This movie always makes me very happy. It’s not as lavish or large scale as Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn’s versions of Robin Hood, not as swashbuckling or even as tense. I especially noticed the lack of tension when I watched it this week. But perhaps because I grew up with the film, it has the power to make me feel warm and comfortable and happy, like chicken soup.
Walt Disney’s live action Robin Hood and His Merrie Men was released in 1952, but has since been superseded in memory by Disney’s animated 1973 Robin Hood. It was filmed in England, with an all-English cast, and I believe it is the second live action film that Disney made (with Treasure Island being the first – another childhood favorite).
The scale of the story is far smaller than most Robin Hood incarnations. Robin Hood (Richard Todd) is not an earl, but is simply Robin Fitzooth, the son of the Earl of Huntington’s gamekeeper. The daughter of the Earl of Hungtington is Maid Marian (Joan Rice), who grew up with Robin as playmates and is still something of a tom-boy. But King Richard (Patrick Barr) is leading a crusade and calls all his knights to go with him, including the Earl of Huntington. Marion is placed in the care of Eleanor of Aquitaine (Martita Hunt – an indomitable presence) as a lady in waiting, while Prince John (Hubert Gregg) is left in charge of a large portion of earldoms.
But as soon as Richard has left, John begins setting in motion his plans. He puts in place his own man as the Sheriff of Notthingham (Peter Finch) and they recruit a large posse, “an army,” of bowman to enforce the taxes necessary to maintain the new posse. When Robin’s father publicly speaks out against the Sheriff, he is murdered and Robin ends up an outlaw in Sherwood Forrest and becomes known as Robin Hood, where he attracts a variety of men in sympathy with his cause or who have been oppressed by the Sheriff.
One of the things I always liked about this is the scale. I am not an expert on British history of the time, but one always has the impression in the other films that Richard ruled in an uncomplicated, autocratic way with sole power and that all John needs to do to control England is replace him as that autocrat. However, in the Disney film, power seems to be divided up more diversely. Eleanor of Aquitaine evidently has lands and power of her own. The Archbishop of Canterbury (Anthony Eustrel) also appears to wield a great deal of power and influence and remains highly skeptical of Prince John and his protestations of poverty. In fact, I rather enjoy the Archbishop as a character. With a voice that often drips irony, he looks more like a man who could lead crusade himself. Prince John, on the other hand, is a calculating man who only controls a certain portion of lands and estates.
Even Robin Hood doesn’t have a horde of men (as Fairbanks and Flynn do). His merrie men are a mere band of men. There is no civil war or pitched battles. He is simply doing what he can to alleviate the poverty and injustice and to ensure that enough money is collected to ransom King Richard.
Both Richard Todd and Joan Rice seem to have enjoyed a very brief time of stardom in the 1950s, especially Joan Rice. She was thought to be an up-and-coming star, but her career quickly faded for reasons that seem largely unknown (she also starred with Burt Lancaster in His Majesty O’Keefe). The Story of Robin Hood is her most famous film and she is good as a young woman who seems more at home in the woods than as a lady in waiting. Richard Todd must have been something of a matinee idol, but because he spends a surprising amount of the film shirtless. Not as energetic or athletic as Fairbanks (who is?) or dashing as Errol Flynn (who is?), I still like him in the role and he has a twinkle in his eye and sincerity that fits the role well.
I think one of the big reasons that I love this movie so much is the inclusion of singer, actor, and guitarist Elton Hayes as Alan-a-Dale, whose songs bring continuity to the story. He is a traveling minstrel whose songs provide music, entertainment, news and even political commentary. Little John (James Robertson Justice) is particularly fond of listening to Alan-a-Dale sing. I can sympathize. If you like music and you have no radio, the only option is to cajole your local minstrel into singing for you.
Friar Tuck (James Hayter – he played Mr. Pickwick in the 1952 The Pickwick Papers) will always be Friar Tuck in my mind…as much as I enjoy Eugene Pallatte’s incarnation in 1938. He’s certainly belligerent and militant, but also a romantic and likes to sing love songs to himself (there’s a lot of singing in this movie), as well as make matches.
The screenwriters made an effort to make the language old English (with ayes and nays and such) and between the language, the songs, the painted mattes (such as used for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Mary Poppins), the smaller and slightly more realistic scale and even the highly pious attitude towards the Crusades (politically incorrect, but historically more plausible) makes for a picturesque and charming film. It’s not as good a film other Robin Hood films, but it is the one I love the most. The sights and sounds, such as the whizzing of the arrows or the horn blowing, the timbre of people’s voice, all kind of form a familiar symphony for me and I can’t help but smile.