This is the first in an irregular series of posts about films with sword fights. Although they’re all part of a series, the formats will be slightly different, for reasons which will become clear as the posts occur.
Some time ago, in a post about the 1938 Oscars, NWhyte wrote that he’d never seen the Errol Flynn Robin Hood. I was surprised, but looking back on it, I’m not sure why, because former housemate P didn’t watch it until his mid-20s, and as a fencer, he’d had more reason for watching it.
Following on from that post, I wondered which sword-fighting films I would recommend for people to watch. And then I realised I’d watched a lot, and probably needed a way of splitting them up, so I am writing about them by topic, starting with Robin Hood, since it was the Errol Flynn version that kick-started this idea.
Must watch: As you may have guessed from that intro, as far as I’m concerned the Errol Flynn version is the best film version. Partly it’s Flynn himself, in all his charming, insouciant glory, but there’s also Olivia de Havilland as a beautiful, charming and courageous Maid Marian, Claude Reins and Basil Rathbone as excellent villains, and comic relief characters who get to be both funny and heroic.
Of course, the fight scenes are famous for a reason (spoilers for the big end fight).
It’s amazing what you can do when one of your principals is a fencer.
Ex-housemate P didn’t like it because it wasn’t flash enough for him and too slow, but he was more than occasionally wrong about films (he didn’t like Casablanca). His favourite version will be mentioned shortly.
In the same vein: The Richard Todd and Richard Greene versions of Robin Hood stick closely to the Errol Flynn model, and the Richard Greene TV version is one of my family’s favourite ways to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Something different: The Disney Robin Hood is actually my favourite version. However, because it’s animated, I have to admit that the sword fights aren’t all that. On the other hand, there are some truly excellent villains, an adorable Robin and Maid Marian, one of my favourite Friar Tuck’s (seriously, watching him go full “badger don’t care” at the Sheriff is glorious), excellent music (A Pox On The Phoney King of England, Not In Nottingham) and Lady Cluck.
I could write whole essays on how Lady Cluck is just the best (which she is), but I shall provide video evidence instead:
Anyone who has ever seen me do sports may recognise a certain similarity in both shape and attitude.
The Disney Robin Hood is an hour and a half of sheer sugar candy joy.
The ITV Robin Hood, Robin of Sherwood, which is housemate P’s favourite. I happen to think it’s New-Agey, pseudo-realistic nonsense, but several other people I know like it.
I also blame it for several of the modern Robin Hood cliches. It popularised one of the Merry Men being a Saracen, Will Scarlet being an (angry) working class man rather than Robin’s cousin, and Robin going off to the Crusades before the story starts. This annoys me. It’s like, ‘why are you doing this to the character and the story, not going to the Crusades it what gets him outlawed in the first place?!!!’
I find it interesting that in 1938 you could get away with a Robin who says “no way, you go fight your own pointless war if you want to but I am staying here to protect my people” whereas nowadays you can’t. I don’t know how much of that was due to US isolationist policies pre-WW2 and general public opinion, or wanting to stay close to the original legend, but it’s an interesting difference.
I like that Robin doesn’t go to war, despite the threat of being outlawed if he doesn’t. He goes ahead and follows his conscience. It makes him a more impressive hero. It’s all well and good to show him fighting against a prince who has usurped power, but for him to disobey someone who he regards as the rightful king, with all the moral and legal force that implies, now that’s a different thing.
If storytellers want to have a story with a Crusader veteran horrified with what they’d seen for the one (and it’s only ever one) PTSD-related episode or section, then Will Scarlet, nobleman with fewer reservations than Robin, seems like an excellent choice. He already canonically wanders around a forest wearing red, which I think might well be described as a death-wish.
Unnecessarily long story short – I don’t particularly like this version, although I do recognise that it has its own distinctive feel, and does its own thing its own way, which I admire.
The Patrick Bergin Robin Hood, which was unlucky enough to have been released at the cinema at the same time as the Kevin Costner version. I prefer it, even if it is a bit heavy-handed. Also, it has Owen Teale’s Little John and is about the only modern version that gives Little John anything to do. (Why do modern versions give all/most of Little John’s important bits to Nasir/Azeem?)
The BBC’s 2006 Robin Hood – But, I hear you cry, you spent far too much time watching it. And this is true, any time spent watching it would be too much.
Basically the BBC Robin Hood was one very good performance, four good performances and Keith Allen eating more than the Recommended Daily Allowance of scenery, being hamstrung by increasingly poor and peculiar authorial choices on the part of the writers.
The Kevin Costner version (mild spoilers ensue) – I am about to be accused of being mean, and it’s not just that they hew very closely to Robin of Sherwood to the point where you think they should have paid licencing fees, but I can explain my objection to the film in four words: Will Scarlet would never.
I don’t mean this Will Scarlet, I mean any Will Scarlet. In fact, having any Merry Man betray the rest is a good way of ending up in the avoid list. Even Alan Rickman’s glorious, vivid and vile Sheriff of Nottingham cannot save this film, nor can Morgan Freeman and Michael McShane. It is un-salvagable.
If anyone has any other Robin Hood recommendations, please send them my way. It’s a legend I never tire of.