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WOLFSHEAD THROUGH THE AGES -- The History of Robin Hood

CHANGES TO THE ROBIN HOOD LEGEND

Films and Fantasy

Robin Hood first became a movie star in 1908. And by 1914, there were five Robin Hood films.

In 1922, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. starred as Robin Hood in a silent film classic. The 1922 Robin Hood was the most expensive movie made at the time. It had lavish castle sets and jousting sequences. Some critics say the tournaments more properly belonged in Ivanhoe. Still, Fairbanks was a fondly-remembered swashbuckling outlaw.

Movie Poster from Errol Flynn's classic movie. But THE classic Robin Hood is Errol Flynn in Warner Bros., 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood. Sure, it can be silly and is anachronistic and unhistorical (there's a car in one shot). But it's also fun -- lots of fun. Errol Flynn is extremely charismatic as the roguish Saxon freedom fighter. There are a lot of witty exchanges like when Marian expresses shock at Robin's insults of Prince John. "You speak treason." "Fluently," Robin replies.

(He's not a completely light-hearted Robin though as he tells Prince John "I'll organize revolt. Exact a death for a death." Just enough of the edge to keep his Robin from seeming defanged or irrelevant. I think Flynn gets the tone exactly right.)

But the Sheriff doesn't have much to do in this film, being a comic foil for the main villains. Guy of Gisbourne, played with debonair villainy by Basil Rathbone, is a nasty Norman knight. He's also a suitor for Maid Marian, played with charm by Olivia de Havilland -- an idea taken from the 1890 de Koven musical. And Claude Rains plays a devilishly witty and wily Prince John.

The Adventures of Robin Hood has many scenes from the Robin Hood ballads, like the quarterstaff duel between Robin and Little John (played by Alan Hale, Sr. who was also Little John in 1922 film and would be Little John again in the 1950 Rogues of Sherwood Forest).

Also, the film's score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold won the Oscar for that year.

Flynn's take on the character was so successful than some Robin Hood films didn't want to compete with his Robin. So, there are some movies starring the son of Robin Hood. Cornel Wilde was the young Robert of Nottingham in 1946's The Bandit of Sherwood Forest and John Derek played another of Robin's offspring in the 1950 Rogues of Sherwood Forest. Oddly, the 1958 movie actually called The Son of Robin Hood actually featured Robin's daughter, Deering. Another daughter of Robin Hood, Gwyn played by Keira Knightley, starred as the Princess of Thieves in the 2001 TV movie.

However, some post-Flynn films did feature Robin, rather than his offspring. Jon Hall as Robin in the 1948 version of Prince of Thieves (after the Dumas novel, and one of the few films featuring the Alan-a-Dale love story.) The forgettable Tales of Robin Hood starring Robert Clarke made it to the big screen in 1951, only after failing as a TV pilot.

Richard Todd played a fine, though not quite as swashbuckling, Robin in Disney's 1952 movie The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men. Joan Rice's Marian has a lot of spirit. It might not be as classic as Errol Flynn, but this is a good take on the legend.

Image: Daffy as Robin The next time Disney made a Robin Hood movie, in 1973, Robin was a cartoon fox.  Although this cartoon movie does have a following, I find it to be one of Disney's weaker cartoons. However, I do like Peter Ustinov as Prince John (or "PJ").

The Disney cartoon is the best known animated version of the legend, but Robin's had a long history in animation. All from Warner Bros., Squirrels renacted the legend in "Robin Hood Makes Good" (1939); Daffy Duck has assumed his identity ("Robin Hood Daffy", 1958), and Bugs Bunny met the Errol Flynn Robin Hood ("Rabbit Hood", 1949). The 1960s Canadian cartoon Rocket Robin Hood featured a futuristic version of the hero, and the 1991, also Canadian, Young Robin Hood featured the inconsequential adventures of youthful versions of the outlaws. Younger versions of the outlaws were also featured in the 1990-1992 Japanese anime TV series Robin Hood no Daiboken (Robin Hood's Great Adventure).

Hammer Studios produced three Robin Hood movies in the 1950s and 1960s. The first was 1954's Men of Sherwood Forest. Next in 1960, The Sword of Sherwood Forest, was a follow-up to the TV series starring Richard Greene. Greene was the only actor to reprise his role from the series. The sheriff was played by Peter Cushing. The movie featured Robin foiling a plot to assassinate Hubert Walter, who was both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chancellor. The third Hammer Robin Hood film was 1967's A Challenge for Robin Hood starring Barrie Ingham as Robin de Courtenay, a knight in a battle for his inheritance. Ingham's Robin Hood is a bit bland and untraditional. However, the movie did recycle a few actors from previous versions. James Hayter reprises his role as Tuck from the 1952 The Story of Robin Hood and John Arnatt who played the deputy sheriff from the final season of the Richard Greene TV series plays the Sheriff of Nottingham in this movie.

In 1969, Hammer tried to make a Robin Hood TV series starring David Warbeck. It was not picked up, and the pilot episodes were released theatrically as Wolfshead. [The movie was once available on US video under the title of "The Legend of Young Robin Hood".]

It's set in Barnsdale "Forest" and doesn't feature a Sheriff of Nottingham. However, the bad guys from the early ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode, the Abbot of St. Mary's and Sir Roger of Doncaster are on hand to cause trouble. This film has a historical look and feel to it that would be the standard in the next era of Robin Hood movies.  [David Butler, the film's writer, was a friend of Richard Carpenter, the creator of the 1980s Robin of Sherwood TV series.]

But unlike the later gritty-looking Robin Hood movies and TV series, Wolfshead has almost no humour and it suffers greatly for it. It seems the legend can't be unrelentingly serious.

Robin (Sean Connery) prepares to shoot his last arrow. One of the best Robin Hood films is Robin and Marian from 1976, starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as the aging leads. Robin returns to England after a lifetime of fighting along side King Richard and tries to re-capture youthful glories one last time. It's one of the few films to dramatize the death of Robin Hood. But oddly for a film that ends with Marian poisoning herself and Robin, Robin and Marian has humour and vitality that Wolfshead lacks. The clever script is by James Goldman, who also wrote the excellent stage play and film The Lion in Winter (about Henry II's highly-dysfunctional family).

In 1991, two Robin Hood movies were released. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves starred Kevin Costner as a nice guy Robin with a wise black sidekick and a rebel-with-a-poorly-written-cause Will Scarlet. Morgan Freeman's quite good as the Moor, Azeem, and the British supporting characters are enjoyable. But with a clunker of a script, poor direction and miscast leads, there are more legitimate reasons to criticize this movie than Costner's lack of an English accent. [Oh, this wasn't the first film titled Prince of Thieves, there was a 1948 film with that based on Dumas's Robin Hood novel. The Costner film was unoriginal on many levels.]

This comic from Magazine Enterprises (Sussex) was based on the Richard Greene series. Many companies published Robin Hood comics during the TV series' run.

The second movie was only released on TV and video in America, in order to avoid competing with Costner. And that's a shame because Robin Hood starring Patrick Bergin and directed by John Irvin is a far better movie. Bergin has roguish gleam, but can also play a very angry and dangerous -- almost crazed -- Robin. There are touches of the medieval Robin in this movie, which isn't too surprising since J.C. Holt, Robin Hood scholar, served as a consultant. Bergin seems most like the Robin of the early ballads, and Uma Thurman brings an independent sparkle to her Marian.

These movies were parodied in Mel Brooks's Robin Hood: Men in Tights, which also skewered Errol Flynn's Robin for good measure. It's a fun film, but see if you can find the 1984 TV movie, The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood. It's a better comic take on the legend. (Or so I recall.)

In 2010, Robin Hood returned to the big screen in a new film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe as "Robin Longstride". In 2011, the outlaw becomes an undead menace in 3D German film Robin Hood: Ghosts of Sherwood.

Robin Hood's also starred in non-English films such as the 1962 Italian film Il trionfo di Robin Hood (The Triumph of Robin Hood) and the 1975 Soviet film The Arrows of Robin Hood.

There have also been a few .... unsavory movies featuring the outlaw. But the less said about them, the better.

Robin Hood has also had a healthy life on television.

Perhaps the first Robin Hood TV series was a live production called Robin Hood that aired on the BBC in 1953. It starred Patrick Troughton as Robin, an actor best-known for his later role as the second Doctor in Doctor Who. In a 1973 TV interview, Troughton recounted how the backdrop was once put in wrongly, so the trees of Sherwood were facing sideways. And that went out live -- mistakes and all. At least one episode of this series still exists.

The best-known Robin Hood TV show is the 1950s The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Richard Greene. The show was written by Americans unable to work under their own names in McCarthyist America, including Ring Lardner Jr. and Ian McLellan Hunter who used a variety of pseudonyms. (The HBO TV movie Fellow Traveler written by Robin Hood film expert Michael Eaton offers a somewhat fictional account of the blacklisted writers working on the programme.) This slightly left-wing Robin is described by Knight as a "squadron leader Robin Hood", as he is written much like a British army officer. Greene was not as energetic as Flynn or Fairbanks, but he did have leadership qualities. This black-and-white series was very well-written (more of an emphasis on plot than character, however) with many episodes adapting ballads and some based on historical laws, such as "A Year and a Day" and "Hue and Cry".

The theme song ("Robin Hood, Robin Hood riding through the glen") was very famous, and is also known to Monty Python fans as the basis of the Dennis Moore song.

The Greene series featured a troupe of regulars who turned up week after week in new roles or sometimes playing different parts in the same episode. Victor Woolf who played a recurring Merry Man called Derwent turned up in several other parts, and Paul Eddington was promoted from stock player to the series' third Will Scarlet. Even former TV Robin Hood Patrick Troughton played different roles in this series. The regular cast of Richard Greene, Bernadette O'Farrell (Marian), Patricia Driscoll (Marian in the 3rd and 4th seasons), Archie Duncan (Little John), Alexander Gauge (Tuck) and Alan Wheatley (the Sheriff of Nottingham) were all enjoyable. It's not surprising that this programme is so fondly remembered by people of that generation.

In 1975, the BBC produced The Legend of Robin Hood. It was a slightly-dry but largely enjoyable mini-series starring Martin Potter as Robin Hood, the Earl of Huntingdon, and based on several ballads. Paul Darrow -- best-known as Avon in Blake's 7 played a scheming Sheriff of Nottingham, and the dour final episode is remiscient of Darrow's later series. For one of the few times on film, the Prioress (Gisborne's sister) kills Robin. Tuck, Much and another outlaw also die in the last episode, and Will Scarlet was killed earlier in the series.

The same year as the Potter series, in America, Mel Brooks (over 15 years before he did Men in Tights) produced the much whackier TV series When Things Were Rotten starring Dick Gautier as Robin.

Michael Praed was Robin of Sherwood in the show's first two series. Perhaps the best, certainly the most innovative, Robin Hood TV series is 1980s Robin of Sherwood. Here, Robin Hood is Robin of Loxley, a young peasant and servant ("son") of the Celtic Horned God, Herne the Hunter. For the first two seasons, Robin was played by Michael Praed, who gave the character a perfect fey and messianic quality.

When Praed left the show, he was replaced by Jason Connery. But they didn't merely recast the part. As you'll have seen from reading this page, there have been many different Robin Hoods. Series creator Richard Carpenter tapped into that. Loxley was killed, and Herne chose a new son in Jason Connery (son of former Robin and James Bond, Sean) as Robert, son of the earl of Huntingdon.

The show had a touch of historical realism common to many recent Robin Hood versions. And although John Rhys-Davies doesn't look like the historical King Richard, by god, he acts like the Lionheart.

Nasir, played by Mark Ryan, was the first of the Muslim Merry Men -- from Robin of Sherwood The villian in the opening story was an evil sorceror who had a Saracen (Muslim) servant. Originally, the servant was to be be killed off. But actor Mark Ryan was so liked on the set, that the ending was re-written. Former assassin Nasir Malik Kamal Inal Ibrahin Shams ad Duala Watthab ibn Mahmud ("Is that a name or a family tree?") reformed and joined the outlaw heroes. Islamic characters had been bad guys in 19th century Robin Hood novels and pantos, but this was the first heroic Islamic member of the merry men.

Strong, silent Nasir wasn't just a big hit with the show's fans. Other producers liked the idea of an Arab band member. After Nasir came Barrington, a black Rastafarian in the late 1980s and early 1990s feminist satire Maid Marian and her Merry Men created by Tony Robinson. Then, after these two blazed a trail of originality, Prince of Thieves created the Moor, Azeem. (He was originally named Nazeem until apparently the Robin of Sherwood lawyers had a word or two with Costner's producers.) Azeem was parodied as Achoo and Asneeze in Men in Tights. And the 1990s The New Adventures of Robin Hood series had a black martial artist named Kemal. In its fifth episode, the 2006 Robin Hood TV series from the BBC introduced yet another Muslim outlaw -- Djaq. Although Djaq dresses as a man, this new Saracen character's birth name is "Safia" and she's played by actress Anjali Jay. Even though he varies in name and nature (and now gender), the Islamic character seems to have become a permanent addition since his first appearance, only about 20 years ago. This is evolution in our lifetime. 

Also, Robin of Sherwood was laced with mysticism. That's common of most modern Robin Hood versions. For example, the 1990s TV series, The New Adventures of Robin Hood, used magic to cash in on the Xena and Hercules trend. (This series starred Matthew Porretta and later John Bradley as Robin.) However, the 2006 TV series starring Jonas Armstrong focuses on political allegory rather than magic. But a 2010 TV movie Beyond Sherwood Forest recast Robin as a dragon-slayer.

Altough magic wasn't a feature of the Robin Hood ballads, it's been a part of the legend for centuries from the evil witch and Puck-Hairy in Jonson's play to traditional patomine magic to the Arthurian novel, The Sword in the Stone, where the Merry Men join a young Arthur in fighting Morgan le Fay. But it's become even more common in recent years when novels by people like David Eddings score high on the best sellers' list. Novels like Clayton Emery's Tales of Robin Hood have magic running through them. While it's not magic in the fireball-throwing sense, Marian's portrayal as an herbalist in Theresa Tomlinson's Forestwife trilogy is a part of this trend. And Robin Hood has made appearances alongside other storybook fantasy characters in the 2001 movie Shrek (with a French accent for some bizarre reason) and the 2003 graphic novel Fables: The Last Castle, based on the popular comic book series Fables, written by Bill Willingham. 

Even Robin Hood novels where there's little overt magic, like Sherwood by Parke Godwin and Robin McKinley's Outlaws of Sherwood, are placed in the fantasy section. There's a strong element of Celtic folklore in Stephen R. Lawhead's 2006 novel Hood which recasts the hero as a Welsh freedom fighter.

Robin Hood has also appeared in the sister genre of fantasy -- science fiction. In Esther Friesner's The Sherwood Game, Robin and his band are smart, self-aware computer programs who get up to their old tricks in the real world, and discover a few new tricks too. Rocket Robin Hood was a cheesy yet classic cartoon starring Robin's descendant from the 30th century. And of course, more than a few time travellers have made their way to medieval Sherwood. For example, a 1990s children's programme Back to Sherwood has a modern-day girl travel back to team up with the Merry Men's children. The Doctor, that famous television time-traveller, joins a bunch of futuristic fans of old Earth - among them Robin "Bingo" Lockesley, Lord Sherwood -- to compete for a silver arrow on a planet called Flynn in Michael Moorcock's novel Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles. (In DC Comics alone, Green Arrow, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, Rip Hunter -- Time Master and Lois Lane have met Robin Hood through time travel.) In the next section, Robin Hood mingles with the superheroes on their own turf -- comic books.

NEXT: Comic Books and Copycats


 

Sources and Further Reading:

Click here to view the general information sources used to write Wolfshead through the Ages: The History of Robin Hood.

Click here to view additional information sources used for this specific section.

Text copyright, © Allen W. Wright, 1997 - 2010.