"Haven't We Seen This Already?" - Why Robin Hood Returns
Since Kevin Costner, each time a new Robin Hood production is announced, the first words in headlines are, 'Again?' It's a bit of a misdirection, as you don't really ever hear or see people asking this, only the media saying it (oh god, fake news, I don't want to be like him!). With the general public - by 'general public,' I of course mean YouTube commentators! - it's more a feeling of, 'We've done this, we've seen this,' rather than outright exhaust. It's fair to say that, if people were saying 'Again??' with last year's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, a myth that hasn't been portrayed anywhere near as much, Robin Hood is surely old hat by now. The thing is, it's a nearly-800-year-old story that basically invented the reboot, by rebooting itself every century or so to fit the times. The story has been popular for such a long time that, after literally centuries, of course it's going to feel done to death. There are tons of Robin Hood productions (as you can see to the left!) but the big thing that keeps them being made is regeneration, reinvention, the new angle, the new take, the new themes - the truth in the art that keeps Robin coming back to our screens; the truth that keeps us going back to see him. For this article, I'll look at some of the major reinventions of the legend on the screen, the tent-poles in stripping the story back or going all in, keeping Robin new while staying essentially the king of Sherwood.
There were a few silent entries before Douglas Fairbanks came along, which people forget. These were little half-hour films limited only by the literal limitations in filmmaking. 1922's Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (yes, that's the copyrighted title!) is the best remembered of the silent Robin Hoods probably because of the legendary status of the film itself; it had some of the biggest
sets in Hollywood, it had some of the best matte paintings in the business, and it was the most expensive film production in history at that point ($930,000USD, equivalent to $13.9 million USD in today's currency). It also had one of the greatest film stars of all time, Douglas Fairbanks, who wrote and directed the film, the former under a pseudonym.
This film is ripped right out of storybooks and tradition, with lavish castles, flowing costumes, action, adventure, romance. Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, heroic around men but frightfully shy around women, wins a jousting tournament and becomes King Richard's champion, joining him in his Crusade to the Holy Land. Robert's loyal valet, Little John, writes him of the evil Prince John's tyrannical rule over England, enforced by the lecherous Sir Guy of Gisbourne. Robert deserts Richard's army to return to England, where he finds Marian dead after fleeing Gisbourne's advances and the country in the grips of poverty and violence. Taking to the forest as Robin Hood, Robert leads his band of Merry Men in a fight against the cruel prince. Finding Marian alive and hiding in a convent, Robin has a renewed sense of purpose and, together with the returned Richard, they storm Nottingham Castle and claim it from John, restoring peace to the kingdom.
This is classic Robin Hood, and it's portrayed as such. Fairbanks gives a nuanced, comic and powerful performance as Huntingdon. Supporting cast include Enid Bennett as Marian, Paul Dickey as Gisbourne, Sam de Grasse as Prince John, and Alan Hale Sr. in his first of three outings as Little John (second alongside Errol Flynn in 1938, third and final alongside John Derek in 1950). The themes of duty and loyalty, the treachery of John and Gisbourne, the naivety of Richard, the
romance between Robin and Marian, the strength of Little John, all of these things are inspired from the ballads and plays of more recent centuries, particularly with Robert being an earl. The richness of the story comes from the almost nostalgic manner of the storytelling, but it's inherently intwined with modern action choreography and stage comedy (Robert falling down a flight of stairs, onto his feet, backwards, when bowing nervously to Marian after winning the joust is a lasting image!).
The film is the epitome of all the Robin Hood stories that had come before, including the other recent cinema outings from 1912 onwards. This version truly set the stage for Robin Hood on film, not only through the lasting silhouettes of Robin, Gisbourne and Marian, but for the large-scale storytelling. There are castle escapes, sword fights, political scheming and government violence, the forest, the Merries, the sweet and calm rewarding of Robin and Marian for their exploits. This film is notable in its following of Richard's train from England to the Holy Land, and most of Robert's story in the first half of the film takes place in the Crusader camp. It's interesting that no other versions have gone down a similar path (until Taron Egerton's film, judging by the promotional material) despite its fleshing out of the backstory for Robin, famous but rarely seen - we get to see the Crusade that Robin returns from, albeit one without a lot of battle! When it comes to the ultimate retelling of the Robin Hood legend, that was told with Douglas Fairbanks in 1922. So when Errol Flynn came along, people were asking, 'Robin Hood? Again??'
1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood was produced amongst an aggressively changing political landscape. Fascism in Europe was rumbling ever forward as it had been for the last six or seven years, while Hollywood was in the peak of its golden age, with dark, dangerous, serious gangster films of Warner Bros. pitted directly against MGM's stellar musicals and action-adventure stories. Jack Warner's matching of this tone of film came largely in the pairing of Errol Flynn, dashing, athletic, devilish Tasmanian, with Olivia de Havilland, a commanding, no-nonsense, sensitive
leading lady. Robin Hood was their third outing together, and was the production on which they fell in love with each other without the other knowing (but that's a story we'll cry over another time!). It was a peak-Hollywood old mine meets good clean family fun, but with the threats of the real world driving people to escapism in cinema, this film was incidentally placed in a position of great inspiration for what would come. Indeed, there's the famous story of legendary father of modern cinema scores, Erich Korngold, taking the job on Robin Hood to [successfully] escape the impending Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany; Korngold would produce arguably the best work of his life on the film, winning the Oscar the following year for his efforts, and he would later tell interviewers, 'Robin Hood saved my life.'
Like the 1922 version before it, 1938's outing was also the most expensive film ever made at the time, utilising every Technicolor camera in the country to the tune of $2m USD ($35m in 2018). It too was a storybook come to life, with sweeping horse chases, beautiful costuming, swordplay and stellar archery, and is arguably the most recognisable of all Robin Hood productions; Errol Flynn is synonymous with Robin; the already-famous splitting-the-arrow scene was immortalised; Gisbourne as a polar opposite to Robin is enforced; the idea of King Richard as a symbol of peace and stability is further pushed. This film owes a lot to Douglas Fairbanks in its aesthetic and scale - there were even magazine articles at the time comparing the two (see, it's not a new idea!). Where this version differs to Fairbanks' is in its nods to tradition. Fairbanks' outing doesn't include what we'd now consider to be staples of the story, like the bridge fight with Little John, the carrying of Robin over a stream by Tuck, the archery contest - Flynn's version does. They certainly took advantage of having all colour cameras at their disposal, making this version of Robin Hood stand out from what had come before by making it such a rich, immersive dive into the story. It's a classic tale; Sir Robin of Locksley prevents Gisbourne from arresting a poacher and, after discussing politics with Prince John, is outlawed and escapes to Sherwood with his friend Will Scarlett. They meet John, the good Friar, and other worldly villagers who come together to form a large community in the forest, the Merry Men easily having 30 or 40 members. Robin frequently encounters Lady Marian Fitzwalter,
who is initially cold and unsympathetic to Saxons and their struggle, but who comes around and eventually aids Robin in his fight when she understands and witnesses first-hand their oppression at the hands of her people, the Normans. Richard returns, Robin intercepts him in the forest, and together they prevent the coronation of Prince John and the reboot button on justice and peace is hit. Even here, it's a case of, 'It's been done before.' The difference is its significance to the audience. It's telling that Robin's men numbers in their dozens upon dozens, some interpreting this to be a deliberate decision to boost morale against impending darkness coming out of Europe. Robin is a Saxon nobleman, not a Norman or a generic, people-less lord, and so he is immediately framed as an everyman, despite his noble upbringing; he's oppressed too. The bad guys all know they're bad and they don't care, this is their life and they're going to do as they please; the complacent bad guys, Marian and her lady-in-waiting Bess, become genuinely educated by their interaction with the outlaws, and so the message to its perhaps politically complacent audience isn't one of division and dick-measuring, but of compassion and education. Douglas Fairbanks catered to his audience by giving them a show; Errol Flynn did the same by actively inviting the audience into the Merry Men by his words and Korngold's score. As early as 1938, Robin Hood was reinvented in the cinema for its changing audience.
The 1940s and 50s were flooded with Flynn lookalike films, empty but entertaining 'son of Robin Hood' stories (The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1948), Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950) and, funnily enough, The Son of Robin Hood (1958)). There was nothing new, nothing fresh, despite shifting the timeline to Magna-Carta-era England and having Robin an unseen icon, with his offspring dressing up like him and collecting the Merry Men back together. This was Robin Hood for matinee cinema, not for large-scale, genuine storytelling.
Richard Greene's outing in the television series The Adventures of Robin Hood from 1955 to '59
was similar; the story you know, the characters you love, week in and week out. It was fun, it was for the kids, it was a family show. The tell with this version was in its production; its creative team were primarily American writers and journalists blacklisted by the government (a common thread at the time for anyone accused of having Communist ties or political leanings). Fleeing the choking United States to England, famously left-wing journalist Hannah Weinstein produced the series and the writers included notable blacklisted authors such as Ring Lardner Jnr. and Oscar-winner Walter Salt. The series was a staple of tea-time viewing for an entire generation the world over, the theme tune becoming arguably more famous than the show, spawning record sales and parodies (Dennis Moore, Dennis Moore...). Because of its left-leaning crew at a right-leaning time, while The Adventures of Robin Hood may have been a classic Robin Hood tale (and Robin Hood is inherently a left-wing figure), the stories told were important to tell in the mid-1950s, those of camaraderie, fighting for justice and truth, sadly a stark contrast to what has happening in the real world with the Red Scare and racial tensions starting to peak. Episodes in the first two seasons, in particular, contained episodes where Robin and the Merries are outed to the Sheriff and his men by a villager or someone otherwise trustworthy, just as the writers had been by their own friends and family in the US. There were certainly stories that contained no political leaning, such as the Christmas episode where a goose is put on trial for attacking a lord (yeah), but there was plenty of real historical education in its depiction of the law and the monarchy. It was a far more immersive, real take on Robin Hood than what had come before. True, John was tall and had a quarterstaff, Robin wore the hat, but historical characters such as Queen Eleanor and Prince Arthur featured heavily, as did execution of real medieval practices and laws (such as the repaying of a debt in a year and a day, traditionally attached to the story of Sir Richard at the Lea, and the concept of hue and cry, a decree whereby villagers must drop everything and assist in a hunt for a felon or missing person).
As for differences to the Robin Hoods that have come before it, Robin is still a returning Crusader,
but Little John has more of a backstory; he's absent for the first three or four episodes, appearing for the first time in an adaptation of one of the traditional stories of his escape from serfdom, attacking his abusive master and encountering Robin in the forest. The biggest change is the importance given to Marian; she is the de-facto leader of the Merry Men, and is actually a better shot than Robin. When Robin is away on missions or is otherwise absent, Marian actively lives in the forest with the gang leading them and planning her own missions.
It's easy to overlook the new material in this series, as it all looks very similar, and was repeated for decades, so memory can cheat a bit, especially given the 143-episodes' worth of material. It was fresh in the way it presented the material; it wasn't the first Robin Hood television series, beaten to the punch by the BBC by three years (starring Patrick Troughton, who would become the second Doctor in Doctor Who fourteen years later), but it was certainly the adaptation with the most breathing room, given an almost infinite space to focus on the characters - Robin has multi-episode missions to France, Marian leads the Merries, the Sheriff has to deal with his incompetent or scheming rivals. Alan Wheatley's fantastic performance as the Sheriff is notable in that it is arguably the first time the Sheriff can be truly understood as anything other than a moustache-twisting villain, with him being almost likeable at times, simply a lawman doing his job but backing the wrong horse (there are more than a few episodes where he turns to Robin for help!). It was the first Robin Hood to really hitch a ride on the merchandise wave, spawning records, dress-up sets, books, comics, posters; it reinvented the idea of Robin Hood because of this, the gung-ho, tights-wearing, money-thieving, horn-blowing, horse-riding king of the outlaws. Have we seen it all before? Yes, but not like this.
The term 'gritty reboot' is almost a meme these days, as we're still not over the mid-Naughties period of remaking classic children's or pop culture stories in a dramatic, murky, 'dark' way (Snow White and the Huntsman, Batman Begins, Oz The Great and Powerful, etc.). Ridley Scott's 2010
Robin Hood was touted as a 'gritty reboot' at the time, focussing on a purely historical setting rather than embellishing the story with the colourful ballads that had projected the story to immortality. But the BBC had swept in already, 35 years earlier, with the six-part miniseries The Legend of Robin Hood (1975). Martin Potter stars as Robin in a version where tradition and history merge; Robin is still a lord, but he is the orphaned son of the Earl of Huntingdon, sent away during a political coup until the time to reveal his identity was right; he is both the yeoman of the earliest stories and the deposed noble of the modern legend. Gone is the feathered cap is and chiseled jaw; Potter's Robin is a bearded, soft-spoken farmer with a heart of gold and a quick temper. He enters the king's service right as he plans to depart for the Crusades; Guy of Gisbourne, intent on claiming the earldom of Huntingdon for himself, imprisons Robin and frames him as a deserter and Richard declares him a coward and an outlaw; Robin escapes and finds Richard, who says there's nothing to be done about his outlawry, but he instructs and encourages him to use his new position of lawlessness to combat his evil brother, who Richard knows is going to start trouble immediately after he departs. Robin does this with the help of the Merries, fighting against Prince John's men, robbing the money trains through the forest and giving to the poor. Robin is eventually pardoned by Richard upon his return from the Holy Land but he doesn't live to enjoy it; wounded in battle, Robin is treated and poisoned by an evil abbess, Gisbourne's sister, bitter at Robin's victory over her brother. Robin returns to Huntingdon, touring the empty house alone, then dies instructing a boy to find Little John and Marian. John shoots an arrow, saying he'll bury Robin where it lands.
This version of the tale is notable in being the first mainstream production to kill Robin, and in a
manner consistent with the traditional telling of Robin's death; at the hands of a nun. Episode one even featured a witch-like figure prophesying Robin's demise, like in later ballads. This alone marks it as an adaption that breaks the typical conventions of the story, certainly moving on from what had come before. Even the aesthetic of the series, while superficial, is a big break from what we'd seen before the Merry Men all wearing simple tunics of brown and olive, Robin in green, of course, but with no feathered cap or tights in sight. Gisbourne is probably the best example of reimagining a classic character; William Marlowe's version is a career politician, aligning himself with Prince John and the sheriff purely for political gain, frequently arguing with the sheriff over their plans. His feelings towards Marian are genuine, too, with a caring, honest approach to her, rather than lecherous and predatory as has been seen before. When it comes to 'gritty reboots' in terms of historical setting, costuming and tone, The Legend of Robin Hood succeeds in bringing the story back to its roots of folklore and narrative tragedy. The actors are largely from theatre backgrounds and the sets, typical of the BBC in the '70s, are mostly three square walls, and so this lends an almost Shakespearean feel to the drama playing out on the screen. The Legend of Robin Hood did took 'the legend you know, the story you don't' and did it perfectly - and this was 43 years ago.
By the 1980s, both storybook, fantastical Robin Hoods and modern, revisionist, political Robin Hoods had been done a few times over, and it had to take something truly different and special to inject life into an extended series. Cue Richard Carpenter and Robin of Sherwood (1984-86). This series also stripped the gang down to their bare bones; Robin wore a simple yeoman's hood and longbow; John is a former shepherd with his iconic quarterstaff; Marian is a member of the band
from episode two onwards, she filling the role of the deposed noble; Will Scarlett with no crimson in sight, just his severe temper and tortured past. They fight vicious French Templars, the cunning Sheriff and his lackey Gisbourne, all standard work for Robin and his gang. But the show stood out by introducing two new key aspects; sorcery and a Saracen. Magic and Robin Hood hadn't been connected before, certainly not on film or TV. This is a key to understanding the historical significance of Robin Hood; old English legends like King Arthur are inherently linked with mysticism and magic, whereas Robin Hood never was, suggesting a more grounded origin for the story. The two-part premiere of this series was titled 'Robin Hood and the Sorcerer' - when it comes to new, fresh takes, this series dives in head-first. The series featured dark magic in the persons of Baron Simon de Belleme and Gollum-like trickster Gulnar, as well as witch covens, premonitions and enchantments. Robin himself also has mystical mentor -- Herne the Hunter, the forest god, who inhabits many different hosts over the centuries. He assigns the moniker of 'the Hooded Man' to Robin, and later to Robert of Huntingdon, to be protector of the poor and the balance between light and dark. Placing such a mythic significance into Robin and his cultural title are a big change of pace for the story; Robin has always been a leader in his community, but this version is also a leader of this pagan religion, worshippers of Herne and the forest.
Nasir is a Saracen assassin working for Baron de Belleme and, after Robin kills his master, he joins the Merries as a loyal and trusted friend. He speaks little but is the fiercest fighter and is the most relaxed of the band. Original members of the Merry Men (i.e. ones that don't have their origins in the ballads) aren't new, such as Derwent in the Richard Greene series, but it's a very different approach to make a member of Robin's band someone whose people are being actively attacked by Richard's forces in the Holy Land. Unfortunately, this isn't mentioned a lot. Nasir distances himself from the gang when they enter Richard's court in season one, and other Saracen assassins, who are members of the same group Nasir abandoned, hunt him down in England in the second, but his feelings toward the Crusades and Richard don't go much further. Richard is portrayed in a scheming, exploitative light, and Nasir's feelings towards him are quickly mimicked by Robin and the band. We even get a hint of his romantic past, a rival being the valet for new sheriff Philip
Marc in the third season. Nasir's inclusion is almost an olive branch extended to the gang, like Chekov and Uhura in the original Star Trek being indicative of a more inclusive and diverse future. As I touched on recently, the notion of a Muslim in the band has been prevalent ever since, with Morgan Freeman and Anjali Jay taking up that position in recent adaptations. Almost the entirety of Prince of Thieves owes itself to Robin of Sherwood, tonally, visually, as is its enormous cultural impact on both British television and the Robin Hood mythos.
Though unintentional, this series is also distinctive in its introduction a second Robin - after the death of Robin of Loxley, Robert, son of the earl of Huntingdon, is called to Herne to become the Hooded Man. Though initially refusing, he eventually takes up the bow and collects together the disbanded Merry Men, leading them to continue the fight against the Sheriff and [now-]King John. Michael Praed left the role of Robin to pursue a career on Broadway and, rather than recast, they make the bold move of killing this version of Robin and introducing a whole new character to replace him, which works spectacularly. At a time when Robin Hood had been produced on a massive, glittering Hollywood scale and had been re-envisioned in an intimate, historical light, Robin of Sherwood managed to capture the essence of Robin Hood while presenting entirely new ideas start to finish, with a superb production team behind it. Now, it remains quite possibly the greatest filmed version of the legend to date.
And these are just a few. When it comes to Robin Hood, everyone knows the story, everyone knows the characters, so they may well ask, 'Why Robin Hood again?' There are two answers. The first is, it's fun. Simple as that, it's a fun story, no matter what shenanigans the gang are getting up to. Second, it's still relevant. Yes, there have been a hundred different interpretations, but the core of why Robin has endured is still true; there is still poverty, there is still greed, there is still corruption and exploitation, and they must be fought. Each version beings something original, whether it's an entire character and motivation, or just a moustache and baby blue, there is always something new to be said about the world's most famous outlaw and what he means to history and, more importantly, what he means right now.
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