May at The Walt Disney Family Museum features Walt Disney’s screen treatment of the Robin Hood tale, one of several films that Walt adapted from popular works of legend, literature, stage, and screen. Walt Disney’s The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men screens daily through May at 1:00pm and 4:00pm (except Tuesdays, and May 5 and May 19). Further program information and tickets are available at the Reception and Member Service Desk at the Museum, or online by clicking here. Today's post features an excerpt about Robin Hood and his Merrie Men from The Disney Films by film critic and historian Leonard Maltin.
Having formed RKO-Walt Disney British Productions Lts., and succeeded in filming a most creditable live-action feature, Walt Disney decided to continue making films in England, with Perce Pearce as his producer. They decided to continue in the action-adventure genre, and chose as their next project Robin Hood.
This time out, in addition to using an all-British crew, Disney hired a Bristish director as well, a young man who had made an impressive start at Rank studios with such films as Trio and Quartet, Ken Annakin. At the time he joined the production, some preparatory work had already been done by Disney and Pearce with their cameraman, Guy Green and art director, Carmen Dillon. As on Treasure Island, three separate shooting units were established, one doing action work on exterior location, two doing interiors at Denham Studios.
Disney spent part of the summer in England, working closely with Annakin. The director recalls:
“I remember talking about the original Errol Flynn Robin Hood, and I Looked at it, just to get an idea what had been done before, because I never like to do anything twice. Walt didn’t seem very worried about seeing the original, and in fact, I doubt if he ever did. His approach is always that the film is a Disney picture, and therefore, because of his attitudes and his approach, the picture is bound to be different from anything else made on that subject before.”
That was exactly what happened; of course the Disney film adheres to the Robin Hood legend, yet it is a work unto itself. One is hard pressed to make comparisons between the Disney Robin Hood and earlier versions, not because one is better than another, but simply because each one is different.
The film opens on a storybook, which dissolves into a city scene, where a strollingg minstrel sings a ballad of Robin Hood. He reappears throughout the film, as a narrative device, and adds a unique flavor to the period piece.
The story is as everyone remembers it. King Richard leaves his domain to go on a crusade, appointing his brother Prince John to reign during his absence. The Prince, in turn, appoints a new sheriff of Nottingham to carry out the new laws he has in mind. Before long, the happy kingdom becomes a dictatorship, where the people are driven mercilessly and taxed beyond endurance.
At a public archery tournament young Robin Hood and his father show up the Sheriff’s bowmen; the angered Sheriff has Robin’s father killed. To avenge this death Robin takes to the woods with others who have been wronged by the new rulers, and forms his band of Merrie Men. They are soon joined by John Little, redubbed Little John, and jovial Friar Tuck.
Robin and his Men soon become public heroes, much to the consternation of the Prince and Sheriff, who are unable to capture these “bandits”. The “bandits” then prove their loyalty to the King when it is discovered that the good Richard is being held hostage in Austria for a ransom of 100,000 marks.
The Queen is to deliver the ransom money, but the Prince has his men dress as Robin Hood’s cohorts and steal the money, to turn the Queen against Robin. Robin manages to foil his plot, but he then learns that the Prince has locked Maid Marian in his castle to keep her rom exposing this scheme. Robin returns to the castle for a fight to the death with the Sheriff of Nottingham, and rescues Maid Marian. Soon afterwards Robin’s forest hideout is visited by a mysterious stranger, who reveals himself to be King Richard! He expresses his thoughts to Robin and the Men, and then dubs the bandit leader the Earl of Locksley, and orders Maid Marian to marry the newly created nobleman for a resoundingly happy ending.
The Story of Robin Hood is an eminently satisfying film. It takes all the familiar elements of the story—the confrontation between Robin and Little John on a wooden bridge over a stream, the archery tournament, the climatic duel—and plays them out with such gusto that one forgets ever having seen them before. There are delightful variations as well. Robin and his men communicate with each other by shooting whistling arrows throughout the forest—different arrows producing different pitches, and thus signifying different things.
Robin’s relationship with Main Marian is newly expanded. They are shown at the beginning of the film as youthful sweethearts; then they are separated in the charge of the Queen, and Robin as the bandit/hero who tries to rekindle their romance.
A particularly delightful scene invented for this scenario has Robin and his Men sneaking into town during a public meeting to raise funds for the King’s ransom. The Sheriff has made a magnanimous gift, claiming that he has donated every cent he has. Meanwhile the Merrie Men discover a strongbox in the Sheriff’s quarters filled to the brim with gold coins and precious trinkets. They open the box, bring it into the town square, and dump its contents into the public kitty. As the Sheriff turns pale, Robin, disguised in the crowd, shots, “Three cheers for the Sheriff!”
The performances are uniformly fine, with an impressive roster of talented players; James Robertson Justice as Little John and Peter Finch as the wicked Sheriff stand out. Richard Todd, in the first of his three assignments for Disney, first ingratiating as Robin Hood, and plays his scenes with Joan Rice quite nicely for an attractive and believable romance.
This is an extremely good-looking film as well. The locations are beautiful, with lush green countryside; the sets are truly formidable and realistic.
The seemingly effortless pacing and knowing use of camera angles and cutting is doubly impressive when one considers certain background facts. For instance, Annakin has vivid memories of the difficulties in shooting Technicolor at that time.
It was the very elaborate three-strap system, with a very immobile camera. When you wanted to reload the camera in its very heavy blimp, you had to have it lifted on chains, and it took the first-class Technicolor crew a minimum of eleven minutes to reload the camera. After every single shot the camera had to be opened and the gate had to be examined; the prism as the great thing because this was the light splitter which gave the registrations on the three-strips.
For this reason, if you were making a big picture like Robin Hood, you has to be very certain that you were not wasting setups or wasting shots, because it was a big industrial process every time to set up your camera.
Annakin’s prescreening of the Errol Flynn Robin Hood was probably responsible for the decision to find a new approach to the inevitable climactic battle between Robin and the Sheriff. In the earlier version there is the justly famous duel between Flynn and Basil Rathbone on the castle step. In this film the duel takes the two adversaries all around the castle, climaxing in a chillingly exciting encounter with the drawbridge. As Robin tries to escape, the Sheriff stars to pull the bridge upright. Robin climbs to the top, hoping to squeeze out before it closes shut. The Sheriff, trying to stop him, gets caught and is crushed by the closing platform, a grisly but satisfying end for the most nefarious of villains.
The use of storyboards was new to Annakin, “but it appealed to my logical brain very, very much,” and prompted ingenious scenes such as the first meeting between Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham after King Richard has left, played on the balcony of the castle against a brilliant but ominous orange sky at sundown.
At the time of its release The Story of Robin Hood was greeted with muted enthusiasm One British critic opined: “The most that can be said for it is that it is unmemorable, “ whereas the New York Times’ A.H. Weiler found it “an expert rendition of an ancient legend that is as pretty as its Technicolor hues, and as lively as a sturdy Western.”
Time has been kind to the film, as so many inferior films in this genre have followed it; today it seems better than ever. As for comparisons with other versions, it holds it own quite well. Douglas Fairbank’s 1922 Robin Hood is an excellent film, but the enormity of the settings and the scope of the production tend to dwarf the characters somewhat. The 1938 Warner Brothers epic, filmed in color, is strongly personality-oriented, with the brilliant playing of Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, and a first-rate cast dominating action.
Disney’s The Story of Robin Hood strikes a happy medium, leaning heavily on strong characterizations, but placing them against a colorful and sumptuous tableau that gives the film a fine period flavor. It’s far superior to Disney’s own animated feature of 1973, which placed a great emphasis on comedy, but the prominence—and success—of that film seems to have obliterated the memory of this earlier endeavor. That’s an unfortunate fate for such an entertaining picture.
In the fourth edition of his successful book The Disney Films, author Leonard maltin updates his classic tribute to the genius of the man who brought Mickey Mouse, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dumbo, Davy Crockett, Cruella DeVil and Mary Poppins to movie and television screens all over the world. After examining Walt Disneys career from his early days as an entrepreneurial commercial artist up to his triumphant years as the head of an entertainment kingdom, The Disney Films presents a fascinating overview of every Disney film, both animated and live-action. Included are plot summaries, production credits, and insightful critical commentaries, as well as interviews with notable Disney staff members.
On Saturday May 19 at 3:00PM, director (The Iron Giant, Mission: Impossible/Ghost Protocol) and two-time Oscar®-winner (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) Brad Bird will discuss how Walt adapted well-known and even previously-filmed stories and created what are widely regarded as “definitive” versions. From Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men; Treasure Island to Swiss Family Robinson, Bird will explore the appeal of these tales to Walt-and how his individual and personal viewpoint made them enduring classics.