Robin Hood is notorious. He robs from the rich to give to the poor. He can shoot arrows like nobody’s business. And he lives rent-free in the heads of Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. He’s a folk hero and a staple of English letters like King Arthur. He’s also been done to death by Hollywood.
This year’s treatment is supposed to be an origin story, only darker and edgier than previous adaptations.
What is it with darker and edgier, Hollywood? Not that Robin Hood ought to be riding a unicorn or something, but still, not everything needs to be darker or edgier than it already is. All those approaches do is strip innocence from lighter stories and needlessly weigh down heavier ones. It’s tiresome.
I will briefly pause my rant to show y’all the trailer.
Okeydokey. It seems Taron Egerton has a real thing for Zak Bagans-esque come-and-get-me poses.
Aside from that bit of homage–or pretension, depending on how one looks at it–there are a few potential problems with the newest iteration. As in a couple of previous versions that we’ll get to shortly, Robin once again has a Moorish buddy. Only his name is Little John. Huh. Unless it’s a nickname, “Little John” doesn’t sound very Moorish. The film also boasts a lot of familiar characters like Maid Marian (played by Bono’s oldest daughter, Eve Hewson), Will Scarlett (Jamie Dornan), Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin), and Guy of Gisborne (Paul Anderson). The film looks to be incredibly anachronistic. The phraseology in the script is a bit too au courant. The clothing looks like roughed-up Abercrombie and Fitch. And oh yeah, Robin would have learned at least the fundamentals of fighting and archery as a boy, because titled young men in the Middle Ages had time to acquire such skills. He certainly wouldn’t have started from scratch as an adult.
Robin Hood has been adapted for the screen a lot, and I mean, a LOT. As of 2018, there have been seventy-two film appearances by the ol’ Robin and his Merry Men. Seventy-three if one counts Time Bandits, which I don’t. More are on the way, too, and it’ll be interesting to see how they shape up. For now, though, let’s look at this very small selection of Robin Hood’s filmography.
Robin Hood (1912)
One of the earliest versions, this two-reeler owes almost nothing to the familiar story except for its characters. Marian is engaged to Guy of Gisborne, Robin is the guy on the side, and Will Scarlett and Allen-a-Dale are the guys in Little John’s blacksmith shop.
Guisbourne is jealous of Robin and Marian, so he ties Robin to a tree while he goes to get an arrest warrant from the Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin wiggles out, though, and after Richard the Lionheart’s blessing, rides off dressed as a monk to whisk Marian away to an elopement in Sherwood Forest. So yeah, not much in the way of robbing the rich and giving to the poor, but it’s a romp all the same.
Robin Hood (1922)
This Robin Hood film is one of the first feature-length versions and stars Douglas Fairbanks as the titular character. I can’t recommend this movie enough because Fairbanks. Brings. It. This guy did all his own stunts, he was an acrobat, he was a crack shot with a bow and arrow, he could fence, and he oozed charm and charisma. The film also featured a younger Alan Hale, Sr. as Little John and Enid Bennett as Maid Marian. It was a massive hit and still works on all the levels. See it here. Really. It’s amazing.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Considered by many to be the best screen version of Robin Hood, the film stars Errol Flynn as Robin, Olivia de Havilland as Marian, Basil Rathbone as the Sheriff, Claude Rains as Prince John, and Alan Hale once again playing Little John. The film pays tribute to the 1922 movie at several points, one being the scene in which Robin and Company ambush some travelers coming through Sherwood Forest.
Yes, there are men in tights, but the film is an undeniable masterpiece of cinema. Epic performances, epic stunts, and epic shadows. Every film that follows this one hearkens back to it in some way, even if it’s just a mention that its Robin doesn’t wear tights.
Robin Hood Daffy (1958)
Clearly an homage to the Errol Flynn film, Robin Hood Daffy of course features that inimitable firebrand as Robin. It’s one of two Looney Tunes shorts featuring our Robin and the last Porky Pig cartoon directed by Chuck Jones. I’m not going to ruin anything. Here’s where you can see it if you haven’t already. It’s fun.
The Adventures of Robin Hoodnik (1972)
Hanna-Barbera’s take on Robin Hood is closer to Rocky and Bullwinkle, with the good characters as animals. Little John is a bear, Robin Hood is a dog, and Friar Tuck is a pig named Friar Pork. Maid Marian is especially…different, as she’s a cat with a thick Bronx accent. The film was broadcast as a Saturday Movie Special, then again in 1991 after the release of Prince of Thieves. It isn’t seen much today and rightly so, as it is truly cringeworthy. See a clip here.
Walt Disney’s Robin Hood (1973)
Just as beloved as the 1938 film, Walt Disney’s Robin Hood is also populated with animals and has a stellar voice lineup, all of whom were cast to type in the best sense. No one could whine and throw tantrums like Peter Ustinov, who played thumb-sucking Prince John. Phil Harris was his own wry, funny self as Little John, contrasting with Brian Bedford’s sly, suave master-of-disguise, Robin. Andy Devine plays Friar Tuck, giving him a heavy dose of his trademark aw-shucks delivery. The film does recycle animation from Snow White and The Aristocats, which is a common trick in animation, but it has great music and never goes out of style. See a clip here.
Robin of Sherwood (1984-1986)
Robin of Sherwood could be subtitled “David Cassidy Goes To Sherwood Forest.” No, really. All the guys have fabulous rock star coifs that don’t muss, ever, and the soundtrack is often punctuated by ethereal Clannad music. In the first two seasons, Robin of Loxley was played by Michael Praed. When Loxley dies at the end of the second season, he’s replaced by Robert of Huntingdon (Jason Connery), who becomes the new Robin of the Hood.
There were other changes, too. Instead of being titled, Robin was raised by a miller. It’s also said this version was the first to feature Robin Hood with a Moorish friend, Nasir. While it included a lot of the classic elements, Robin of Sherwood was also heavily laced with sorcery and witchcraft. Robin’s major source of inspiration is Herne the Hunter, a shaman who always appears out of nowhere, often wearing a deer’s head. Watch the first episode here.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
In this rather atypical version we initially see Robin as a prisoner of the Turks in Jerusalem, where he’s been fighting in the Crusades. Evidently the filmmakers thought the character needed to get out more, because this is one of the few Robin Hood films showing Robin leaving England. It’s also the only one I know of that has the Sheriff of Nottingham as a practicing Satanist, with a witch as a mentor. I have to admit, as a young teenager I was totally blind to these liberties taken with the canon, because I had a massive crush on Christian Slater’s Will Scarlett.
The movie is still a lot of fun. Kevin Costner’s accent-less Robin Hood seems somehow more grating nowadays, but he makes up for it with earnestness, plus he and Morgan Freeman as Azeem are a good foil. Not to mention, we’re treated to a doozy of a death scene by Alan Rickman, who made major contributions to the script. And Will Scarlett is still appealing.
Robin Hood: Men In Tights (1993)
Straight-up parody and straight-up Mel Brooks, Men In Tights cocks an eyebrow at all the Robin Hood clichés, as well as Prince of Thieves, and is definitely not for purists. It’s immensely entertaining, though rather bawdy in spots, with lots of clever plays on words. Cary Elwes is a wickedly funny Robin Hood, and he does what no other Robin Hood can match: A spot-on impression of Winston Churchill. Also, who knew Everlast made chastity belts? One of the best things about this film is the element of surprise, so I’m going to hush up about it. See a clip here.
Princess of Thieves (2001)
Leave it to Disney to cash in on a successful movie with an almost straight-to-video C-flick. Starring Kiera Knightly as Gwyn, the film was broadcast on TV as part of the Wonderful World of Disney series. Ugh, it’s hard to describe how bad it is. It could have been a lot worse, I guess.
Gwyn wants to fight alongside her own father, so she takes matters into her own hands, which includes cutting her hair and stealing food from a nobleman at a street market. The only way for Gwyn to prove herself is when Robin gets thrown in jail by Prince John. Up to that point, Gwyn’s dismissed as not being a threat the way her dad is because she’s a girl. It’s cut-rate drama with tired plot devices that doesn’t want us to forget that it’s supposed to be a sequel to Prince of Thieves. Sigh. Watch the film here.
Robin Hood (2010)
I’m not really a Russell Crowe fan–he’s way too deadpan for my taste. His Javert in 2012’s Les Miserables was dull, and his Robin Hood isn’t Robin Hood until the end of the film. If then. He’s just a common soldier. King Richard has died in France, and Robin’s last name is Longstride, not Locksley. He takes the latter name as a blind when he promises to return the sword of the real Locksley to his family.
There’s plenty of court intrigue, a high body count, and anachronisms galore, chief among them being Robin and company drinking out of glass goblets and the French using rectangular landing craft to invade England. It’s pointless, dumb, and weird, further tainted by the fact that Crowe had the gall to trash talk previous versions of Robin Hood, presumably to elevate his own efforts. Bad form, Crowe.
And that kinda brings us back to today. There’s a funny thing about all these latest Robin Hood films, though…they invariably fare poorly at the box office. 1991’s Prince of Thieves was the last successful adaptation. To paraphrase Patrick H. Willems, Robin Hood doesn’t really have a fan base, so the public doesn’t flock to see movies about him. That and it’s been a long time since there was a straight-up traditional adaptation in theaters (See the rest of Willems’s thoughts on this topic here). If the newest Robin Hood stays true to form, it will tank, and no amount of posing like Zak Bagans will prevent it. It’s a shame, but it’s also today’s Hollywood.
Thanks for reading, and happy Thanksgiving to my American readers! Till next time…