There are just some heroes that everyone knows about. There are heroes and legends that transcend race, nationality or gender or religion. They are icons. They stand for something, and they reach for an ideal that for the most part, we all admire or even aspire to. The Merry Outlaw is one of them. If you don’t believe me prove it to yourself….go ask ten random people “Who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor?” At least half or more will tell you…Robin Hood.
I won’t even try to hide it; Robin Hood has been a favorite hero of mine since I was a kid. I’m not a brit, and I I’m not an archer, but heck, Robin was always just bad ass cool. The overlying theme of his story is he robbed from those who had too much to give to those that had nothing, and he risked his neck to do it. He also took time to tweak the nose of the oppressors with a laugh and a smile. Who wouldn’t love a guy like that? He was stickin’ it to the man before stickin’ it to the man became a well known catch phrase! Of course then, he makes the perfect star for a variety of movies. The interesting thing about Robin Hood is that he’s never quite the same in any two movies he appears in. That’s probably because he did exist in some way, shape or form in the dim, misty past, and his story has been retold with so many variations…well, it’s just ripe for the creative storyteller.
Historians and scholars have suggested that Robin was everything from a thuggish highwayman in the middle ages to an Earl, a noble. His story seems to have changed through ballads and writings to suit the times in which it’s being told. Sherwood Forest isn’t even the place many scholars think he lived in, but it’s become so associated with Robin Hood, that it’s almost impossible to not think of Robin Hood when someone mentions Sherwood Forest. When the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott included Robin Hood in his novel, Ivanhoe, it seems he began the current trend of Robin Hood of Robin as a crusader, fighting to save England from tyranny and bring an end to Norman-Saxon infighting. Note that Robin Hood isn’t a main character in Ivanhoe, but his appearance there kind of gets the ball rolling for his future telling.
Robin Hood has been in many films (and TV series) and the earliest one I can find any information on was made in 1913, but the earliest movie that many people nowadays will have seen is the 1938 movie “The adventures of Robin Hood”, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. It’s pretty hard to top Flynn’s Robin Hood….he’s charismatic, bold, mischievous and righteous. This version of the bold outlaw is what probably cemented in the public’s mind, what Robin Hood’s band was like. Characters like Maid Marian, (Robin’s main squeeze) and Friar Tuck weren’t prominent in the first ballads but seem to have attached themselves to the legend over the centuries. In the 1938 feature they’re major players, and the ones that many of us know now as Robin’s good companions. Like Robin’s lieutenant, Little John, these characters are in practically every movie, TV show and story about the outlaw after that. It seems that this film also firmly established that Robin Hood was more than a mere bandit, but a Saxon noble out to stop the Normans from persecuting the Saxons and preserve the throne of King Richard while Prince John tries to usurp it. (One fun fact…The Adventures of Robin Hood is a great movie to watch, but in one scene a modern day truck can be seen driving through Sherwood Forest.)
These elements became a major part of the modern legend….perhaps because of the time they were put on screen. With the Nazis taking power in Europe in the late 30’s and WWII looming, through the 50’s and 60’s, with racial inequality being a fact of life, it was probably a good thing to show a hero that did the right thing to help the downtrodden, while fighting against the legitimate (but inherently evil) authority. It may not have been the intent to be socially relevant in these movies that followed the 1938 film, or the TV shows that sprang out of the legends, but like most stories that are retold over and over, Robin Hood’s evolved to fit the times. The 1950’s TV show version of Robin Hood’s adventures (Starring Richard Greene and Donald Pleasance as the Prince!) is a typical show of that period. Robin is a brash adventurer, as always in it, but he’s also kind of a big brother/ Father figure to his Merry Men, almost like any of the “Father knows all of the answers” shows from that era. In one episode, Little John is upset, feeling that Will Scarlet has taken his place as Robin’s right hand man, and Robin has to show him that he is still a valuable ally.
Robin Hood’s career quite naturally lends itself well to entertainment for kids, so he’s been in comics and cartoons aplenty. Its no stretch that he inspired modern day superheroes like Green Arrow and Hawkeye….and in the 60’s he had a futuristic version of himself “Rocket Robin Hood” where he lived on Sherwood Asteroid and foiled the plots of a space age Prince John and Sheriff of NOTT. And you know Disney couldn’t let the opportunity slip to portray him as a funny animal in their feature about him. The 1976 movie Robin and Marian, Sean Connery plays a different kind of Robin Hood….this movie takes place after the well known legends and shows Robin in his twilight years. I haven’t been able to get a copy as of yet, but I’ve heard it’s a bit depressing but very entertaining. Try to figure that out.
Still, for the most part, all of these retellings had the basic ingredients established earlier in the 20th century by the Flynn movie; Maid Marian, Tuck, Allan-A-Dale (who seems to appear sporadically, depending on what movie or show you’re watching), the Norman-Saxon struggle and the famous Archery match where Robin splits an arrow in the bulls eye of a target. But things change with the times, as I wrote earlier. In 1991 Robin Hood was on the big screen again, this time played by Kevin Costner. There’s no Prince John trying to take over the realm, but there is a villainous Sheriff of Nottingham in this movie…..though Little John makes his appearance in a variation of the original ballad’s “fight over who crosses the river first” duel; he turns out to not be Robin’s best companion. This time Robin brings Azeem, a moor with him (Morgan “Easy reader” Freeman) and his fight with the Sheriff is more about vengeance than it is saving the kingdom. There’s no reference at all to the Norman-Saxon feud, and magic is involved….the sheriff in this version is the son of a witch! A lot of people have thoroughly trashed this movie, for various reasons, but I think it’s just a sign of the times. It was made to be a “summer blockbuster” type of film, so in the action department it doesn’t slow down much. It was the 90’s so it had to be hip to throw a Black Guy in there, and hey, kids won’t dig it if there’s no witch and some allusion to dark magic, I’m sure the writers thought. And just to totally throw a spanner in the legends, Friar Tuck, who in previous incarnations was an able swordsman and wise advisor, is a drunken priest that talks more about ale than he does God. These changes aren’t a bad thing unless you’re a Robin Hood purist. (Which in that case you’ll wretch when Robin finds out that Will Scarlet is his long lost brother) Robin Hood: Prince of thieves isn’t really an awful movie; it’s just a different way of telling the story of Robin Hood, albeit a totally fictional one….another, more-grounded-in-reality is the Patrick Bergen version also made in 1991 for TV. With Uma Thurman as Maid Marian, and Will Scarlet taking the part of Little John as Robin’s main henchman, it’s actually a very entertaining movie. It seems like these modern versions of the Outlaw completely throw out the archery match and paint Robin as less of a crusader for Saxon rights and more of a man out to get some payback. Bergen’s Robin Hood becomes an outlaw mainly because he’s pissed off at Baron Daguerre, a Norman royal that well, just plain made him mad.
But I think its interesting that those two latest variations of the Man of the greenwood didn’t include some of the elements that most people are used to and changed things up a bit. It just goes to show you that Robin Hood is an Iconic Hero that still has popularity today….even though he’s about 6 or 7 hundred years old. Action movies, romance movies, comedies like Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and When Things were Rotten, Cartoons and TV shows; Robin Hood can almost claim to beat Howard Stern as King of All media. As long as the world has people willing to stand up for the poor, or fight for a just cause, there will always be room for Robin Hood’s stories. Let’s hope the gallant Hero doesn’t stay way from the silver screen for too long.
Checkout this site for more information on the Gallant Robin Hood.