Robin Hood is England's most famous folklore hero. His exploits stealing from the rich to give to the poor with his Merrie Men – Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlett and the spelling-flexible Alan-a-Dale – aided by love of his life Maid Marian1 while battling the evil Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John during the reign of King Richard the Lionheart have attracted worldwide fame. This has led to numerous film adaptations since the invention of the cinema. Here is a brief look at some of them.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
|Directors||Michael Curtiz and William Keighley|
|Plot||With King Richard the Lionheart held hostage in Austria, Prince John plans to rule England in his stead. He heavily taxes the Saxons but one man, Robin of Locksley, stands up to Prince John and, after being knocked down by Little John, forms a band of merry men dedicated to the cause of freedom in Sherwood Forest. Can Robin persuade Lady Marian that his intentions are honourable and be able to prevent the assassination of King Richard?|
|Setting||1191, Nottinghamshire, particularly Sherwood Forest|
This is widely regarded as the best Robin Hood adaptation, winning three Oscars (Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing and Best Original Score2), and was nominated for Best Picture. In 2001 in the UK it was voted 84th of the Best Films of All Time, and 100th in the USA. In 2005 it was listed on the British Film Institute's list of 50 films children should see before the age of 14.
This was the most expensive film Warner Bros had made to date, costing $2 million, and their first major colour film, with Errol Flynn by far their biggest star. The film itself was filmed in California, including at California's Lake Sherwood and Sherwood Forest, so-named after appearing in Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood [sic] (1922), a film in which Alan Hale Snr had first played Little John.
Following its success Warner Bros hoped to make a sequel, but the Second World War prevented this.
The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946)
|Directors||Henry Levin & George Sherman|
|Plot||It is 20 years after Robin Hood defied Prince John. A nine-year-old king (Henry III) is on the throne and the ambitious Regent, William of Pembroke, has annulled Magna Carta. He now plots to assassinate the king and rule in his place, first kidnapping him and taking him away from the Queen Mother. Only the once-again-exiled Robin Hood aka Robert of Huntingdon, his band of ageing merry men, and Robin's son Robert Hood aka Robin of Huntingdon are willing to help Lady Catherine rescue him.|
|Setting||c 1217 England, around Nottingham and Sherwood Forest|
A fun, light-hearted adventure based on Paul Castleton's novel Son of Robin Hood (1941). It was renamed to The Bandit of Sherwood Forest as reportedly MGM were trying to copyright the name 'Robin Hood' and threatened to sue. Unusually the two leads are both female, although the Queen Mother does not do a great deal in the film's second half. Anita Louise has by far the strongest female role in a Robin Hood film to date - Lady Catherine insists that she takes part in the daring rescue attempt of the king. She is incredibly flirtatious and seems to enjoy being grabbed by Robert Hood, despite giving him a hefty slap in return.
The fact that there are two Robin Hoods, father and son, who both use 'Robin' and 'Robert' as their name interchangeably is, surprisingly, not as confusing as the premise suggests. The film's only weakness is that the script misinterprets what Magna Carta is, purporting it to be a document creating instant democracy rather than a charter guaranteeing the rights of the nobility and fish.
Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950)
|Plot||Richard the Lionheart and Robin Hood are dead. King John plans to raise taxes to raise enough money to hire Flemish mercenaries, killing off the wealthiest barons in the country and confiscating their territory, to allow him to rule absolutely. Only Robin Hood's son Robin Hood can save the day, helped by his father's friends and King John's ward Lady Marianne. Will he be able to persuade the remaining barons to unite behind the Archbishop of Canterbury's plan to persuade the king to sign a Great Charter?|
|Setting||England, 1215, particularly Nottingham's Sherwood Forest. Also Reading, Leeds and Manchester|
This is a fairly average film, again based on the son of Robin Hood. It is best known for being Alan Hale Snr's third and final appearance as Little John, whom he first played in 1922, 28 years earlier. This is the record for the longest period over which an actor has played the same character in unrelated films3. Filming took place at the Corrigan Movie Ranch. Curiously the film has Manchester and Leeds as major mediæval towns when they were unimportant settlements until the industrial revolution.
Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960)
|Plot||The Sheriff of Nottingham pursues a fugitive into Sherwood Forest, but it isn't Robin Hood. Instead it is a mysterious man who warns Robin 'Danger! Bawtry!' before dying. In Bawtry a dispute about who should inherit the village - the villagers who live there or the Sheriff of Nottingham who plans to destroy the village and build a castle on the site - is unexpectedly settled by the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury. What has this got to do with the Earl of Newark apparently hiring Robin Hood to assassinate the sheriff and a gold medallion of a falcon clutching a daisy?|
This was the second of three Hammer films based on Robin Hood, following the unrelated Men of Sherwood Forest (1954). Richard Greene had starred in the popular television series The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-60), fondly remembered for the heroic theme song4. Peter Cushing makes an excellent Sheriff of Nottingham while Oliver Reed appears (uncredited) in one of his earliest film roles, although his dialogue is dubbed by another actor. Unusually, filming took place at Ardmore Studios in Ireland rather than Hammer's home of Bray Studios in Berkshire. Nigel Green, Jason and the Argonauts' Hercules, is the best Little John to date while Maid Marian proves herself more than capable of handling a sword when attacked, though at the climax she leaves the fighting to Robin and the Archbishop.
A Challenge for Robin Hood (1967)
|Studio||Hammer Film Productions and Seven Arts Productions|
Shortly after murdering a former Saxon lord, Sir Fitzwarren, and being prevented from killing his son, Sir Roger de Courtenay murders his brother (William Squire) in order to inherit Courtenay Castle. He frames his cousin Robin de Courtenay. Robin escapes, helped by his friends Friar Tuck and Will Scarlett. During Robin's escape Will is captured and due to be hanged. Robin joins a band of Saxon outlaws led by Alan-a-Dale who help him rescue Will as well as the real Marian Fitzwarren, who has been forced to be the handmaiden of a Marian imposter (Jenny Till).
What was the point of the Marian imposter subplot? Will Robin steal from the rich, give to the poor, annoy the Sheriff of Nottingham and wear Lincoln green in Sherwood Forest?
|Setting||Sherwood Forest and Courtenay Castle, Nottinghamshire, c1199|
This, the final Hammer retelling of the Robin Hood legend, benefits from extensive location filming at Bodiam Castle. The subplot in which Marian's servant 'Mary' is revealed to be the real Maid Marian all along, does not lead to anything. Presumably it was intended merely to divert the audience's attention to the wrong actress when Marian enters the room, but if so this does not work as the camera zooms in on the real Marian and ignores the impostor. This is BAFTA-winning actor James Hayter's second appearance as Friar Tuck having previously played him in The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952). He had also appeared as Tom the Miller in two episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-60), a television series that also featured John Arnatt as the Deputy Sheriff of Nottingham.
Robin Hood (1973)
|Studio||Walt Disney Pictures|
|Plot||Robin Hood robs from the rich and gives to the poor people of Nottingham, helping them pay their taxes. After Robin robs Prince John, who rules England in the absence of Good King Richard, the Prince seeks revenge and arranges a deadly trap...|
|Setting||Nottingham in the 1190s.|
This, the 21st Walt Disney Animated Classic, combines the two elements Disney animations are best known for: mediæval settings and anthropomorphic animals. Disney himself had considered adapting French legend of Reynard the Fox, who regularly defeated his enemy, Isengrim the Wolf. Disney concluded that Reynard was not suitable to become a Disney hero, being a sly, amoral and selfish character, choosing Robin Hood instead, though the influence of the French legends is clear. Robin, like Reynard, is a fox and his enemy, the sheriff, is a wolf.
This Robin Hood adaptation contains references to Appalachian folktales about the outlaw as much as to the original English story. Robin Hood also borrowed heavily from previous Disney films - Phil Harris, previously bear Baloo in The Jungle Book, was cast as bear Little John. This made it easy to trace movements from the earlier film and quickly adapt them for Robin Hood. Similarly, scenes of Robin Hood and Maid Marian dancing were made by overtracing scenes from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
Robin and Marian (1976)
Robin Hood in his younger days rebelled against the Sheriff of Nottingham and lived with Maid Marian and the Merrie Men in Sherwood Forest, but that was a long time ago. Afterwards, he and John spent 20 years crusading with King Richard the Lionheart in the Holy Land, as well as fighting in France. Shortly before King Richard dies Robin refuses to obey an order to kill old men, women and children. Robin returns to Nottingham where he discovers that Marian has become a nun and is Abbess of Kirklees Abbey. King John, facing excommunication by the pope, has ordered that all senior church figures be expelled or arrested. After saving Marian from imprisonment Robin and John return to Sherwood Forest where, of the Merrie Men, only Friar Tuck and Will Scarlett survive.
Will Robin risk all to rescue arrested nuns? Can he relive his youth by fighting the sheriff once more, as well as King John's crony, Sir Ranulf? Will Marian forgive him for leaving her all those years ago and can they recapture their lost love? Will it all be like the good old days?
By far the most bittersweet Robin Hood film, it began life as The Death of Robin Hood, but was changed to a much more marketable title. By giving Marian equal billing in the title it reflected Audrey Hepburn's return to acting, having spent a decade concentrating on her family. Nottinghamshire looks remarkably Mediterranean in this film as it was filmed in Spain; Scottish actor Sean Connery was in tax exile outside the UK to get out of paying taxes. In real life this would give Connery more in common with the sheriff than the hero. Reportedly Connery was keen to appear in the film specifically because there was no possibility of a sequel, following his increased frustration of the success of the James Bond films, although it led to his being cast in the later film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
Historically the film is all over the place. It implies that Robin rebelled against Prince John then spent 20 years campaigning with King Richard I. However, Richard only ruled for ten years (1189-99), dying in 1199 after besieging the castle at Châlus-Chabrol in France. Robin returns home on Richard's death to find that John has expelled senior members of the clergy following a dispute with the pope, which happened 1208-1213. There is indeed a grave said to be Robin Hood's in the grounds of Kirklees Priory.
The cast is quite eclectic, including Carry On actors Bill Maynard and Peter Butterworth (Butterworth played Friar Tuck in an episode of Carry On Christmas), as well as the comic actor Ronnie Barker in a straight role. Director Dick Lester had begun his career in British comedy, working closely with the Goons, particularly Peter Sellers, with whom he was nominated for an Oscar for The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1959). He then directed Beatles films A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965), the definitive version of The Three Musketeers (1973), and went on to direct Superman films.
Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991)
|Studio||Morgan Creek Productions, distributed by Warner Bros.|
Robin of Locksley escapes imprisonment in Jerusalem and saves the life of fellow prisoner, the Moor Azeem. His friend Peter Dubois' dying request is for Robin to swear to protect his sister Marian, King Richard's cousin. Robin returns to England with Azeem, who has vowed to stay with Robin until he has repaid his life debt. Robin lands in Sussex and heads to Nottingham via Hadrian's Wall, for no apparent reason. When he finally gets home he learns that since King Richard has been away, the cruel Sheriff of Nottingham has killed Robin's father and rules the north of England along with his cousin Guy of Gisborne, the corrupt Bishop of Hereford, and is secretly advised by the witch Mortianna.
When travelling through Sherwood Forest, Robin meets a band of outlaws led by Little John, and Will Scarlett, who hates Robin. After fighting Little John, Robin teaches them how to fight and they rob the rich to give to the poor, aided by Friar Tuck. After a tricky beginning, Robin and Marian are reunited and fall in love.
The sheriff hires Celtic mercenaries to defeat the Merrie Men and plans to claim the throne by marrying Marian. Will Marian agree when the sheriff promises that if she does, he will save the lives of his prisoners? Why does Will Scarlett hate Robin? Will the theme song '(Everything I Do) I Do It For You' be number one for all eternity?
|Setting||Jerusalem, and England, particularly Nottinghamshire, c1199|
Prince of Thieves deviates from the established story quite wildly, lacking Prince John, archery contests and a whole lot more. The script contains attempted rape, racism, constant swearing, devil worship, nudity and defenestration, yet most versions are rated PG. A longer Director's Cut was released on DVD with more scenes featuring the sheriff and the witch. The actors' accents are rather bizarre, with no-one sounding as if they have ever been to Nottinghamshire. The surprising thing about Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is that it came out in 1991, the same year as Terminator 2: Judgement Day. While Terminator 2's Sarah Connor is a strong, feminine, focused, determined, well-rounded, motherly heroine, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves's Maid Marian screams 'Robin!' a lot and doesn't otherwise do a lot. Even though the film is set in the Middle Ages, there's no need to portray women in a way so mediæval.
Sean Connery cameos, but his Robin and Marian co-star Audrey Hepburn sadly does not. Brian Blessed would later play Friar Tuck in direct-to-video Robin Hood: The Rebellion (2018). Kevin Costner enjoyed working with director Kevin Reynolds so much that he asked to work with him again on Waterworld (1995), only for them to spectacularly fall out when making that film.
The Oscar-nominated song '(Everything I Do) I Do It for You' by Bryan Adams won the Grammy Award for Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or Television. It was number one in the UK for 16 consecutive weeks between July and October 1991, the longest unbroken run at number one in the history of the UK's Official Singles Chart. Alan Rickman won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor BAFTA in a defining role. Brian Blessed has an all-too-brief appearance and Morgan Freeman out-performs Costner at every opportunity.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
|Studio||Brooksfilms, Gaumont, distributed by Columbia TriStar international, 20th Century Fox US|
After escaping from gaol in Jerusalem during the Crusades with the help of Asneeze, who asks him to look after his son Ahchoo, Robin returns to England. He learns that the Sheriff of Rottingham has repossessed his Loxley Hall. With Ahchoo, his blind servant Blinkin and Merry Men Little John, Will Scarlet O'Hara and Rabbi Tuckman, they begin training a band of men in tights that aims to restore the reign of King Richard. Will Robin find the key to Marian's heart and chastity belt, and who will win the archery contest?
|Setting||Jerusalem, and England, particularly Nottinghamshire, in the 12th Century|
This, the penultimate film directed by Mel Brooks, is a warmly-regarded parody of the legend and of the film Robin Hood Prince of Thieves; it features a hero who 'unlike other Robin Hoods, can speak with an English accent'. Cary Elwes had previously played the Robin-like Wesley in The Princess Bride (1987).
Robin Hood (2010)
|Director||Sir Ridley Scott|
|Studio||Produced by Imagine Entertainment, Relativity Media and Scott Free Productions and distributed by Universal Pictures|
Robin Longstride, an orphan with no memory of his background, leads a band of archers in King Richard the Lionheart's army as they are fighting their way back from the crusades through France. King Richard is killed besieging a castle and Robin decides to lead his men home to England. On their journey they encounter the ambushed and dying Sir Robert Loxley and drive the attackers away. Loxley was carrying Richard's crown; he had been waylaid by the traitorous Sir Godfrey who wanted to take the crown to King Philip of France. Robin swears to Sir Robert that he will return Robert's sword to his father in Nottingham. In order to do so, he and his men impersonate Sir Robert and other knights, delivering the crown to Prince John before heading to Nottingham to deliver word of Sir Robert's death to Robert's father Walter.
Sir Walter Loxley is blind and old and knows that if he dies without a male heir, his estate will be forfeit to the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham. He therefore asks Robin to continue impersonating Sir Robert, much to the annoyance of Marian, Sir Robert's widow. He also implies he knows who Robin really is. Meanwhile King John decides to replace the competent Sir William Marshal, Earl Marshal of England, with Sir Godfrey, unaware that Godfrey is working for France. Godfrey raids northern England with French troops claiming to be raising taxes for King John. In reality, he is aiming to encourage northern barons to rebel against the king and thus divide and weaken the country before a French invasion.
Who is Robin really? Will the country unite behind King John? Will Robin lead King John's troops into battle and will John agree to the Magna Carta?
|Setting||France and England, particularly Nottinghamshire, c1199|
This take on the story reunited the star and director of Gladiator (2000). Although popular in the UK it failed to make an impact against Iron Man 2 in the US and was considered a box office disappointment. Though the story had been left open for a sequel, the poor box office in America ruled this out.
This is the only film to suggest that Robin Hood's father, though a commoner, wrote the first draft of the Magna Carta. It also is unique in having Robin as a commoner impersonating a lord. This film's Marion is one of the most dynamic; in a scene reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) or Mulan (1998) she dons armour and charges at the French invaders, fighting them on the beaches and on the landing grounds. She's also not afraid to get her hands, feet, waist, neck and nose dirty, jumping into a bog in order to rescue a stranded ram.
Notably, Russell Crowe's attempt at an English accent is all over the place geographically, never hitting the bullseye and rarely straying as close to Nottingham as Scotland, though it is still better than Dick van Dyke's in Mary Poppins (1964). The film obviously suffers from having an international cast as heroes but with British actors playing the baddies.
Filming was initially delayed by the 2007-08 Writer's Guild Strike. Locations used include Surrey and Pembrokeshire in Wales. In the UK to date only the 15-minutes longer Director's Cut6 has been released on home video.
Robin Hood (2018)
|Studio||Appian Way Productions, Safehouse Pictures, Thunder Road Films and Lionsgate (through subsidiary Summit Entertainment)|
Lord Robin of Loxley was conscripted into the army and fought in the crusades against the Arabian army. After trying to save the life of an Arabian teen, Robin is sent home wounded unaware that the boy's father Yahya, known in England as John, is accompanying him. After his return Robin discovers that he has been declared dead by the sheriff, who has also confiscated his property as part of his attempt to raise money for the war effort. The love of his life, Marian, is now in a relationship with Will Tillman. The common people of Nottingham have all been taxed so heavily that they have all developed Irish accents and live outside the city walls in a shanty-town in the mining district known as 'the Slags'.
Trained by Yahya to investigate the sheriff's activities further in an attempt to end war, Robin spends his days as a spoilt aristocrat playboy and his nights as a vigilante known as 'The Hood', stealing from the sheriff and giving to the poor. He discovers that the sheriff is in cahoots with corrupt churchmen and the money they have raised is being used to finance the Arabian army to keep the (unseen) king distracted while they plot against him somehow. With the sheriff hiring mercenaries to kill The Hood and destroy the poor in the Slags, will Robin reveal his identity, win Marian's heart and save the day?
|Setting||Holy Land and a Nottingham that inexplicably is Europe's financial centre during the Industrial Revolution, surrounded by mountains and a vast mining operation|
This film decided to give the legend an urban, counter-culture feel, with the Crusades sequence seeming very much like gritty street-fighting, only with bows-and-arrows acting like automatic weapons. Unfortunately the script concentrates so much on reinventing the wheel it does not notice that it has thrown the baby out with the bathwater; the plot is a mess and tries so hard at being new and trendy that the whole charm of Robin Hood's story is lost. Nottingham is unrecognisable, largely because most of the scenes were filmed at Dubrovnik in Croatia, and some location filming took place in Le Raincy in France. The sets for Nottingham's streets were inspired by Japanese, Chinese and Brazilian architecture. Taron Egerton who plays Robin is Welsh.
In many ways the film is a closer adaptation to the story of Batman than Robin Hood - it borrows heavily from the Dark Knight trilogy. Like Batman, Robin plays the spoilt brat by day and a hooded vigilante by night – or knight - with John effectively being Alfred. The film, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio's company Appian Way Productions, bombed, failing to recoup its production costs, and was nominated for 'Worst Remake', 'Worst Supporting Actor' and 'Worst Picture' at the Razzies.
Robin Hood: The Rebellion (2018)
|Studio||Picture Perfect / Signature Entertainment|
Maid Marian has been kidnapped by the Sheriff of Nottingham! Will Robin Hood and his moody men – Little John and Will Scarlett – succeed in rescuing her? How many dark, unlit passages does the castle have and how much wandering along them can be fitted into one film? How many corridors must a maid walk down before you can call her Marian? Is there no peaceful solution to this situation?
|Setting||12th Century Sherwood Forest and numerous castle corridors|
A direct-to-video release that is definitely the weakest Robin Hood film to date, but it does look as if it was made for a fraction of the budget of an average shampoo advert. Top billing goes to Brian Blessed. Though only in the film for five minutes, he nevertheless steals it, despite his role being limited to reciting the Lord's Prayer7. Kristian Nairn, famous for playing Hodor in Game of Thrones, appears for under a minute and is given second billing despite not actually doing anything, leading to the overwhelming conclusion that the credits are listing characters by how famous the actors are rather than how large a role they have. The plot, such as it is, is quite basic and the background music is so desperate to be in the foreground, it makes hearing the dialogue difficult. This is no real loss as the baddies endlessly recite one of three sentences over and over: 'Robin is a thief', 'Robin is a coward' or 'Robin is dead!' Both sides frequently assume they have killed their enemy without bothering to check, and when Robin, John and Will decide to steal the guards' clothes in order to infiltrate the castle, they actually steal every scrap of clothing including underwear and footwear, leaving the guards' bodies lying completely naked, which seems excessive.
Conclusion: Making the Ideal Robin Hood Film
Having seen the various Robin Hood films, you might ask: which is better? The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) is still a firm favourite as obviously Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland DBE out-act later stars such as Kevin Costner and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio without question. Yet the 1938 film has the incomparable Basil Rathbone as the Sheriff of Nottingham and it is impossible to see him without expecting him to declare the case elementary and defeat Moriarty. So what makes the perfect Robin Hood film?
To make the perfect Robin Hood film combining the best of everything reviewed here we would need to steal characters from both the rich and poor films listed above. Robin Hood would be played by Errol Flynn speaking with Cary Elwes' genuine English accent. Dame Olivia de Havilland would be Maid Marian with Tracey Ullman as her lady-in-waiting, Little John would be played by Nigel Green and Friar Tuck by Brian Blessed. In the Robin Hood films it is the villains that really steal the show, with actors of the calibre of Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing and Alan Rickman making it difficult to choose which sheriff Robin would face, but leaving plenty of opportunity for sequels. Sir Peter Ustinov would play Prince John with henchmen played by Terry-Thomas and Oliver Reed. The theme song '(Everything I Do) I Do It For You' by Bryan Adams would play over the end credits.
Robin Hood films have been considered to be a dangerous threat to society by those abusing their authority; during the McCarthy era Robin Hood's championing of taking from the rich to help the poor was considered 'Un American' and films featuring the hero were discouraged. The threat extended to censoring books featuring the character, leading to the opposing 'Green Feather' movement in US Universities. The films in their turn have been influenced by television; almost all films made since television series Robin of Sherwood (1984-86) have likewise featured a Moorish character as part of Robin's band.
Sadly, few Robin Hood films pass the Bechdel Test and even when they do it is usually only barely. Other than Maid Marian, the only other named female character is generally Marian's lady-in-waiting whose dialogue usually consists of phrases such as 'yes, my lady'. In any case, no-one can say 'Yes, my lady' like Thunderbirds' Parker. Of the 13 actors to play Robin Hood in the 12 films listed here, only five have been English: Richard Greene, Barrie Ingham, Brian Bedford, Cary Elwes and Ben Freeman.