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When it’s on: Friday, 4 May (1.05 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

It’s one of those brilliant side-effects of the DVD revolution that so many old Hammer films are finding new audiences. The British studio churned out so many titles over such a short space of time that it’s inevitable some of them would be forgotten over the years, but thanks to the efforts of digital restorers this is increasingly less the case, and a good thing too. Obviously best known for their work in the horror genre, Hammer’s clutch of thrillers – often filmed in lurid black and white and most paying their nodding respects to Psycho – are beginning to emerge as some of the studio’s best efforts. A fantastic collection of Hammer’s forays into suspense can be found here.

Perhaps less can be said of their attempts to corner the matinée market. The ‘make ’em cheap’ approach produced mixed returns, though this writer has a great deal of fondness for the comfort food that is The Pirates of Blood River. The legends of Robin Hood produced three Hammer entries, of which A Challenge for Robin Hood is the last and arguably the best. None of these films forms any kind of series, incidentally; each features a different cast and takes time to reset the tale. 1960’s Sword of Sherwood Forest might have starred Richard Greene, offering some semblance of continuity with his role in the long-running Robin Hood British TV series from the 1950s, yet Challenge is better, with its bigger budget, impressive set-pieces battles, decent cast and promise of adventure.

Ask any more of it than that and the picture quickly falls apart. The script works fast to move Robin (Barrie Ingham) from his initial status as a Norman noble and into Sherwood Forest, leading his merrie men and fighting the Sheriff of Nottingham. A jobbing TV and film actor whose credits run impressively from 1960 to 2005, Ingham might not stick in anyone’s mind as the archetypal Hood, but he’s actually good value in the role, putting decent levels of agility into his work and convincing both as a lord and an outlaw. Especially neat is the change in his dress that reflects his shifting circumstances, from the gaudy, scarlet-clad oligarch of his opening scenes to the standard Robin costume, complete with green hat and feather.

Elsewhere, actors slot into their standard HERO and VILLAIN roles to type. John Arnatt makes for a splendid Sheriff, lusting after Marian and clever enough to guess every next move of his partner in crime, the boorish Roger de Courtenay (Peter Blythe). Of the merrie men, James Hayter reprises his Friar Tuck from the 1952 Disney entry, The Story of Robin Hood, to winning effect. Eric Flynn is really interesting as a murderous Alan-a-Dale, laying down the lute (mostly) for his quest to knife any Norman he comes across. It’s a surprisingly dark role, though more could have been made of his laying down of the outlaws’ leadership to Robin. Of the cast, only Gay Hamilton has cause to complain – her Marian has little to do but wait to be rescued.

Whilst the production standards are as high as one might expect (on Hammer’s usual shoestring), utilising Black Park for the Sherwood scenes and Bodiam Castle as the obligatory medieval fortress, the plot is as deferential to the box office alchemy of 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood as it gets. There’s much thigh slapping, an excruciating balladeering scene, doltish Norman guards, standard issue green costumes and a tussle that ends (I’m not joking) in a custard pie fight. It’s by the numbers stuff, and some of the dialogue is terrible e.g. ‘I love to watch men wrestle.’

Still, anyone watching A Challenge with the hope of some gritty, medieval action is going to be ill-served. It’s a U-Certificate film made for ninety minutes’ worth of easy entertainment, and it fills its brief well enough. Before Optimum released a Region 2 disc in 2010 (the one I own), the film was only available on German/Spanish imports. The restoration standards are high indeed, which bodes well for those other, elusive Hammer efforts that deserve a second look.

A Challenge for Robin Hood: **

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