Posted in: Disc Reviews by Gino Sassani on May 12th, 2010
“Comrades, I’ve called you together again because the people of England face a grave crisis. Many years ago as Robin Hood, I led you as an outlaw band. Here in Sherwood Forest, together we resisted the tyrant King John. When he died, we dispersed because we believed that tyranny had died with him. But tyranny did not die. It merely slept. And now it has awakened again.”
Speak the name Robin Hood and one immediately conjures images of the swashbuckling hero of medieval England. The character’s origins go back as far as 15th century ballads that herald the daring deeds of an outlaw who fought against tyranny and injustice. In some texts the man is given a dual identity as one of the very noblemen that he had most of his fame defending the people against. The most popular modern notions have the figure in tights with a bow and arrow, equally talented with his sword. He robs from the rich to give to the poor. Such populist notions have been a part of the legends in whatever forms they have taken over the centuries. While the early legends and ballads place him at several locations in England, it is the famed Sherwood Forest dwelling that survives the telling to this day. Believe it or not, one of the earliest mentions of the character, Robin Hood And The Monk from around 1450, is actually a story of Little John as the prominent one, and Robin is merely a fanciful supporting character. He was considerably more religious during those days, dedicated to the visage of The Holy Blessed Mother. By the 16th century Robin Hood was the subject of a series of plays written by Anthony Munday. Here Robin’s nobility origins are made clear, as is his hatred of tyranny. The character we know today, however, didn’t begin to take shape until the 17th century and Martin Parker’s The True Tale Of Robin Hood. Still, with all of this rich literary history, Robin Hood’s iconic image owes much to the introduction of the motion picture. It is here that the flights of fancy were given free rein, and Robin Hood became one of the world’s first superheroes.
Sony has gathered together a collection of four of these films for release individually as a Robin Hood collection. You can credit the new Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott Robin Hood adventure for the renewed interest in the outlaw of Sherwood Forest. It’s such a nice gain for the true film aficionado.
The Bandit Of Sherwood Forest: (1946)
“It’s the same tyranny, different only in name. And now its name is William Pembroke, the Lord Regent. Now the Lord Regent calls the Council of Barons to a special meeting at Nottingham Castle. As the Earl of Huntington, I will attend, but no one knows what the outcome will be. But if he dares do anything to destroy the rights given you by the Magna Carta, we must take up our swords again. I’ve sent to Huntington for my son, Robert. Ever since he was a lad of 10, I’ve trained him for just such a time as this.”
Robin Hood was correct in his concerns. The Regent William Pembroke was planning to suspend the rights granted in the hard-fought Magna Carta. Robin is now an older man. It is his son, Robert, who will lead his own followers as well as the Band of Merry Men to defeat the plans of England’s newest tyrant. William removes the child king from his mother’s care. He intends to arrange a little “accident” for the boy king so that he can take over the throne for himself. Robin helps the Queen escape her own fate, and Robert rescues the king from certain death.
The film was an attempt to reboot the Robin Hood franchise by beginning the career of a second-generation Robin Hood. So Robin Hood was played by the elder actor Russell Hicks. His son Robert would be played by Cornel Wilde. The new franchise didn’t go any farther, but Wilde would make somewhat of a career out of the same swashbuckler character. He’d play a Musketeer and Sir Lancelot in future productions. William Pembroke would be played magnificently by Henry Daniell who I always loved in Val Lewton’s The Body Snatcher with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Anita Louise plays Lady Catherine, who becomes Robert’s Maid Marian. She has tremendous grace for such a limited character. Edgar Buchanan is a stand-out as Friar Tuck, always good for a little comic relief.
The film was based on a novel by Paul A. Castleton called The Son Of Robin Hood.
Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves: (1947)
“1000 gold coins for the head of Robin Hood, thief and bandit. By my consent and approbation, said outlaw may be killed on sight. Know ye also by this edict Allan Claire, Knight, and Friar Francis are named herewith accomplices to the aforementioned outlaw and such titles as the former may hold shall be forfeit. And effects possessed by them shall be confiscated – fixed Alwin, Earl of Nottingham.”
Prince John has been raising taxes to the breaking point so that he can raise a dowry for the Lady Christabel. He intends to marry her to gain power. Meanwhile Robin Hood saves a couple while out on patrol. The two are Maid Marian and Sir Allan Claire, who claims he is the true betrothed to the pending bride. He is also her true choice to marry. Robin Hood and his Merry Men must stop the wedding before it is too late.
This is actually quite a light-hearted version of the Robin Hood story. It depicts his first meeting of Maid Marian. Robin Hood is played by Jon Hall, pretty much a character actor of the day. Patricia Morison plays Marian. There’s not as much action in this film. Instead there’s a lot of sneaking around the castle on various rescue missions. Robin Raymond provides a ton of comic relief as the castle maid Maude, who is pretty popular with the men of the castle and is instrumental in helping Robin Hood escape the stronghold.
Rogues Of Sherwood Forest: (1950)
“The Bill of Rights and the liberty and justice we enjoy today stem from the Magna Carta, the great charter which the oppressed people of England forced from the tyrannical King John in the year 1215. King John was secretly planning to crush all who stood in the way of his ruthless ambition.”
As the film begins, King John is planning treachery for the jousting tournament he has invited the son of Robin Hood to attend. He has fixed the spears so that Robin’s would be harmless while that of his challenger Sir Baldrich will “accidentally” kill the outlaw’s son. It seems the King is still holding a grudge against the boy’s father. Not quite cricket, as the Brits say. The king is raising taxes to an oppressive level so that he can build up a tremendous army to bend the country to his will. When the jousting fix doesn’t work, the hangman’s noose will substitute just fine. But the young Robin Hood has found an ally in the King’s ward Marianne. When these plots don’t bring about the desired effect, the King intends to assassinate the barons, confiscate their wealth, and frame Robin Hood for their deaths. The King’s luck continues to run cold, another wedding is crashed, and the King is forced to sign the Magna Carta.
This film attempts to bring the Robin Hood legend in line with the true-to-life event of the signing of the Magna Carta. It’s an uneasy timeline that goes directly against the first film in this collection. Robin Hood the elder is nowhere to be found in this film at all. The cast included one of the bigger names of the time, John Derek, as the second generation Robin Hood. Little John was played by Alan Hale, who had been one of Hollywood’s most prolific actors. He had appeared in well near 250 films up to this one, which would be his last. In fact he died a full 6 months before this movie was released. He might be better known today as the father of another Alan Hale. You know Junior as The Skipper on the popular comedy Gilligan’s Island.
The Sword Of Sherwood Forest: (1960)
“Now Robin Hood’s in green Sherwood with all his outlaw band. He hunts the fallow deer for feed. The Sheriff hunts our man.”
Robin Hood is again fighting the tyranny of a ruthless Englishman. This time the story is the far more familiar fight with the Sheriff Of Nottingham. Although the real villain is Lord Newark, who intends to kill the Archbishop of Canterbury. When Robin gives shelter to a stranger being pursued by the soldiers of Nottingham, he finds that the injured man is so valuable to the Sheriff that Robin’s old enemy is willing to give him a pardon in exchange for the stranger. Unfortunately for both sides, the man dies, but not before Robin notices an insignia he wore on a chain. Robin recognizes it as the symbol for the Lord Newark. He attempts to go undercover inside of Newark’s band to get to the bottom of his plot. Once discovered, he must find some way to protect the Archbishop from Newark’s assassination plots.
This is a Hammer production and by far the most lavish of the four films offered here. Hammer prolific director Terence Fisher who was responsible for such horror classics which included several Christopher Lee Dracula films, The Mummy, and entries in the studio’s Frankenstein franchise. The film had high production values and more practical costumes, showing off less of the flamboyant tights and feathered caps. The role of Robin Hood went to Richard Greene who had played the role in a popular BBC series in 143 episodes over a 6-year run. It was no coincidence that Fisher was also involved in several episodes of The Adventures Of Robin Hood. Hammer regular the great Peter Cushing played the Sheriff Of Nottingham. Even Oliver Reed made a small appearance as one of Newark’s henchmen. It was a class act all the way and easily the best of these four films.
Each film is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio. They are all in color, a bit surprising for the earlier films. Of course, the results vary considerably. All of them show solid color and pretty nice prints even when you consider the ages. The exception is Prince of Thieves, which exhibits strange color bar intrusions and shifting levels of color and brightness. The bit rates are solid, and you do get about as good as you can expect here. Black levels are fair. There aren’t any serious compression problems. Age is the only limitation to these video presentations.
All of the films are presented in rather minimalistic Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks. Yes, there are some hiss elements and even distortion from time to time. Mostly, they are in pretty good condition, preserving what is most important, and that, of course, is the dialog.
Trailers for each of the films.
There’s little doubt that the huge Robin Hood film from Crowe and Scott is feeding a recent wave of Robin Hood fever. You can’t blame Sony for trying to cash in a little bit on that wave. But this isn’t merely a cash grab. The films are all of them entertaining pieces of the character’s history and deserve another look. If anything else, it will be fun to look at these older films and catch a firsthand glimpse at how much things have changed since the days of the swashbuckler genre. With CG enhanced sets and fight scenes, we’ve come a long way. Now, “We’re living in the age of miracles”.