Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Someday, I will make The Ultimate Robin Hood Movie, or at least, My Version of the Ultimate Robin Hood Movie. I am hardly unique in the desire to bring this medieval tale to the big screen. Moviemakers have been visiting and revisiting Sherwood Forest since the silent era, and with good reason. Everyone likes Robin Hood. He’s a dashing, charming rogue with mad archery skillz who robs the rich, feeds the poor, and gets the girl. What’s not to like?

As with all timeless tales, each generation gets the Robin Hood they deserve. The story works fine on its own, allowing filmmakers to highlight the concerns, styles and trends of their own particular eras.
In 2010, we are about to get Ridley Scott’s version. Judging from the trailer, it looks epic, humorless and violent, with curiously mature actors filling out the leads. With all due respect to Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, I have always envisioned Robin Hood and Maid Marian as passionate young lovers rather than 40-something Oscar-winners. Sir Ridley continues the ironic tradition of casting a non-Englishman as that most English of heroes (weird, isn’t it). I have my concerns (a shiny-armored Maid Marian riding into battle?). But hey, it’s still a Robin Hood movie, so I’ll be sure to check it out. But before I go, I felt that I should look back on some earlier cinematic versions of the Robin Hood tlegend, and see what they could tell me about their time periods.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley

Ever seen a Bollywood movie? For the uninitiated, Bollywood is India’s film industry, the world’s most prolific, which produces hundreds of movies each year. Typical Bollywood productions are fanciful extravaganzas filled with music, chaste romance and bloodless adventure made to appeal to vast swaths of humanity, including millions living in wretched poverty. With its dazzling colors and innocent romanticism, The Adventures of Robin Hood could comfortably share a double bill with the latest offering from Bombay.

If you want evidence as to why the Hollywood (with an “H”) studio system peaked during the Great Depression, this movie could serve as Exhibit A. It is relentlessly cheerful, optimistic and colorful in ways that are laughable for a modern American audience, but it must have picked up the spirits of the impoverished back in the day. With athletic swagger and wise-ass quips, Errol Flynn bounces through every scene like a gazelle (albeit a bright green Bedazzled™ gazelle). His band of Merry Men aren’t so much a forest-dwelling guerilla squad as a bunch of good-humored drinking buddies who swing on vines in goofy outfits whilst redistributing wealth to the masses. What downtrodden Hooverville resident (or Slumdog) wouldn’t want to join these scamps in their quest to stick it to The Man? Olivia de Havilland is every inch the damsel in distress, and her own goofy outfits range in style from Sparkly Habit to Sequined Swiss Miss. “England” never looked as sunny as it does in this movie. It all seems rather cartoonish today, but America needed a cartoon back then, just like India does now.

And speaking of cartoons…

Robin Hood (1973) Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman

Walt Disney died in 1966, and with him went the lush, vivid, and expensive animation style that made his studio famous. Lots of animation buffs see the years following Uncle Walt’s demise as a lackluster time for the studio. I respectfully disagree with them. Sure, movies like The Aristocats, The Rescuers
and The Fox and the Hound may not have the same dazzling production values of the Disney “classics” of old, but they also lack those films’ pretentiousness. The Disney movies of the 1970s have a shaggy charm about them. Rather than grandly executed fairy tales, they are modest bedtime stories more likely to give you a good chuckle than to inspire awe. And Robin Hood is the best of the bunch.

Ooh De Lally, would I like to know what they were smoking during the Robin Hood brainstorming sessions (it was the early 70s, after all)! I imagine the pitch going like this:
“Okay, so we’re gonna do Robin Hood, but with animals instead of people. And it’s gonna be a Western. And there’s gonna be a hoedown in Sherwood Forest. And drag humor. And boob jokes.” And that’s exactly what they did. The choice to make each character an animal underlines their personalities in a playful and effective way (Robin Hood is a sly fox, Little John is a big-hearted bear, Richard the Lionhearted is, uh, a lion). The dialogue is hilarious, particularly the banter between Peter Ustinov’s Prince John and Terry-Thomas’ Sir Hiss (name me another Disney flick with memorable comic repartee, besides Aladdin), and the songs are terrific. The whole movie feels like it was made by a bunch of good-humored hippies who had just watched M*A*S*H. And that’s a good thing.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) Directed (more or less) by Kevin Reynolds

I know it’s hard to believe, kids, but twenty years ago Kevin Costner was the hottest star in Hollywood. He was on a massive winning streak – The Untouchables, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and his personal best Dances With Wolves
all came out in the space of four years. He was the All-American Movie Star with two Oscars to boot. So when the chance to star as Robin Hood came along, he wasn’t going to let his limited acting range and unmistakably Californian accent stand in his way (to be fair, Errol Flynn wasn’t the greatest of actors either). Thus, the world was given Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I loved this movie when I was twelve. Back then, I didn’t much care that Old Kev-bo sounded more like a surfer than a Saxon nobleman. The action was good, the settings were appropriately gritty, and Alan Rickman made a hilarious and kick-ass Sheriff of Nottingham.

Now that I am old and jaded, however, the film’s flaws are easier to spot. It was a notoriously rushed and difficult production, and it shows. Tonally, the movie is all over the place and its oh-so-1990s stabs at political correctness come across as half-assed. Morgan Freeman’s exotic and educated Moor helpfully introduces the Merry Men to the wonders of telescopes and gunpowder, yet has no wants or ambitions of his own other than protecting the hero’s life. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Maid Marian is introduced as a masked warrior who nearly cuts Robin to pieces, and is then stuck as a vulnerable damsel for the rest of the movie. Worst of all, when the Sheriff attempts to rape her (!), it seems to be played for laughs. Yuck!

And then there is Kev-bo’s monstrous ego that radiates through every frame. Rumor has it that he and the producers took over the editing of the film, and man, does this movie love Kevin Fucking Costner! When he gives what is supposed to be a rousing speech calling the Marry Men to action, he comes off more like a schoolyard bully bending the weaker kids to his will than a charismatic leader of men. And that damn waterfall scene! Maid Marian stumbles upon a nude Robin taking a dip and gazes longingly at his manly physique (well, partially his physique – a stunt butt was employed). Even in his heyday, I don’t recall Kev-bo being known for his sexy bod. Hell, that very summer a couple of doors down in the multiplex, Brad Pitt was putting all mankind’s bodies to shame in Thelma & Louise, so that lingering gaze on Marian’s face is just a bit much. Get over yourself, Kev.

Such was the way of the world in 1991. How quickly the times change.

So, on Friday I will be off to see Ridley & Russell’s take on the Sherwood Bandit. Of course, it will never be as good as My Version of the Ultimate Robin Hood Movie, but it could be pretty awesome, nonetheless. I am always willing to give Robin Hood the benefit of the doubt, and I’ll be there. With tights on.

1 comment:

Speck said...

I'm just not excited for the movie. Dont know why. Nothing steps out as EPIC and MUST see to me.