No Concessions: Several Faces of “Robin Hood”

Is “I didn’t mind it too much” sufficient criticism of a $200 million dollar behemoth? Probably not for the front office, which demand that we be a little more forthcoming in our reviews. But, really, if I were tweeting my reaction to Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, that would pretty much be it. It’s handsome in a money’s-falling-off-trees way, and Oscar winners Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, together for the first time, look great in the filmmaker’s trademarked smoky, burnished light. That’s closing in on a couple of tweets at least, maybe a Facebook entry.

Come to think of it, though, there are a couple of nits to pick, and not just the ones off the scabbier residents of the twelfth century of the movie. More than a couple, actually—it may have been that the lighting, and that thunderous score, blinded and deafened my faculties. What we have here is a film that combines the two things I most dislike about contemporary action movies, smothered in expensive production values to conceal them.

No. 1, Robin Hood, the subject of at least a hundred movies, is an “origins story,” and a somewhat defensive one at that. It means to tell the “untold story” behind the tunic-clad warrior who stole from the rich and gave to the poor and put Sherwood Forest on the map. Such a telling inevitably requires a lot of backstory to bring us up to speed, and Robin Hood is lousy with backstory. Robin, the weary crusader returning home to England, has—you guessed it—daddy issues, which must be flashbacked. Marian has husband issues, namely, that he went off to the Crusades right after their wedding, leaving her with an infirm, if plucky, father-in-law (an eccentrically cast Max von Sydow) with parenting issues. These would have gone unresolved had not Robin shown up at their farmstead, which is being taxed to death—and that brings a whole other, royal family saga into it, the one I thrill to in The Lion in Winter and other tales of Richard the Lionheart and his brother King John but takes up way too much time here. To continue (the script, a rewrite of a non-origins story, is credited to Brian Helgeland, who mucked around medieval times with A Knight’s Tale) the family-less Robin and the widowed Marian pretend to be married to fool the authorities, as King John’s deceitful functionary (all-purpose bad guy Mark Strong, bald to distinguish him from the exact same assignment in Sherlock Holmes and Kick-Ass) leads a cohort of French soldiers onto English soil. William Hurt, with an English accent, a bunch of fairly spirited blokes (Ridley Scott does not do merry), and the Magna Carta are somehow mixed up in all this. Two-and-a-half hours later, we’re back where we started with Robin Hood, for a sequel—a real, honest-to-God Robin Hood picture—that is unlikely to come.

That was a long paragraph. And I could have prepared an even longer writer’s cut. I could have written, for example, that Marian’s husband, who befriends Robin not long before his death, is played by Douglas Hodge, who is completely unrecognizable in drag in his Tony-nominated performance in La Cage aux Folles on Broadway. I sensed, though, that I was losing my audience—why couldn’t Scott foresee losing his? Robin Hood is a legend, which doesn’t need all this self-important motivation and psychic hurt. The filmmakers seem embarrassed by their icon; so much kid’s stuff, as the production, with its bloodshed, bedroom intrigue, and psychobabble, strains against a family audience and its PG-13 rating. As much a continuation of Scott’s Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven as anything else, it lacks the simple high spirits of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), still the best version…and, more fatally, the strong clean line of Gladiator, Scott’s last wholly successful film. (And it kind of wipes out the two stars, who, unable to really play Robin and Marian, give fuzzy, indistinct performances.)

Too often the victim of scripts that go unrealized except visually, Scott’s movies tend to promise more than they deliver, hence the plethora of director’s cuts to try to fix them after the fact. I sense a three-or-more-hour Robin Hood to come, which may smooth the plot fibers but will still suffer from the No. 2 fallacy, the curse of “relevance.” It’s fashionable to lash these tentpoles to current events, not so much as to alienate any potential audience, but enough to fold them into the “national conversation” represented by the endless news cycle. When Robin finally outs himself as the leader of the tax-rebelling downtrodden, it’s not sufficient for it to be a rousing turning point in his evolution. It’s meant to make you ask: Is Robin Hood a) Rand Paul, b) George Washington, or c) the Shoe Bomber? Ridley, as someone who once interviewed you, and who values your incisive DVD commentary tracks even when there’s not much to talk about, I ask politely, who gives a toss about this? I’d gladly take a Bryan Adams theme song over the dismal feeling that once the thing ends pollsters from CNN and Fox News will be waiting to grill me on how Robin Hood fits into the current political spectrum.

With its moneyed production and picturesque, busily edited action scenes, no, I didn’t mind Robin Hood too much, and I could have left it at that. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I hate what it represents. One of the few adult-oriented adventures we’ll be getting over the next few months treats us like children, with all of these lessons and issues and “authenticity” forced down our throats. Robin Hood makes a storybook legend as much fun as homework over the weekend.

Not so coincidentally, Sony has reached deep into the vaults of Columbia Pictures, plucked four earlier spins of the tale from the depths, and released them on DVD, as the Robin Hood Collection. Make no mistake about it: These are genuine Robin Hood adventures, none of this origins frou-frou, and all of your favorite characters slighted in the new one get plenty of screen time.

My favorite happened to be the first chronologically, 1946’s The Bandit of Sherwood Forest. Its star, the dashing Cornel Wilde, gave good value throughout an interesting career, starring in costume pictures like these, then directing scrappy independent films like The Naked Prey, Beach Red, and No Blade of Grass in the 60s and 70s. He makes a fine Robin Hood, athletic and charming—though he’s not actually Robin Hood, but rather Robert, the son of Sir Robin, who’s now a seasoned politician who turns to his son to help foil a plot to repeal the Magna Carta. Cheating? Not hardly, in that you get two sets of merry men (one grayer than the other) and, as a bonus, double trouble in two hissable villains, played by veteran bad guys Henry Daniell and George Macready. It also has a direct link to the Flynn version, in that cinematographer Tony Gaudio shot both in resplendent Technicolor. The father-son plot is one of my favorites (1998’s The Mask of Zorro, the best of this type of film in recent years, used it with a little tweaking) and Bandit runs with it for a fast-paced 86 minutes.

Penny-pinching hits Sherwood Forest hard in The Prince of Thieves (1948). Not King John’s, but Columbia’s, which farmed it out to quickie producer Sam Katzman and shot it in cheesy Cinecolor, which looks like colorization. The forest is as barren as old Arizona, and matinee idol Jon Hall, while younger than Crowe, seems about a decade older. Based on a novel by Alexandre Dumas, the film has a reasonably tight plot (if less tight than the heavyset Hall’s tunics) and showcases its Maid Marian, Patricia Morison, who became a big Broadway star later that year in Kiss Me, Kate.

Better known for the 1954 sci-fi classic Them! and a string of Frank Sinatra pictures, director Gordon Douglas brings greater efficiency, and more resources, to 1950’s Rogues of Sherwood Forest. This is another “son of” story, brought in line by the presence of Alan Hale, Sr., as Little John, a role he played in Douglas Fairbanks’ 1922 version and in 1938 as well, which may very well make him the actor to have played the same part most frequently over the longest timespan. This was also his last film role, and he has a closing line that is poignant in retrospect. He, and Macready again (upped to King John, he could teach Strong a thing or two about villainy), outshine the unmagical leads, offscreen Romeo John Derek (of Bo fame) and a dull Diana Lynn.

Returning Robin Hood to England proper, and closing a gap in my cinematic education, is 1960’s Sword of Sherwood Forest. I’m a devotee of Hammer Films’ landmark horror movies, and this entry, spun off from a successful TV show, shares its best director, Terence Fisher, and greatest star, Peter Cushing, who is terrific as the Sheriff of Nottingham. Richard Greene, the only un-mustachioed Robin or Robin surrogate in the bunch, had years of experience in the part, and gives a relaxed, secure-in-his-boots performance. The bloodletting is a little more pronounced this time (if nowhere near the level of Hammer’s Frankensteins or Draculas) and there are intimations of dark doings in a priory that’s involved in aristocratic plotting, but of course I was looking for these things (and for Oliver Reed, in a small, showy part; that’s Desmond Llewelyn, AKA “Q,” galloping through the first scene). On its own terms it’s diverting to see Fisher flexing different artistic muscles, and the Ireland-shot production looks handsome with its original widescreen MegaScope framing retained.

Sony is one of the few major labels still regularly putting out catalog titles in box sets, but the four minor titles in this collection are only available separately. (Didn’t it hear of all for one? Oh, wait; wrong legend.) There are no extras, save for a promo about other Columbia classics on DVD and a trailer for—sigh—A Knight’s Tale. Still, with far fewer arrows in their quivers than the multimillion-dollar untold story that never needed telling, they hit their target more often than not, and I had a much more enjoyable time in their company.

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