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Adventures of Robin Hood Vol. 15

(ITC Entertainment; US DVD: 24 Oct 2006)

Robin Hood, Robin Hood
Riding through the glen.
Robin Hood, Robin Hood
With his band of men.
Feared by the bad, loved by the good.
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood.

He called the greatest archers to a tavern on the green.
They vowed to help the people of the king.
They handled all the trouble on the English country scene,
And still found plenty of time to sing.

Robin Hood, Robin Hood
Riding through the glen.
Robin Hood, Robin Hood
With his band of men.
Feared by the bad, loved by the good.
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood.”

—Lyrics to the closing theme song from the series by Carl Sigman, Dick James, and Gary Miller



Robin Hood has always been an oddly merry legend. A soldier who returns home from a bloody war finds that his lands have been seized and that his government has been taken over by fascist thugs. What else is there to do but to lead a band of guerilla warriors and use terrorist tactics to reclaim their homeland? That this story is most often told with costumes recycled from Peter Pan and settings next door to the Keebler Elves renders the above description meaningless. But it was this very merriness that enabled a program of subversive political ideas to make the airwaves of the very conservative networks on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the mid-50s, British television producers were trying to find ways for exporting their productions to the United States. Stories with more universal appeal were the key and so this reworking of the classic Robin Hood legends was commissioned. The producer here
was Sir Lew Grade, often referred to disparagingly as Sir LOW Grade for the extreme commerciality of his productions. Grade was at the forefront of this export business model and needed a product that would be competitive in the American market where the
budgets were much larger, given that they were funded heavily from commercial sponsorship as opposed to the government subsidized British system. Therefore, he insisted on shooting the new Robin Hood on 35mm film and mixing location shooting with studio interiors. The charismatic Richard Greene was cast as Robin Hood and the rest of the cast would be made up of familiar faces from British television and theater.

The series proved to be quite popular, lasting four seasons and 143 episodes. Grade was successful in selling the series to CBS Television which, it must be assumed, was blissfully unaware that much of the funding came from the American Communist party and was written by a pool of mostly blacklisted writers. More likely it was a case of “don’t ask, don’t tell”.


Now, if someone were to ask and “follow the money” as they say, they would’ve been told that Hannah Weinstein, the series’ producer, was a member of the Hollywood branch of the Communist Party USA, who was also a large investor in her production company, Sapphire Films. Following her principles, Weinstein hired a stable of talented writers on the blacklist such as Casablanca co-scripter Howard W. Koch and future Academy Award winners Ring Lardner, Jr. and Waldo Salt, all under pseudonyms. Lardner Jr., one of the infamous “Hollywood Ten”, refused to name names while testifying before the House of Un-American Activities Committee, stating, “I would answer that, but I couldn’t face myself in the morning if I did.” He was immediately ushered out of the hearings with his integrity intact but with his profession lost. Not many followed his lead. As Orson Welles noted, “Friend informed on friend not to save lives, but to save their pools.”


Robin Hood allowed these writers the opportunity to not only regain employment from the fat cat fascist regimes running their industry, but also a chance to play a little guerilla warfare, themselves. They quickly found that they could write about the Red Scare metaphorically within the broad lines of an adventure melodrama. The goofy arrows and tights would serve as perfect smokescreen for the censors to miss the charged content. Besides, the Robin Hood legend itself was ready made for this kind of writing. Stealing from the rich to share the wealth with the common man is not exactly a Capitalist ideal. As experienced by these scribes, one of the key features of the program concerned the continued fear that a friend would betray them and give them up to the authorities to save their own hide. In one of the episodes collected in this volume, “Maid Marion”, Robin’s fair lady attempts to infiltrate his hideaway by disguising herself as a young man. But before being allowed to join them, she is made to prove her trustworthiness through a series of tests. It’s no surprise that Robin’s merrie men look upon an informant as the worst kind of scoundrel.

Outside of all the political jousting, the program holds up like American westerns of the period such as Gunsmoke. These ‘50s melodramas presented moral conflicts faced by sympathetic characters with the convenient option of solving their dilemmas through violent action. This was clearly where real life deviated from fantasy: none of these writers could escape their own predicaments by slaying their tormentors. They had to live with the consequences of their actions.


The show was quite unusual for its repertory style, recycling the same stock company of actors in different roles week after week, sometimes within the same episode. Like Jack Cassidy on Columbo,  Leo McKern popped up at least three times in three separate roles as the villain of the week. These were basically variations on the upper class twit archetype, which McKern would make his specialty in the great Patrick McGoohan program, The Prisoner. The primary villain here, however, was Prince John, and he was played for most of the series by the eccentric Donald Pleasance years before he would find fame with Harold Pinter and become a cult icon by chasing down Michael Myers.

Richard Greene plays the title role less like the mischievous icon of Errol Flynn and more like an overly enthusiastic Boy Scout leader who plans on taking some lads into the woods and teaching them the proper way to build a fire. His green costume is always surprisingly well pressed and cleaned for someone roughing it in Sherwood Forest, while his slightly unbuttoned puffy shirt and vest reveal the most chest hair seen onscreen until Sean Connery made the look fashionable in his James Bond character.


Carl Sigman, Dick James, and Gary Miller composed the theme to the series which Monty Python fans will recognize clearly as the tune backing the ballad of “Dennis Moore”, the hapless highwayman played by Michael Palin.
 
The DVD from Alpha Home Entertainment presents four original, uncut episodes of the series but unfortunately, the picture and sound quality rivals the old Goodtimes Home Video products for unwatchability. The image is often blurry and the sound seems to be emerging from the bottom of Oscar the Grouch’s trash can. Turning the volume up merely makes the problem worse. Any advantage Sir Lew Grade gained from shooting on 35mm is lost here. What’s been preserved is something that looks like a high school play recorded in 1983 on a VHS camcorder. But hey, what do you expect for $5.95 retail? I guess we should be pleased that the episodes exist at all. There are no extras to complain about.


The Adventures of Robin Hood is really more a curiosity now than anything else. There is much that is dated about the program even though it must’ve been state of the art at the time. The blending of location action with studio exteriors is very clumsy and the mix just makes the plastic trees seem more artificial. Oddly, this would become a British TV convention it seems, as shows like Doctor Who would continue the technique, even when using videotape for the interiors and film for the exteriors. The biggest problem is that this version of the legend is still eclipsed by the dazzling 1938 Michael Curtiz classic, which is a gloriously charming and exciting film which defeats all attempts to rework the story for modern audiences. Errol Flynn will always be a hard act to follow and Richard Greene is just not up to the task. Clearly, this version of Robin Hood will remain mostly an historical interest for its role during a dark era of fear driven politics. Its place as a haven for a few good men who refused to give up their principles should not be forgotten. Robin himself would’ve approved.

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The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955) opening credits
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