From Roosevelt to Reagan
A half century separates The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). Although each film was conceived as a popular entertainment and star vehicle with the profit motive paramount, they faithfully reflect the political and cinematic ethos of their eras. More specifically, Adventures embodies the political confidence and creativity of the late 1930s and Thieves the cultural confusion and aberrant individualism of the late 1980s. The former also reflects the dominant characteristics of the studio system and the latter those of the poststudio system.
Rather than original and remake, the films are better considered as quasi-independent adaptations, for their time and place, of a beloved popular myth constantly reprised in various media. The 1991 Thieves was certainly aware of its illustrious 1938 predecessor and a number of other Robin Hoods in between, including a well-received television series. The 1938 version, in turn, was aware of the highly successful Douglas Fairbanks 1922 silent Robin . Nevertheless, the cinematic strategies of the films are far more reflective of their social settings than of the usual problematics of cinematic remakes. Despite vastly different aesthetic merits as genre films, each proves to be an example of film as an extremely valuable cultural artifact.
Adventures , made during a time when the travails of the Great Depression were beginning to ease, was produced by Warner Brothers, the studio most closely linked to President Franklin Roosevelt. The New Deal had recently passed labor legislation that was making possible the unionization of millions of industrial workers, while the government itself was employing millions more to work on repairing the nation's infrastructure. In Hollywood, a Jewish-dominated studio system had been consolidated and was in the early phase of its most creative period. Despite the studios' vigorous opposition to the unsuccessful California gubernatorial campaign of social-
ist Upton Sinclair in 1934, the industry was left-of-center on most issues. Swelled by refugees from Nazi persecution and moved by the valor of Loyalist Spain, Hollywood was ardently antifascist. Hollywood was also at this time informed by Washington that the president would welcome motion pictures that extolled democratic values and presented England in as positive a light as possible. While not a direct or conscious response to these political currents, Adventures faithfully reflected them in its energetic espousal of democratic values rooted in the culture of the common people of England.
Costume action films had done well for Warner Brothers in the past, and after seeing Erroll Flynn in Captain Blood (1935) Jack Warner thought he would be ideal in the title role for what would be the studio's highest-budgeted film to date. The script that came from Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller was faithful to Robin Hood folklore. The major thrust, spiced with a low-key romance and feudal weaponry, is restoration of legitimate government.
When King Richard the Lion-Hearted is delayed returning from the Crusades, his brother, Prince John (Claude Rains), aided by Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), conspires to usurp the throne. They lead a group of Norman lords in an economic and sometimes literal destruction of the Saxon countryside in what amounts to a replay of the original Norman Conquest some hundred years earlier. Robin of Locksley Hall, a Saxon, stands as the only noble in the realm who will take up arms in defense of Richard's throne. He spits out his challenge to Prince John at a lavish banquet and then proceeds to Sherwood Forest to rally the Saxon masses of Nottinghamshire.
As played by Flynn, Locksley has no ambiguities. When Locksley laughs, he puts his hands on hips and tosses back his head. To make his speeches more dramatic, he leaps to a tabletop or a tree stump to stand slightly above his audience. He dons the garments and cap of the masses. He is cheeky yet charming. Never for an instant do we doubt his cause will prevail. Never for an instant do we mistake him for a real person. He is a myth. He is—Robin Hood. (See figure 7.)
Robin's political agenda is spelled out for the masses in several speeches. He ends his initial Sherwood rally by having his followers swear an oath not only to Richard but to "our people." The so-called outlaws vow that they will help the poor, the aged, the widowed, and victims of injustice. Rather than bandits, they are Loyalists, a kind of popular militia. Almost a guerrilla band. Later, the sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) will complain that he cannot capture them because the people of Nottingham inform the outlaws of his every move.
In contrast to their depiction fifty years later, the common people are extremely competent. They are so skilled in warfare that they never lose a
battle with either the sheriff's men or the prince's knights. They make their forest sanctuary impregnable and set up a roadhouse for liaisons with outside supporters. Their counterattacks soon put an end to the most brutal of the Norman expropriations and tax collections.
Among the band's aristocratic supporters is Lady Marian (Olivia De Havilland), King Richard's niece. Originally she is not at all taken with Robin, whom she finds an offensive braggart and probable traitor. Once
shown what is really going on in Sherwood Forest, however, her attitudes change and in the course of her conversion, she falls in love with Robin. Although garbed from head to toe in clinging garments that leave only the skin of her face exposed, she manages to be sensual while preserving an air of modesty. The gallant Robin makes one foray to her castle room, and a single chaste kiss is sufficient to seal their commitment. When Prince John and Sir Guy realize where Marian stands, they plot to murder her as soon as John gains the throne.
From the vast Robin Hood folklore available to further the plot, the screenwriters selected two elements: the recruitment of Friar Tuck and the archery contest. Each is given a political twist antithetical to the values of the 1991 adaptation. Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette), who wears a tin helmet at all times, is introduced to Robin as one of the most dangerous swordsmen in England. Portly though he may be and much as he loves his ale, Tuck has sworn a vow of poverty and is militantly pro-Richard. After some mandatory macho swordplay, Tuck joins the Sherwood band. Throughout the film, he will be counterpoised to High Church officials who cooperate with John. The echoes of Spain are again obvious.
Robin's renown as an archer serves as the basis for a sequence that illustrates how the best leader can be guilty of hubris. Prince John sponsors an archery contest to lure his adversary from the forest. Against all counsel, Robin participates. The other archers, all commoners, are the best marksmen from each region of the kingdom. They are so skilled, in fact, that Robin can only win by piercing his opponent's arrow with a double bull's eye. The legendary shot reveals the man disguised as a tinker to be Robin Hood, and he is immediately arrested.
Once more the common people demonstrate their organizational and military skills. Marian's lady-in-waiting, who has become romantically linked with one of Robin's stalwarts, arranges for Marian to meet with the Sherwood leaders at the roadhouse. They plan what becomes a successful rescue of Robin. This reversal of the standard formula—a female and commoners rescuing the male leader—is emblematic of an era in which artistic works frequently featured strong women and militant workers. A disguised King Richard (Ian Hunter) now appears on the scene and quickly discovers who is loyal to his cause. The balance of the film's action deals with Richard's restoration to power by military force and the reforging of the Norman-Saxon peace symbolized by the marriage of Marian and Robin.
Many of the strengths of Adventures are the strengths of the studio system. The film's swift and bold sequences reflect the confidence of the film-makers in their craft and purpose. Michael Curtiz directs with his usual verve and has Robin go through a series of strides, leaps, and swings, often with weapons in hand. All the stunts were done by Flynn himself and his Australian accent gives his speech a distinctive quality that is not quite En-
glish but definitely not American. The action is punctuated throughout with a rousing score that won Erich Wolfgang Korngold an Academy Award and set a genre standard.
Each of the major and supporting roles is played to stereotype, but played brilliantly. Among the outstanding performances are Rathbone's insidious Guy, Pallete's garrulous Tuck, Rains's epicene John, and Hunter's regal Richard. Even so able a scene stealer as Alan Hale is hard pressed to hold his own as the jovial Little John. The fluidity of the performances is aided by the fact that these contract players worked regularly with one another and a limited number of technicians. Their efforts are further enhanced by gorgeous costumes and lavish sets designed to fully exploit a new color process the studio introduced with Adventures . The sets are brightly lit to highlight the colors and reinforce the general sense of camaraderie and optimism.
Adventures proved to be Warner Brothers' biggest moneymaker of the year and one of the industry's top ten hits. From a genre perspective, it has been judged one of the best films of its kind in the Hollywood canon. Content to work with mythic elements never taken beyond two dimensions, Adventures boldly asserts a profound democratic ethos and faith in justice. Fifty years later, this fanfare to the common people remains as fresh and vivid as the now classic comic books of the same era.
The national ethos evident when Thieves was being made was decidedly different from that of the New Deal. Although the cold war had been "won," there was a sense of national decline. Domestic and international financial scandals were endemic, the United States had become a debtor nation for the first time since World War I, and parents feared their children would not have as good a life as they had enjoyed. Trust was often placed in invisible market forces to handle intractable cultural problems. In Hollywood, the old studio system was gone. Rather than a steady stream of modest moneymakers, the industry was now dependent upon blockbuster hits. The studios were less manufacturing complexes than financial fulcrums that mounted projects whose success increasingly depended on bankable stars.
The new Robin Hood venture had the backing of Warner Brothers, the producer of the Flynn epic. The linchpin of the new star vehicle was Kevin Costner, already a bankable star in the United States and about to become internationally bankable as the star of Dances with Wolves . Costner, in fact, arrived on Robin Hood set only three days after completing work on Dances . His involvement with the new film was mainly due to his personal friendship with director Kevin Reynolds. (See figure 8.)
The script of Thieves, mostly developed by Pat Denshaw, made no effort to remain faithful to the myth of Robin Hood. The basic strategy was to update the story with politically correct ideology and a stab at deconstruc-
tion. To those ends, Denshaw grafted racial and sexual liberation themes to the myth and opted for medieval muck and grit rather than medieval tapestry and pomp. Perhaps fearing comparison with Flynn, Robin was written as a clumsy everyman, more often confused than in command. Further complicating the script's design were elements intended to mock the genre itself. Any of these strategies might have produced an interesting film, but the amalgam resulted in a clumsy bag of tricks often in conflict with one another. If Adventures may be thought of as successful high baroque, then Thieves is failed rococo.
Characteristic of the film's mood is the dark lighting that renders even Sherwood Forest as a dismal place. Most drab is Robin himself, in costume, speech, character, and manner. Costner remains the country bumpkin baseball fan of Field of Dreams . His occasional attempt at an English accent is quarterhearted at best. He is awkward and witless, lacking charm as a military leader or lover. Scenes that try to give the character some mythic qualities are undone by realistic but unnecessary details that often lapse into the worst nationalistic excesses.
The film limps to a false start by placing Robin in the Holy Land as a Crusader. We first see him as a prisoner about to be beheaded in a Jerusalem dungeon. Through a not very convincing trick, he foils his executioners even as the fatal blade descends. The purpose of this contrived gambit is
to introduce fellow captive and escapee Azeem the Moor (Morgan Freeman). Thus, the conditions are set for a possible medieval version of the white guy/black guy buddy films such as the Lethal Weapon series, so successful in the 1980s.
In order to justify Azeem remaining with Robin, the film offers the notion that Azeem feels morally obliged to stay with Robin, who has just saved his life, until Azeem can return the favor. This white man's notion of Near East morality is even more bizarre as Azeem is otherwise shown as intellectually and technologically superior to all the European characters. Azeem proves to be too old to be Robin's buddy and too young to be his surrogate father. There is no chemistry between them and Azeem becomes a burden to the film's plot. Much like the huge ceremonial sword Azeem carries about as if it were a fighting weapon, the character of the Moor is just a gimmick that fails.
The two men return to England in a process mercifully left vague. Robin soon discovers that his father has been murdered by the sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) on the false charge of devil worship. The sheriff emerges as the major villain of the film as he plunders the countryside for personal profit while also lusting after Lady Marian. The Norman-Saxon plot line is totally ignored and Prince John's machinations are a side issue. Unlike the somewhat goofy sheriff of 1938, the 1991 sheriff is a psychopath who seems to have wandered into the film from a performance of the Theater of the Ridiculous. His confidant is the witch Mortianna (Geraldine McEwan), who may also be his mother. Mortianna comes with unsightly warts, black pots, snakes, and other Halloween-like paraphernalia. The two characters are so overplayed that the term camp would be generous. Against such silly and unworthy foes, even Flynn or Fairbanks would have had a hard time appearing heroic.
The Nottingham commoners are an equally uninspiring lot. They are presented as ignorant farmers, unaware of their economic rights under feudalism and totally unskilled in weapons. Robin has to cajole them to rebel, and he and Azeem must work very hard to make them even minimally competent as fighters. The filmmakers have no sense of the English yeoman tradition or the role of the English longbow in military history. Several scenes have Robin using a crossbow as if it were a pistol, a slighting of the longbow that works as poorly as Mortianna's concoctions.
Robin's followers arrive with wives and children who set up a tenement house din in the green. The individuals are a depressing lot often lacking in common sense and speaking in a variety of accents. Friar Tuck (Michael McShane) is the worst of the lot. Void of any political or religious dimension, he is loyal to whoever provides him free ale. His conception is too sophomoric to offer comic relief, much less add a note of cynicism. Not surpris-
ingly, the Sherwood camp is not very neat or ably defended. The sheriff locates it through a simple ruse, destroys it, and takes numerous captives.
In direct contrast to 1938, it is Robin who rides to the rescue of the masses. The key element in this action is a high-tech weapon of its day, gunpowder, which is miraculously provided by Azeem. Miraculous it must be, as gunpowder was not actually used in war for another fifty years. Azeem also comes up with a telescope four hundred years ahead of its time. The problem is not just feel-good black history, as the sheriff uses printed wanted posters more than two hundred years before the invention of the printing press. These elements are not offered as technological comedy as in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, but as realism. This indicates either an inexcusable sloppiness in research or utter contempt for the viewing audiences' sense of history.
The ethnic sensitivity of the film is as threadbare as its historical accuracy. Having gone out of its way to honor non-European culture, the film has the Sherwood camp overrun by a horde of Celts imported by the sheriff. These men and women are as wild as the creatures that forced Hadrian to build his wall in pre-Christian times. One wonders how the Celts got to Nottingham undetected and what is to happen to them once the battle is over. Never for an instant do we think Celtic culture is anything but utterly barbaric.
The character of Lady Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is also bungled. Her first encounter with Robin is contrived so that she can pass off her muscular maid as herself in order to get behind Robin and place a blade to his back while garbed in an outfit that appears to be left over from The Mark of Zorro . Her original suspicion of Robin is never clarified, and one wonders how long Robin has been away if he cannot differentiate between the curvaceous Marian and her hefty maid. Nevertheless, the two quickly fall in love. While more verbally and sexually liberated (on the surface at least) than previous Marians, the 1991 Marian proves helpless before the sheriff's intrigues. Robin must literally catapult himself over a castle wall to rush to her rescue as she is being raped by the sheriff. Azeem gets the job of dispatching Mortianna. Yet another odd twist to the tale involves the return of Richard the Lion-Hearted. The king plays no role in the plot, and when he shows himself in the last scenes, he is not Richard at all, but Sean Connery. That is, we are expected to respond to him as Connery, not as a character. We are to remember that he has played an aged Robin in Robin and Marian and that he is the quintessential Agent 007. Connery is not listed in the credits or any of the film's advertising. The manner of his presentation is cinematic self-reference at its most juvenile.
The film's subtitle is also meaningless. Robin is neither prince, nor thief. Never once do we see him rob the rich, much less give to the poor, the
essence of his modern myth. With religious, class, ethnic, and political issues absent, character motivation is largely individualistic. Rather than a bottom-up mass rebellion, the film shows trickle-down elite leadership. Without their clumsy former Crusader, the people of Nottingham would be hapless victims of the nutty sheriff, with nary a thought of Prince John or King Richard.
Critical reaction to Thieves was savage. The film was considered far too violent and sexually explicit for children and too artless for adults. But the studio's faith in the bankable star was vindicated. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves had the good fortune to be released after the fabulously successful Dances with Wolves . Enough Costner fans were generated by Dances to make Thieves a financial success. For all its aesthetic shortcomings, Thieves was also in tune with many of the cinematic trends of its day. As the American century entered its last decade, novelty increasingly passed as originality, incoherence as style, plagiarism as homage, and cynicism as candor. Challenging gender and ethnic themes were toyed with but never seriously engaged. Literary and historical names were appropriated for their recognition value without much concern for their original context. Having lost faith in the future, American cinema also seemed to have lost faith in the past.
Bartlett, Neil. "The Voyeur's Revenge," Sight and Sound 2, no. 5 (September 1992). A light-hearted homosexual response to Flynn's Robin Hood.
Buehrer, Beverly Bare. "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." In Magill's Cinema Annual,
1992. Pasadena: Salem Press, 1992. Strong on historical errors in the film. Bibliography provides references to eighteen popular reviews of the film.
Hirschhorn, Clive. The Warner Brothers Story. New York: Crown Publishers, 1979. Heavily illustrated studio history.
Holt, J. C. Robin Hood. London: Thames and Hudson, 1982. Traces the origins and evolution of the Robin Hood legend from before its first written expression in 1450. Cinema, however, is not discussed.
Pyle, Howard. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. New York: Charles Scribners, 1883. A rendering that had a huge mass audience in the United States for decades.