MIdlands Feature - Cinematic Crusade - The Best Robin Hood movies
With Robin Hood, not since Sherlock Holmes has an iconic British legend been turned into so many movie adaptations over the years.
A report from the NME earlier this year says there are 7 Robin Hood films in the works. However, having just reviewed Robin Hood: The Rebellion I think they’ve missed at least one. Well, 7 or 8 is still a huge number for the same brand recognition but one thing is for sure – it’s a legend ripe for the reimagining!
With so many iterations over the years – from 1908’s "Robin Hood and his Merry Men" which marks the first appearance of the outlaw on screen to porn parody “Virgins of Sherwood Forest” – there hasn’t been a genre that the Robin mythos hasn’t been adapted into. But which of the many versions are the best? Well, with ours and Robin’s Midlands origins we attempt to look at 10 of the best Robin Hood films from cinematic folklore. Please read on...
10. Robin Hood (1991) Directed by John Irvin
The first of two 1991 Robin Hood films on our list – take a wild guess at the other – sees Patrick Bergin embody the outlaw whilst an up-and-coming actress by the name of Uma Thurman stars as Maid Marian. Directed by John “Raw Deal” Irvin and produced by John “Die Hard” McTiernan, sadly don’t expect too much in the way of solid action but owing to Kevin Costner’s huge film later in the year, this film has been regularly overlooked and certainly underappreciated. Fighting nobility, the plot uses the same set up as the 1938 film where a war between Normans and Saxons gets things moving but the movie sadly, and unwisely, jettisons the Sheriff of Nottingham (why?) for some new villains. Filmed on location at Peckforton Castle in Cheshire – a non-Nottingham theme we’ll be seeing more of later – the 19-year age gap between Begin and Thurman is a bit icky but it’s well worth checking out as a bit of a curio in the history of Hood on film.
Hood Fact: The use of "Your Majesty" wasn’t used until almost 200 years later, the word “thugs” derives from the Thuggee which Brits wouldn’t encounter for another five centuries, the bloodhound was not a favoured dog breed until the 1500s and when Friar Tuck says he can afford swan's breast in Madeira, the country wasn't actually discovered until 1419 so he would have had difficulty! To be fair, many of the other films on this list commit worse crimes than these nit-picks.
9. Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960) Directed by Terence Fisher
Tagline: “The NEW and Greatest Adventures of Robin Hood... The World's Most Renowned Swordsman!" Sword? Surely bow and arrow? Anyways, a little-seen version, Sword of Sherwood Forest is a Hammer Film Production (them of ‘horror’ fame) and stars Richard Greene – who reprises the role he played in The Adventures of Robin Hood TV series from 1955 to 1959. Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing takes on the part of the Sheriff of Nottingham who has nefarious plans to confiscate a rich estate and, as always, is thwarted by Hood acting on the side of good. Several clumsy sword fights can be forgiven owing to a genuine love for the material and acting heavyweight Oliver Reed appears, but is re-dubbed, as Lord Melton. Unlike a few hammy Hammer sets, the film looks glorious filmed as it was on location in County Wicklow, Ireland – but again not in Nottingham sadly.
Hood Fact: From 1954 to 1967 Hammer Film Productions released three different movies starring the famous outlaw – as well as this there was The Men of Sherwood Forest (1954) and A Challenge for Robin Hood (1967).
8. Robin Hood (2010) Directed by Ridley Scott
Well, it’s not perfect. And then some. Seminal director Ridley Scott – a man known for his visual prowess and epic scale – takes the legend and sadly removes any fun despite a film filled with great actors and impressive locations. Here, Australian Russell Crowe is cast as Robin and is not the first, and no doubt won’t be the last, person to struggle with an English accent. His infamous BBC radio interview had him hopping mad – then walking out – when its authenticity was questioned (click here). Alongside Crowe is one of the best casts in the business, which includes Cate Blanchett, William Hurt, Mark Strong, Mark Addy, Oscar Isaac, Danny Huston, Eileen Atkins, and Max von Sydow. Yet it was the stodgy story and dour delivery that had people turning their noses up. Where’s Robin’s sense of mischief? Where is the adventure? Where is the film’s joy? For all its flaws though, you can still appreciate the fantastic Scott set pieces. Although, when seeing this film for the first time at the cinema I can still remember laughing out loud at the slow-motion sequence of Crowe popping out the sea (sea? In the legendary land-locked Nottingham?) in a shot of such ludicrous “epic-ness” there’s a perverse enjoyment of a film that takes a jaunty tale so seriously. You have been warned.
Hood Fact: The film's budget ballooned from $155 million to $200 million. Scott robbing from the rich film companies to deliver a poor film.
7. Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964) Directed by Gordon Douglas
A 60s musical set in Chicago during the Prohibition where two rival gangs compete for control of the city's rackets seems an unlikely interpretation but with so many films of Robin Hood appearing over the years, it’s these new takes that can standout amongst such a busy marketplace. Written by David R. Schwartz and produced by (and starring) Frank Sinatra, the film sees new mob boss Guy Gisborne (Peter Falk) ordering other gangsters in town to pay him protection whilst “Robbo” (Sinatra) gets together a band of merry men including pool hustler Little John (Dean Martin) and Will (Sammy Davis Jr.). Before long, the gangster ends up robbing from the rich and giving to a poor city orphanage. In a twist however, Barbara Rush as Marian Stevens (Maid Marian) is as duplicitous as they come, playing off both sides and looking out only for herself and stealing tainted money. Mostly a spoof, the film features the rat-pack stars belting out a variety of slick speakeasy hits including "My Kind of Town" which is the centrepiece number and was nominated for the 1964 Academy Award for Best Original Song. A quirky oddity, there’s enough swinging style to give Robin an updated unravelling by jumping into the seedy gangster genre.
Hood Fact: For a legend often containing imprisonments, ransoms and money exchanges, a scene depicting a kidnapping was filmed for Robin and the 7 Hoods but was quickly cut when star Frank Sinatra's son was kidnapped in real life. The 19-year old was released soon after after Sinatra paid the $240,000 demanded.
6. Robin and Marian (1976) Directed by Richard Lester
Before tackling his own American icon in Superman II, director Richard Lester went back to the past heroes of the UK with this period romantic adventure starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn. Strangely including comedian Ronnie Barker as Friar Tuck, the film was mostly shot in sunny old Eng—actually in Zamora, Artajona and Orgi in Spain – standing in for France rather than the Midlands at times too. With this suspect geographical anomaly (a Robin Hood film tradition you will see as we continue to go through the list), the movie had big names, a score composed by John “007” Barry and came off the back of Lester’s take on another classic swashbuckler The Three Musketeers (1973). It moves away from the traditional narrative where we get an aging Robin Hood fighting abroad before his return to Nottingham but [SHOCK HORROR SPOILER WARNING] he actually dies at the end. An interesting look at age, legends, love and wisdom, Robin and Marian may be one of the most complex, and interesting, versions of the nostalgic tale to date.
Hood Fact: Connery seems inexplicably linked to the Hood fable from his appearance here to his cameo as King Richard the Lionheart in Prince of Thieves (1991). He also appeared in Time Bandits (1981) which featured John Cleese’s comical Robin Hood. And it doesn’t stop there as his own son Jason Connery would later play Robin Hood in Robin of Sherwood (1984)!
5. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) Directed by Mel Brooks
Parodying the Robin Hood myth – but more specifically the 1938 and 1991 film versions – Mel Brooks undoes some of the legend’s classicism and replaces it with the pratfalls, visual jokes and verbal gags seen in Brook’s previous comedies. Cary Ewes plays a solid Robin holding together the chaotic narrative stemming from the eclectic support cast and bit-players which includes Dave Chappelle (in his first film role and clearly inspired by Morgan Freeman’s Moor), Isaac Hayes, Tracey Ullman, Patrick Stewart and even Dom DeLuise. A point-of-view shot following an arrow’s impossible journey around a forest (in the trailer only no less) is another direct reference to Prince of Thieves and whilst it pokes fun, it respects the story’s heart and never feels like a direct dig at the tale. Favourite line? “Unlike other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent”. With this and some actors interacting with the crew on screen, Men in Tights takes a swipe at a number of past performances whilst warmly acknowledging the history of Hood on film into the bargain.
Hood Fact: As mentioned several times already, the geography of Great Britain is again suspect here – maybe intentionally so given the film’s parodic nature – but at the end of the movie when the camera is zooming out the castle is shown to be around Milton Keynes. Tut Tut.
4. Robin Hood (1973) Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman
Can humanoid cartoon animals portray historical characters better than Russell Crowe? You bet your ass they can! Disney’s box office success found fans owing to its excellent voice cast, fun animation and catchy tunes and although it may have aged a little worse than its initial box office suggested, the movie’s biggest draw is its entertaining and light-hearted take on the hero. Languishing in development hell since the mouse house’s Snow White (1937) the tale is inspired by Reynard the Fox – a medieval fable featuring a trickster red fox character. This version’s Little John shares eerie similarities with Baloo from The Jungle Book (1967) who was also a bear that had been voiced by Phil Harris and classic sequences are incorporated from the traditional Robin Hood narrative. One such take is the cordial tree-crossing in which Robin Hood and Little John wander over a fallen tree which bridges a river – this twists their usual legendary fight at the same location.
Hood Fact: The famous gap on Terry-Thomas' teeth was incorporated into the design of the character he voices, Sir Hiss (a snake) – and it makes a handy opening for his forked tongue to dart out from.
3. Robin Hood (1922) Directed by Allan Dwan
As the first film ever to have a Hollywood premiere, held at the now legendary Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, Robin Hood was also one of the most expensive films of the 20s with a one-million-dollar budget. Douglas Fairbanks stars in this black and white silent movie as Earl of Huntingdon/Robin Hood and with sword fights, castles, horse chases and a feather in his hat, this much-lauded classic help set up many of the tropes we know from the films today. A massive film for its time, its use of over 1200 extras can be seen in spectacular battle scenes in huge Hollywood scale with some of its impressive sets being designed by architect Lloyd “Hollywood Bowl” Wright.
Hood Fact: Alan Hale, Sr. made such an impression as Little John in this film that he reprised the role sixteen years later in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) opposite Errol Flynn. Then he played the character again in Rogues of Sherwood Forest in 1950, 28 years after his initial performance in this original.
2. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Directed by Michael Curtiz
Considered by many to be the definitive Robin Hood interpretation, the film is most known for Errol Flynn’s magnetic performance of Robin but director Curtiz (of Casablanca and Mildred Pierce fame no less) should be equally lauded for helming this legendary production. As well as Flynn, superstar Olivia de Havilland stars as Lady Marian Fitzwalter (Maid Marian) whilst Basil Rathbone takes the role of Guy of Gisbourne. Melville Cooper’s take on the High Sheriff of Nottingham is underrated and once again a film company (this time Warner Bros.) made their most expensive film ever with its budget being a richly $2 million. With its adventure spirit, a host of dramatic yet charismatic performances and fantastic fights, this film is rightly held as the pinnacle of chivalric swashbuckling on film and won Academy Awards for Art Direction, Editing and Original Score from celebrated composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
Hood Fact: James Cagney (of Curtiz’s earlier film Angels with Dirty Faces) was originally cast as Robin but walked out on his Warner Bros. contract and the filming was postponed three years, as a result – but paved the way for the role to go to Flynn.
1. Prince of Thieves (1991) Directed by Kevin Reynolds
As I have mentioned before on this site 1991 was a brilliant year for film which saw Terminator 2, Silence of the Lambs and JFK having huge critical and commercial success but it was Bryan Adams’ soundtrack song to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves that takes me back to that infamous year. Spending what felt like 16 years atop the charts at number one (it was in fact a record-breaking 16 long WEEKS) the song’s cheesy love lyrics also earnt it an Academy Award but was the perfect accompaniment to a film that was (and still is to me) one of the guiltiest pleasures of the nineties. Costner’s intense and dodgy-accented New Orleans attorney in JFK from the same year was left behind for the dodgy-accented outlaw in a film which balanced both folk tale fun alongside serious issues of history, honour and guilt. Stealing the show of course is Alan Rickman’s BAFTA winning turn as the Sheriff which cemented his career playing legendary villains. It was also Rickman who brought in friend Ruby Wax to improve the Sheriff’s scripted dialogue. Also in on the act is a superb support cast including Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio who all give a bit of a depth to the characters we’ve seen dozens of times before. The brilliant rousing music score was composed by Michael Kamen and was subsequently used on Walt Disney trailers and gives me chills each and every time I hear it. The movie contains a split arrow sequence that nods to Flynn’s 1938 archery contest scene, a Sean Connery cameo as King John (who else, huh?) and lots of laughs and action that entertains to this day. Having kept the VHS of this film – I think it was the first one I ever bought – I’ve always had a soft spot for it and although it’s so cheesy it should be served with crackers, the film’s tone is the perfect adventure mix of silly and serious.
Hood Fact: Everyone always dismisses the film’s geography – land in Dover, get to Hadrian’s Wall then enter Nottingham by nightfall on foot but…..if the cliff is just a cliff and the wall just a wall then you can land in Grimsby at 5am in Summer and get to Loxley near Sheffield in 62 miles which is just kinda possible. And that’s what I’m sticking to.