Wednesday, April 18, 2007
BBC America has been running the latest version of Robin Hood, and I--- a sucker for dramas in which characters wear tights and bash each other with heavy lengths of iron--- have been watching.
The Brits seem to do a new Robin Hood every decade or so, I suppose because the Merrie Men, though diligent plundering foreign television markets, can be counted on provide a reliable source of income. I remember Robin of Sherwood from the 80s (starring Michael Praed and later Jason Connery), a series clearly created by people who had read too many books about comparative folklore, and who tried to create a Robin Hood with mythic resonance, the "Hooded Man" who consorted with the likes of Herne the Hunter. (What an actual Medieval bandit would make of this I cannot imagine.) I only saw a few episodes and wasn't that excited, but I know people who loved the series, so maybe it grows on one.
There was another British import I recall, and which would probably date from the late 1970s. I can find no reference to it in any online database, but I remember it as the Heavy Authenticity Robin Hood, in which Robin and his mates were costumed and made up to look as if they actually spent their time scraping a living in a forest in the Dark Ages. They were dirty, badly clad, had stringy unwashed hair, and were covered in mud. Every fight scene seemed to involve people rolling in muck while hacking viciously at each other with heavy edged weapons. Though I remember some labored attempts at humor, these outlaws were anything but Merrie.
The setting might have been authentic as all hell, but it wasn't any fun to watch. What's the point of being Robin Hood if you can't have fun?
(A genuine medieval bandit might have felt right at home, though.)
I seem to have missed the animated Robin Hoods, of which there are a lot, and the musical Robin Hoods, other than the one created by Mel Brooks. Sadly, I saw the Kostner version. I very much regret missing 1974's Robin Hood ja hänen iloiset vekkulinsa Sherwoodin pusikoissa, a Finnish TV series starring Vesa-Matti Loiri and Simo Salminen as "Puna-Will."
What is clear about Robin Hood is that he evolves, and he's done that from the start. The earliest ballads we have present him as a straightforward outlaw, sometimes murderous, sometimes clever, and sometimes surprisingly pious. He's got the Merrie Men in play, and he robs from the rich, though "giving to the poor" hasn't yet appeared on his radar, and he has no idea of social justice. He's just out for himself. And his men kneel to him, as if he were a lord (though, as yet, he isn't)--- so much for the champion of equality.
As the centuries went by, Robin acquired a title (the Earl of Huntington), a chaplain (a "curtal friar," later named Tuck), a minstrel (Alan-a-Dale), and a girlfriend (originally "Chlorinda the Queen of the Shepherdesses," and later Maid Marion. Marion, by the way, is a pagan figure considerably older than Robin, and appeared in May Day or Beltane celebrations.) In the 16th Century Robin acquired a social conscience and started donating his proceeds to charity, and in the 20th he developed a royal enemy in the form of Prince John.
Most recently, as new ethnicities entered the British scene, from Robin of Sherwood onward the Merrie Men have included a Saracen. I imagine if you're a TV viewer under thirty, you could be excused for thinking that the Merrie Men always had a Saracen.
The latest Robin Hood stars Jonas Armstrong as the Earl of Huntingdon and Lucy Griffiths as Marion, and is so damned modern you'd expect Robin to have a blog. (He doesn't, but the Sheriff does.) The series gets its style from American action-comedies such as Lethal Weapon or Die Hard, where the characters are witty more or less all the time, and fire quips more rapidly than arrows. There is a bit of innovation in that the gang's Saracen is a girl disguised as a guy, and everyone is very polite about not noticing this very obvious female in boy's clothing (the character is Turkish, but the actress is Indian). Not only are the Merrie Men doing their bit for ethnic and gender equality, but so is England in general. We've already had one black prioress. (and here I thought you had to be Norman . . . )
The series follows the usual 20th Century practice of elevating Guy of Gisbourne, who started in the ballads as a very nasty lower-class bounty hunter armored in a deerhide cloak, but who is now generally portrayed as a Norman knight or noble.
Robin and Marion have a burning social conscience--- they're out to prevent exploitation of the peasants by nearly any means necessary, and of course they're against slavery, too--- and the writers have given Robin an interesting quirk, which is that he refuses to kill people. Not just ordinary folk, but anyone. It's an odd attitude for someone just returned from the Second Crusade, and it leads to a series of well-choreographed battle scenes, with many a swinging broadsword, and without a single casualty.
Here Robin could solve all his problems by putting an arrow through the Sheriff's liver, and he just won't. Talk about perverse!
(Pacifists of the Dark Ages, a Short and Sanguine History . . . )
On the positive side, the production values are pretty good, the special effects nicely handled, and the cast is young and energetic and attractive. There's an interesting Robin-Marion-Guy of Gisbourne triangle. And the fact that Robin doesn't like violence means he can't solve his problems through brute force, he has to be clever.
What the series really needs is better writing. Having the characters be witty all the time is very well, but it's not the same as structure and a clear vision (and besides, it's not supposed to be about Robin Hood and His Wise-asses of Sherwood). The last few episodes have made a little more sense, so maybe they're improving.
Having seen a few episodes, I was moved to Netflix a video of the first Robin Hood I can remember, the series starring Richard Greene. I found about a half-dozen episodes on the only DVD available in the States, and during my recent case of the flu I viddied them all. A fever and a cough did little to jaundice my trip down memory lane.
When you watch this series, the first thing anyone of my generation will remember is the theme song. I won't link to it here, because I don't want to spread earbugs. But some of you know the song I'm talking about, and some of you will be cursing me because you won't be able to get it out of your head for days.
Greene was a major Hollywood star, a rival to Robert Taylor, whose career had been sunk by his years in the 27th Lancers during World War II. (He entered as a private and left as a captain, so he must have been a pretty good soldier.) He can't have spent the whole war in a tank, because my father fondly remembered him playing Shakespeare in a company touring the front. He was a genuine swashbuckler who bred horses and raced yachts and seems generally to have spent his life having an enormous amount of fun.
His Robin Hood was avuncular, thoughtful, and sometimes mischievous--- nobody told him to play sexy, thank God, though as the British Robert Taylor I'm sure he could have. You had the impression that Robin Hood was having a pretty jolly time out there in the woods. And he slaughtered his enemies by the bushel! He shot the Sheriff's foresters by the half-dozen (about all the budget could stand), he ran wicked nobles through with his sword, and on one notable occasion he bashed in a bad guy's head with a morning star. The fight scenes look rather improvised--- I have a feeling they couldn't afford a fight choreographer--- but the fact they're making it up on the spot lends a kind of precarious realism to the scenes.
I doubt I noticed the low budget when I was a child, but it's certainly clear now. Sherwood Forest was played by one fake oak and a few bushes. Little John's high heels are often visible (those shoes must have hurt on such a big guy!). The same indoor set, with the furniture shuffled around, stands in for inns and manors and monasteries. Sherwood Castle seems to have, at most, a couple of rooms. The same actors, even the regulars, keep reappearing in different roles. (I guess they reasoned that they were paying these guys anyway, so if the actor appearing as Will Scarlett wasn't needed to play Will Scarlett, they'd put a funny hat on him and have him play someone else.)
With all its limitations, the series has its virtues, not least being the actors, who were all solid British professionals. (The young Donald Pleasance, with a full head of hair, appears as Prince John; and the extremely young Peter and Jane Asher are seen as the ill-fated Prince Arthur and his sister.) The writing is at a high level, and the writers actually seem to know English history. Maid Marion is a cheerful feminist--- the second-best archer in England, who can also handle a horse and a sword--- and she counters Robin's intermittent sexism with laughter and a prank. (It's a pretty radical interpretation for the period, come to think of it.)
What I didn't know as a child--- and what only a handful of grownups knew--- was that the series was produced for Lew Grade by the American Communist writer Hannah Weinstein, who hired other refugees from the American blacklist to write the scripts. My childhood viewing was being scripted by the likes of Ring Lardner, Jr., Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy), Adrian Scott (Murder, My Sweet), and Howard Koch, all operating under a bewildering series of pseudonyms.
Perhaps that's where some of the series' realism came from. You'd expect these writers would have spent more time than most thinking about robbing the rich and giving to the poor.
After all this viewing, I've yet to find my ideal Robin Hood. Maybe if we could combine this latest incarnation's production values with Hannah Weinstein's blacklisted writers, we might really have something.