Monday, November 29, 2021

Walt Disney's Live-Action Robin Hood

Richard Todd as Robin.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) is one of the greatest films ever made--with its perfectly-cast characters, vivid color, fabulous sets, and iconic scenes (e.g., the archery contest, the climatic swordfight). Thus, it's surprising that Walt Disney chose to mount his own version of the Robin Hood legend just fourteen years later. And yet, what's even more surprising is that The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952) is a lively, diverting yarn with its own charms. To be sure, it will always be overshadowed by the Warner Bros. classic, but it still stands proudly on its own.

Joan Rice as Marian.
In this version, Robin (Richard Todd) and Marian (Joan Rice) are childhood sweethearts who are separated when King Richard leaves to fight in the Crusades. Marian is placed under the protection of the Queen Mother in London, while Robin and his father remain in Nottingham. When Robin's father refuses to support greedy Prince John and his handpicked sheriff (Peter Finch), he is murdered and his son becomes an outlaw. Robin soon forms his band of merry men, who live in the forest and rob from the rich noblemen and give the spoils to their overtaxed countrymen.

There are the requisite encounters with Little John (James Robertson Justice) and Friar Tuck (James Hayter) before Marian returns in time to get imprisoned by Prince John. That development, plus a scheme to steal King Richard's ransom money, sets up the climax in this fast-paced, 84-minute adventure.

Peter Finch as the sheriff.
The British cast impresses from top to bottom, with Richard Todd making a likable hero, Joan Rice sparkling as a sweet Marian, and an almost unrecognizable Peter Finch as Robin's worthy adversary. It's too bad the big duel between Robin and the Sheriff of Nottingham seems like an afterthought (though the latter's demise is memorably gruesome, especially for a Disney film). 

The same applies to the scenes with James Hayter as Friar Tuck and James Robertson Justice as Little John. The latter made a career out of playing bigger-than-life characters in films such as Doctor in the House, but he has little (pun intended) to do here. On the other hand, musician Elton Hayes gets some choice scenes as traveling minstrel Alan-a-Dale. One almost wonders if he was Danny Kaye's inspiration for his Giacomo in The Court Jester.

The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men was just Disney's second live-action film, following 1950's Treasure Island. Like that film, the production values are high, with scenes shot in the real Sherwood Forest blending effectively with set pieces filmed in Pinewood Studios. Really, though, Disney should restore some of its early live-action movies, as the once vibrant colors have faded on the even best quality prints.

Richard Todd appeared in two additional Disney pictures the following year: The Sword and the Rose and Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue. Both are fine escapist fare and co-star Justice and the always enchanting Glynis Johns. Nevertheless, they lack the strong narrative that comes with the Robin Hood legend. There's just something about watching the men and women of Sherwood Forest performing their derring-do.


Caftan Woman said...

This version of "Robin" has a special place in my heart. I fell in love with Richard Todd and the idea of the middle ages minstrels spinning yarns and spreading news.

Silver Screenings said...

Peter Finch as the Sheriff of Nottingham? Count me in!

Clement Glen said...

The forest shots were filmed in Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire not Sherwood.