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 since led to numerous film adaptations since the invention of the cinema. This 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 Score (by Erich Wolfgang Korngold) 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 America. In 2005 it was listed on the British Film Institute's list of 50 films children should see before 14.
This was the most expensive film Warner Bros had made to date and their first major colour film, costing $2 million, with Errol Flynn by far their largest 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 however the Second World War prevented this.
The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946)
|Directors||Henry Levin & George Sherman|
|Plot||It is twenty years after Robin Hood defied Prince John. A nine year-old king 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, kidnapping him and taking him away from the Queen Mother. Only the once-again exiled Robin Hood aka Robert of Huntingdon, his band of aging merry men, 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|
Another fun, light-hearted adventure based on Paul Castleton's novel Son of Robin Hood (1941), 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, though Anita Louise is by far the strongest female role in a Robin Hood film to date, insisting 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 both 'Robin' and 'Robert' as their name interchangeably is surprisingly not as confusing as the premise suggests. The film's only weakness is the story does not understand what Magna Carta is, believing it to be a document creating an 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 to rule absolutely, killing off the wealthiest barons in the country and confiscating their territory. 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, 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, which he first played in Robin Hood in 1922, 28 years earlier. This is the record for the longest period over which an actor has played the same character in unrelated films2. 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 1954's unrelated Men of Sherwood Forest. Richard Greene had starred in the popular television series The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-9), fondly remembered for the heroic theme song3. Peter Cushing makes an excellent sheriff of Nottingham while Oliver Reed appears uncredited in one of his earliest film roles, but sadly 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 by Robin, 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).
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 2 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 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.
Robin Hood also borrowed heavily from previous Disney films, recasting Phil Harris, previously bear Baloo in The Jungle Book, as bear Little John. This made it easy to trace movements from the earlier film and quickly adapt them for Robin Hood.
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, dies, asking Robin to swear to protect his sister, Marian, who is 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 Gisbourne, the corrupt Bishop of Hereford, and 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 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 film also contains attempted rape, racism, constant swearing, devil worship, nudity and defenestration and is rated PG. The actor's accents are also 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, same as Terminator 2: Judgement Day. While Terminator 2's Sarah Connor is a strong, feminine, focussed, determined, well-rounded, motherly heroine. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves has a different portrayal of women, as Maid Marian screams 'Robin!' a lot and doesn't otherwise do a lot. Even though the film's set in the Middle Ages, there's no need to portray women in a way so mediæval.
Sean Connery cameos in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves but his Robin and Marian co-star Audrey Hepburn sadly does not. Brian Blessed would later play Friar Tuck in 2018's Direct-to-Video Robin Hood: The Rebellion. A longer Director's Cut was released on DVD with more scenes featuring the Sheriff and witch.
Kevin Costner enjoyed working with director Kevin Reynolds so much he asked to work with him again on Waterworld (1995), only for them both 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 also 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 for Alan Rickman. Brian Blessed has an all-too brief appearance and Morgan Freeman also out-performs Kevin 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 Sherriff 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 particularly 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 ther journey they encounter the ambushed and dying Sir Robert Loxley and drive the attackers away. Loxley was carrying Richard's crown and had been waylaid by the traitorous Sir Godfrey who was trying 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 and, 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 but in reality aiming to encourage the 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 Charter?
|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 to have 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 bulls eye 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 British actors playing the baddies.
Filming was initially delayed by the 2007-8 Writer's Guild Strike. Locations used include Surrey and Pembrokeshire in Wales. In the UK to date only the 15-minutes longer Director's Cut5 has been released on home video.
Robin Hood The Rebellion (2018)
|Studio||Picture Perfect / Signature Entertainment|
Maid Marian has been kidnapped by the Sheriff of Nottingham! Will Robin Hood and both 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, however 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 Prayer6. 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 instead 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, 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 Sherriff 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, with theme song '(Everything I Do) I Do It For You' by Bryan Adams over the end credits.
Sadly few Robin Hood films pass the Bechdel test and even when they do it is usually only barely. Other than Maid Marian, many films only other named female character is 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.