Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men

The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men
Rating: ****
Origin: USA, 1952
Director: Ken Annakin
Source: Disney DVD

After the success of Disney’s Treasure Island (1950), Walt decided to continue the studio’s live-action adventures with Robin Hood, another well-known (and public domain) property. Since 1938 every Robin Hood movie had stood in the shadow of the towering Errol Flynn film, but this was to be a restart, a resetting of the legend for the safe and conformist ‘50s. In this telling Robin (Richard Todd) is infantilized: when we meet him, he’s a lad playing juvenile archery games with Maid Marian (Joan Rice) while his father, the chief forester for the Earl of Huntington, meets with the other grown-up, bearded, manly men to prepare for what manly men do, which is go to war. The earl—Marian’s father—is eager to follow his own father-figure, King Richard, off to fight in the Crusades. Big Daddy Richard leaves behind Prince John, in this version hardly older than a lad himself, enjoining him to mind the kingdom in his absence, and the earl does the same for his domains with his forester, Fitzooth.

The kids had been warned to play nice while the daddies are gone, but John would rather be a bully, so there. Since Richard took the manly, bearded old Sheriff of Nottingham with him on Crusade, John appoints his crony Guy of Gisbourne to be the new sheriff (a convenient combining of characters), and orders him to build a force of the finest archers in the land. The sheriff hires a few ruthless goons who begin plundering the peasants to collect John’s new extortionate taxes, but he needs more, so he organizes an archery tournament to overawe the serfs and attract more bowmen. Now, in the Robin Hood legend, Robin is usually the finest archer in all England, but here it’s his own father who splits Robin’s arrow and wins the tournament. Daddy knows best! However, loyal to Big Daddy Richard, Fitzooth refuses to join John’s tax collectors, so the sheriff has him murdered, Robin kills the assassin, and then, proscribed, has to go off into the woods and play outlaw with the other bullied boys.

The wild and dangerous edge that Flynn brought to Robin Hood is gone here: Todd is a Boy Scout with a junior executive haircut and a smile from a toothpaste commercial, and Basil Rathbone would eat him for lunch and carry off Maid Marian for dessert. Such carping criticisms aside, on its own terms this movie is a pretty good retelling of the Robin Hood story, successfully establishing the tone and template that would rule the remakes for a decade or so, especially the popular Adventures of Robin Hood TV show that would run from 1955 through 1959. Shooting the film in the forests of old England rather than the California woods gives the film an authentic feel, and as he showed with Treasure Island, director Ken Annakin is equally adept with character development and action scenes. The Merrie Men are all charming and well-cast, and the clever use of the minstrel Alan-a-Dale to provide segues in song from one scene to another works well. The climactic fight between Robin and the sheriff is genuinely suspenseful, and if the violence isn’t as gritty as in Treasure Island, it’s less bland and bloodless than it will be later in the ‘50s. Marian even gets to join with the Merrie Men for a while and play in their secret clubhouse—so long as she dresses up like one of the lads and doesn’t do any icky girl stuff. Ew!

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.

 

Don Q, Son of Zorro

Don Q, Son of Zorro
Rating: ****
Origin: USA, 1925
Director: Donald Crisp
Source: Kino Video DVD

Don Q, Son of Zorro

Douglas Fairbanks returns to the well in Don Q, Son of Zorro, once more donning the mask and cape that made him a superstar in The Mark of Zorro. This time around Fairbanks plays both the aging Don Diego de Vega—Zorro—and his son, Cesar de Vega, in a story adapted from a non-Zorro novel, Don Q’s Love Story. Returned from California to Spain, young Cesar astounds his high-society friends with his tricks with an American bullwhip. (Fairbanks trained with the whip for six weeks to get it right.) Shenanigans with the whip get him into trouble with the queen’s guards, and in no time he’s using it in signature Fairbanks style to hogtie sergeants, swing from balconies, and lasso a bull that broke out from the corrida. But then, escaping the guards through a noble’s garden, he meets the luminous Dolores de Muro, played by Mary Astor. You know Astor as the femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy in John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon, but fifteen years earlier she was a silent movie star, a dewy ingénue with a languishing look. Cesar falls in love with Dolores at first sight—but so does the pursuing guard captain, Don Sebastian, and soon he and Cesar are rivals for Dolores’s affection. Sebastian is a dastard, however, who stoops to foul play.

After the colossal epics painted on broad canvasses in Robin Hood and Thief of Bagdad, it must have been a relief to return to the drawing rooms and cabarets of a romantic melodrama, and indeed, the ever-charismatic Fairbanks seems relaxed and comfortable in this film, happy to be doing what he did best. He dances flamenco with a Gypsy, brawls with a gang of back-alley goons, and cuts out his rival at the archduke’s ball. When Cesar is framed by Sebastian for the murder of the archduke, things get serious. He fakes his own death in a trick worthy of his father, and then it’s outlaw time until he can clear his name. It takes both clever chicanery and dashing sword (and whip) play, but virtue wins out in the end, as the son of Zorro proves himself the equal of his father. The exciting finale, with its call-backs to the first film, is genuinely satisfying.