When it’s on: Tuesday, 3 November (11.40 am)
There have been so many Robin Hood films over the years. None to date have been as good as the 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, with only Robin and Marian coming anywhere close and for very different reasons. The Bandit of Sherwood Forest, made in 1946, doesn’t make the grade. It’s much cheaper, shorter, narrower in scope and pulls up short in pretty much every aspect. And yet on its own merits it isn’t a bad little swashbuckler. We can only see it in a frankly beautifully restored format thanks to the release in 2010 of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, which prompted further interest in the mythical leader of the merry men and had Sony scrabbling through the archives to reissue several hoary old efforts. This is one of the better works they dug up.
Intended as a sequel of sorts to The Adventures of Robin Hood, this one finds Robin as a much older man, played by Russell Hicks in his sixth decade and with King Richard’s pardon behind him. Now the Earl of Huntington, Robin is a veteran who’s grown old, but the revolutionary spirit within him flares when England’s Regent, William of Pembroke (Henry Daniell) proposes scrapping the Magna Carta and combining the armies of the nobility into one force to crush any rebellions. Robin disagrees, is stripped of his title and returns to his outlaw ways deep in Sherwood forest, the old gang quickly returning to him. They discover William’s plans are no more than a pretext to his real aim, which is to arrange an accident for the new king, a child, and assume the crown for himself. With the boy in custody and the Queen Mother (Jill Esmond) compelled to escape for her life in the company of Lady Catherine (Anita Louise), Robin calls on the services of his son Robert (Cornel Wilde) to help rescue the king and restore England to justice.
The film was adapted from Paul A Castleton’s novel Son of Robinhood, though due to legal issues over who owned the ‘Robin Hood’ name it was retitled and churned out as a B-movie action adventure. The castle sets were allegedly gathering dust before being brushed off for this, and it was all iced off with a slim cast, a smattering of extras in medieval costumes in order to represent olde England. Continuity with The Adventures was provided by cinematographer Tony Gaudio, who directed photography on both pictures and here helped to show the Technicolor process at its finest, adding lush vibrancy to the finished product. It looks great, though whether set designers were employed on this occasion to paint the leaves so that they would look even greener is unlikely. Cast members don’t even bother to mask their American accents in a film shot on location in California, and lazy script references to silk stockings betray a basic lack of care.
Still, comparing The Bandit of Sherwood Forest with its illustrious forebear from eight years beforehand seems ultimately churlish. It’s clear the earlier entry was a ‘no expenses spared’ affair whereas this had a quite different approach. While the plot is rather plodding, in its favour the film had Cornel Wilde, a lithe and agreeable star who graduated from the USA fencing team to become an athletic leading man in films that took advantage of his talents with a sword. Wilde’s good fun, a ‘Hood’ for lighter times who’s channelling the spirit of Errol Flynn, though bringing less of the Tasmanian’s star quality and charisma to the table – let’s be honest, Flynn as Robin Hood gushed lustful zest from every orifice. The action scenes are nicely played, even if none of Wilde’s opponents have a hope in hell against him. He simply blasts Edgar Buchanan’s Friar Tuck away, in a slightly uncomfortable sequence that proves an old, fat man is simply an old, fat man when facing Robert. Blame the script for this. Eugene Pallette was no mug in The Adventures; here, the good Friar, like the other merry men, is merely a supporting player with no room for more than one-dimensional development.
Henry Daniell makes for a fine villain, just the latest in a string of parts in which he honed a career as evil masterminds – had he been born later, his fate as a bad guy for James Bond to battle would have been sealed. He might very well be the best thing in The Bandit of Sherwood Forest, a real moustache curler of a performance that deserves better than the material he was working with, and I can forgive the wild historical inaccuracy of presenting a major English figure from the age as a self-serving megalomaniac (in reality, Pembroke supported the young king, Henry III’s ascent, all the way) because he does it so well. Daniell will always have a place in the heart of this site for his regular appearances as villains in the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes series, which culminated him being given the plum role of Moriarty in The Woman in Green.
Of the film’s two credited directors, George Sherman had a long career helming Westerns, especially in this period micro-budgeted Oaters, and it shows in a project that at times feels like a generic Western plot that’s been transferred to Sherwood forest. There are lots of shots of horsemanship, including the old staple of tracking someone who’s riding at breakneck speed, which suggests a rather bland photographic exercise overall. But there’s also pace, the camera never lingering on a scene too long, Wilde slipping from his seduction of Anita Louise to saving peasants who are about to be hanged by firing his arrows with perfect accuracy, to fighting several guards at once with his flashing blade and a smile. It’s all heartily done, makes good use of the limited sets and never outstays its welcome. It’s weightless, matinee adventure from a more innocent age, and I had a lot more fun watching it than with many other Robin Hood capers.
The Bandit of Sherwood Forest: ***