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The best film version of the Robin Hood legend
on April 17, 2003
Many Disney fans born after 1960 aren't aware that Disney wasn't all about cartoons; in the early 1950s his studio released a number of live-action adventure films, which were nowhere near as financially successful as his animated movies. But a few of them were as good as many of his cartoon features, and none was better than "The Story of Robin Hood", which appeared in the summer of 1952. Set in 12th century England at the start of Richard the Lionheart's crusade to the Holy Land, we see England as it was then, rural, mainly poor, solidly Catholic, devoted to the Holy Mother Church, and ruled over by a benevolent king about to set off to holy war while he leaves his evil, scheming younger brother, Prince John, behind to rule in his stead. When the film opens, their mother, Queen Elinor of Aquitaine, is giving her blessing to the enterprise while reminding all within earshot that she needs no looking after ("The woman who bore two sons like you", she informs her oldest son the king, "can take care of herself"). And here is Robin, 18 years old, wishing he could tag along after the king, but without a care in the world except winning the upcoming archery tournament and chasing Maid Marian. But this idyll is about to come crashing down; after winning the tournament and rudely rejecting to serve under the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham, Robin's father is murdered by the sheriff's right-hand man, and is killed by Robin in turn. It's off to Sherwood Forest for life on the run as an outlaw, while Robin gathers around him other outcasts who have been impoverished by the sheriff's rapacious deputies. There's fun galore as we see Robin and his merrie men robbing the rich to aid the poor, rescuing the downtrodden from the sheriff's villainy, kidnapping the sheriff himself and lightening his purse, and helping to pay King Richard's ransom after he is captured in the Crusades by robbing the loot King John and the Sheriff have stolen from the poor.
Ken Annakin keeps the film solidly on target in time and place. The movie's score is exceptional; from Allan A'Dale broadcasting the news as a wandering minstrel, to the Gregorian chant sung by the knights as they set off on Richard's crusade, we are transported 800 years back in time. And Annakin reminds us, in a telling scene where Allan A'Dale is snubbed by some villagers, that not everyone in merrie olde England thought Robin and his men were saviors; to most of the upper class, and many of the small but growing middle class, they were a gang of thieves and worse.
A great cast helps keep the film rolling. Richard Todd was never better than he was as Robin; bold, generous, not to mention full of himself; merciless to the enemies of the underclass, he's a winning hero. Joan Rice is sweet and sassy as Maid Marian; no simpering damsel is this young lady, she gives as good as she gets. And the minor cast is terrific: James Robertson Justice is just right as Little John; Elton Hayes is excellent as Allan A'Dale; Anthony Forwood is sly and cynical as Will Scarlett, and James Hayter almost walks off with the film with his hilarious performance as Friar Tuck. The movie works both as an action/adventure film and a fascinating romp through medieval England. It's one of Disney's best.