Across a century of moviemaking around the globe and on television screens, the English folkloric hero Robin Hood continues to fascinate, whether portrayed in strapping youth or autumnal gravity, animated, gender-swapped, genre-alternated, swathed in the grandeur of hugely-budgeted epics or scrappily assembled matinee programmers. The clarion call of a rebellious outlaw siding with the common folk against the oppressive aristocracy is such an attractive lure to storytellers of successive generations that every decade claims its own embodiment in such prominent personages as Douglas Fairbanks (1922), Errol Flynn (1938), Richard Todd (1952), Daffy Duck (1958), Frank Sinatra (1964), Sean Connery (1976), Patrick Bergin and Kevin Costner (both 1991), Cary Elwes (1993) and Russell Crowe (2010), to name a mere few. Come Thanksgiving in theaters, one can add to the honor roll the “laddie-fied” Robin Hood (2018) of Kingsman duo top-liner Taron Egerton, with location filming in France and Croatia standing in for merrie olde England.
Sixty-three years ago this week, the fugitive Earl of Locksley debuted on American television in series form with the British-produced The Adventures of Robin Hood, which starred the sturdy Richard Greene, who co-starred in The Little Princess, The Hound of the Baskervilles and Stanley and Livingstone (all 1939), Forever Amber (1947, a Twilight Time title), The Fan (1949). It ran for a remarkable 143 episodes across five seasons and brought the reliable actor a considerable burst of mid-career notoriety – and a welcome influx of financial stability via the cross-promotional marketing of popular merchandise bearing his beaming likeness. After the series ended production in December 1958, Greene decided to revisit the role once more, this time on the big screen, now in Megascope and Eastmancolor and in partnership with Hammer Film Productions, in the taut and lively Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), with Hammer’s esteemed horror veteran Terence Fisher, who helmed 11 episodes of the long-running series, in the director’s chair. With Hammer’s rigorous budgetary controls mitigating against an epic scale, the screenplay by Alan Hackney (I’m All Right Jack) tightened the focus; while Richard the Lionheart is still absent fighting the Crusades in faraway climes, Robin’s aim in this adventure is to thwart a conspiracy by the cunning and sadistic Sheriff of Nottingham to seize the estates of the country’s elite and assassinate the upright Archbishop of Canterbury to consolidate his power. In a juicy Conan Doyle mashup, this effectively pits the Henry Baskerville of the 1939 version (Greene) against the Sherlock Holmes of Hammer’s incarnation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959, another TT disc), the formidable Peter Cushing. Surrounding the two antagonists are a strong cohort of character players: Niall MacGinnis (TT’s 1956 Alexander the Great) as Friar Tuck, Nigel Green (TT’s 1969 Play Dirty) as Little John, Richard Pasco (who made three appearances in The Adventures of Robin Hood series) as the treacherous Earl of Newark, Oliver Reed (TT’s 1962 The Pirates of Blood River, 1970 Take a Girl like You and 1975 Royal Flash) as a lethally minded lord, and willowy Sarah Branch as Maid Marian Fitzwalter.
While striking a good balance of merriment, menace and action, this Sherwood saga added another element, which film historian Wheeler Winston Dixon noted in his 1991 chronicle The Charm of Evil: The Life and Films of Terence Fisher: “It is still a striking and deeply moving film, distinguished by its faith in divine ordination, and the splendid use of the Irish landscape. The entire film is modestly budgeted, and Fisher cannot afford the huge sets and spectacular battles that marked the 1938 version with Errol Flynn or the earlier film with Douglas Fairbanks. But what sets Sword of Sherwood Forest apart from its predecessors is Fisher’s interest in the theistic aspects of the Robin Hood legend. There is very little robbing from the rich and giving to the poor going on here, but Robin is nevertheless presented as a force for good,…an agency of protection, a facilitator of the natural order which Nottingham seeks to disrupt. As in all Fisher films, the violence is over rapidly, and erupts only after the moral positions of the protagonists have been carefully mapped out. Sword of Sherwood Forest emerges as a film which examines the character of Robin and his antagonists, and finds the contest of wills more interesting than the traditional battle of long bows.” Fast on its feet, fierce in its compact storytelling intensity and uniquely graced with a rousing one-time feature-film score by revered Welsh classical composer Alun Hoddinott available on an Isolated Music & Effects Track, it hits the bullseye October 16 on TT hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open October 3.