For a century the Robin Hood story has been a magnet for filmmakers. The latest opens in the UAE today.
Reinventing Robin: the hero of Sherwood down the ages
"Robin Hood was a part of my childhood. But when I started to think about all the various films and re-watched them, they were unsatisfying to me because I didn't really know who this guy was," Russell Crowe said in a recent interview. At 46, he is about to become one of the oldest actors to portray Robin Hood on screen, with the character re-imagined as a grizzled, heavy-set war veteran. In the poster campaign for the forthcoming release, which reunites Crowe with the Gladiator filmmaker Ridley Scott, the usually immaculate English hero is shown with a blood-splattered face and wielding a giant hammer.
If there's one thing that the makers of the latest version want you to believe, it is that they are the first to infuse the legendary tale with the back story, realism, historical context and political themes that it truly deserves. But are they? The Robin Hood scholar Allen W Wright, who runs the website www.boldoutlaw.com, says: "Every new movie or series that comes out, the creators always claim 'our Robin Hood doesn't wear tights'. Well, neither did the last one, or the one before that! Each film wants to present itself as more real than the last; they want to give a sense that you are seeing the untold story."
The 13th-century hero made his screen debut in the 1908 silent film Robin Hood and His Merry Men. Since then he has been at the centre of more than 40 major films and television series around the world. Although the most enduring image of the outlaw remains the campy tights-and-pointy-hat-wearing swashbuckler portrayed by Errol Flynn in 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood, Scott and Crowe are not the first who have attempted to break the mould.
And it's not just costume changes that have set the different incarnations of the character apart. Famed for "robbing from the rich and giving to the poor", Robin Hood has long been seen as a champion of social justice and a hero of the political left. But over the years, he has also been used by writers to comment on Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch-hunts in the US in the 1950s, the Vietnam War and even Thatcherism in the UK.
One reason the legend has lasted so long could be that its flimsy historical foundation allows it to be told in many ways. Bob White, the chairman of the World Wide Robin Hood Society, thinks so, citing the dearth of definitive evidence about the archer, who may never have existed at all. "It means every time someone comes along to tell a new tale, they can pretty much tell it from their own perspective," he says.
The earliest surviving references to Robin Hood exist in 15th-century ballads, written hundreds of years after the hero was said to have lived. Although characters such as Little John and Will Scarlet exist in these sources, Maid Marian and Friar Tuck were added centuries later. In fact, there is very little in the Robin Hood mythos that is not up for debate. In the earliest tales he is a depicted as a yeoman (a gentleman farmer) but in later centuries he was reinvented as an aristocrat. The earliest stories also place him not in Nottingham or Sherwood Forest, but Barnsdale in South Yorkshire. All agree that he stole from the rich; however, few sources state that he gave anything to the poor.
"He was probably pretty harsh and did some pretty unpleasant things," says David Baldwin the author of Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked. "But ordinary peasants in England had a pretty hard time of it, so anyone who contravened the king's laws would have been considered a hero and I think that's how the legend came into being." Although Robin Hood's most famous adversaries were the Sheriff of Nottingham, Guy of Gisbourne and King John, some of the earliest tales depict him as a Saxon leading an uprising against the Norman invader William the Conqueror in the 11th century. The idea of Hood as a Saxon fighting Norman nobility may go some way towards explaining the legend's enduring appeal.
The idea of Hood as a freedom fighter grew in popularity after the publication of Sir Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe in 1819, which helped make the character a hero to opressed populations around the world. Although dozens of documented outlaws could have provided some or all of the bases for the character, Baldwin believes the Robin Hood legend began with a man named Roger Godberd. "They were both said to be yeomen. They both robbed and killed rich churchmen. They both poached the king's deer in Sherwood Forest. They were both protected by knights called Sir Richard. They were both captured by sheriffs of Nottingham and imprisoned in Nottingham Castle at one time. They were both pardoned by the king and then returned to their former outlaw ways of life," he says.
From the early ballads to Ivanhoe, the legend was embellished and edited to reflect the times, but the invention of film led to one of the most rapid periods of change in history of Robin Hood's legacy. After his debut in the film directed by Percy Snow in 1908, the character became a regular feature of the silent cinema. But the Douglas Fairbanks Robin Hood of 1922 (in which the character is cast as the Earl of Huntingdon) is the era's only true classic. In fact, the Errol Flynn movie - still considered by many to be the definitive Robin Hood adventure - was originally intended as a close remake of the Fairbanks film. The end result, however, was a totally original story that became a piece of cinema history. As well as being one of the most expensive films Warner Bros had produced, it was the studio's first production to be shot in the three-strip Technicolor, at a time when many audiences had never seen a movie in colour.
Throughout the 1940s and much of the 1950s, audiences suffered a series of bland B-movies and rushed "son of Robin Hood" films, intended as sequels to the Flynn version. The only notable exception was Disney's live action The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, starring Richard Todd. The studio would return to the legend in 1973 with an animated film, featuring an anthropomorphic fox as the hero.
But from 1955 to 1960, the legend took a strangely subversive turn. When the BBC commissioned a series of 30-minute television episodes starring Richard Greene as the outlaw, the show's producers hired a number of American writers who had been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee because of possible communist sympathies. Wright says: "There are a couple of episodes that touched on the McCarthy trials. There's one with inquisitions, they had episodes where villagers had to pool their resources of bread and share them equally, they had episodes with Jewish refugees, there was even one which had a weapon capable of blasting ships in the sea - it was a stand-in for the bomb."
In the 1970s a number of film outings attempted to add a layer of realism to the mythos, mirroring Scott and Crow's current attempts. The film Wolfshead: The Legend of Robin Hood, made in 1973, stripped out the established villains and even relocated the character to Barnsdale. It was much closer in tone to a John Wayne western than to the campy adventure stories that had gone before it. In one scene, Robin returned home to find his house destroyed and his sister murdered. It was also strongly implied that she had been raped.
In the same decade, Sean Connery played the outlaw in Robin and Marian, opposite Audrey Hepburn. Although the film's box office performance was underwhelming - possibly because of its shift away from adventure towards a Romeo and Juliet-style romantic tragedy - it also focused on 20th-century political events. It had an older, more cynical Robin Hood returning from war in the Middle East, a conflict that, according to Wright, is clearly intended as a Vietnam allegory. "He feels frustrated about having had to slaughter women, children and prisoners, and expresses a lot of regrets - it deals with the idea that heroes aren't necessarily what we think they are."
Political commentary continued throughout the 1980s with the BBC series Robin of Sherwood. As well as focusing on New Age mysticism, it cast the titular hero as a kind of student radical, clearly opposed to policies that resembled Thatcherism. The show featured two Robins: the first, a yeoman, was played by Michael Praed, who was later replaced by Jason Connery - the son of Sean - as a nobleman. That was also the first version of the story to feature a Middle Eastern merry man - although not the last. Another BBC series showed Maid Marian as the feminist hero of the tale, alongside a bumbling Robin.
But in the last decade of the 20th century, the legend was dominated by two men who created stunningly different versions of the story: the actor Kevin Costner and the comedian Mel Brooks. Although hugely successful at the box office, 1991's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was ridiculed for its historical and geographical inaccuracies (not to mention Costner's American accent). In recent weeks Crowe compared it to a "Jon Bon Jovi video clip". The film's politics were also deeply confused.
"Robin Hood says that nobility is not a birthright and that peasants are as good as nobles, but all the peasants in that film seemed to be completely stupid and unable to do anything for themselves," Wright says. "It has a prominent Muslim [played by Morgan Freeman] and talks about how there are good and bad people everywhere, but the scenes in Jerusalem portray all the Arabs as evil." The movie was parodied mercilessly, along with the Errol Flynn film, in Brooks's Robin Hood: Men in Tights from 1993. The comedy featured a dyslexic Sheriff of Rottingham and the Shaft actor Isaac Hayes as Hood's conspicuously out-of-place sidekick.
It is a testament to the effectiveness of the Brooks assault that the character has been almost entirely absent from cinema screens until now. But in an era that has seen new life breathed into slightly shabby heroes such as James Bond, Batman and Doctor Who, it's no surprise that Robin Hood has been unearthed once again. While Scott and Crowe's promise of a tights-free, politically conscious, character-driven, historical epic is certainly welcome, they would do well to remember that they were not the first to attempt it.
Robin Hood opens in cinemas around the UAE today.