There are literally dozens of movie versions of Robin Hood, and of course I have not seen all of them. Many of them are probably not worth the watching. But the curious commonality of the two Disney ones is that they’re the only two I have seen that mention Eleanor of Aquitaine, here actually played by Martita Hunt. I’ve long said that, to a historian, the funniest bits of the animated version are Prince John’s constant worry about his mother, given how complicated a relationship Eleanor had with her sons. This isn’t the era I know best, but it’s one I know reasonably well, and I’m on board for any Eleanor they want to give me.
Unusually, we start here with King Richard (Patrick Barr) preparing to leave on Crusade. He brings with him his good friend the Earl of Huntingdon (Clement McCallin), arranging for the Earl’s daughter, Marian (Joan Rice), to go into the queen’s service. She is childhood friends with Robin (Richard Todd), son of Hugh Fitzooth (Reginald Tate). When Richard leaves, Prince John (Hubert Gregg) appoints a new Sheriff of Nottingham (Peter Finch) and declares that he will not be as kind and lenient as his brother and will enforce laws to the letter.
For reasons, this ends with Fitzooth murdered by the sheriff’s men and Robin turned outlaw. Robin acquires the standard Sherwood Forest crowd—Little John (James Robertson Justice), Will Scarlet (Anthony Forwood), Friar Tuck (James Hayter), and Alan-a-Dale (Elton Hayes). The archery contest is before his father dies, but of course there’s an archery contest. The assorted events in the forest happen, leaving the plot to progress the way Robin Hood plots progress.
This is the second live-action feature from Disney. Like the first one, it’s a way of dealing with the money the studio had in the UK that they weren’t, for legal reasons I don’t entirely understand, allowed to transfer over to the US. It’s something to do with World War II, but I’m unclear on the details. Regardless, this mean that the simplest thing to do was use the money to make movies, and it was much simpler to make live action than to try to start up a UK animation studio. One rather wonders what the history of film would look like if they had.
This version of the story actually deals with the issue of the ransom for King Richard, which is something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in a Robin Hood movie before. We’re accustomed to seeing Robin talking about the True King and so forth, and King Richard usually puts in an appearance at the end, but the actual events of his reign tend to be glossed over because after all Robin Hood was probably fictional and therefore it doesn’t matter what reality was like. For one, it’s hard to really hype Good King Richard when you know he was barely ever in his country and didn’t speak English.
Because this was filmed in the UK, it’s hardly surprising that the assorted actors have that vague English acting career where it overlaps a lot. The same dozen or so shows and movies appear a lot; several of these people would go on to be on Doctor Who, for example. What’s a little more surprising is that Robin was in his thirties and looked it, and Marian wasn’t. When he talks about knowing her as a child, you wonder if it’s because he used to babysit her. Further, I know royalty could often marry at a young age, but even leaving aside that Henry II was Eleanor’s second husband, it doesn’t take a historian to know that Eleanor was older than eight when Richard was born.
This isn’t as vibrant a take on Robin Hood as the Errol Flynn—in any way. It is, to be honest, a fairly forgettable movie. Despite its being filmed in part in Sherwood Forest, unlike any other version of the story, it’s not that notable visually. The castles are all, you know, Norman castle-like. The costumes are fine. The music’s okay, and of course no one could know when this movie was made that it would not be the most notable Disney music for a version of this story.
No, sadly, the thing that stands out most in this telling is the scene where Robin first meets Friar Tuck, who is in that moment sitting under a tree, eating his lunch, pretending to be a wooing couple. If the whole rest of the movie had committed to being as bonkers as that sequence, people would still remember that this movie existed.l