100 Years of… Robin Hood

Lady Marian and Robin Hood

Accept no substitute. This is the original Robin Hood, or Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (as the registered title insists), the one that Errol Flynn’s 1938 version modelled itself on, the one that gets all the Merry Men, Maid Marian, good King Richard and bad King John, Sir Guy of Gisbourne and the Sheriff of Nottingham into forms so recognisable that even at 100 years old, it’s instantly obvious who is who.

This wasn’t the first screen outing for the mythical character, in fact there had already been five before (if we include 1919’s My Lady Robin Hood), so Robin Hood as a movie character was at least fairly well known, though of course there had been plays, ballads and stories going back to medieval times. Doubtless it helped that at a time when the USA was emphasising its European roots, Robin Hood was English, white and Christian.

Robin Hood was the third of Fairbanks’s costume epics, and though both The Mark of Zorro and The Three Musketeers had been big successes, no one would fund the making of this enormously costly film. So Fairbanks financed it with his own money (breaking the number one rule of Hollywood), then went away to leave Lloyd Wright (son of architect Frank Lloyd Wright) to design the sets.

The story goes that Fairbanks was so intimidated by what he saw when he came back that he briefly cancelled the film. An over-reaction he was prevailed on to rethink by director Allan Dwan. Fairbanks’s reaction is understandable. The sets are the star of the film and are magnificence itself, particularly the massive medieval castle where much of the action takes place, and throw Fairbanks into the shade.

As to storyline, it’s pretty trad, apart from the fact that Robin Hood himself doesn’t appear for the first hour and a quarter. Instead, in “origin story” style, we learn about the Earl of Huntingdon – how he goes off to the Crusades with good King Richard, leaving the comely Lady Marian (Enid Bennett) behind under the watchful eye of the Earl’s squire (who later becomes Little John), how bad Prince John starts to wreak havoc on the land with torture and unfair taxation, how the Earl engineers his release from the King’s service and returns to save the land, by becoming Robin Hood and gathering his Merry outlaws. And how King Richard eventually returns triumphant to resume his rightful rule.

The impressive set
The set recreating medieval England

No scares there, then. You can’t say quite the same for the acting, which is “big”. The sets demand it, in a way, and silent movie stars did tend to be big – none bigger than Fairbanks (“it’s the pictures that got small” etc etc), who is all head thrown back, balled fists on hips, leaping about with his trademark physicality in remarkable displays of fitness, especially once he sheds Huntingdon’s chainmail and dons the familiar Robin Hood costume. Fairbanks, at 39, looks a touch old to be playing Robin Hood (or maybe Errol Flynn, aged 30 in 1938, is casting a backward shadow), but it’s generally a good cast. Wallace Beery plays a… yes, beery, laddish King Richard, a man of natural authority with strength and a voice to match. Enid Bennett is a waiflike, pre-Raphaelite Lady Marian, Alan Hale is great as the squire/Little John (so great, in fact, that he’d play the same role in the 1938 version), Sam de Grasse a lowering, glowering King John and Paul Dickey almost trumps them all as the properly sinister Sir Guy of Gisbourne, nemesis of Huntingdon, luster after Marian, aide to the wicked Prince John, a bad hat all round.

Allan Dwan’s film-making is precise and carefully controlled. The closer he brings his camera, the less he requires his actors to do. There’s a very nice scene where Robin (still Huntingdon at this point) woos Marian before setting off on the Crusade, all done in tiny gestures and with the sort of subtlety Fairbanks isn’t noted for. With the camera further back we get the standard-issue screen idol – look out for the fantasic bit where Robin slides down a huge tapestry/curtain, a stunt so good Jackie Chan would repurpose it in Police Story, one of his best films, where it was fantastic all over again.

Truth be told, the film is a bit long and a trim would improve it. Fewer scenes of general carousing or Merry Men jigging about excitedly in Sherwood Forest would make for a tauter drama all round.

As to the version I watched, Kino Lorber, it’s not bad, flickers a bit here and there and really should, by now, have been restored. There is no Blu-ray version. The sets alone are crying out for it. The Kino Lorber soundtrack comes across as a cost-cutting exercise. The music itself is fine, it’s the use of a synth to approximate (badly) an orchestra which doesn’t particularly work.

Perhaps, if a big restoration is ever done, it’ll get the treatment too.

Robin Hood – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Zorro: Who Is That Masked Man?

Tyrone Power as Zorro

The Mexicans like their heroes the way they like their tacos – with cheese.
Enter Zorro. Cue mask, cape and ludicrous pencil moustache

Next time you’re in London, try the Robin Hood Zorro restaurant in Hammersmith. This oddly conceived English/Mexican hybrid serves an equally odd drink called the Robin Hood Meets Zorro cocktail. A mouthful to order and a hell of a thing to drink, it contains tequila, gin and beer. The menu doesn’t say it’s served with a bucket, but it probably should be.

What is it about Zorro that seems to bring out the naffness in … well, everything?

It was not always thus. Dial back to the mists of the silent movie era and there’s Douglas Fairbanks Sr, the original screen Zorro, dressed like some gangsta off the streets of South Central LA, doing all his own stunts. If you don’t believe me, watch the Youtube video here and be amazed.

Made in 1920 only a year after Zorro was created in the book The Curse of Capistrano, this is Zorro fresh and vibrant, a Spanish nobleman championing the rights of the little man in the pueblos of Los Angeles in a California that was still a wild dry desert under the Mexican flag.

Dial forward to 1981 and there’s George Hamilton, in Zorro, The Gay Blade, all porcelain veneers and Ronseal tan. A more unlikely example of courageous masculinity it would be had to imagine.

Zorro is America’s first superhero. A re-imagining of the Scarlet Pimpernel – foppish noble by day, man of action by night – he’s the prototype of Batman and every superhero with a cape, a mask and a secret identity. And like Batman, he’s a very easy figure to turn into a camp figure of fun.

Zorro – the thin pencil moustache, the trousers tucked into leather boots, the gaucho hat, the cape, the bandana. You can’t imagine Jason Statham growling his way through a film dressed like that.

Which takes us to Tyrone Power, a famous Zorro of the 1940s, an actor who actually did look good in hat, cape and etc. So good in fact that the rumour factory had soon decided Power was gay. And Zorro the gay blade he remained till his death and beyond.

And from Power, on past George Hamilton (enough said already) to Antonio Banderas. Now no one is going to suggest that Banderas is anything but 100 per cent man’s man – certainly not while there’s a lawyer still breathing on the planet – but his two outings as Zorro are undoubtedly the campest of the lot. “Nobody leaves my tequila worm dangling in the wind”– he says in The Legend of Zorro, legs athwart, arms akimbo, tongue rammed hard into cheek.

And in Shrek 2 and Puss in Boots Banderas turns up again as a cartoon Zorro who’s even more of a joke than his live-action version.

Is it because he’s Hispanic that gringo American productions turn this iconic mother lode of 20th century superhero culture into something of a mother’s boy? Or is it the mask? Let’s face it, it’s not much of a disguise. Who is that masked man? Er, it’s Antonio Banderas, obviously.

Whatever it is the Zorros keep coming – Disney are hatching an animated version, while the Gypsy Kings are planning on opening their musical Zorro in multiple worldwide locations after a box-office bonanza in London.

Whoever that masked man is, he’s making a lot of people a lot of money.

Ten Great Mexican Films

Amores Perros (2000, dir: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)

Three stories collide in the key work of the New Mexican cinema, a gorgeous looking, superheated drama full of macho men, fiery women and fighting dogs.

Amores Perros – at Amazon

Y Tu Mamá También (2001, dir: Alfonso Cuarón)

The drama that made Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal internationally famous is a coming-of-age road movie with a philosophical flavour. Maribel Verdu ensures it’s pretty sexy too.

Y Tu Mamá También – at Amazon

El Topo (1970, dir: Alejandro Jodorowsky)

One of the maddest films ever made, a freakish spaghetti western populated with cruel, cackling banditos, pinheads, armless and legless freaks, bare-breasted women and spontaneously combusting rabbits.

El Topo – at Amazon

Midaq Alley (1995, dir: Jorge Fons)

The film that helped Salma Hayek bust – in every sense of the word –out of Mexico into Hollywood is a full-to-the-brim soap given extra wallop by Hayek’s sex-and-drugs storylines.

Midaq Alley – at Amazon

Cronos (1993, dir: Guillermo Del Toro)

The breakthrough of director Guillermo Del Toro is a classic horror film about a medieval device that makes the wearer immortal. An offbeat vampire story that’s full of magic realism, humour and horror.

Cronos – at Amazon

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, dir: Guillermo Del Toro)

Del Toro’s best to date, a fierce fantasy set in Franco’s Spain about a girl who escapes the world of her brutish stepfather by entering the realm of a horned and threatening mythical beast. Magical.

Pan’s Labyrinth – at Amazon

El Mariachi (1992, dir: Robert Rodriguez)

Shot in Ciudad Acuñaby by second-generation Mexican Robert Rodriguez on a budget of $7,000, the story of a wandering modern minstrel looking for work. What’s in his guitar case? And why is everyone out to kill him?

El Mariachi – at Amazon

Like Water for Chocolate (1992, dir: Alfonso Arau)

In Mexico a person in a state of sexual arousal is said to be “like water for chocolate”– this beautiful intense love story, in which everyone seems ready to boil over, makes it clear why.

Like Water for Chocolate – at Amazon

Sex, Shame and Tears (1999, dir: Antonio Serrano)

A lively film that will remind some of Doris Day and Rock Hudson sex comedies. That’s if you ignore the fact one of the main characters is a rapist! Weird, disjointed and beautifully acted.

Sex, Shame and Tears – at Amazon

Rudo Y Cursi (2008, dir: Carlos Cuarón)

Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna star in about the best film made to date about what happens to a poor boy from nowhere when he becomes a superstar footballer. Funny, believable, tragic.

Rudo Y Cursi – at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2011