THE STORY OF ROBIN HOOD AND HIS MERRIE MEN (1952)
(Hat not appearing in this film)
PLOT - After a mid-70s vintage Wonderful World of Disney intro, showcasing a few better movies, a lot of worse ones, and many many shots of people having aggressively manufactured fun at Disneyland, we start our movie proper. Whoa. An RKO Radio Picture. Retro. Well, here we are in the good old days, when a fundamentalist Christian head of state could invade the Middle East without everyone getting all sensitive about it. The Earl of Huntington is of to Crusade with the king, and his daughter Marian is staying with the queen. His estate is being looked after by his servant Hugh Fitz-Ooth, and Hugh’s son Robin, because poor people can‘t join the army. Or something. Once the king is safely out of the way, the Prince commences to plottin’ and tells his lackey the Sheriff to hold an archery contest, and ask all the kick-assest archers to join his army. Hugh wins impressively and denounces the sheriff even more impressively. On the way home, this happens.
Robin : Gee dad, do you think you should have upset that powerful asshole who works directly for the king’s brother, who is in charge right now?
Hugh : I wouldn’t worry about it son. See, the sheriff HURK
(Hugh falls over with an arrow in his back)
I’m paraphrasing, but only slightly. Anyway, Robin lives in the forest and collects a group of like-minded fellows, as per usual. At one point, they capture the Sheriff and ‘invite’ him to dinner at their camp, liberating him of much of his treasure as part of the ‘bill’. It’s so cute. Two years later - TWO?! - the king is kidnapped, and Marian gets word to the outlaws, who boldly pay the ransom using money stolen from the Prince. There’s some more plotting, Marian gets kidnapped, fight fight fight, and the King shows up at the end to tell Marian that she must leave the woods and marry the Earl of Loxley. And guess who just got that title? Oh, that King Richard I. What a jokester.
(It begins, as do all good Robin Hood movies, with a monorail)
GENERAL THOUGHTS - I’m returning to my old style rather than separating the good, bad, and other, because in this movie, the good, bad, and other are all the same thing. See, this movie is extremely 1950s. Now, I know that’s not the kind of thing one expects to see referenced as a positive, but hear me out. The 50s were a time when you could have a guy living in the woods as a hunted man and still play it as fun, rather than anything serious. And fun it is, with Robin placing lots of emphasis on camaraderie and feasting and such. I’ve mentioned before having issues with why Robin gets so many people following him, but in the candy-colored world of this movie, he’s exactly the sort of guy you would follow. I’m not sorry we’ve lost this attitude, gosh knows entertainment is generally better these days, but it’s kind of fun to see a Robin Hood that’s free to just enjoy himself.
(Robin and Marian play hide and seek. On an unrelated note, who here's seen The 10th Kingdom?)
Now as far as the actual filmmaking goes, I really like that they use aspects of the story that everyone knows, yet twist them around a bit so they're still unexpected. For example, rather than having the sheriff’s man hit the bull’s eye and Robin split his arrow, they have the sheriff’s man juuust barely miss the center, Robin hit it, and then Robin’s dad split his son’s arrow. (Which also solves the problem of how that makes Robin the winner, rather than resulting in a tie.) Or rather than have Robin make a really obvious “Here, let me blow my horn for no reason, Mr. Angry Tall Guy” move after losing to John on the bridge, he complains that his horn may be waterlogged, and blows into it to “clear it out”, thus sending his men rushing to his aid. There’s also a lot of fun innovative bits added. I particularly liked the use of color-coded arrows with whistles on the tips used by the Merries to send messages to each other. Oh, and that they angle their bows up when they fire, rather than just acting like an arrow’s just going to go straight like a bullet.
(A member of the upper church hierarchy who's not evil? Fuckin' 50s.)
But for all that great stuff I mentioned, there’s a dark side. See, I mentioned that they take well-known bits and twist them, but they assume possibly way too much familiarity on the audience’s behalf with the story. There’s no mention of why he’s called Robin Hood rather than Robin Fitz-Ooth, there’s no mention of where Scarlet and the rest of the Merries come from, and every major plot action is so vague, I could only make sense of some of it by associating it to other Robin Hood stories I had read. I suppose in the 1950s, they were expecting young people to be more familiar with Robin Hood, but it still strikes me as bad storytelling. Also, while the performances are natural and charming, the production value is anything but. Costumes and sets range from cheap but acceptable to just plain painful. And lacking, one must assume, as skilled an archer as the one who was firing arrows into the armored stomachs of extras in 1939, most arrow shots consist of Robin firing his bow followed by a whip pan to the victim holding an arrow to his chest and grimacing. It’s really stupid. And there’s that two-year jump in the story after the sheriff leaves their camp. Even for this movie, that’s a bit mind boggling.
Look, what it comes down to is this. This is a huge slice of 1950s cheese. The opinions you have of it will be affected by whether the good outweighs the bad for you. The performances are winning, the dialogue is lacking, the plotting is horrible… There’s not much consistency here. Me, I found it to be a whole crazy bunch of fun. It was nice to watch a completely unserious version of the story. And I know this sounds weird, given that I’ve now spent a huge chunk of this review on relatively earnest analysis instead of jokes, but it was nice to give my brain a rest and enjoy the fun. This move made me feel more like the kid that read his Grandpa’s Robin Hood book over and over on the porch than any other I’ve seen so far, and that can’t be a bad thing. So, yeah, the 50s. Good, bad, and everything in between. Damn, this section was like an entry unto itself. Okay, back to the funny.
(Hast thou thy tickets... to the GUN SHOW? Quickly, fetch me some snake oil... FOR THESE PYTHONS ARE SICK.)
ROBIN - Well, as has already been mentioned, this is a more fun-loving Robin Hood. I also like that his plans frequently involve publicly shaming the sheriff, rather than merely stealing from him. Robin doesn’t just help the poor, he empowers them by making their oppressor look like a fool. Again, this wouldn’t fly today. The BBC sheriff is occasionally made to look silly, but if the townsfolk laughed at him, he’d feed their children to his birds. But here in Disneyland, Robin is free to be whimsical. Richard Todd is a decent enough actor, more than enough for what this movie requires, and his romantic interests are believable. But he doesn’t wear a Robin Hood hat! I swear to crap, if this movie’s gonna go all über-50s on us, the least they could do is throw in an adventurer’s cap for the bossman.
("What is this? Do I eat it?")
LITTLE JOHN - This Nicol Williamson lookin’ mofo is pretty good, as standard Little Johns go. The bridge scene carried shades of The Outlawsof Sherwood in that they were clearly testing each other, except here they’re having fun and not being crabby. After he wins and joins the band, they “baptize” him by throwing him in the river, and he proceeds to happily fulfill the big jolly guy role. He's smart, too, which is nice. Other than that, there’s really nothing of note, save his fun fur hat, styling beard, and pre-fight warm-up. You know how when a movie wants to make a swordsman look impressive, they’ll have him flourish his sword all around before the fight? Well, this guy does that with a six-foot quarterstaff. And I don’t mean he does some cool staff moves to show off, I mean he holds it like a sword and swings it around. It’s so cool.
(Let's see, good Will joke... Journal of the Wills? Too obscure. Triumph of the Wills? Too Nazi. Bondage of the Wills? Noooo...)
WILL SCARLET - WOO! Threefer! Not only do we get a blandly portrayed Will whose costume promises a vastly more intriguing character than is delivered, we get two more Wills in the bargain! Scathelocke and Stutley both make last-name-only appearances, probably because some Disney staff writer didn’t realize they were all the same guy, and thought that 13th-century balladeers were just lazy at coming up with first names. Scarlet is Robin’s cousin, which I honestly did not hear mentioned until the fifth time I watched it. As for the ex-Wills, they’re used to represent two kinds of oppressed peasant, with Stutely caught poaching and Scathelocke (played by Sir Michael Hornden. Well, by regular Michael Hornden at the time.) arrested for non-payment of taxes. The scene that follows is… weird. Scathelocke goes into a pillory. Okay, sure. Stutely is… um… Well, he’s dressed like a deer and suspended in midair over a smoking brazier. Then… then the guards all ride around in a big circle, and hit him with sticks whenever they pass. What the hell? There’s a fun editing mistake where one of them tries to hit Scathelocke‘s back, and whacks him right in the teeth. He's fine afterwards, which I guess means those sticks don’t hurt as much as you‘d think. Sadly, the Gollum-like Stutely uses the beating as an excuse to not wear a shirt for the next few scenes. Eww.
(I simply must goooooo...)
TUCK - Why, I remember at the Ren Fair the scene where Friar Tuck has a little conversation with himself, playing the role of friendly-inkeeper type and polite stranger, convincing himself to eat and drink. That was good stuff. The same scene is played out here, only when Tuck’s turning down the drink, he does a flirty girl voice, and when offering it, he does a seductive man voice. It’s like some weird medieval version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. He’s an acceptable enough Tuck, the usual sort of kind reassurance and a bit of wink-wink-nudge-nudge to Robin and Marian. What throws me is his look. His robe is an off-putting light grayish tan, and he’s clearly got a few pillows stuffed down the front for that Tuckian physique. Also, he’s got that weird sort of neck beard I let myself grow over the summer. Wow, this entry has given up on any pretense of being read by people who don’t know me personally. (Speaking of which, please note that at 4:47 in the scene I linked to, Robin calls Tuck a “lusty infant”. I am proud to say that was a reference to my writing, and I didn’t even know about it until I saw the scene. It‘s a great feeling for a writer to be referenced. Gives us a tingle.)
(Robin Hood versus the hideous troll-beast.)
MUCH - Speaking of name variants, we finally get one here. Midge the Miller is actually sort of a fun character. He’s not one of the Merries or even a likely applicant when he first appears. He’s just some absolutely hideous middle-aged miller with a body like Don Knotts and a face like the south end of a baboon heading north. He’s a sneaky miser who tries to transport his gold through the forest in a sack of flour, and when the fellas catch wise, he throws the flour in their face and kicks some pretty serious ass. Sure, he loses in the end, but it was like four on one, and he did good. Later on, he’s bumming around the camp and sees the light, voluntarily donating his coinage to the cause. (When the fellas catch wise? What am I, Edward G Robinson?)
(You may leave now, Lady Buzzkill.)
MARIAN - Absolutely fantastic Marian here. Too often it seems that the only two options for portraying Marian are to make her a stereotyped damsel in distress or a butt-kicking action girl. Or worse yet, they act like she’s a butt-kicking action girl, but just have her get captured all the time anyway. (coughPrinceofThievescough) In this movie, Marian engages in ladies’ pursuits, wears pretty dresses, and gets captured, but she still manages to be remarkably proactive. She sneaks away to meet the outlaws, and is the one who presents their money to queen Eleanor toward the end, thus clearing their name and increasing their public image. Moreover, her relationship with Robin is wonderfully playful. Her introductory scene has her intentionally messing up his archery practice by jostling the target, then making him describe his ideal woman, clearly meaning her. He describes someone tall, blonde, and blue-eyed, and when he mentions sweet-tempered, she kicks him in the shin. It’s hard to describe without sounding cutesy, but basically this is one of the versions where I see Robin and Marian getting together because they like each other, not because plot demands it. Plus, she looks just adorable in her Merrie Men outfit.
(See? Told you.)
SIR GUY - No Guy here. Actually, the John/Sheriff relationship here is a lot like the Sheriff/Guy relationship in later adaptations. John seems overly concerned with this relatively small area of England, and the plot would be a bit smoother if he was a local lord instead of the Prince Regent. Ooh, look I actually complained about something. Let’s go into some more detail, shall we?
(I need not tell thee things are bad. Everybody knowest things are bad. 'Tis a depression. I be enraged as the very flames of perdition, and I shall take it no longer!)
SHERIFF - When the Sheriff was introduced, I found myself quite surprised. He was a dignified looking older gentleman, who seemed to genuinely be a force for law and order. Why, he’s even offering to go along with the king to the… Crusade… Ohhhh, now I get it. John is given the job of finding the replacement, and chooses him offscreen. I’m not sure how he was selected, but I’d guess Evil Beard Contest. Anyway, he has little to do here but order the guards around and bluster impotently. And the guards are interchangeably described as soldiers and foresters. Same thing, right? He is played by Peter Finch, who is one of two actors ever who are so awesome, they won an Oscar after they died.
(Hair by Conan O'Brien)
THE MAN - Well, as I said, John is far too concerned with Nottingham, and the Sheriff is pretty much just the head of the guards, but putting that aside, how is he? Not too bad. In his introductory scene, he’s seeing off the King, and he’s all like “Oh, DARN, I really wish I could go with you seriously totally. Okay! Well, bye, don’t hurry back, I’ll keep your throne warm.” He then immediately commences to scheming on how to bilk poor peasants in one region. As for the king, he leaves at the beginning and shows up at the end, as per usual. I’m beginning to really hate it when the king shows up at the end. It’s one thing if he shows up near the end and helps out, but when he just turns up to throw out some titles and end the movie, it seems cheap.
("John, what are you doing back there?" "Um... scheming.")
Queen Eleanor also takes a major role in this, which I like. I haven’t reviewed much with Eleanor in it, but whenever she shows up she tends to be portrayed as Her Royal Sassiness. This is probably in line with history, seeing as Eleanor, not John, was actually Richard’s regent during the Crusade. That must have been an awkward family meeting. “John, your big brother Richard is going on a crusade.” “Yes! I get to be Prince Regent!” “About that. I know you’re next in line for the throne, but I’ve been missing the queening, so I figured I’d just step in and take over.” “No fair! You already got to rule the country!” “My decision is made, John! You‘ll just have to wait until Richard dies, and in the meantime, you can make some ineffective attempts to overthrow my underlings.” “Fine! I’ll do that! And then I’ll be king, and when I am, I’ll fight with cousin Arthur, and lose Normandy, and get excommunicated, and have terrible relations with the barons until they all but force me to sign the Magna Carta, thereby laying the groundwork for constitutional law in Europe!” “That’s nice dear. Maybe in 400 years, they’ll retcon you into an existing legend as a villain.”
(I swear, if one more of you assholes yells "Freebird"...)
OTHER MERRY MEN - Alan A’Dale shows up, and I actually quite like him. He narrates the film, but of course, so we have to put up with his balladeering ways every so often. The neat hook is that he’s not narrating from the future and singing a prepared song, but rather going around during the story making up ballads about Robin’s latest exploits while begging for coins. So it’s a combination of retelling stuff we’ve seen and revealing stuff we haven’t, while and at the same time showing Robin’s growth as a folk hero and having Alan seem like an actual minstrel and not just an outlaw with a mandolin. It’s kind of like the news reports in Starship Troopers, showing us the progress of the war and how it’s perceived. Just with less Nazi Howser and more hey-nonny-nonnys. Alan has a dog, too, which I don’t really get, but whatever.
(This random guy takes down the Sheriff like three times in group fights. Must be the director's cousin or something.)
OTHER VILLAINS - None spring to mind. According to online sources, one of the sheriff’s thugs got a name. Red Gill. I didn’t say it was a good name. Red is played by Archie Duncan, shortly to achieve fame as TV’s Little John. Good for him. I guess I can throw in the Archbishop. He doesn’t do anything evil, but since the upper echelons of priesthood tend toward the evil in these things, I’ll count him here. Just so Red won’t be lonely.
The original Sheriff and his EYEBROWS.)
BEST LINE - Will : Are you of a mind to join us? You’ll eat fresh meat every day, sleep soft, and have money in your poke!
Robin : Ah - Provided you kill your own food, make your own bed, steal your own wages, and give them to the poor.
WORST LINE - There‘s a lot of silly ‘50s lines in this, which sometimes provoke eye rolls, and sometimes giggles and hand clapping, but the line that most stood out on my viewings was “We’ll split Prince John from nottle to nock!” Look Alan, I know you’re a minstrel, and people expect your suggestions to be a bit whimsical, but that just sounds silly. But as it is my custom to fix these ridiculous lines, allow me to suggest a different one…
COMING UP NEXT - Soooo… Dom DeLuise’s son directed a SyFy channel movie where Robin Hood fights a dragon. It’s full of Canadian actors and shitty CGI and also there’s some fairies in it. Ah, sometimes, the world sends me beautiful gifts.
(Take that thing off, Jerry, you look like a dumbass.)