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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

10.4 (Fall 2007)

How to Choose the Best Robin Hood for You Personajes que molan, 17._ Robin Hood

Dueling Robins: Errol Flynn and Kevin Costner


Just What Did Robin Hood Really DO For The Poor?

Jim Stebinger

Jim Los Angeles .  His special interests are history and film.  He graduated from UCLA in 1977 with  B.A. in English Literature and an enthusiasm for Robin Hood.

     If it seems impossible that comedian Mel Brooks has anything in common with either the “Father” of English popular printing or an unfortunate furrier shot in the hind end by an arrow, think again.  For all three have profited, more or less mightily, by conversion of the outlaw sweat of Robin Hood into gold.

     That unlikely trio is representative of a stark fact: Robin Hood has made far more for other people than he ever made for himself by daylight banditry.  Publishers, authors, booksellers and playwrights have all earned tidy sums.  So have actors, archery equipment suppliers, theme park owners, cereal sellers and movie studio executives. 

     In 1991, according to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), Kevin Costner’s film for Warner Brothers, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is estimated to have grossed more than $165 million in first release, making it one of the top films in its time frame.  But 1991 was a watershed year in Robin Hood films, as it was a “Year of Three Robins”.  Not only did Warner Brothers seek to recapture the box-office magic of its 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood—rival 20th Century Fox starred Patrick Bergin in its own Robin Hood.  A third script was ready for production, but is producer backed off from the competition, although he told the Los Angeles Times his was the best script of all.  Fox appears to have been intimidated by the size of the Warner’s release and didn’t battle head to head with is rival.  Instead, the studio released its film on television in the U.S. and in theaters overseas.  Numbers are harder to come by but the strategy is said to have worked as planned and Fox did well with the movie, especially in Germany .

     Today, “Tales of Robin Hood” is a Nottingham , England , theme park, reputedly one of the city’s biggest tourist draws, with rides, movies, interactive events and a medieval banquet.  Since 1908, there have been at least a dozen successful major release movies, and two or three of them have been blockbusters.  The earliest films are for the most part considered lost.  The survivors are rather crude and quite short.  But no one gave up.  No less than five television series have aired and a river of printed words began flowing which continues today.  A search of “Robin Hood” in the books section of Amazon.com returns 816 entries.  A similar search on IMDB yields 86 entries ranging from famous moneymakers to unjustly forgotten films.  There are also lots of curios along the way, including films about sons and daughters of Robin, animated films (at least one with cartoon animals in the familiar roles), the odd “Adult” film, and even westerns.

     Some of these “Robin Hood” films simply appropriate his name and a vague storyline, such as Robin Hood of the Pecos (1941), in which Roy Rogers essays a “Robin Hood type” character in a run-of-the-mill (or worse) B picture set after the U.S. Civil War, with the Southerners as oppressed Saxons (more or less).  Others, such as Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964), bring the story into modern times.  Frank Sinatra, Sammie Davis, Jr, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby are the leads in this Chicago gangland musical tale featuring Robbo, Guy Gisborne and Allen A. Dale (a lawyer).

     It is clear that Robin Hood and his equivocal exploits remain among the most popular (and profitable) subjects in English literature.  They haven’t done badly in more recent entertainment genres, either.  If one considers knock-offs and thinly disguised re-workings such as the comic book character Green Arrow and Burt Lancaster in The Flame and the Arrow. the list is almost endless.  A comprehensive bibliography of Robin Hood was last gathered in 1939, a comprehensive bibliography today might be impossible. 

     If he is watching from The Beyond, the jolly outlaw is doubtless chagrined.  The handfuls of coins wrested from fat abbots and tossed to the grateful poor are peanuts compared to the good loot gone legit.  And it all stems from his two greatest—and totally unwitting—gifts to the poor: his role in the development of the popular press and an attendant role in the definition of popular culture.  A role the “real” Robin Hood might well have shunned both.

     Ironically, the “real” Robin was a self-interested outlaw with little time for idealism, rescuing maidens or securing kingdoms.  The “real” Robin Hood likely would have burned a printing press if he saw one.  He was also curiously conservative for a revolutionary.  Yet he had roles in one of the great revolutions of all time—the development of the popular book trade.

     It is important to halt here and recognize a second stark fact: Robin’s history is about 800 years old and as full of paths and byways as Sherwood (or Barnsdale) ever was.  This history makes for an interesting walk, and some of it is significant, even undervalued.

     1377 is the first solid date along the main path of Robin’s history, for that is the accepted date for the first printed reference to the outlaw.  It occurs in Piers Plowman, presumably written by William Langland.

     Langland is almost as difficult to pin down as Robin Hood.  His biography is deduced from hints in Piers Plowman, according to the venerable Norton Anthology of English literature, which will only go so far as to say his name is “associated” with the poem.  The online source Wikipedia concurs.  “His entire identity,” Wikipedia says, “rests on a string of conjectures and vague hints.”  Things are much the same for Robin.  It is probably accurate to say that a consensus exists that the orally circulated tales likely began in the otherwise undistinguished reign of Henry III , perhaps around 1220 A.D.  The use of “Robynhood” as a surname was first traced to 1296, but that date has crept forward.  Whatever the original Robin Hood was (and since nothing survives, speculation should be avoided), he appears to have been popular.  This may well have been his first, and arguably greatest, gift to popular culture and the poor.   It is possible that the popularity of the stories helped to fuel an interest in native subjects, and that the humble tales, whatever they may have been, were an integral part of the development of an English popular literary identity.

     Robin’s subsequent importance may be merely the result of his early popularity.  About 100 years after Piers Plowman,   the ground gets somewhat firmer.  We have recently  passed the 500th anniversary of Robin Hood’s first foray into print under his own name.  That book is known by various titles, but A Lyttell Geste of Robyn Hode is a fairly representative one.  The Geste was published between 1493 and 1503 by a publisher with the name, curious to modern ears, of Wynkyn de Worde.  It was a smash success, and it is the bedrock on which Robin Hood studies rest.  De Worde, less-than-familiar to most people, is actually almost as important as William Caxton, the very first English printer.  Caxton was a successful and well-connected Kentish businessman who tired of copying books by hand.  He went to Europe to learn the new art of printing and imported it to England sometime after 1472.

     Virtually all the technology and manpower had to be imported, including de Worde (Alsatian by birth), who began as Caxton’s assistant.  Upon Caxton’s death in 1491, de Worde took over the business and its tangled skein of financial worries.  After a slow start, de Worde set up shop on Fleet Street in 1493.  Because of de Worde, “Fleet Street” still calls to mind journalists of a particular cast.  But de Worde’s legacy is varied and he can just as easily be said to have put us on the road to Praesidium.

     According to de Worde’s biographer, Caxton was scholarly, devotional and dependent on wealthy patrons.  De Worde was by no means an old stick-in-the-mud and sounds curiously modern.  He set up shop near booksellers to keep an eye on what sold, printed illustrated works when they weren’t too common, and tended toward inexpensive productions, soon called chapbooks, that would sell in quantity.  He had sales instincts, a good eye for popular taste and was shrewd enough to move the printing business out of the shadow of patronage toward popular acceptance.  Some 750 titles survive that he printed.  Doubtless many have been lost.

     If one accepts the 1493 publication date for the Geste, then Robin may have been the hero of the first best seller.

 The English public liked Robin Hood.  And why not?  A man with a sword in his hand and a bow at his back had an obvious appeal to his war-on-three fronts countrymen.  Henry VII was on the throne in 1493.  He was the last man standing in the Wars of the Roses, which had seen the throne tossed like a shuttlecock between various branches of the royal family—hardnosed men and women each with a touch of the outlaw in them.   Later that century, England would honor Sir Francis Drake (known as The Dragon in Spain ), chase Fingerless Will Nixon, terror of the Scots border, and obey good Queen Bess, a firebrand in skirts.

     J. C. Holt of Cambridge University says the increase in the number of people able to sign their names proves the literacy rate soared in the century after de Worde’s death. Three out of four tradesmen or craftsmen were illiterate in the 1560’s, but only one out of four couldn’t read 100 years later. 

     Entertaining tales such as those enormously popular stories about Robin Hood and his life-long pursuit of fleeing the wealthy gave incentive to read to a broad new audience. De Worde and other publishers rushed into the new market, churning out new editions which helped both to educate and to entertain the new mass audience, which was no more inclined to a total diet of Uplifting Reading than we are.  By Queen Elizabeth’s reign (1558-1603), London had become a center for a reading public much like ours today.  “Among the books that survived [from that era],” writes Shakespearian scholar H. N. Gibson, “are works on surveying land; how to play musical instruments without a teacher; how to ride, write, garden and take spots out of velvet; first aid in the absence of a physician, navigation for amateur mariners, hunting, hawking and other outdoor sports.”  There were, of course, other works, including chronicles and translations of classics and foreign works. 

     Outlaws and publishers did have some things is common.  De Worde was pioneering in the years before Elizabeth ’s reign and faced strong sentiment against the popular book.  Robin Hood was heavily disparaged by literary authorities, who regarded such works as “jests and trifles” unworthy and mentally debilitating. 

     As late as 1528, religious commentator William Tyndale lumped Robin Hood, Hercules and Troilus (a Trojan son of Priam) as representatives of “a thousand histories and fables of love and wantonness, and of ribaldry, as filthy as heart can think, to corrupt the minds of youth withal.”  Tyndale benefited from the printing press, too, for his were early printed religious texts.  Ironically, Tyndale died in the manner Robin managed to avoid.  Caught in religious upheaval when Henry VIII turned England upside down, he fled but was captured on the Continent and handed over to Henry’s authorities, who strangled him (apparently as a merciful favor) before burning him at the stake.

     Tyndale and his fellows railed against the popular taste whose size and power printers like de Worde were at once discovering and creating.  Part of the problem, then as now, was the relationship between authority and the general public.  Langland’s sole reference to the Sherwood outlaw is spoken by Sloth, a negligent priest, who admits he knows Robin Hood tales better than his pater nosters.  From early in his career, Robin apparently was a potent symbol of independence, self-reliance and defiance in ways large and small.

     Among his many appealing facets was his status as a yeoman.  The nature of yeomanry is still somewhat disputed, but it seems clear that yeomen were a rising social class and that they liked the bold outlaw. 

     It is important that Robin stands for a kind of conservatism in his outlawry.  He is never in rebellion against the king or antagonistic to the system.  He is personally loyal to the king and good government—his enemies are those who abuse the system.  Robin seems to represent upward social mobility—and to protect social mobility in the system.  His efforts on behalf of the knight in the Geste are calculated to maintain the knight’s status against those—often churchmen, a point probably not lost on Tyndale—who would impoverish him and drive him down the social ladder. 

     The Geste was most likely put in manuscript before 1450, but its basis is much older.  It is unclear whether the tales in the Geste are re-workings of the original material, as perhaps 200 years elapsed between the very first Robin Hood tales and the creation of the Geste.  The story is roughly 13,900 words and remains the longest outlaw tale in English literature. There were plenty of others, but who remembers Adam Bell or Clym of the Clough today?  From the very beginning, Robin appears to have had recognizable appeal, what Hollywood eventually would label “star quality”.  A product of stitch-work from older tales, its hero is hard to recognize today.  This Robin doesn’t rob from the rich to give to the poor.  That concept is vexed in Robin Hood studies, and although it is now a fixture in the canon, it was added later.

     It must be noted, however, that the end of the Geste notes he was “always good to poor men”.  That off hand comment is apparently the earliest connection between Robin and the poor.  Evidently, he did not prey on the weakest and poorest as so many criminals have done.  His goodness is not necessarily monetary largesse.  He lets poor men do their work and survive in peace, and he seems to defend the just system and make sure it works.  He is not a socially motivated guerrilla.

     There are other differences.  His relationship with Little John is stormy almost to the point of murder.  A certain Will Scarlett is around, and there may be rivalry for the lieutenant’s post.  There is no Marian or other love interest whatever.  Give him credit for strength and boldness plus a sense of what the fifteenth century called “courtesy”.  We might call it panache, style, “good manners” and a sense of appropriateness.  These, of course, are precisely the kinds of qualities needed in a rising social class.  Ultimately, however, he is a bandit.  He is a dangerous man to cross, and he and Little John both have tempers.

     Robin may have “curteyse”, but he and his company rain death on those who foil them—including the Sheriff of Nottingham.  In another early ballad, an unfortunate page—perhaps ten years of age—is slain because witnesses are a perennial liability.

     One of many difficulties with studying Robin Hood is that the very earliest tales and references assumed a good deal of understanding on the part of the audience.  There is little in the way of introduction or exposition.

     The Geste opens with Robin happily searching the woods for “sport”, which turns up in the form of an honest knight wandering desolate among the trees.  His son, it seems, has slain another knight in a tournament and the father has had to hock his lands to a wealthy churchman to buy pardon.  Robin grubstakes him and thus saves the knight’s land.  Known for his luck, Robin captures one of the wealthy churchmen and is able to get his 400 pounds back even before the knight repays him: a double repayment, if you will, that was especially popular with his readers.

     In other sections of the tale, Robin fights and kills the Sheriff, rescues the knight again (perhaps it is another knight), fights a pitched battle and eventually meets and receives pardon from a certain King Edward who has arrived to see what all the commotion is about.

     Edward approves of him enough to take Robin into his service, where he remains for twenty-two  years before his leopard spots grow out and he returns to his old ways.  Alas, he is soon treacherously slain by a relative and her lover.

     In short, he is the kind of person likely to rise far in medieval service.: bold, skilled with arms, acquisitive yet generous to friends, a believer in what may be called “enlightened self-interest” and wise enough to see that the system can work tolerably well if the outright crooks are bested.  It is not an uncommon way to pursue social mobility in Medieval and Anglo-Saxon literature, as Beowulf and the Knights of the Round Table behave in somewhat similar fashion. 

     Whether he was an identifiable individual is hard to judge.

     With Robin Hood, the farther back you go, the less you know.  The historical Robin is as elusive as any roughneck cutpurse.  He may have lived in two different centuries, and there are six identified historical Robert (or Robin) Hoods (or Hodes).  Another complication is that although he is today strongly associated with Nottingham and Sherwood Forest , the earliest tales place him in the vicinity of Barnesdale.  It would not have been impossible to be active in both forests, but they are distinct, and “Robin Hood in Barnsdale stood” is a formula in the earliest tales.

     Despite the fact that some of the historical Hoods were… well, hoods, none can be conclusively identified with Robin.

J. C. Holt upholds a certain outlaw named Robert Hode active in the 1220’s with the nickname “Hobbehod”—which shows he had local notoriety.  On points, this man seems a little more likely.  Based on a temporal coincidence, “Hobbehod” was suggested as the leader of a band that knocked over a granary in which monks were hoarding grain during a famine.  Other researchers, led by professor John Bellamy, hold out for a Robert Hood who lived a century later—and served with King Edward II.  It is an appealing argument on paper, but it ignores important facts—such as the popularity of Robynhood surnames well before that date and the short time between Edward’s reign and Langland’s work.  It is also possible that fiction-writers and ballad-compilers with limited knowledge of dates and history would use a king’s name that their audience would recognize and find plausible.  There was an Edward on the throne from 1272-1377 inclusive, and the use of Edward may not be a historical reference in the true sense at all.  Much of England may not have known there were any other kings but Edwards.

     Even dedicated searchers must admit that “Robin Hood” may have been an alias, in which case we may really be searching for a guy named Delbert Allen Buttercup.

     Whether a man or a symbol, Robin Hood was popular in a changing society  which was modifying social status and its descriptive terms.  Yeoman Robin has been something of a social barometer, being redefined at least once a century.  He has moved from simple outlaw to nobleman to Noble Man to closet environmentalist and finally to social outlaw.  People took him to heart, took his name, told proverbs and stories of his trees and barns.  They also began to sell things.  Books appear to have been the first moneymakers, followed by ballad broadsides and song.

      But Robin has appeared in almost all popular entertainment media and did his share in spreading the wealth and defining popular culture along the way.

     He was prominent in the outdoor celebrations called May Games, and Maid Marian, a French import, was probably called in specifically to partner him in these Spring festivities.  There is a rear guard that suggests he is of Gallic origin, but it is not the mainstream view.  In the nineteenth century, it was fashionable to give him Germanic roots based on Odin or Wotan or Hudekin.  This, too, has fallen out of favor.

     He was the toast of ballad singers and writers from the fifteenth through the eighteenth century—marking another stage in the development of literacy and of popular culture as people began to pay pennies for broadsheet stories of the hero.  In one ballad, he was even sent to sea to defeat the French.  On stage by 1500, Robin has since been a subject for playwrights as obscure today as

Anthony Munday and Reginald de Koven and as well-known as Ben

Jonson and William Shakespeare.  Jonson wrote a Robin Hood play, The Sad Shepherd; and Shakespeare peppered a few plays with Robin Hood references, and seems to have based the outlaw leader in As You Like It on the merry brigand.

     Poet Geoffrey Chaucer appears to have been thinking of Lincoln Green when he wrote a few passages, and Robin remained a poetic staple until at least Alfred Lord Tennyson’s time.  Sir Walter Scott, primary inventor of the historical novel, rekindled the legend and placed Robin alongside that bully English hero Richard Lionheart.  It is a fitting match, if highly unlikely.  It is also a fine irony, in that pairing the villain is always Prince John, who is disparaged for his usurious taxation.  In reality, Richard was every bit as bloodthirsty as John and had a fine skill at double- and triple-taxing.  He also sold lucrative offices to the highest bidder – and then placed a surcharge on the already sky-high price.  

      Shortly after 1900, the printing press began to be upstaged.  A last hurrah for the booksellers was Howard Pyle’s million-seller retelling of the Robin Hood tales, which debuted in 1883.  Pyle was a skilled illustrator as well as a gifted reteller of the tales, and his Robin Hood is still in print.  Pyle may perhaps be seen as a bridge to the contemporary world because his illustrations are a step toward our almost exclusively visual world.  Slowly at first, but with gathering speed as the twentieth century progressed, Robin Hood became a staple of the movie theater.  The first Robin Hood film was produced in 1908, but does not survive.  More were produced in 1912 and 1913.  One reportedly survives but is considered ham-handed, as the film maker reportedly made too obvious parallels between the human characters and vile or virtuous animals.  In 1922 Robin was ready for his first great cinematic flourish.

     Douglas Fairbanks  made Robin a star and defined the genre of Robin Hood films.  Fairbanks also made a mint while establishing a film sub-genre of Robin Hood films—not to mention stories of sons and daughters, reunions, returns, time-tunnel travels and Robin Hood Way out West.

     Surprisingly, Fairbanks had initial qualms—he first saw Robin as a “flat-footed Englishmen”—but he was persuaded, reportedly by the promise of breakneck stunts, and released Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood in October, 1922.

     The film was an early sensation—thanks to abundant swordfights, a full-scale joust, firefights with bows, and a 12-acre set with a centerpiece castle set towering 90 feet.  Fairbanks invested $750,000 and made millions.  It was so popular that seats became scarce and Fairbanks had to hold after-hours screenings for VIP friends.

     Fairbanks shoots many arrows in the movie, with his boyish grin and a practiced panache.  The shots often look improbable, if not impossible.  He apparently claimed to be an archer, a boast derided by some hardnosed reporters on a New York press junket in support of the film.  So Doug grabbed a bow provided by the studio as a prop and let an arrow fly from the roof of a Manhattan hotel.  It lodged, so the story goes, in the tail end of a furrier bent over in his loft a block or so away.  Abraham Seligman earned $5,000 for his minor injuries (mostly fright: he allegedly thought Native Americans come to reclaim New York had shot him) and a private visit with the star (and his attorney), who popped round to his hospital.  It sounds like a scene in a Mel Brooks movie, and thus we’ve come full circle (or chorus line): for one centerpiece in the film Robin Hood: Men in Tights is a male chorus line of high stepping Merry Men.

     One more outrage for hardworking outlaws.

Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood

Robins from different galaxies: Douglas Fairbanks and Cary Elwes


     In closing, it is worthwhile to wonder why Robin Hood is so popular.  There have been a number of scholarly efforts at answering the question, but perhaps there is another way.  One can look critically at themes in the six major Robin Hood films.  In chronological order they are Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938),  The Storie of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952), Robin and Marian (1976), and Robin Hood and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (both 1991).  The themes to be looked at are Courage, Loyalty, Good Nature (courtesy), Humor, Wonder and Romance.  All of the films have them, as do the original tales, but emphases are quite different.

     The first point to make is that they are all vastly different, but each is truly enjoyable in its own way.  In a sense, they serve as time capsules of the spirit of America and

American film-making when they were made.  Several of them involve British and Commonwealth film-makers and that, too, flavors the mix.  They are at once timeless and very much of the moment.  That is one of the traditional appeals of Robin Hood, who is always at once archaic and contemporary, and it is a feature of the films. 

     Courage, for example, is a byword in the films, and perhaps Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood is the most courageous Robin Hood.  Not only does Flynn’s character combine raw physical courage with a moral courage that owes much to traditions of chivalry.  There is another dimension: Flynn’s Robin Hood simply has no fear and no hesitation whatsoever.  He instinctively knows what is right and does it.  Perhaps the bravest scene in all six films is the moment in which Flynn enters Guy of Gisbourne’s castle in the film’s beginning.  It is a physically courageous act and must have struck a nerve with audiences becoming familiar with Nazi and Soviet atrocities.  The “telling truth to power” dialog is morally courageous, as it is a form of Christian witness and a promise of retribution to come.  Quickly, the scene devolves into fighting prowess with a breath-taking escape.  But Robin is clearly incredibly courageous.  His moral courage is matched by Maid Marian, portrayed by Olivia de Havilland, who consciously decides to risk everything on a point of honor for the man she loves and the cause he represents.  Both Robin and Marian are willing to die for what is right with little immediate regard for gain.  The absolute sense of right and the fact that the honorable thing is done without hesitation mark the film as a “greatest Generation” film.

     Loyalty is something of a slippery quality in the original ballads.  Robin does appear to be loyal to friends and even steadfast, but he is not tested.  Loyalty in the Middle Ages was always professed and almost always relative.  Frequently, it was measured in a negative sense, as hatred of an enemy faction translated into support of their opponents.  As an example, John de Vere, Thirteenth Earl of Oxford (1442-1513), was resolutely opposed to the Yorkist faction after the execution of his father, and remained a staunch Lancastrian ever after.  He was a pivotal figure in securing the throne for Henry VII .  Henry was truly a “last man standing” sort of choice for Lancastrian hopes, but de Vere was completely loyal because of his hatred for the family of York. 

     Loyalty is a revered quality and Douglas Fairbanks is perhaps the most loyal of Robin Hoods.  As one of Richard’s earls, he accompanies him on Crusade, but receives a letter from home advising of treachery in England (curiously, no word reaches Richard).  Torn by conflicting duties, he decides his greater duty is to return to England in disguise (becoming Robin Hood) in order to save Richard’s kingdom without diverting Richard from his sacred goal of Crusading victory.  He is shanghaied by Prince John’s henchman and left in a cell to die.  Rescued by Little John (Alan Hale in his first effort as Little John), he escapes across the desert, fords the sea and raises rebellion in England. 

            In the ballads, Robin’s good nature is frequently attested, but he has a temper and is dangerous when angry.  Similarly, Patrick Bergin’s Robin Hood is a Saxon earl who has come to terms, more or less, with the Normans and is on good terms with them, especially Daguerre, who appears to have appropriated some of Hood’s property.  A truce and accommodation appears to be in place.  The arrival of Jurgen Prochnow as a nasty French knight (with a scowl and an accent worthy of a Nazi heavy in a World War Two potboiler) sets Bergin on the boil.  A coquettish Marian played by Uma Thurman tips the kettle, and the good-natured Robin becomes a deadly adversary.  The motives are simple, ordinary and human.  Good nature is pressed to its limit and the world is righted by combat.  Robin is usually scrupulously “courteous”, although not as perfect ethically as Flynn can be. 

     Good nature’s more intense relative is humor, and the films are full of humor in various forms.  Oddly, outright Robin Hood comedies have not done well.  Mel Brook’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights is a forgotten footnote, as is  The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood, a comedy remake of the Flynn vehicle with Morgan Fairchild and George Segal.  Perhaps it is because the comedies are unsubtle and work on a fairly obvious series of oppositions.  Successful comedy needs more than that, and so far no film-maker has developed a more subtle approach.   A partial exception is Time Bandits(1981), an offering from some of the Monty Python crowd featuring  John Cleese as a comic Robin.  A successful film, its creators understood that a Robin Hood parody was rather a one-trick pony and couldn’t sustain 90 minutes or so of screen time.  Perhaps it is simply that the regular films are full of humor and fun.  Comic characters such as Friar Tuck abound, and the discomfiture of the Sheriff is always risible.  Most film-goers can remember the broad comedy of the Friar Tuck characters, but may forget the almost entirely humorous byplay of Much the Miller’s son and his sweetheart Bess in that film. 

     The example of humor highlighted here occurs in The Storie of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men.  Peter Finch as the Sheriff, and Hubert Gregg as Prince John, are seeking to abscond with the customary ransom for Richard.  Standing in the way is Richard Todd as Robin Hood.  Richard’s mother (Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine) and the Archbishop of Canterbury have come to Nottingham to see why Nottingham is not contributing.  At a public gathering to raise ransom money, Finch pleads poverty and theft by Robin.  Maid Marian as a proxy deposits 1,000 marks from the band.  Finch protests the accepting of “tainted money”, which prompts Robin (disguised in the audience) to ask, “Where’s your 1,000 marks, Sir Sheriff?”  An ugly chant of “1,000 marks from the Sheriff” rises in the crowd, forcing Finch to open his purse and deposit 1,200 marks.  Meanwhile, Robin and his gang have broken into the Sheriff’s headquarters and found a pirate-sized chest full of loot.  Outside, the Sheriff is accepting the plaudits for his 1,200 marks and wishing to Heaven he had 10 times as much to give.  “Heaven has heard you, Sir Sheriff!” Robin says, and the band dumps the contents of the chest at the Queen’s feet.  A shocked Sheriff is suddenly the hero of the hour, and is raised on the crowd’s shoulders and paraded to the city drawbridge.  The Sheriff enjoys the adulation until he looks closely at the faces of the men who are hoisting him and recognizes Little John et al.  His look of horror at their wicked grins precedes their tossing him into his own moat.  It is by terms a serious and humorous scene—and walks an edge as so many of the films do.

     Wonder and romance are now part of all the films and expressed very differently in each.  Fairbanks had his huge sets and casts of thousands.  In that film, knights and ladies and villains and exotic locales vie for the viewer’s attention.  Flynn’s film is shot in gorgeous three-strip Technicolor and is a love story between two very beautiful people lucky enough to work from a scintillating script.  Richard Todd’s film is the only one with a balladeer to open and close the picture—a singer whose actions lodge the film firmly in a Never-Never Land.  It is also a story of young love, as Robin’s modest stature and youthful appearance are matched with a virginal Maid Marian who appears sixteen years old; and the love story, complete with a charming love song, “Whistle My Love”, is as pure and innocent as first love should be and as threatened as any love can be by the evil pair of John and the Sheriff.

     But romance can take other forms, and although deliberately “unromantic”, Robin and Marian  shows the complex way romance can be worked into the Robin Hood stories.  It is based on the “death of Robin Hood” ballads and opens with the death of King Richard in France.  A sordid, painful death, it releases Robin and Little John from service, and they are now men with no master and few friends.  Their enemy John is on the throne and their nemesis the Sheriff is confirmed in his power.  Their return to England is bittersweet and they do, in fact, find the old band.  They also find Marian.  Nothing is as it was, but, to paraphrase Tennyson’s Ulysses, “that which they are, they are.”  They attempt another “voyage”, another recreation of the old days; and, briefly, they do have each other.  The tone is wintry and the ending sad.  The embers of romance reflect the past glories.  Yet they have courage, they have loyalty, they have love.

     One film has been left for last, not for the traditional reason of ending with a shout, but because it represents a thoroughly modern and not wholly pleasant change in the Robin Hood film genre.

     Robin Hood: Prince of Thievesis confused and guilty—and confusion and guilt, heretofore, have not been a part of the canon.  But this particular Castor and Pollux are now an inescapable part of our age, and this film reflects it.  Costner’s Robin Hood is self-conscious in a negative way, guilty over his role in the Crusades, tormented by arguments with his late father and completely flummoxed by Marian.  He is far from the traditional man of action and seems to make decisions by committee.  You have to add all the males in the band together to get one man.

            The producers were confused by the utter simplicity of the material and evidently didn’t trust it.  Into the Robin, Little John, Will Scarlett matrix they thrust Morgan Freeman as Azeem, evidently because they wanted to appeal to black audiences.  Fortunately, Freeman is a great actor and his Islamophilic part is well played.  But it is confusing to an audience that Little John becomes weak—weaker, in fact, than his wife.  These changes lead us into the wilds of modern multiculturalism.  Azeem the Moor has to be shown in a favorable light and by the conventions of multiculturalism has to be, in fact, braver, wiser, more educated and just plain “badder” than the locals.

     Maid Marian is horribly confounded by life as she sees it.  She has a feminist side with a total distrust of men, and tries to kill Robin at their first meeting.  By the end of the film, however, she is a screaming bundle of nerves waiting to be rescued from a ludicrous and rather disturbing attempted rape.  Many critics have commented on Alan Rickman’s “over the top” Sheriff.  It is worse than that.  The producers evidently decided to pander to certain very recent “New Age” interpretations of the tale by adding witches and a Satanist subplot.  In a sense, this film turns all of the conventions thus far mentioned upside down.  Courage is what happens when you are trapped like a rat, it is not a part of your being.  Good nature has become an end in itself, not a minor part of character.  Loyalty is rarely mentioned.  Azeem is loyal to Robin—but it is a superstitious loyalty and is really no more than a cash-and-carry debt.  The film is a stitchwork and plays very much as if it was concocted out of focus-group sessions rather than actually having been written.  It is politically correct in that it tries hard to please everyone and cover all bases while stealing from all genres.  It even apes Tarzan movies by building a giant tree city and lofting Costner from treehouse to treehouse.  Mercifully, Azeem did not bring a Barbary Ape with him.

     It is, however, a technical marvel.  This film was apparently the first to use a spectacular camera technique.  Robin shoots an arrow and the viewer is given a POV shot as if he was being shot at the tree.  This “arrow’s eye view” was a sensation and is now seen in almost every action film made.  The theme song was a major hit—and far more old-fashioned in its romance than the film.  The film is definitely spectacular.

     The film was released more than fifteen years ago and so far no one has gone back to the well in a significant way.  That is a longish period for Robin Hood.  One may fear that this last film was the flaccid final gasp of a remarkable English literary tradition, but with an 800 year tradition behind him, I’m still betting on the outlaw.