Starring Richard Todd, Joan RIce and Peter Finch
Screenplay by Lawrence Edward Watkin
Directed by Ken Annakin
(RKO Radio Pictures / Walt Disney Productions, 1952)
Mention Disney and Robin Hood and most people will think of the 1973 movie with Robin Hood as a cartoon fox. And that's not surprising, the Disney animated classics have been cultural touchstones for generations. But the 1973 animated movie is not the first Disney version of the legend of Robin Hood.
In 1952, Disney released its second exclusively live-action (no animation) feature: The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men starring Richard Todd. Unlike the 1973 film, the earlier Robin Hood movie was guided by "Uncle Walt" himself, and it's worth studying on its own considerable merits.
The movie begins with an old storybook. It's an image common to the classic Disney animated films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940) and Cinderella (1950), Disney's first exclusively live-action film Treasure Island (1950) did not begin with a book's cover -- even though it is based on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel. But beginning with a book represents a familiar tale coming to life. And yes, much in this movie would be familiar to those who had ever read a Robin Hood book or seen the classic 1938 movie The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn (which younger audiences may have seen in its 1948 re-release).
Like many Robin Hood stories since Sir Walter Scott's 1819 novel Ivanhoe, it is set during the time that King Richard went on the Third Crusade and was later held for ransom. Robin Hood rises up to combat the excesses of Prince John. (Although the 1952 film nods to real history in that King Richard did appoint Prince John to oversee counties including Nottinghamshire.) And like the 1938 film, this movie threads various Robin Hood ballads through the arc about combating Prince John, storming a castle to rescue Maid Marian and other 20th century elements of the legend that did not spring from the ballads.
Like the Errol Flynn film before it, The Story of Robin Hood adapts the first encounters with Little John and Friar Tuck from the ballads. But this time, it also includes the ballad introduction of Maid Marian with her page-boy disguise. Robin rescues Stutely and Scathelock in exploits that resemble the ballads Robin Hood Rescuing Will Stutly and Robin Hood Rescuing Three Squires.
And the film doesn't just incorporate the ballads as origin stories. There's a passing reference to the Bishop of Hereford being a victim of Robin's robberies. The Sheriff of Nottingham is shamed into donating to pay for King Richard's ransom, and he tells the crowd that he's given all that he has and "I would to Heaven I could give 10,000 more." A disguised Robin Hood shouts from the crowd "Heaven has heard you, my Lord High Sheriff" and they bring out the money they've just robbed from the sheriff's storeroom. This resembles how Robin tricked some priests in the ballad Robin Hood's Golden Prize.
Perhaps it's not so surprising to see so many ballad tales used here. Before he was writing movies, screenwriter Lawrence Edward Watkin was teaching the Robin Hood ballads at Washington and Lee University. Press interviews from around the film's release say that Watkin consulted over 100 books about Robin Hood.
We can tell one of the books that Watkin read was Howard Pyle's 1883 children's novel The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire. It is Pyle who adds the scene of Friar Tuck singing and Robin joining in. Also, it's Pyle who adapts the second ballad known as Robin Hood and the Beggar (with the guest throwing flour or meal in the face of the Merry Men) to serve as an origin tale for the character usually known as Much the MIller's Son, but who both Pyle and this film call the character Midge. And yet, certainly not all of it came straight from Pyle. Maid Marian barely features in that classic book.
Perhaps the biggest change to the classic ballads comes with the archery contest, an element that's been a fixture of the legend since the late medieval ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode and the later ballad Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow. It was Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe that popularized the extra detail of Robin winning the contest by splitting his opponent's arrow. But in this version, it's not Robin Hood who splits the arrow, but his father Hugh Fitzooth, verderer to the Earl of Huntingdon who splits Robin's arrow. The movie highlights Hugh's generosity as well as his archery prowess, as he asks a boon of Queen Eleanor .“Give the arrow to him whose arrow hit the mark first and no less truly than mine.”
Hugh's refusal to join the sheriff's archers -- which influences the contest's other participants to likewise reject the sheriff -- provokes the wrath of the sheriff and Prince John. The villainous Red Gill (played by Archie Duncan - who would go on to play Little John in the 1955 TV series) murders Hugh -- which leads to Robin being outlawed.
Hugh (played superbly by Reginald Tate) isn't the only father figure in the film. Marian's father the Earl of Huntingdon (a title usually given to Robin Hood himself) appears at the beginning played by Clement McCallin. Patrick Barr's King Richard and Antony Eustrel's Archbishop of Canterbury also have fatherly qualities. Louise Hampton briefly appears as Marian's nursemaid Tyb. But Martita Hunt as Queen Eleanor (Richard and John's mother) is the film's primary maternal influence.
The focus on parental figures befits the family nature of a Disney film. And it does make Richard Todd's Robin seem a much younger figure, even though the actor was a few years older than Errol Flynn was when he played Robin Hood.
The original plans were for Robert Newton and Bobby Driscoll (Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins in the 1950 Disney adaptation of Treasure Island) to appear as Friar Tuck and a young recruit to the Merry Men. When those plans fell through, Robin and Marian became the film's child-like characters.
One ballad that the film fails to adapt is Robin Hood and Allen-a-Dale, and yet Allan-a-Dale played by actor/singer Elton Hayes is a notable presence in the film. He provides not only music, but also exposition. And his songs contain some sly humour for the parents in the audience, with punchlines delivered in an ironic, conspiratorial tone of voice.
Now Robin Hood doth hunt the deer
That in the woodlands prance
But oft times, shoots the sheriff’s men
By sorrowful mischance
He robs the rich to aid the poor
A most unusual practice
But now that he has been outlawed
He needn’t pay his taxes
Allan often begs for payment -- with less than successful results. But when Robin and Marian reunite, Friar Tuck tells him "If I could find a singer with a love song in his throat, I’d rob the poor box to pay him his fee." The resulting song "Whistle My Love" is a memorable tune that elevates the scene.
Richard Todd's Robin Hood feels very much like a prototype -- and likely inspiration -- for Richard Greene's Robin Hood in the 1955 TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood. Professor Stephen Knight has jokingly called Greene's Robin "Squadron Leader Robin Hood" and it seems an apt expression for Todd's outlaw leader too. It's an especially apt description for Todd who served as a lieutenant (later captain) in the British army and participated in Operation Tonga, part of the D-Day landings during World War II. His military experience would transfer to the screen in films such as The Dam Busters (1955) and The Longest Day (1962).
But while Todd's Robin Hood is an effective leader of the band, like Richard Greene's Robin to follow, this Robin Hood also possesses a rich sense of humour. We see flashes of the trickster in this Robin -- playful with his friends, and somewhat more sinister towards his foes.
Perhaps what brings out Robin's boyish side most strongly is his romance with Marian. We first see them as friends in happier days who play practical jokes on each other but with a deep love underneath. A criticism of adventure films is that the romantic attachments form too quickly. But in this case, the romance between Robin and Marian had been developing for years before we ever caught sight of them.
Joan RIce offers us a very different Maid Marian than the initially haughty Marian played Olivia de Havilland in 1938. Our first glimpse of this Marian is when she playfully moves Robin's target during his archery practice. This Marian is a bit of a trickster herself, with a tomboy-like quality. She takes matters into her own hands -- sneaking off to Sherwood to recruit her childhood friend/lover to the cause of raising King Richard's ransom. And whereas De Havilland's Marian needed to be won over to Robin's cause, Rice's Marian is a true believer from the start, only showing some doubt when she, Midge and Allan are robbed by Robin Hood.
Director Ken Annakin has some harsh words for Joan Rice in his autobiography. But if she was inexperienced on the set, it doesn't really show in the finished product. Rice's Marian is more lively than many who have played the role.
Richard Todd and Joan Rice are backed up by a fine cast of British actors as the Merry Men, or Merrie Men as this film spells it. With so many Merries making merry in this film, James Robertson Justice's Little John doesn't get quite as much of a chance to shine as both the character and actor would elsewhere, but we see his good humour and sturdy support. Justice would work with Todd in Disney's next two adventure films as authority figures -- King Henry VIII in The Sword and the Rose (1953) and the Duke of Argyll in Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue (1954).
James Hayter brings a great deal of amusement to his Friar Tuck, and he'll have a chance to play the role again in 1967's A Challenge for Robin Hood. Elton Hayes's Allan-a-Dale keeps the viewers engaged, not unlike Roger Miller's rooster version of Allan in the 1973 Disney cartoon. And Hal Osmond works as Midge the Miller, who first seems to deserve Robin's scornful nickname "Midge the Miser", but later proves he has a heart of gold ... or at least a sack with a few pieces of silver.
And then there are trio of characters who were likely variations of the same character -- Will Scarlet, Scathelock and Stutely. As in the Howard Pyle novel, here they are distinct characters. The film keeps things simple by not mentioning that Scathelock and Stutely also have the first name Will. Antony Forwood's Will Scarlet is mentioned as being Robin's cousin -- as he is in the ballads (cousin or nephew) -- and almost seems to be a second-in-command, at least before Robin recruits Little John. Bill Owen's Stutely and Michael Hordern's Scathelock were hurt and humiliated by the sheriff and his men. But we see their joy in being part of Robin's band, but also a slightly threatening quality when the Sheriff of Nottingham finds himself of a guest of honour at Robin Hood's feast.
The Sheriff of Nottingham was sidelined in both the 1922 and 1938 film versions of Robin Hood. But here, the sheriff comes alive as actor Peter Finch exudes a glowering sense of menace as Robin's most famous foe. While to us, this would be a classic sheriff, to those familiar with the 1938 film, he might seem a touch more like Basil Rathbone's Sir Guy of GIsbourne. But Watkin's script and Finch's performance ensure that the Sheriff of Nottingham earns his place in Robin Hood's rogues gallery.
Archie Duncan's Red Gill also seems villainous -- a far cry from his Little John in the 1955 TV series or Rob Roy's kinsman Duncan MacGregor in the 1954 Richard Todd film.
Hubert Gregg's Prince John is a more affable foe, concealing his villainous deeds with a smile. He'd also go on to reprise the role of Prince John twice in the 1950s TV series, one of that show's many Prince Johns.
This film throws out the racial conflict between Normans and Saxons that Sir Walter Scott had popularized in Ivanhoe and which loomed large in the 1938 movie The Adventures of Robin Hood. Instead it focuses on taxes and how to apply the law.
Prince John assures his brother the king that he will "uphold and administer your laws with the strictest diligence." But King Richard takes a more cautious tone, replying "Diligence, yes. But tempered with understanding."
But when Prince John appoints a new Sheriff of Nottingham, he says "As Sheriff, you will enforce the trespass laws in Sherwood Forest, not with Richard’s lenient hand, but to the very letter of those laws.” When it's pointed out that such a command will require a large army of "hard shooters", a tax will be levied to raise the army. The 1973 movie shows Prince John revelling in his treasures gained through taxes. But here. it seems most of the tax money does go to maintain the foresters to uphold the law.
Does the treacherous prince truly have a mania for harsh laws, or is that the excuse for him to raise an army loyal to him, and not to King Richard?
It's notable how brutal this film can be at times given the family-friendly reputation of Disney. Not that there's blood or gore. But from the murder of Robin's father to the beating of Stutely, there are moments of darkness.
As Robin Hood and the Merrie Men make their escape from the castle, Robin pulls a dagger on the sheriff with the intent to silence him permanently.
ROBIN: Now Sir Sheriff, here’s payment long overdue.
SHERIFF: I beg you weigh the consequence. Would you sign your own death warrant?
ROBIN: Nay, I’ll do it so deft the waters will think you fell in her faint.
SHERIFF: Spare me, I pray. I swear on my honour as a knight I will not cry out if you but spare me.
ROBIN: So be it.
Of course the sheriff doesn't keep his word and shouts "Halt that man!"
A struggle ensues on the closing drawbridge, and ends as the sheriff is crushed to death in the drawbridges mechanism. It is perhaps the most gruesome moment in the film.
But what follows in Sherwood Forest may not be visually disturbing, but the lyrics of Allan's song are.
I’d sing of Prince John
Be it only to mock
When he comes here, we’ll split him
From noddle to knock
Allan encourages the Merries to join in, and soon everyone is cheerfully singing about spliting someone in half.
These darker elements give the film a richer texture, and they were very much the intent of screenwriter Lawrence Edward Watkin as he explains in a 1952 newspaper interview.
This Robin Hood is not just for kiddies. ... It's an action picture from start to finish -- a 12th century Western with its racing and chasing and fights afoot and on horseback. But nobody duels with anybody else down a series of phony castle stairs. We kill people more ingeniously -- and there is quite a drop in population at the end of the piece.
-- Screenwriter Lawrence E. Watkin quoted in Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Sunday, June 8, 1952
It's a brave and perhaps foolhardy filmmaker that seeks to promote his movie by bashing what is considered one of the best Hollywood swordfights in history. But thankfully, this movie has a lot to recommend it -- a strong script with flashes of wit, good direction and a talented cast.
Where it might fall short of the 1938 classic is that Errol Flynn's Robin Hood seems a touch more modern. Both films are storybooks in a sense, but Flynn's dialogue is a bit sharper and suggests some of the urbane 1930s Warner Brothers style. Watkin keeps his characters from sounding too archaic, but there is a formality in this film which makes it slightly distanced from the audience.
And yet, a rating of "Not quite as good as the Errol Flynn movie" is still a high rating.
The Los Angeles Times review by Philip K. Scheuer said "You might call this the definitive edition." I might not go that far. But it still rates a bit higher than the Daily News review which punned "the 'swash' has been eliminated but I'm happy to report, nothing has buckled."
The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men is a worthy entry in the Robin Hood canon which deserves to be better remembered, and not overshadowed by the 1973 cartoon.
A comic book adaptation appeared from Dell Comics with a cover that proclaimed Walt Disney's Robin Hood. In actual fact, it was issue 413 of the comic book series Four Color which often published Disney-related material. The issue was written by Gaylord Du Bois with art by Morris Gollub and Jon Small.
Dell Comics did not subscribe to the comic book industry code that would have kept scenes like the one above -- where Robin kills his father's killer -- out of the comic.
If you want to more know about the 1952 movie The Story of Robin Hood, check out the superb blog disneysrobin.blogspot.com which uses the film as a springboard for a variety of topics.