When it’s on: Saturday, 25 April (7.20 am)
Regular readers of this site might suspect that I have a bit of a liking for films about Robin Hood, and they would be right. Like many Britons I grew up on the legends, read the stories, watched the various TV shows and movies. It probably helped that the HTV Robin of Sherwood series was a Saturday evening staple when I was a child. The mid-eighties show might look a little dated now, and anyone who caught it would be justified in wondering how Michael Praed’s wolfshead maintained such well conditioned hair whilst living rough in the forests of ye olde England, but the production had atmosphere and a nice link between the classic Robin Hood mythology and even older mystical belief systems.
It’s a pity that few film adaptations have been so successful, in fact I have an awful feeling of confidence in suggesting that 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood remains the unimpeachable version. Nothing wrong with that film; it’s a wholly delightful and thrilling piece of work and I love it, but they’ve had nearly eighty years to improve upon it and nothing I have seen in the years since has come close. It was with a growing sense of disappointment that I viewed Ridley Scott’s recent take; such a great pedigree and leading actor, but I’ve never seen it more than once.
Today’s entry, Sword of Sherwood Forest, was made in 1960 as a spin-off from the long-running television series. Its star, Richard Greene, was retained, and indeed he was also a producer of the film; some of the other basic tropes were kept on, such as Alan A’Dale’s little odes to introduce and close the story. Made by Hammer, the production moved to County Wicklow, drafted in both the studio’s A-list director, Terence Fisher, and its most bankable actor, Peter Cushing, to take on the role of the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham.
At a mere 76 minutes long, the film feels like an extended episode, and featured the usual high production values whilst maintaining a strict budget. It says nothing about Robin’s origins, as though Greene is picking up from where he left off on the small screen, and involves him instantly in a tale of evildoers who are attempting to assassinate the Archbishop of Canterbury (Jack Gwillim), now in effective control of England whilst King Richard is fighting on foreign shores. A fatally wounded man (Desmond Llewelyn) rides into Sherwood where he’s tended by the merry men, who are led by Robin and Little John (Nigel Green). The mystery of his attack seems to lie in a golden amulet, which the Sheriff is after. It turns out he’s part of a plot to kill the Archbishop, one led by the Earl of Newark (Richard Pasco), who unknowingly recruits Robin because he believes the outlaw’s superior bowmanship will make him the perfect murderer. As Robin’s skills are tested, he uses his time with Newark to gain information about the plan and hopefully foil it.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to Sword of Sherwood Forest. One is that it’s a bit of a stinker, surprisingly slow moving and badly scripted, meaning the tension of Robin’s efforts to save the day get lost amidst an unengaging story. The other sees it as the archetypal slow burner, wringing suspense from Robin’s realisation of how exactly he is to be used by Newark and his cronies (one of whom is played by a foppish Oliver Reed, in an early role, his voice dubbed by an uncredited French actor). I’m afraid I fall into the former camp. At such a short running time, I hoped for an action packed adventure with little room to spare. What I got was a yarn that was too thin, so it’s spread across the film that way, a lengthy portion taken up with the Earl testing Robin’s abilities, even though it’s obvious he’ll never fall in with his schemes. There’s precious little of the merry men, just enough to show that Little John is very strong, that Alan can play a minstrel and that Friar Tuck (Niall MacGinnis) is the butt of every joke, none of them especially funny. It’s as if writer Alan Hackney (who also scripted several episodes of the series) had little interest in this element so barely bothered to cover it, similarly when it came to the part of Marian (Sarah Branch), who has very little to do, and despite her zero chemistry with the much older Greene somehow goes from despising him to suggesting marriage.
Fisher does his best with the scant material. The sword fight between Greene and the more athletic Cushing offers a hint of what this film could have been, but the climactic duelling is strangely stilted, the actors often pausing mid-combat as though awaiting their cues. Sadly, the Sheriff is on screen little and even suffers the ignominy of being killed off before the finale, leaving the end to involve Robin and the more insipid Newark. It’s a real letdown. Hammer were capable of putting out some fine swashbuckling pictures, as their two Pirates films demonstrated, but this falls short, even compared to the later A Challenge for Robin Hood, of which I thought little but enjoyed more. Alan Hoddinott’s rousing score suggests a much more exciting experience than that shown, which adds to the sense of people making Sword of Sherwood Forest out of obligation and putting little effort – and certainly no heart – into it.
Sword of Sherwood Forest: *