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CANNES — If Robin Hood had never existed, Hollywood would have had to invent him.
In fact, whether or not there was an actual historical person behind the Robin Hood sung of in English ballads — a matter of some debate — the outlaw of Sherwood Forest owes his present-day celebrity to the big screen, beginning with Douglas Fairbanks’ silent-era 1922 swashbuckler.
“America more or less hijacked Robin Hood at that point,” says Thomas Hahn, a professor of English at the University of Rochester and Robin Hood scholar. “The movie took a local English folk hero and turned him into an international icon of popular culture.”
Robin Hood’s enduring appeal will be tested once again as the Festival de Cannes gets under way Wednesday with the world premiere of Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood,” with Russell Crowe in the titular role of an archer in the employ of King Richard the Lionheart who takes up the cause of the common man against the British crown.
Crowe’s Robin won’t just be challenging King John, though. The New Zealand-born actor will also be measured against a commanding lineup of previous Robins: Errol Flynn’s raffishly athletic turn in 1938’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” for many the quintessential Robin Hood movie; the 1952 Disney version “The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men,” starring the good-natured Richard Todd; Sean Connery’s autumnal take on an aging Robin in 1976’s “Robin and Marian”; the avenging action hero played by Kevin Costner in 1991’s “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”; and even the insouciant Robin of Cary Elwes in Mel Brooks’ 1993 parody “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.”
Well aware of all the Robin Hoods that have come before him — there’s even been a Disney animated version with Robin portrayed as a wily fox, not to mention Chuck Jones’ 1958 toon, “Robin Hood Daffy,” with Daffy Duck’s Robin pitted against Porky Pig’s Friar Tuck — Crowe has promised that this new Robin will get back to basics.
Appearing on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” last month as he began his promotional rounds for the new film from Universal, Imagine Entertainment, Relativity and Scott Free Prods., Crowe explained, “We wanted to really understand where the mythology had started from, because obviously (during) the previous hundred years of cinema, we felt like the story had been reduced somewhat and people were expecting a series of what had come to be known as cliches — cliches to the point where Mel Brooks makes a movie about it. You know you’ve gone too far when Mel Brooks makes a movie about your particular subject. … (But) it just seemed to us that there was something intrinsic about the story. We should just wipe away that other stuff and get to the core.”
Laughed Brooks in response, “I thought I closed the door on all the Robin Hoods. I guess it’s an enduring legend — good versus bad, evil gets its comeuppance, and it’s a period piece so you don’t have to worry about being sued by Enron.”
For all the surface differences, the key Robin Hood movies — forget the dozens of minor ones — have all had plenty in common.
For one thing, they’ve attracted some of the biggest stars of their respective eras — though, oddly enough, none of the best-known Robins have been played by actual Englishmen. Fairbanks was born in Denver; Flynn hailed from Tasmania, Australia; Connery was Scottish; and Southern California boy Kevin Costner was criticized for his American-inflected dialogue.
They also tend to be elaborately ambitious.
According to Hahn, the Fairbanks film was the most expensive movie ever made as of 1922 and employed one of the largest sets ever created. With its emphasis on spectacle and action, it set the template for future Robin Hoods flicks.
Sixteen years later, when Warners ventured into Sherwood with Flynn, that project, at $2 million, became the largest movie that studio had ever mounted. Shot in three-strip Technicolor, it dazzled with its rich color palette. “It has the best color you’ve ever seen in your life, just amazing,” Brooks still marvels.
The 1938 version also foreshadowed some of the offscreen drama that has surrounded latter-day efforts. The project was originally developed for James Cagney, one of Warners’ reigning stars, but when he had a falling out with the studio, the part went to relative newcomer Flynn, who had hit it big wielding a sword in 1935’s “Captain Blood,” in which he co-starred with Olivia DeHavilland, who would become his Maid Marian.
Production was anything but smooth. William Keighley, who shot exterior scenes in Chico, Calif., was replaced when the cast and crew returned to Warner’s Burbank lot by the studio’s go-to guy Michael Curtiz, even as producer Hal Wallis fretted that Curtiz’s extras-filled setups were too expensive.
In the case of the Costner movie, the star and his director, Kevin Reynolds — though longtime friends — were barely speaking by the time the $48 million movie was released. After a test-screening in which moviegoers rated Alan Rickman’s villainous Sheriff of Nottingham more highly than Costner’s Robin, producers demanded that more of Costner’s scenes be restored, and Reynolds walked off the film.
The new “Robin Hood” — which Universal has said cost about $155 million, though skeptics suspect costs went higher — experienced hiccups of is own. Originally aiming for an August 2008 start date, production was abruptly postponed in July of that year. The studio said the script was not ready, and with the threat of a SAG strike looming on the horizon and the English forests losing their summer foliage, shooting was shifted into 2009.
Of even more interest is how the various Robin Hoods have spoken to their respective eras.
Noting that the Robin Hood of legend evolved from a trickster into a freedom fighter before becoming a nobleman and then a lover, literary historian Paula Sigman, interviewed for the Warners DVD of “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” said: “In each age, he gained certain attributes that were important to his age.”
While the “rob-the-rich-to-give-to-the-poor” battle cry of the 1938 film had to play well to Depression-weary audiences, Hahn argues that the movie also has a pre-World War II focus because of Flynn’s stirring speeches about the guarantees of freedom.
Initially, the Costner project evolved out of a note that writer-producer Penn Densham had jotted down that read: “Robin Hood, ‘Raiders-style.” That suggested a modern-day action retelling, which was reinforced by the movie’s famous point-of-view shot of an arrow zeroing in on its target. (Originally created for the movie’s trailer, it was then incorporated into the finished film.)
“It took a while to figure out what emotionally that meant,” Densham, who penned the screenplay with partner John Watson, recalled of the movie’s evolution. “The movie got written when I decided to put an Arab and a Christian side-by-side.” In the film, Robin, while taking part in the crusades, joins forces with the Moor Azeem, played by Morgan Freeman. “Then we had two different cultures, working together to take on an evil force. It became a genuine statement about two guys risking their own lives for other people’s future.”
The current “Robin Hood” took an even more circuitous route.
Originally titled “Nottingham,” the project began when Universal landed the rights to a highly coveted spec script by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, who created the Showtime series “Sleeper Cell.”
Looking to shake up the traditional elements, Reiff and Voris told their revisionist tale from the point of view of a sympathetic Sheriff of Nottingham, who’s something of a medieval criminal investigator looking into a series of killings attributed to Robin Hood. Eventually, the Sheriff clears Robin and together they join forces against Prince John even as they both contend for the favor of Maid Marian.
The script attracted Crowe’s interest, and that in turn led to Scott, with whom Crowe had worked on four previous films, ranging from the Oscar-winning “Gladiator” to the 2008 spy tale “Body of Lies.”
But Scott decided to take the story in a different direction, bringing in writer Brian Helgeland to focus on a story that would explain how all the familiar elements in Robin Hood’s world first came into play.
As the new movie tells, Marian is not a virginal, young girl but a mature widow. Robin’s first encounter with Little John is not a staff fight but a dispute over dice. Much of the romance is stripped away from King Richard and, taking some historical liberties, the French attempt an invasion of the English mainland.
After one early screening, some viewers walked away asking whether the people’s revolt against Prince John’s heavy taxation was designed to play to the tea party crowd.
“That was not our intention at all,” Helgeland said. “We began this three years ago. If anything in the movie is current, it’s that we have soldiers coming back from a crusade who are trying to figure out their place in a world that they’ve been gone from for a long time while they were at war. We thought that contemporarized it as much as Robin Hood needs to be contemporarized.”
Traditionalists may miss some elements in the new movie. “The one thing we don’t have much of is the old Robin Hood idea of robbing from the rich to give to the poor,” Helgeland admitted. “That’s a bit of naive, wish fulfillment. What we ended up instead is not so much the idea of rich-vs.-poor, but that Robin Hood is trying to give voice to a people who don’t have a voice.”
Given the legend’s longevity, it’s also safe to say this newest “Robin Hood” probably won’t be the last.
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