Different versions of 'Robin Hood' have reflected their makers' political views

by Bruce Dancis

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

11 May 2010


Sometimes a swashbuckler is just a swashbuckler. But when the movie in question is a variation on the age-old story of Robin Hood, it’s useful to look at some other aspects. Each version of Robin Hood lends itself to an interpretation of the political message imbued in the story. The bandit who “steals from the rich and gives to the poor” can be viewed as a left-wing or progressive hero, while the same essential story, if it emphasized the bandit’s noble birth and his fight against unfair taxes, might express a conservative or right-wing perspective.

This week’s theatrical release of a new, big-budget “Robin Hood” starring Russell Crowe, as well as the DVD debuts of four rare movies about the outlaw of Sherwood Forest, provides an opportunity to look at how these issues emerged in Robin Hood films through the years.

For example, the popular TV series from the late 1950s, “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” starring Richard Greene, was made in Britain by an exiled American leftist producer, Hannah Weinstein. She hired a bunch of writers who had been blacklisted in Hollywood for their communist associations, including Ring Lardner Jr., Ian McLellan Hunter and Adrian Scott, who used pseudonyms to escape detection by American witch-hunters. Half-hour episodes took on such subjects as runaway serfs, odious taxes on impoverished tenant farmers, anti-Semitism in Medieval England and poor treatment of returning veterans (from the Crusades), all of which led Lardner to write in his autobiography, “‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ gave us plenty of opportunities for oblique social comment on the issues and institutions of Eisenhower-era America.”

On the other hand, Walt Disney, well-known for his conservative, anti-communist views, made the 1952 live-action movie “The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men” with an emphasis on the callous and excessive taxation of King John’s dictatorial regime. The best-known, and still best, of the Robin Hood movies, 1938’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood” starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, touched the usual bases of stealing from the rich/ giving to the poor and Prince John’s cruel taxation, but is even more concerned with Norman oppression of Saxons.

The four low-budget Robin Hood films that Sony Home Entertainment has plucked from the vaults of Columbia Pictures came out between 1946 and 1960. Each title is available for $14.94. Here’s a brief look at each movie’s story, political viewpoint and the quality of its swashbuckling action.

“The Bandit of Sherwood Forest” (1946)

Story: An aging Robin Hood (Russell Hicks) is still active, as are his middle-aged pals Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet and Allan-a-Dale, but the real star is Robin’s dashing son Robert (Cornell Wilde). Together, they lead a popular revolt against the treacherous Lord Regent, William of Pembroke (played by perennial Hollywood bad guy Henry Daniell), who is ruling England because the heir to the throne is a minor. The dastardly William wants to do away with the child king — and the Magna Carta. Lady Catherine (Anita Louise) is the Maid Marian substitute.

Politics: Definitely from the left, as co-screenwriter Melvyn Levy would soon be blacklisted for his former left-wing political associations, according to Hollywood blacklist historians Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner. The aging Robin Hood rallies his men with a ringing “Comrades, I call you together again because the people of England face a grave crisis ... Together we will fight the new tyranny.” As for the evil William, he tells a group of assembled noblemen: “The people are not fit to rule themselves. Therefore I am withdrawing the Magna Carta ... From now on the people will be taxed like they should be taxed, and ruled as they should be ruled.”

Swashbuckling: Wilde is adept with the bow and arrow, and, as an expert fencer (he actually made the U.S. Olympics fencing team in 1936, but withdrew to take an acting role) he brings some exciting swordsmanship to his duels with William’s soldiers and William himself. But the film as a whole is rather uninspired and ho-hum.

“The Prince of Thieves” (1948)

Story: Robin Hood (Jon Hall) befriends Maid Marian (Patricia Morison) and her brother Sir Alan Claire (Michael Duane), who had been fighting alongside King Richard in France but has returned to England to marry Lady Cristabel. But she is being forced to marry instead the evil Baron Tristram, the nephew of King John. As part of the nefarious plot, the Lord of Nottingham is taxing the people to enlarge Lady Cristabel’s dowry — to the financial advantage of Barton Tristram and, ultimately, King John.

Politics: Mirky. The Lord of Nottingham is certainly bleeding the people for this dowry business, but that’s about the only reason, along with Robin’s friendship with Alan, for the bandit to lead a rebellion.

Swashbuckling: Dreary and pointless, with Hall the most un-athletic Robin Hood in this group. In this B-movie production, both sides in the fighting could use some reinforcements, given how small in number are the combatants.

“Rogues of Sherwood Forest” (1950)

Story: The evil King John (George Macready) blames his late brother King Richard for giving away too many rights to the people of England, so he’s out to take them back. His plan: Raise taxes (which had been lowered by Richard) in order to pay for 5,000 Flemish mercenaries, who he will then employ to subjugate his own people. The son of Robin Hood (John Derek) reunites with Little John (Alan Hale, making his third appearance in this role, after the 1922 silent version and the famous 1938 movie) and the old gang. With Lady Marianne (Diana Lynn), a ward of the royal court, letting Robin know in advance where the king’s tax collectors will be operating, they steal the tax money and, with the support of fellow noblemen and the Archbishop of Canterbury, build a new band of rebels. King John also plans to force Marianne to marry the nasty Flemish Count of Flanders and use her dowry to pay for his mercenaries.

Politics: Patriotism and evil taxation are in the spotlight in this conservative version. “Taxes,” sneers John, “I’ll break their stiff English necks with taxes.” Items selected for harsh taxation include houses, sheds, wells, plows, carts, haystacks, cows, pigs and wine. The rebellion against King John is led by Robin, other noblemen and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The good guys force John to sign the Magna Carta, granting every English man (among other things) “the right to dispose of his own property by will.”

Swashbuckling: Derek brings some athleticism to his riding and leaping around (he reportedly did most of his own stunt work), but his fencing skills are minimal. While Hale was always a welcome addition in any movie as the hero’s best buddy, at the age of 57 his physical ability had eroded, making his fight scenes both lethargic and sad. He died before the movie was released.

“Sword of Sherwood Forest” (1960)

Story: Robin Hood (Richard Greene, fresh off his successful four-year run on American TV in “The Adventures of Robin Hood”), his men and Maid Marian (Sarah Branch) save the honest and just Archbishop of Canterbury (Jack Gwillim), who is also England’s Lord Chancellor, from a plot against him. The bad guys are the evil Sheriff of Nottingham (Peter Cushing) and the even meaner Earl of Newark (Richard Pasco).

Politics: Star Greene, director Terence Fisher, co-producer Sydney Cole and screenwriter Alan Hackney all worked on “The Adventures of Robin Hood” TV series, but they left their blacklisted co-creators behind in this movie, made just after the series ended. Neither unfair taxation, class warfare or other societal ills are at the crux of the story. Rather, the Sheriff of Nottingham and Earl of Newark seem to be motivated by sheer cruelty in some instances, at other times out of a desire to claim for the crown (i.e., themselves) lands used by the people.

Swashbuckling: Beautiful outdoor shots of the forest and countryside (with rural Ireland standing in for England) give this movie much better production values than the U.S.-made films in this group. Greene shows a veteran’s self-assurance with his horseback riding and archery, though the big sword fights are kind of slow.

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