Features and Columns

A Brief History of Robin Hood In the Movies

Robin Hood
By  · Published on May 12th, 2010

What I find most fascinating about the fact that Robin Hood is back in theaters this weekend is that the character is 600 years old. This would be like Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter living on in adaptations in future artistic mediums through the year 2577.

It’s an incredible achievement not only because of how long a character that was born in ballads has lasted, but because of how many films and television show have featured the green-tighted scoundrel who robs from the rich and gives to the poor.

Counting television episodes that evoke the name and films that outright use him, there are probably somewhere in the neighborhood of two hundred adaptations, and Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is merely the most recent. It definitely won’t be the last.

Here are just a few of those adaptations in a rich cinematic history of soaring arrows and swash being buckled.

1908 – Robin Hood and His Merry Men

The Robin: Robin Hood

The Pitch: This is the first instance on film of the character, and it’s found in a short directed by Percy Stow. The man had already directed over 100 shorts before tackling the subject (including one of the first on-screen appearances of another enduring character: Alice in Wonderland).

1922 – Robin Hood

The Robin: The Earl of Huntingdon

The Pitch: Perhaps one of the best known, older examples is the incredible Douglas Fairbanks version. At a cost of approximately $1 million, it was one of the largest productions of the entire decade. Here we see a Robin who leaves King Richard’s crusades presumed a coward, is made an outlaw once back in England, learns of his lover’s apparent death, and must swing around a bunch of trees in order to be the gadfly to the Prince John-ruled state.

It was written, produced, and starring Fairbanks, and it included all the known characters. Marian, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet, Alan-a-Dale, and Little John. In fact, the actor Alan Hale would go on to play Little John again in the next film on the list.

1938 – The Adventures of Robin Hood

The Robin: Robin, Earl of Locksley

The Pitch: It’s convenient how all the titles are basically the same, and even more convenient when an actor returns to play the role. Alan Hale played Little John here, but instead of Fairbanks, it was alongside the ridiculously acrobatic Errol Flynn. The story is also basically the same as we know – including the deer-poaching scenario where the ruthless Guy of Gisbourne attempts to jail a young man for hunting only to be thwarted by Robin Hood.

The other interesting feature here is the continuation of the epic. This film also came with a huge price tag for its time, and it included thousands of extras and sweeping camera shots. Alongside the Fairbanks version, it began a trend of filmmakers having to go big or go home when dealing with Robin Hood.

1952 – The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men

The Robin: Robin Hood

The Pitch: Disney tossed its feathered cap into the ring with a live-action version that came a few decades before the foxy, animated version from the studio. It wasn’t notable for changing or adding anything to the story, however it gained a positive reaction for Richard Todd’s pompadoured version of the outlaw and Joan Rice’s Marian. Todd was a sex symbol of the 1950s who appeared in war and sword films like Dam Busters and would have been the first James Bond had fate (and a conflicting shooting schedule) not intervened. Interestingly enough, the real first Bond would play Robin Hood just a few decades later.

By now, the story had really been set in concrete. Crusades, Prince John, Deer-poaching, Archery Tournament, Capture, Escape, Victory and King Richard. The formula was in place just in time for it to get turned on its head.

1964 – Robin and the 7 Hoods

The Robin: Robbo

The Pitch: The 1960s actually saw a few variations on the story, but Frank Sinatra’s turn as the icon is the most notable. Instead of Sherwood, we find ourselves in Chicago, and instead of the Crusades, it’s Prohibition when the city was under gangster rule. Of course.

And, of course, it’s a musical – which actually carries on a fairly strong musical tradition for the property, although whoever included the song “All For One and One For All,” might have had his stories confused.

With the tiresome story being retread every few years and the penchant for Sinatra to place all of his friends into roles, the opportunity to switch up the story to one that favored Sinatra’s strong suits (pinstripe) worked perfectly. I personally can’t imagine him donning tights and prancing around the forest with Dean Martin talking about overthrowing a false government over martinis.

1976 – Robin and Marian

The Robin: Robin Hood

The Pitch: As mentioned before, the animated Disney version came out in 1973 and reminds a favorite because of its ability to transplant Baloo the Bear into Sherwood Forest. Still, the Richard Lester-directed Robin and Marian deserves an entry here because it represents a modification of the characters. This film finds Sean Connery as Robin (who would go on later to play King Richard in another well-known version) and Audrey Hepburn as Marian. Audrey Hepburn! It’s crazy.

They’re both a bit older, and honestly the story isn’t all that different. They fight in a war in France where King Richard dies, close friends Little John and Robin return to England to rejoin the band at Sherwood Forest to find that Maid Marian has been captured by the also-older Sheriff of Nottingham. In all honesty, it’s the same damned story with old people which means, well, that it ends a bit differently.

1991 – Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

The Robin: Sir Robin of Locksley

The Pitch: Kevin Reynolds’s version of the story is probably, for better or worse, the most recognized of this current generation. That stems from several reasons, including the falling off of popularity of the character in decades after. This was the last, big budget studio version of the story until Ridley Scott ruined its nearly two decade-long streak. Even with its flaws, it still delivered Morgan Freeman and Alan Rickman, but it also delivered Kevin Costner’s ass.

Here, again, the story is just about the same as it always has been, with a gravelly-voiced Guy of Gisbourne and a Sheriff threatening to dig people’s hearts out with spoons. What stands out about the film is that it eschews sets mostly for more realistic castles and forest settings (when compared to the sound stage-like early attempts). It also, in true 90s epic fashion, demanded a ridiculous contemporary love song as its theme. Thanks, Bryan Adams. And thanks, Sean Connery, for showing up at the end to make out with Marian.

Oddly enough, 1991 also saw the Uma Thurman-as-Marian version where Robin has to face different bad guys.

1993 – Robin Hood: Men In Tights

The Robin: Robin of Loxley

The Pitch: Like musicians being mocked by Weird Al, a character isn’t an icon unless he or she is spoofed. It’s the rule. Fortunately, after many different comedic attempts, the world finally got a master behind a send up of Robin and his Merry Men in Tights. Interestingly, Brooks mostly makes fun of how the character has been treated in cinema instead of just sending up Robin himself. It takes elements from the 1922 and 1938 versions (like carrying a boar over his shoulders) as well as the modern tellings (like the lack of Costner’s British accent or Connery’s cameo) in order to point out how ridiculous the whole thing is.

I realize there’s no proof for it being the cause, but the appearance of this film coincides with the disappearance of the character as a major production staple. Even if it didn’t kill the character, it still stands as the most prominent comedic version – a necessary element in the continued icon status for any well-known entity.

2001 – Princess of Thieves

The Robin: Gwyn, the Daughter of Robin Hood and Maid Marian

The Pitch: Like the comedic version, the geriatric versions and the teenaged versions, this might be the first fairly major appearance of the character as a woman. Kiera Knightley starred in this production which saw the daughter of the famous swashbuckler having to rescue dear old dad when he gets captured by an older version of the Sheriff. Think of it as what might have happened if Sean Connery’s hip had broken during his battles for Robin and Marian.

Most of the story elements have been changed here to accommodate for a new hero to emerge out of the shadow of her father. However, it does include a rightful Prince returning and Gwyn helping him gain his throne from the villainous hands. And finding love along the way.

2010 – Robin Hood

The Robin: Robin Longstride

The Pitch: The promise of the most recent incarnation is of the untold story, which sounds an awful lot like the story we’ve heard over and over again. Robin returns from the crusades and has to battle the tyrannical arm of the Sheriff of Nottingham and make Marian fall in love with him because he’s taken over the identity of her husband after he and three other fighters (Little John, Will Scarlet, and Allan A’Dayle (finally returning to the story)) see several men killed on the road by the Guy-based bad guy Godfrey.

At a certain point, Ridley Scott described the story as one where the story is told from the perspective of the Sheriff, and then a story where Robin takes on the Sheriff’s title and identity after battle, but those versions didn’t make it past the conceptual stage.

Without having seen it, I can’t speak to what its role in continuing or adding to the character will be, but it does signify at least one thing in this long history of the story: a return to big budget treatment.

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