood flicks, bringing his henchmen along so he has somebody to snarl exposition at: thanks to the foolishly liberal policies of the late King Richard, it seems the barons have acquired a measure of autonomy John wants to crush. But he needs money to hire mercenaries, so he resorts to the usual means to pay for a bloated military budget, by raising taxes on the commoners to oppressive levels. Soon Robin and Little John have given up their Crusaders’ armor for green tights and are riding around resisting tax collectors. They get captured in a brawl in Nottingham square, and we’re off to the usual routine of defiance, imprisonment, escape, and rallying the yeomen.

This is another of those California Robin Hood films in which everyone has horses and there’s a great deal of gratuitous galloping, troops of charging horsemen splitting left and right just before they ride over the camera. The movie breaks no new ground, and in fact goes out of its way wherever possible to evoke and emulate The Adventures of Robin Hood, which had been re-released to great success in 1948. But apparently no one thought to hire Fred Cavens to coach the fencers, because the swordplay here is embarrassingly lame. The too-handsome John Derek looks pretty in his jerkin and tights, but he can’t act worth a farthing. Alan Hale, Sr. is making his last appearance in a feature film, and he’s visibly tired and barely getting through it. Only the ever-reliable George Macready shows any fire, so much so that toward the end you almost start to root for him. But he can’t fight history, not in a film that’s based on one actual-factual event, and he’s finally forced to affix the royal seal to the Magna Carta that delimits the monarch’s powers. Curses!

 

Robin Hood

Robin Hood
Rating: **
Origin: USA, 1922
Director: Allan Dwan
Source: Kino Video DVD

Robin Hood

After Douglas Fairbanks’s worldwide success with The Mark of Zorro and The Three Musketeers, no expense was spared for his next swashbuckler, 1922’s Robin Hood. The film is a spectacular saga of medieval chivalry, a lavish production on an epic scale, but is all about lords, ladies, and kings, with strangely little Robin Hood in it. It’s a weird boys’-club of a movie that’s mostly about the manly bromance between Fairbanks’s Earl of Hungtingdon and King Richard the Lion-Hearted, played with wearying brio by beefy Wallace Beery. Huntingdon is the knightliest knight when it comes to trouncing the others at tournament, but he’s strangely leery of the ladies, and when Richard tells him to take his prize from Lady Marian, he says (I am not making this up), “Exempt me, Sire. I am afeared of women.” Spoiler: he gets over it, as least as regards Marian.

There follows about an hour of royal intrigue involving King Richard, evil Prince John, and Huntingdon, as the king leaves England to lead an army to the crusades. There’s a fair amount of regrettable nonsense about militant Christianity marching off “with high purpose” to wrest the Holy Land from the infidels. However, once Richard leaves Prince John to rule as regent until he returns, John immediately becomes an oppressive tyrant who turns England into Mordor. Peasants are robbed of all they possess, women are abused, and capering torturers burn and lacerate for John’s dour amusement.

The movie’s more than half over before Huntingdon returns to England to set things aright by donning Robin Hood’s cap and tights. As a knight Huntingdon was stolid and earnest, but as Robin he’s suddenly as merry and active as Zorro and d’Artagnan. Fairbanks leaping like an acrobat was a revelation in The Mark of Zorro, but in Sherwood Forest a hundred Merrie Men imitating him and bounding about like springs is ludicrous.

In fact, I find Robin Hood the least effective of all the Fairbanks swashbucklers because it’s so overblown in every way. All the sets are colossal, every tableau is teeming with extras, the language is highfalutin and purple, and everybody over-reacts to everything. Every actor overplays his role (except Sam De Grasse as Prince John, whose relative restraint actually makes him seem more sinister). Except for Little John—played by the talentless Alan Hale, who will assume the role twice more over the next thirty years—the familiar Merrie Men barely make an appearance, and none of the famous tales are even referenced, so it barely resonates as a Robin Hood movie. And gah, the hairstyles are terrible.

The film was a big hit in its day, but I just I don’t find that it holds up particularly well 95 years later. I can’t recommend it.

 

Prince of Thieves

Prince of Thieves
Rating: **
Origin: USA, 1948
Director: Howard Bretherton
Source: Columbia Pictures DVD

Prince of Thieves

This is loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’s Le Prince des Voleurs (1872), itself loosely based on Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood (1840), a story from which can be found in Your Editor’s Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure. It was adapted for the screen by Charles H. Schneer, better known later as Ray Harryhausen’s frequent producer and partner; this is Schneer’s only screenwriting credit. In Sherwood Forest, which has never looked more like southern California, Robin Hood (Jon Hall) saves a traveling noble couple from assassination by an unknown archer. Robin takes them to his camp, where the nobleman reveals that he’s one of the retainers of King Richard, still in France; the woman is his sister, whose name is Lady Marian. Her brother has come to claim the hand of the daughter of the Lord of Nottingham—but the lord has reneged on his promise and intends to marry her to Prince John’s nephew. Suddenly the noble nephew’s soldiers stage a surprise attack. And that’s all just in the first ten minutes! Fortunately, Robin has another hour in which to get things sorted out.

Jon Hall is one of those square-jawed but modestly-talented leading men who made three or four movies a year in the 1940s, playing stalwart heroes in formulaic adventure films for the smaller studios. He’s adequate enough, though about as English as baseball. The rest of the cast,  lords, ladies, and Merrie Men, are mostly pretty tepid, except for Alan Mowbray as Friar Tuck and Robin Raymond as the saucy lady’s maid, Maudie; they’re quite engaging, and do a lot of the heavy lifting with the gags and trickery that move the plot forward. Nottingham Castle uses the same set we saw in Bandit of Sherwood Forest, so we’ve already seen that Robin knows how to get into it. Getting out isn’t as easy, since they closed that leaky postern gate, but fortunately they added a secret escape passage through the dungeon. (Strangely, Robin forgets about this later when the bandits need to get back into the castle again.)

This is another one of those cowboy Robin Hood pictures, where everyone rides horses —except for Friar Tuck, who rides a cute little donkey to good comic effect. The swordplay is ludicrous, the knife-fighting is worse—everybody does that stupid-looking overhand stab—but the archery is pretty good, probably because all the guards and bandits have played Indians in low-budget Westerns. But the pole-arm work with those sad halberds—by my halidome, what an embarrassment! All in all, meh: this is one for Robin Hood completists only.

Black Knight

Black Knight
Rating: *
Origin: UK / USA, 1954
Director: Tay Garnett
Source: Amazon streaming video

Black Knight

Where to start with this one? The Black Knight is a very silly movie. Its hugely-popular star, Alan Ladd, has in only three years since Shane become a self-caricature, playing the same part in every picture, a bluff, laconic good-guy whose solution to every problem is a sock on the jaw. For tax purposes he stayed out of the U.S. for nineteen months in 1952-54, making four films overseas, including this medieval Arthurian travesty. A bluff, laconic smith known only as John (Ladd) forges arms and armor in the Earl of Yeonil’s smithy. John and the earl’s daughter Linnet (Patricia Medina) are in love, but John, a commoner, knows it’s hopeless. A bluff, laconic visiting knight from nearby Camelot tells John not to despair, and reveals that he, too, was once a commoner. “You made your own sword,” he tells John, “now let your sword make you.” This is the only good line in the picture.

Cue the Viking raid! Obviously phony Norsemen in crazy horned helms burst into the castle, pillaging and killing. One of them strikes down the earl, then he and his leader set fire to the place and ride away. John pursues, and sees the raiders doff their Viking gear, revealing themselves to be secret Saracens! They ride to Camelot, and John chases them right into King Arthur’s throne room, where he socks them on the jaw. Arthur doesn’t like this because the Saracen is Sir Palamides (Peter Cushing!), one of his Knights of the Round Table. (No round table appears in this film.) Bound by immutable law, Arthur sentences John to death, but is then reminded that it’s a holiday, so by immutable law Arthur must grant John a boon. John asks for time to prove Palamides is a traitor, and Arthur grants him three months.

John does what anyone would do in this situation: he adopts a secret identity! He becomes the Black Knight, wearing a suit of armor he made himself, and this ploy enables him to … well, it’s not really clear how it helps, but stuff happens, the bad guys do more bad things, and John fights a lot, except when he’s galloping off to another fight. There are at least twenty-five minutes of fighting in this eighty-five minute movie, and not a second of it bears any resemblance to actual medieval combat. The knights’ armor is all hilariously awkward and wrong, as if the costumers had never seen a real suit of armor and just copied from bad comic books—couldn’t someone from Pinewood have popped down to the British Museum for an hour? The knights’ helms all have tall lurid totems on top and weird protruding vizors, but in the Black Knight’s case this has the advantage of covering his face, which means all that fighting can be done by Ladd’s stunt double. Now and then the Black Knight pauses in mid-combat, steps back, and they cut to Ladd in rear-screen projection, flipping up his vizor for a moment so you can see it’s really him. Smile, Alan!

Meanwhile, there’s treachery in Camelot: Palamides is in league with Arthur’s putative ally, King Mark of Cornwell (Patrick Troughton—yes, the Second Doctor), but Mark is a crypto-pagan who secretly wants to wipe out Arthur and his new Christians because pagans are just like that. The pagans capture Lady Linnet and plan to sacrifice her at Stonehenge, which is complete and unruined, albeit cardboard, but John spoils their fun, and then Arthur orders his knights to throw lassos around the great stones and pull them down. And That’s How Stonehenge Got Ruined. But the naughty pagans and Saracens just won’t give up, even after their Viking imposture is exposed, so John has to sneak into Mark’s castle to steal their secret plans to attack Camelot. He has to do this twice because the first time he leaves without taking the plans, I am not even making this up. Stay to the end to see the newly-dubbed Sir John marry Lady Linnet in a dress made of iridescent cellophane feathers. I think Thomas Malory would dig it.