Movie Review: Robin Hood (1922)
WARNING: YOU’VE HAD NEARLY A CENTURY TO SEE IT, SO DON’T EVEN TALK TO ME ABOUT SPOILERS.
The title cards of silent films are fascinating for being overwrought—“All of England fell under the pall of John’s perfidy,” etc.—but one of the most startling in Douglas Fairbanks’ “Robin Hood” (1922) is rather straightforward:
From the mysterious depths of Sherwood Forest came whispers of the rise of a robber chief.
Why is this startling? Because it takes more than half the movie to appear.
Does any film genre age worse than action-adventure? You watch the quick-cut, world-traveling, big-explosion James Bond movies of today and then check out the first one, “Dr. No,” and it’s as if Bond has his feet propped up on a desk the entire movie. And that’s from 1962. Imagine an action-adventure movie 40 years before that. Before sound and color. When movies told us stories the way adults read to children: first the words (the title card), then the picture (two men dueling).
At the time, Fairbanks’ “Robin Hood” was the most expensive movie ever made ($1.4 million), included the biggest set ever assembled (Richard’s castle), and was the first film to have its premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. It also starred the biggest movie star of the era. Not only is the official title of the movie “Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood,” but when the man who will become Robin Hood is first introduced, the title card reminds us further who he is:
The Earl of Huntingdon,
Most Robin Hood stories begin with Robin returning from the Crusades, but this one begins the day before he and others leave for the Crusades. First there’s a jousting tournament: Huntingdon vs. Guy of Gibsourne (Paul Dickey). The latter cheats, loses, is bitter in defeat. Huntingdon, meanwhile, is wary of the prize: the veil of Maid Marian Fitzwalter (Enid Bennett). “Exempt me, sire,” Huntingdon declares, “I am afeared of women.” King Richard (Wallace Beery) laughs this off, Huntingdon receives his prize, then is chased by a multitude of women (like he’s a movie star), until he winds up in the moat.
Love between Robin and Marian blossoms that night. Initially Huntingdon is involved in rugged drinking and wrestling games with the men, and Richard objects:
Richard: Why hast thou no maid?
Huntingdon: When I return.
Richard: Nay, before you go, my good knight.
At that moment, as luck or chivalry would have it, Prince John (“sinister, dour, his heart inflamed with an unholy desire to succeed to Richard’s throne,” and played by Sam de Grasse) makes unwelcome moves toward Marian. Huntingdon intervenes. He wins the standoff but loses his heart to Marian. “I never knew a maid could—could be like you,” he says, holding both hands over his heart and descending to one knee. One wonders how long before that maneuver got corny.
The next morning, as the Christian soldiers move onward, Huntingdon leaves behind his squire, Little John (Alan Hale, who would play Little John twice more in the movies), whose job is to look after Marian. King Richard, less wise, leaves no one to look after Prince John, who, with the help of the High Sheriff of Nottingham (William Lowery), immediately sets about taxing and torturing. Marian, equally unwise, sends Little John off with news of Prince John’s perfidy, leaving herself unprotected. She winds up faking suicide to save her honor, while, in France, Huntingdon is suckered by Sir Guy, doubted by Richard, and he and Little John wind up in prison towers as the others head to Palestine. Little John subsequently frees them by bending prison bars with his bare hands; then they head back to England, where “sturdy men, rebellious to Prince John’s tyranny, sought refuge in Sherwood Forest... These lusty rebels only waited a leader to weld them into a band—an outlaw band destined to live immortal in legend and story.”
At this point, even for someone interested in cinematic history, the movie’s been a slog. I don’t know who needs Robin Hood more: the poor peasants of England or us. But then, an hour late, we get a fine introduction: 1) A boy brings coins and food to his starving parents; 2) the Sheriff of Nottingham is frozen in place by an arrow; 3) ditto “the Rich Man of Wakefield.” Finally Prince John orders a decree and a bag of gold to whomever can bring him this Robin Hood, but 4) an arrow pierces the throne and Robin Hood himself, in full gear, swoops down, takes the bag of gold, and leads the prince’s men on a merry chase through the castle. Fun!
When I first saw Douglas Fairbanks in a movie (“The Mark of Zorro” a few years ago), I was startled that he wasn’t Hollywood handsome—the way his son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., is Hollywood handsome. His face is somewhat fattish, without much of a jawline. But he is amazingly athletic and graceful. Even now, 88 years later, some of the stunts in “Robin Hood” are impressive, such as scaling down a castle corner by pressing himself against the adjoining walls. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jackie Chan got his falling-down-the-curtains stunt from Fairbanks, either.
Sherwood Forest looks cool, too, even by today’s standards. This was the age of the Hollywood extra, so dozens, maybe hundreds of Merry Men dot the landscape, while clumps of arrows stick out of nearly every tree. At one point one of the Merry Men shoots an arrow into a piece of wood tossed high into the air and dares Robin to match it; he does. He shoots two arrows into his piece of wood before it lands. That’s the great arrow stunt for this movie. No splitting arrows yet.
Sherwood Forest, back in the day of the cheap extra
The most aged aspect of the film, besides Huntingdon’s heart-holding, may be Robin’s “merriness.” He bounces. He prances. He skips like a little girl. It’s pretty funny to watch. Sometimes his merriness verges on the insane. He picks up a baby, who cries, and he laughs in its face. A reminder that recent portrayals of Robin Hood have toned down the one adjective associated with him. Wealth redistribution is serious business. Anyone anticipate Russell Crowe skipping?
Robin loses this merriness when he returns holy relics to the Priory of St. Catherine’s, where he discovers Marian alive. Alas, the Sheriff of Nottingham, listening outside the Priory’s walls, discovers this, too, then overhears a nun commenting on the mystery of the great outlaw. “Robin Hood to the poor, mayhap,” she says, “but he was born, Robert, Earl of Huntingdon.” This sets up our final act. Prince John seizes Marian while his men surround Sherwood. But the merry men—including a disguised King Richard—best the Prince’s men, while Robin takes the castle singlehandedly, kills Sir Guy, and holds off a dozen knights to protect Marian’s honor. For the sake of melodrama, he surrenders when he hears three blasts of a horn (signaling the three lions of King Richard), gives Marian a knife to kill herself if things get out of hand, and is tied to a stake before Prince John. He’s about to be diced by 40 arrows but Richard’s shield intervenes. The rest is mopping up. Prince John gets his comeuppance, but not in the bloody manner of today’s films. Instead Richard glowers at his brother, then picks him up and deposits him outside the castle. The drawbridge is raised and John looks around, scared. We can assume the rest: a slow death for a soft monarch or a quick death at the hands of an angry populace.
One tends to think of Robin Hood as a progressive (he robs from the rich and gives to the poor), but an argument can be made, particularly in this version, that he’s actually a religious conservative. A Richard loyalist, he fights for the Crusades and against excessive taxation. Only government men get robbed on camera. Meanwhile, both Robin and the film are devout. It begins where it begins because there’s no modern embarrassment yet over the Crusades. Far from it. “In far-off Palestine,” a title card reads halfway through, “Richard meets with victory and concludes a truce with the infidel,” after which we see Arabs marched through the streets while an English knight on horseback takes a laconic bite out of an apple. When conservative critics complain that modern Hollywood ignores traditional values, this is what they mean.
In classic pose: Showing good form and wearing a helluva long feather.
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