Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Postwar in the Greenwood

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Postwar in the Greenwood

The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (USA, 1946)

In the middle of the last century, you couldn’t say “Robin Hood” without evoking the image of Errol Flynn in 1938’s classic The Adventures of Robin Hood — every movie and TV show in the next thirty years about the bandit of Sherwood Forest was made in its long, green shadow. The Robin Hood story depicted in the Flynn film became the de facto standard version of the legend, cinematic comfort food, with subsequent screen incarnations not straying far from its characters and situation. Still, there were good times to be had in that long, green shadow, and tales of Robin and his Merrie Men owned Saturday afternoons for the sleepy Fifties and well afterwards.

The Bandit of Sherwood Forest

Rating: **
Origin: USA, 1946
Director: George Sherman and Henry Levin
Source: Columbia Pictures DVD

The aging Robin Hood, for twenty years now the Earl of Huntingdon, rides into Sherwood and blows a horn to summon his old comrades. Mounted bandits with bows come riding out of the woods, waving their weapons, all galloping, gathering, scores of them…. Geez, there are more horse archers in Sherwood Forest than the Mongols had in the Golden Horde. Once assembled before Huntingdon, the earl reveals that he’s called them all together… for exposition! The King of England is a child, a royal regent governs in his name and is convening a meeting of nobles, where the earl suspects he wants to revoke the Magna Carta! But don’t worry, Merrie Men, Huntingdon has sent for his son Robert, so thanks for galloping, now go chill for a day or two.

Huntingdon arrives at the meeting of nobles, and as soon as he sees that the regent is played by the sneering Henry Daniell, he knows the deal is going down. In short order the Magna Carta is rescinded, tyranny is ascendant, the regent plots to usurp the throne, and the uncooperative Earl of Huntingdon is banished. And the next day Robin Hood is back in Sherwood, organizing the resistance.

This movie is pretty standard Robin Hood fare, the kind of thing everyone is going to see a lot of between V-E Day and 1960 or so. The twist this time is that the older and now silver-haired Robin (Russell Hicks) is relegated to the background, while his son Robert (Cornel Wilde) takes point handling the derring-do. Young Robert is virile and active, but kind of an arrogant jerk at first, trouncing the older Merrie Men while sparring, snatching kisses from unwilling ladies, and being a general show-off.

Really, Robert just needs a serious challenge, like saving the young king from his unscrupulous regent, and he’ll straighten right out — especially if he listens to that smart lady he stole the kiss from (Anita Louise), because she’s going to save his neck when he gets captured and thrown into the Nottingham Castle dungeon. Fortunately, Nottingham Castle has the worst postern gate security protocols ever.

This picture’s not bad, but it has this weird and unexpected flaw: it keeps forgetting it isn’t a Western. The extras all sound like cowboys, everybody has horses and gallops everywhere riding Western style (there’s so much riding), and it’s clear that the cast and crew, who were making a Western just last week, are really looking forward to getting out of the green tights and making another Western next week.

At least there’s a final duel between Cornel Wilde and Henry Daniell, with their giant shadows fencing across the castle wall behind them. Because traditions, after all, must be upheld.

Prince of Thieves

Rating: **
Origin: USA, 1948
Director: Howard Bretherton
Source: Columbia Pictures DVD

This is loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’s Le Prince des Voleurs (1872), itself loosely based on Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood (1840), a story from which can be found in Your Editor’s Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure. It was adapted for the screen by Charles H. Schneer, better known later as Ray Harryhausen’s frequent producer and partner; this is Schneer’s only screenwriting credit. In Sherwood Forest, which has never looked more like southern California, Robin Hood (Jon Hall) saves a traveling noble couple from assassination by an unknown archer.

Robin takes them to his camp, where the nobleman reveals that he’s one of the retainers of King Richard, who’s still in France; the woman is his sister, and her name is Lady Marian. Her brother has come to claim the hand of the daughter of the Lord of Nottingham, but the lord has reneged on his promise and intends to marry his daughter to Prince John’s nephew — and suddenly, that nephew’s soldiers stage a surprise attack. And this is all in just the first ten minutes! Fortunately, Robin has another hour in which to get things sorted out.

Jon Hall is one of those square-jawed but modestly talented leading men who made three or four movies a year in the 1940s for the smaller studios, playing stalwart heroes in formulaic adventure films. He’s adequate enough, though about as English as baseball. The rest of the cast, lords, ladies, and Merrie Men, are mostly pretty tepid, except for Alan Mowbray as Friar Tuck and Robin Raymond as the saucy lady’s maid, Maudie; they’re quite engaging, and do a lot of the heavy lifting with the gags and trickery that move the plot forward.

Nottingham Castle uses the same set we saw in Bandit of Sherwood Forest, so we’ve already seen that Robin knows how to get into it. Getting out isn’t as easy, since they closed that leaky postern gate, but fortunately they added a secret escape passage through the dungeon. (Strangely, Robin forgets about this later when the bandits need to get back into the castle again.)

This is another one of those cowboy Robin Hood pictures, where everyone rides horses — except for Friar Tuck, who rides a cute little donkey to good comic effect. The swordplay is ludicrous, the knife-fighting is worse, with everybody doing that stupid-looking overhand stab, but the archery is pretty good, probably because all the guards and bandits have played Indians in low-budget Westerns. On the other hand, the pole-arm work with those sad halberds — by my halidome, what an embarrassment! All in all, meh: this is one for Robin Hood completists only.

Tales of Robin Hood

Rating: *
Origin: USA, 1951
Director: James Tinling
Source: YouTube streaming video

After The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), a generation of children in America and Europe mimed Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone fighting it out with wooden swords, dueling in schoolyards and empty lots while calling each other knaves and varlets. This production by Hal Roach Jr., an unsold TV pilot released to theaters, is just one step up from those schoolyard dramas.

With a running time of less than an hour, it still ticks off all the usual Robin Hood check boxes: the theft of the Locksley heritage, the quarterstaff fight with Little John on the log, and the trap of the archery contest with the golden arrow as a prize, all calculated to evoke warm memories of the 1938 version.

Unfortunately, the cast Roach assembled, mostly cardboard C-list nobodies, isn’t up to its simple task. Robert Clarke as Robin Hood bears a superficial resemblance to Errol Flynn but the likeness stops there: he has the charisma and acting chops of a mannequin with a painted smile. Mary Hatcher is a passive and pudding-faced Maid Marian, Wade Crosby as Little John makes the mistake of imitating the awful Alan Hale Sr., and Tiny Stowe may be the least imposing Sheriff of Nottingham ever to blot the silver screen.

As is so often the case, only the villains are worth watching, with Paul Cavanagh as Sir Gui de Claremont and Keith Richards (not that one) as Sir Alan de Beaulieu the only members of the cast who can say “methinks” and “milady” without embarrassment.

Look, methinks there are a lot of other Robin Hood movies ahead of this one in the queue, and if you never get as far as Tales of Robin Hood, that’s a good hour saved.

Rogues of Sherwood Forest

Rating: **
Origin: USA, 1950
Director: Gordon Douglas
Source: Columbia / Sony DVD

Like The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946), this is another story of the son of Robin Hood, of King John, and of the Magna Carta. Young Robin (John Derek) has inherited the title of Earl of Huntingdon, and has just returned from the Crusades with Little John (Alan Hale, Sr., reprising the role he played opposite Fairbanks in ’22 and Flynn in ’38). He encounters treachery at the tournament where, under the eyes of the exceedingly blond royal ward, Lady Marianne (Diana Lynn), Robin is to joust against a Flemish knight with the absurd name of Sir Baldric. (Right?) Baldric’s lance is secretly pointy where Robin’s is bated, but Robin wins anyway, which vexes evil King John (George Macready). Curses!

Angry John repairs to the same castle set we see in all these postwar Robin Hood flicks, bringing his henchmen along so he has somebody to snarl exposition at: thanks to the foolishly liberal policies of the late King Richard, it seems the barons have acquired a measure of autonomy that John wants to crush. But he needs money to hire mercenaries, so he resorts to the usual means to pay for a bloated military budget, that of raising taxes on the commoners to oppressive levels. Soon Robin and Little John have given up their Crusaders’ armor for green tights and are riding around resisting tax collectors. They get captured in a brawl in Nottingham square, and we’re off on the usual routine of defiance, imprisonment, escape, and rallying the yeomen.

This is another of those California Robin Hood films in which everyone has horses and there’s a great deal of gratuitous galloping, troops of charging horsemen splitting left and right just before they ride over the camera. The movie breaks no new ground, and in fact goes out of its way wherever possible to evoke and emulate The Adventures of Robin Hood, which had been re-released to great success in 1948. But apparently no one thought to hire Fred Cavens to coach the fencers, because the swordplay here is embarrassingly lame.

The too-handsome John Derek looks pretty in his jerkin and tights, but he can’t act worth a farthing. Alan Hale, Sr., making his last appearance in a feature film, is visibly tired and barely getting through it. Only the ever-reliable George Macready shows any fire, so much so that toward the end you almost start to root for him.

But he can’t fight history, not in a film that’s based on one actual-factual event, and he’s finally forced to affix the royal seal to the Magna Carta that delimits the monarch’s powers. Curses!

Where can I watch these movies? I’m glad you asked! Many movies and TV shows are available on disk in DVD or Blu-ray formats, but nowadays we live in a new world of streaming services, more every month it seems. However, it can be hard to find what content will stream in your location, since the market is evolving and global services are a patchwork quilt of rights and availability. I recommend JustWatch.com, a search engine that scans streaming services to find the title of your choice. Give it a try. And if you have a better alternative, let us know.

Previous installments in the Cinema of Swords include:

The Barbarian Boom, Part 1
Old School Pirates
Weird Samurai
Euro Dumas Trio
The Barbarian Boom, Part 2
The New Zu Review
The Barbarian Boom, Part 3
An Elegant Weapon for a More Civilized Age
Fantasy Salmagundi
Warmongers
Fables and Fairy Tales
Goofballs in Harem Pants, Part 2
Timey-Wimey Swordy-Boardy
Boy-Toys of Troy
Piracy – Two Wrecks and a Prize Ship


LAWRENCE ELLSWORTH is deep in his current mega-project, editing and translating new, contemporary English editions of all the works in Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers Cycle, with the fifth volume, Between Two Kings, available now from Pegasus Books in the US and UK. His website is Swashbucklingadventure.net.

Ellsworth’s secret identity is game designer LAWRENCE SCHICK, who’s been designing role-playing games since the 1970s. He now lives in Dublin, Ireland, where he’s writing Dungeons & Dragons scenarios for Larian Studios’ Baldur’s Gate 3.

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Brandon J

Hard to beat the original with Flynn. It’s about time for a new film adaption of the legend of Robin Hood. I think a film based on the Stephen Lawhead book (Hood) would be great.

Bob Byrne

Hey Lawrence! I don’t think you’ve covered ‘Sword of Sherwood Forest’ yet. Gonna take a look at that? I like Richard Greene’s TV series. And I wanted to like that glossy, color upgrade from Hammer. And it had Peter Cushing! But I just thought it was kinda bland. Worth a watch, but it didn’t do much for me.

Lawrence Schick

Hi, Bob! See my article on Hammer Historicals from just over a year ago!

https://www.blackgate.com/2021/01/27/ellsworths-cinema-of-swords-hammer-horror-historicals/

Bob Byrne

Oops – missed that one. Thanks!

Matthew

I was lucky enough to see the Flynn Robin Hood on the big screen. It was during a festival of classic films. It was quite something. ( I also saw Casablanca on the big screen there.)

John E Boyle

Another Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords? More Robins!

To tell the truth, all of the Robin Hood movies from Errol Flynn’s to Robin & Marian just seem to run together for me and I can’t really tell one from the other. Great post though; I didn’t know that Alan Hale Sr. had performed the same role in 3 movies spanning 30 years! And whoever thought that Edgar Buchanan would star in a Robin Hood movie? I would also like to see your review of ‘Sword of Sherwood Forest’.

Many Thanks!

Lawrence Schick

Hi, John! You and Bob should see my article on Hammer Historicals for Black Gate on 27 January 2021 where “Sword of Sherwood Forest” is duly covered!

John E Boyle

Thank you!

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