Robin Hood Spotlight

Douglas Fairbanks in
Robin Hood
1922 Silent Film

Spotlight Review by Allen W. Wright
October 2022 - 100th Anniversary

Movie poster for the 1922 silent film Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood


Starring Douglas Fairbanks, Wallace Beery, Enid Bennett, Alan Hale and CSam De Grasse
Story by Elton Thomas (aka Douglas Fairbanks)

Scenario Editor: Lotta Woods
Directed by Allan Dwan
(Douglas Fairbanks Pictures / United Artists, 1922 )

Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (yes, the movie's actual title) wasn't the first Robin Hood film. There had been several before it. But this was the big one. It was the most expensive, yet also the highest grossing film of its day.

I write this introduction just a few days after the 100th anniversary of the film's Hollywood premiere. Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood might have been supplanted in the popular imagination by later films -- those with sound and colour. And yet, its influence continues to be felt in nearly all modern Robin Hood film and television show.

Ruined castle at the opening of Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood

Ruined Castle

Mists clear to reveal the castle in its medieval glory, from Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood

Medieval Splendour

~ "So fleet the works of men,
Back to their earth again; 
Ancient and holy things
Fade like a dream." ~

Stately castles whose turrets pierced the sky have left imperishable record ~

Though the storms of centuries have laid waste to the works of men their spirit soars on and poets make live again the days of chivalry.

Mediaeval England  ~ England in the Age of Faith. Her chronicles tell of warriors and statesmen, of Royal Crusaders,of jousting knights. Her ballads sing of jolly friars, of troubadours, of gallant outlaws who roamed her mighty forests.

History ~ in its ideal state ~ is a compound of legend and chronicle and from out of both we offer you an impression of the Middle Ages ~

Opening Inter-titles to Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, 1922.

Initial lines quote Old and New: A Parable by Charles Kingsley, 1848

Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, the castle and the king's procession

The Splendour of the Past Brought to Life

The opening passages of Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood conjure up a sense of nostalgia for a past time that existed perhaps centuries ago, but mainly in the imagination. This vision of the past had been part of the American imagination for at least 100 years with the release of Sir Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe. The novel's depiction of a time of lords and servants lodged itself in the American psyche so much that Mark Twain blamed the American Civil War on the novel's success. And now this film promises to offer an impression of the Middle Ages.

It's a promise that had been made months earlier as newspaper reports spoke of the mammoth castle and village sets on the Fairbanks lot of Santa Monica Boulevard. Fairbanks even allowed visitors to come in and tour the studio.

Title card introducing the Earl of Huntingdon

Huntingdon or Robin Hood?: Tournaments and Crusades

The film was lavish, but was it Robin Hood?

Aside from the opening credits, the name Robin Hood doesn't appear until halfway through the picture. It was titled "Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood" for legal reasons. (A year before cinemas re-released older versions of The Three Musketeers to lure filmgoers away from Fairbanks' 1921 version.) And yet for much of the movie, the lead character went by the name of Huntingdon. Both the opening credits and the inter-title card introducing the character clarified that yes, Huntingdon was indeed played Douglas Fairbanks. They didn't need to wait around for feathered caps and Sherwood Forest to see the big star.

Audiences might have gone in expecting a forest outlaw, but what they initially got was a knight and earl, a high-born lord planning to join his king on the Third Crusade.

Robin Hood wasn't a Crusader in the ballads or most children's books. But in her 2015 book Douglas Fairbanks: The First King of Hollywood, Tracey Goessel writes about what it was a 1921 trip to London, England that influenced Fairbanks on how to approach Robin Hood. It wasn't the popular entertainments of the Convent Garden area where Fairbanks and his wife Mary Pickford stayed.

More interesting than this fuss, to Doug, was his visit to old Temple Church, where several crusaders were buried,  He had not yet settled on Robin Hood for his next film. In fact, when he had left for this trip, he had decided against it. But the sight of those graves moved him. Perhaps, he thought, if the Crusades could be worked into the story...

-- Tracey Goessel, Douglas Fairbanks: The First King of Hollywood

For a time, Fairbanks considered playing King Richard instead of Robin Hood.

According to director Allan Dwan he felt dwarfed by the mammoth castle set until the director Allan Dwan showed him how the castle was designed to show off Fairbanks' dramatic stunts.

It might have been a bit of a tall tale on Dwan's part to say Fairbanks was going to scrap  the production with the expensive sets already built, But Fairbanks resistance to actually playing Robin Hood is well-documented, including this denial.

The spectacle of a lot of flat-footed outlaws in Lincoln Green, a few paunchy friars and a homeless minstrel or two singing a roundelay in the shades of Sherwood Forest did not strike me as anything to make a picture about.
Huntingdon and Little John in the 1922 film Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood

The film opens with King Richard preparing to leave on the Third Crusade, but first he holds one big tournament. Huntingdon wins a jousting match against villainous knight Guy of Gisbourne. The tournaments were a memorable part of Sir Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe, but there it was Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe who participated in a joust. Robin Hood (or Locksley as he was called) won an archery competition. Robin Hood has taken Ivanhoe's place.

Huntingdon is assisted by his squire -- who once they become outlaws in Sherwood Forest will be known as Little John. Alan Hale plays Little John -- the first of three times he'll play the role. (His most famous is Little John opposite Errol Flynn's Robin Hood.) When Huntingdon leaves on Crusade, he asks Little John to look after Marian.

Ivanhoe begins with Sir Wilfred returning from the Crusade. It would appear Ivanhoe and another Sir Walter Scott novel The Talisman (set on King Richard's Crusade) had a large influence on this film. 

But Professor Lorraine Scott has identified another possible influence. Robin Hood: A Comic Opera by composer Reginald de Koven and lyricist/librettist Harry B. Smith was a smash sensation -- revived many times since its 1890 Chicago production and its 1891 New York production. De Koven's Robin Hood music was often featured in classical concerts and radio broadcasts, and appears in the score for at least some performances of the 1922 film. Much less well-known is its 1901 sequel Maid Marian (not to be confused with the UK title of De Koven's earlier operetta) Yet, Maid Marian begins with Robin as the Earl of Huntingdon on Crusade and in the operetta's second act, the other characters arrive in Holy Land. Stock suggests that Fairbnks or Dwan may have seen one of the touring productions. But it turns out there is a closer link. And that link can be found on p. 6 of The New York Times of February 12, 1902.

Douglas Fairbanks's Broadway Debut

Notice of Douglas Fairbanks's first Broadway acting role in Her Lord and Master
The New York Times, Feb. 12, 1902

Ad for the 1902 Maid Marian operetta

Ad for operetta Maid Marian
The New York Times, Feb. 12, 1902

That day the New York Times carried an item noted the upcoming of arrival of a play Her Lord and Master -- which would be the Broadway debut of Douglas Fairbanks, before his film career. On the left side of the same page, there is an ad for De Koven and Smith's Maid Marian which had moved to Broadway after out-of-town tryouts in January 1902. The shows ran concurrently for a few months. Fairbanks would have had an opportunity to see the show.

When Fairbanks saw the Cruasders' graves on his 1921 holiday, did it stir memories of a show around the Robin Hood legend that Fairbanks saw just as his acting career was blossoming? It's an intriguing possibility.

Even with the influences from Sir Walter Scott, Reginald de Koven and Harry B. Smith, surely it was Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood that truly cemented the idea of Robin Hood as a returning Crusader -- an idea that was to be reused in the 1955 TV series, 1991's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and the 2006 TV series

Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood celebrates a victory

Doug as Robin Hood

Doug? Yes, that's what the newspapers called him back in the day. It's hard to imagine just how popular Douglas Fairbanks was back when the film was released. But he was the most popular male star of that time married to the most popular female star of the time ("America's sweetheart" -- Canadian-born Mary Pickford.) Fairbanks and Pickford formed their own movie studio United Artists along with Charlie Chaplin (the comic superstar and best friend) and director D. W. Griffith. Practically all of America was on a first name basis with the charismatic lead.

The New York Times review of October 31, 1922 noted that the Douglas Fairbanks role of Huntingdon at the beginning of the film isn't quite the Doug that audiences were expecting.

He is a sturdy, prepossessing Knight, not the bounding Fairbanks you know, and he moves amid stupendous castles, in great throngs, robed and splendid in his cloak and coat-of-mail. 

The Screen, New York Times, Oct. 31, 1922

When Huntingdon does return to England, he first encounters tragedy. He believes that Marian was killed in a tragic accident. Standing at the edge of the chasm where Marian supposedly fell, he holds aloft his sword and makes a vow "To God -- to Richard -- and to Her!"

The inter-title for this scene suggests the contradictions in this depiction of Robin Hood.

Huntingdon makes a vow to God, to Richard and to her

Thus it was that Huntingdon buried his Yesterday. Here began a new life -- a life to be dedicated to revenge -- bitter -- but joyous.

Inter-titles to Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood

Bitter but joyous? In the words of William Shakespeare, "That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow." 

And yet after that scene, Robin Hood is born. The trickster hero who robs from the rich and gives to the poor. He becomes not only the Robin Hood that audiences were expecting but the Douglas Fairbanks that audiences were expecting.

One of the things that Douglas Fairbanks was most famous for were death-defying stunts. Paul Dickey -- the writer turned actor who plays Gisbourne in the movie -- told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in December 1922 that Fairbanks never ask his company to do anything he himself wouldn't do. "While Robin Hood was being made, I feared on several occasions that he was going to be killed, because of dangerous stunts."

For years before and after the film, anytime someone make a spectacular leap or some other act of derring-do, it was referred to as a "Douglas Fairbnaks stunt" or "Doug's stunts". Fairbanks was famous for doing his own stunts.

Okay, there were times when he didn't always do his own stunts. Sometimes to speed things along he had doubles. Director Allan Dwan remarked "You don't think he was actually riding the horse in the jousting scenes in Robin Hood, do you?"

But often when you saw Fairbanks leaping across castle walls and sliding down tapestries, yes it really was him.

A stunt from Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, the 1922 silent film

Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer by Ralph Hancock and Letitia Fairbanks (Doug's niece) tells the story of how Douglas's brother Robert Fairbanks convinced him that the stunt of climbing the drawbridge chain was too dangerous for the star. They tried a double, but he didn't look enough like Douglas Fairbanks. They went to find another double.

In the meantime, Douglas Fairbanks climbed the chain himself several times just to show that he could. And when an acrobat was finally located, Douglas Fairbanks said he had somewhere else to be.

Robert watched while Dwan rehearsed the double in the scene, then when everything was ready for the cameras the double returned to the dressing room to repair his make-up. Robert thought the double was excellent when he dashed back on set. Moreover, he thought he even looked like Doug as he quickly climbed up the chain while the cameras turned. And when the double reached the top and flung out one hand in a characteristic gesture accompanied by a broad grin, Robert dropped limply to the nearest chair. He knew then that Douglas had put one over on him and doubled for the double.

-- Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer by Ralph Hancock and Letitia Fairbanks 

Disguise and impersonation are something right out of the Robin Hood ballads. And perhaps it's telling that one of the most ballad-like aspects of Doug's Robin Hood happened behind-the-scenes instead of the film itself. 

Marian crowns Huntingdon

"Exempt me, sire. I am afeared of women": Enid Bennett as Marian

In the early 1920s, Douglas Fairbanks's marriage to Mary Pickford seemed like a fairytale romance (albeit a fairytale with a double divorce as they were both married to other people when they met). And yet, on-screen, Fairbanks was not known for romance.

The actress chosen to portray Lady Marian Fitzwalter was Enid Bennett, who like a lot of Fairbanks's leading ladies resembled his real-life wife Mary Pickford. Bennett was the wife of Fred Niblo who directed Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro -- the 1920 film that would spark the imaginations of many who would create superhero comics. Bennett said in a later interview said that "Doug was timid of doing a love scene." Mary Pickford stepped in to double for the kissing scene in The Mark of Zorro.

The 1922 Robin Hood plays with Fairbanks's on-screen shyness. When Huntingdon wins the tournament, King Richard commands "Go to the fair maid, Marian, and receive the victor's crown." Huntingdon protests "Exempt me, sire. I am afeared of women."

But the women are not afeared of Huntingdon. Instead he flees from a mob of adoring female fans who chase him as him he were all four Beatles in one at the height of Beatlemania. Huntingdon dives into the moat to get away. When he emerges, he sees a washerwoman and exclaims "Another woman!"

After some persuading in the castle, Huntingdon starts to enjoy the company of women. But the bond with Marian truly forms he he sees her pursued by a drunken and lecherous Prince John. 

After that experience, true love blossoms. Huntingdon almost misses the departure for the Crusades when he spends time with Marian. And while the characters are separated for much of the film, there does seem more passion than audiences had come to expect from Fairbanks.

Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland might have more chemistry, but the 1938 film was made when the film production code was in full force. Their final tryst was only implied. In 1922, we see Robin and Marian embracing on their marriage bed.

Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood and Enid Bennett as Marian embrace on their wedding bed

It is true that Marian is very much depicted as an object of desire in this film. Huntingdon wants her (eventually) -- a relationship that is very much to her liking. But she's also pursued by Prince John and Guy of Gisbourne.

At times, she is very much a damsel in distress. Robin even gives her a dagger for which to kill herself if he should fail. 

Marian plans to use a dagger on herself

And yet, for all that, Enid Bennett's Marian has a surprising amount of agency. In the 1938 movie, Flynn's Robin Hood needs to open Marian's eyes to the cruel abuses of Prince John and the Normans. This Marian needs no such schooling.

When Prince John and his cronies are torturing the peasants, the inter-titles call Marian "One woman -- braver than the rest" when she speaks out against Prince John. She tells the tyrant to have mercy, but he gives the sexist reply of "Fret not, your pretty head." And then goes to say that "a Prince at home outranks a King abroad." Marian threatens "If Richard knew these things, there would be no Prince at home."

She is taking a huge risk for the sake of others. 

And when Prince John's men pursue her, she has the cunning to fake her own death. Many later Marians don't have this one's strength of character or cunning.

While the credited main writer is "Elton Thomas" -- a pseudonym formed from the middle names of Douglas Elton Thomas Ullman aka Douglas Fairbanks -- several of the production team collaborated including the scenario editor Lotta Woods (no, that's not a pseudonym). Woods was one of the many prominent women writers in the early days of Hollywood's Golden Age.  Perhaps she had an influence on Marian.

King Richard points out the women to Douglas Fairbanks's Robin Hood

It's Good to Be the King

Next to Douglas Fairbanks's Huntingdon / Robin Hood, the character to hold the audience's attention is King Richard the Lion-Hearted played by Wallace Beery. He's big and boisterous, and when he laughs you can almost hear it -- despite it being a silent movie. 

And he is the true third in the film's triangle.

When the movie opens, King Richard encourages Robin to pursue Marian or any woman. He calls out to the women of the castle and recruits them to woo Huntingdon. "A castle and lands to the maid who wins him."

And when he learns that Huntingdon has fallen in love with Marian, he's initially delighted as he tells his friend "Good! Now your blade will be keener." (There's no way that wasn't an intentional double entendre.) 

But while on the Crusade, a rift forms when Huntingdon wants to return to England at Marian's request. Huntingdon doesn't tell Richard the true reasons he wishes to return. He knows the king would turn back and the Crusade would fail. Huntingdon's secrecy gives Gisbourne the opportunity to turn Richard against his friend.

Wallace Beery's King Richard is at odds with Huntingdon played by Douglas Fairbanks

Tricked into believing Huntingdon is a traitor and deserter, King Richard has him imprisoned.

By the end of the film, the king and his truly loyal subject are reconciled. He once again blesses the romance of Robin Hood and Marian. And yet, in the final scene we find the king banging on the door of Robin and Marian's bedchamber, demanding to be let in.

When I saw a screening of the movie in 2009, a friend said to me something like "I don't understand King Richard's arc. He starts out like a dad who wants his son to sleep with a prostitute in order to make a man out of him. But now, it almost seems like he's jealous of Marian." I'm not entirely sure she failed to understand his character's arc.

When King Richard -- disguised as a knight -- enters Sherwood Forest, Tuck asks "Why seek you Robin Hood?" He replies "Mayhap to join him -- mayhap to slay him!" The Merry Men seem a little less troubled by this than they should be.

Tuck says "So ho, my pretty knight! To do either you needs must prove your mettle first." 

This is one of the occasions when the movie borrows most directly from the ballads. Robin has the disguised king prove his mettle in the late medieval ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode. But in this case, it is filtered through King Richard's role as the Black Knight in Ivanhoe.

When the king bests Tuck, the Merry Men enthusiastically support the stranger even though he threatened to kill their leader minutes before. These are some fickle outlaws.

The Merry of Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood: Will Scarlett, Friar Tuck, Allan-a-Dale and Little John

Meet the Merry Men

Robin Hood's outlaw band has a much reduced presence in this movie. Aside from Little John who served as Huntingdon's squire in the first half of the film, the Merry Men first appear at around 84 minutes into the movie, when it's already 60% over. 

We also don't see Robin Hood meeting any of his band for the first time. Presumably they joined up with him sometime during the "A Year passes" mentioned in an inter-title. Unlike other films, there's no quarterstaff duel with Little John or Friar Tuck carrying Robin Hood on his back. 

It's not even clear that the Merry Men even know Robin Hood's real identity. When a nun asks "Is not that the Earl of Huntingdon?", Friar Tuck responds ""'Tis Robin Hood." Tuck seems surprised when she identifies his true name as "Robert, earl of Huntingdon". Is Tuck just trying to keep Robin's secret identity or does he truly not know?

In the first half of the movie, Alan Hale's squire plays a prominent part, but once the action shifts to Sherwood Forest, it's Willard Louis as Friar Tuck who rises to prominence. Not only does Tuck have the most distinctive look, but also under the guise of the Clerk of Copmanhurst, Tuck had a notable presence in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe.

Willard Louis's Friar Tuck comforts Douglas Fairbanks's Robin Hood

It's Friar Tuck who discovers and tells Robin that Lady Marian is alive. He comforts his visibly shaken leader. And while Little John is away on a mission, it's Friar Tuck who recruits the disguised King Richard and helps lead the assault on the castle.

Maine "Bud" Geary's Will Scarlett and Lloyd Talman's Allan-a-Dale barely register.

William Lowery as the High Sheriff of Nottingham

Bring On the Bad Guys

It's not only some of the Merry Men who get short shrift in Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood. The High Sheriff of Nottingham is Robin Hood's most consistent adversary from the medieval ballads to today. Inter-title cards announce the character by name during the montage sequences of Prince John's cruelty and later (much, much later) Robin Hood's defiance.

And yet, William Lowery's Sheriff is barely distinguishable from one of Prince John's nameless lackeys -- except that the other guy has a mustache.  

Paul Dickey as Sir Guy of Gisbourne and Sam De Grasse as Prince John

Prince John played by Canadian-born actor Sam De Grasse and Sir Guy of Gisbourne by playwright-turned-actor Paul Dickey are the most memorable villains. 

Right from the opening tournament, we see that Gisbourne is jealous of Huntingdon's success, fame and popularity with the ladies. We see further signs of Gisbourne's resentment on the Crusades. When Huntingdon rallies the sick troops, Gisbourne tells a chum "He plays his tricks of discipline to cozen favor of the King -- the sycophant!"

Dickey's Gisbourne isn't the suave and sophisticated villain that Basil Rathbone's Gisbourne is. This Sir Guy more resembles the thuggish villains in Ivanhoe -- Reginald Front-de-Boeuf and the mercenary Maurice de Bracy. His advances on Marian resemble de Bracy's advances on Wilfred of Ivanhoe's romantic interest Rowena.

Prince John also has a degree of envy and he too lusts for Marian. When Huntingdon intervenes, Prince John attempts to pull rank. "You forget, Sir Knight, I am a Prince." Huntingdon replies "It is only the Prince who has forgotten."

Huntingdon comes between Marian and Prince John

Both De Grassse and Dickey have can project their emotions on screen. In silent film, it's facial expressions that do the work that dialogue would do in a sound film. 

Visual Splendour of Silent Cinema

Due to the absence of sound, silent film is a less naturalistic medium than the films with sound and colour that we are used to now. Emotions are writ large on characters' faces. Colour could be achieved by tinting the film different colours to match the mood and setting of the scenes. 

But silent film also allow for a greater degree of symbolism to come through.

One example is when Marian sketches Huntingdon's face in the castle wall. Both Marian and Robin Hood return to the spot to remember their absent loves.

Marian kisses the silhouette of Huntingdon

Marian kisses the silhouette of Huntingdon

Robin and the ghostly image of Marian

Robin Hood sees the ghostly image of Marian

And Robin Hood's memories are given form when a ghostly Marian appears before him holding his sword. The effect could be more easily achieved with today's CGI but I feel audiences would be less accepting of it. It wouldn't be the phantoms of memory but an advanced hologram.

Allan Dwan's direction and Arthur Edeson's cinematography help bring the past to life as much as the movie's astonishing sets.

Huntingdon enjoys his pleasures in the castle

King Richard interrupts Huntingdon's games in the castle

Robin Hood's outlaw camp in the 1922 film

Robin Hood sits at the outlaw camp

The contemporary reviews often speak of being transported to this other world. It's the silent film equivalent of virtual reality.

Sheet music for the love song from Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood

The Music of Robin Hood

Victor Schertzinger composed the music for Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood. A 1929 profile of the composer in the New York Times calls Schertzinger "the culprit responsible for the theme song" and cites his "Just an Old Love Song" from Robin Hood as an example of this trend.

And yet, watching the versions of the film produced by Kino International/Kino Lorber in the 1990s and 2000s, I discovered I recognized lyrics to some of the music which purported to be Schertzinger's, albeit adapted on some less than adequate synthesizers, That's because the score used songs from Reginald de Koven and Harry B. Smith's 1890 Robin Hood: A Comic Opera. ""Come the Bowmen in Lincoln Green" for Robin Hood's appearance, "Brown October Ale" for the Merry Men and the love song "O Promise Me" for moments with Robin and Marian all feature in the modern editions of the film.

It was certainly the practice of early film composers to borrow music. But I can't find a contemporary source that credits Schertzinger with adapting de Koven's themes. There were showings in 1922 and 1923 that did use de Koven's music, but the articles almost present that a decision of the cinemas themselves, not the film's credited composer.

Composer and conductor Gillian Anderson revived the original score, and has conducted orchestras at screenings including the 2009 Robin Hood academic conference. Others have re-scored the movie, such as the group Hesperus which performed live at the 2005 conference.

Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood, appearing to snap Gisbourne's neck

Censored moments

The industry-wide film production code would not come into effect for another decade, and yet individual states did have local censor boards. One such cut was to eliminate the choking of Guy of Gisbourne -- a scene that Fairbanks had planned and rehearsed with glee. I presume the edition released by Kino International is not the version of the film which played in New York, because the graphic scene is still there.

Both the 1922 film and the later 1938 film have montages where Prince John's lackeys wreak havoc on the people of England. The 1922 film depicts a crying child in a starving mother's arms, it shows the actual brandings and the naked back of a woman is whipped by Prince John's henchmen. No movie in 1938 would have been able to go that far. And indeed in New York, they were once again asked to cut back on the torture.

Fairbanks complained to the papers that "These atrocities of King John are a part of history, and they should have been a part of the picture." 

But with the cuts made Fairbanks and the cast were able to open the film in New York on Monday, October 30, 1922. But that wasn't the first premiere the movie had. More on that below.

Ad for the Holywood Premiere of Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre

Newspaper ad, Oct. 18, 1922

Ad for the ongoing run of Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood

Ad about the ongoing run at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre

Gala Premieres and Special Performances

Ah, the gala Hollywood red carpet premiere. It's a staple of entertainment reporting -- come see the stars as they promote the latest release. That tradition got its start with Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood. It wasn't only the movie that premiered on October 18, 1922. Robin Hood also launched Grauman's Egyptian Theatre -- the latest and at the time greatest of Sid Grauman's cinemas, bringing the romance of Ancient Egyptian to Hollywood Boulevard.

At the premiere, Grauman received a ring of laurel leaves from director Cecil B. DeMille. Doug's best friend, the silent film star Charlie Chaplin said a few words. Actors, directors, local politicians all turned up.

Edwin Schallert of The Los Angeles Times gushed.

It was a night of nights -- the night of nights in cinema annals here, making certain a new epoch in the picture art, perhaps even signalling a new era in the popularizing of the artistic spirit.

Everybody from starland was there. Never, perhaps, has there been such an array of gorgeous feminine attire under one roof. The premiere was a veritable fashion show in this splendor, and a garden of beauty as well.

-- Edwin Schallert, Los Angeles Times review, Oct. 19, 1922

Wallace Beery and Sam De Grasse appeared in costume for a live prologue as King Richard and Prince John. And there was a Nottingham Castle Pageant -- a live show with over 50 players in costume.

The Pageant stuck around after the premiere too being a part of the show for month. Going to see Robin Hood at the Egyptian was an event. 

Back then, most movies came and went within a few days. Particularly notable films lasted a few weeks. But Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood played at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre for nearly six months.

It wasn't just the spectacle of the venue either. Lavish praise was heaped on the film itself, not just in Hollywood but in most cities as the movie played around the country.

Certainly, this is the great picture of the year. Undoubtedly, too, it is the most artistic picture in the history of ocular narrative.

-- Edwin Schallert, Los Angeles Times review, Oct. 19, 1922

Fairbanks didn't attend the Hollywood premiere, instead he was travelling around the country promoting the movie. And causing a bit of trouble.

The New York newspapers of October 4, 1922 reported how a Fifth Avenue furrier named Abraham Seligman was shot in the chest with an arrow. The investigations turned up nothing. As the New York Times concluded "the detectives finally put the incident down as a prank of a boy with a good bow and lusty arm."

The next day, the newspapers announced that boy with a lusty bow and a good arm was none other than Douglas Fairbanks who had been showing off his archery skills to cameras on the rooftop of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

Fairbanks called on Seligman's home to apologize. The matter was settled by a lunch with the famous movie star and two choice tickets to the also lavish New York premiere, a performance that Fairbanks and Mary Pickford did attend.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr in Our Modern Maidens

Sequels and Homages

In some ways, you could say that the rest of the Robin Hood legend in film and television is an homage to the 1922 silent movie. But there are some more immediate callbacks.

Almost exactly one year later in October 1923, a sequel was released -- Richard the Lion-Hearted starring Wallace Beery. It was a sensible spinoff. Beery did get the best reviews on the original film's release. And the ads all billed his second turn in the role as "The Sequel to Robin Hood". In reality, it was an adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's 1825 novel The Talisman. In the novel, the dashing young Scottish hero Sir Kenneth is really David, Earl of Huntingdon in disguise (the real-life earl of Huntingdon in the late 12th century was named David, and he was the brother to King William of Scotland.) Instead in the movie adaptation, King Richard tells Sir Kenneth that "You remind me of an old friend of mine, the Earl of Huntingdon." And the picture fades to a brief shot of Wallace Beery's King Richard with Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood.. In some reports, Fairbanks was credited as a producer. But while critics still enjoyed Beery's performance, they missed the lavish sets and production values of the original movie.

In 1923, Frankie Lee plays a child imagining Fairbanks-style adventures in Robin Hood Junior. In 1924, humourist Will Rogers satirized Douglas Fairbanks and Robin Hood in Big Moments from Little Pictures.

Quite often these days enthusiasts mistakenly called the Douglas Fairbanks who starred in Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood "Douglas Fairbanks Jr." -- actually that's his son, who also had an acting career in swashbucklers. The younger Fairbanks did have his brushes with the legend. In the 1929 film Our Modern Maidens, Fairbanks Jr. plays a diplomat who delights the crowd by doing impressions. One of the partygoers suggests "Robin Hood!" and the young Fairbanks fashions a makeshift bycocket hat and starts imitating his father's most famous poses. In 1968, Fairbanks Jr. appeared as King Richard in the TV musical The Legend of Robin Hood.

Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood keeping a lookout


When Douglas Fairbanks died on December 12, 1939, The New York Times titled his obituary "Robin Hood is Dead". Fairbanks played many famous roles before and since, but that is what he was most remembered for at the time.

Both Douglas Fairbanks and his version of Robin Hood have now faded in the popular memory. Oh, film buffs know who he was. But his Robin Hood, the big event of 1922, stands as a footnote in cultural history. Now, it's Errol Flynn who stands as the classic old-time Hollywood Robin Hood. And the classic movie Zorro is Tyrone Power from the 1940 remake. 

There's 100 years between our time and when Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood premiered. And yet,the biggest cultural gulf is in the 16 years between Fairbanks and Flynn's Robin Hood, not the 84 years between Flynn's Robin Hood and us. Kids today can still engage with the Errol Flynn movie. But the absence of sound and colour makes it harder for audiences to connect with Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood.

The movie is a popcorn film. It succeeded brilliantly at entertaining audiences of its day. And yet, it's not usually included in the cultural canon of silent films that still matter. We still struggle with the racist legacy of D. W. Griffith's Birth of Nation and his costly follow-up Intolerance. Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc linger in our imagination. The comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd endure. F. W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans still pulls at our heart strings. And fantasy and science fiction films are forever paying tribute to Murnau's Nosferatu and Fritz Lang's Metropolis.Even when people think of the silent-era mega-pictures, it's more likely going to be a bloated Biblical epic than a swashbuckling Fairbanks. The Thief of Baghdad is likely the Fairbanks movie that would be enshrined in the western canon, with its lavish sets built next to the Robin Hood sets.

Maybe Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood should be included in that canon too. Martin Scorsese imbued the movie Hugo with the famed director's love of silent film, and the title character loved Robin Hood with Fairbanks. Perhaps the film is crawling back into our conscienceness.

There's much to love about it -- delightful performances, great direction, astonishing sets. Aside from a resistance to silent movies in general, perhaps the main thing holding it back is the dreadful 1990s adaptation of the score that appears on the most widely available versions. And for those studying Robin Hood? It's hard to overstate the importance of the movie.

I participated along with several Robin Hood enthusiasts in a special discussion about the movie on its 100th anniversary, on October 18, 2022, hosted by the Into the Greenwood podcast. You can watch our discussion on YouTube.

Order Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood on Amazon

Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks. The film is in the public domain, which means there are many budget versions. The best currently available is the 2007 release from Kino Lorber. Well, the best in visual quality. It has a dated adaptation of the film's score. Cohen Media Group apparently has a more fully restored version with a full orchestral adaptation of the score. I hope it gets released soon.
Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (2007 edition) on (United States)
Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (2007 edition) on (Canada)

The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks by Tracey Goessel  A superb modern biography about one of the brightest stars in the golden age of Hollywood
The First King of Hollywood on
The First King of Hollywood on
The First King of Hollywood on

Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer by Ralph Hancock and Letitia Fairbanks A classic look at "Doug", co-written by his niece
The Fourth Musketeer on
The Fourth Musketeer on
The Fourth Musketeer on

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