Dec 30 2013 11:00am

Rewatching Robin Hood

Rewatching Robin Hood

There is no canonical Robin Hood story.

There’s no The Odyssey, or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, or the Bible. There’s no one text we can go back to and say “This is who Robin Hood is and should be.”

The adventures of Robin Hood are a collection of stories dating back to at least the 1400s, drawn from ballads and plays and may fair games, and they vary wildly. The only constant is that Robin is a heroic outlaw with a band of merry men. Everything else changes from story to story.

In some versions Robin of Loxley was born a noble, in others he was always a yeoman. Sometimes Maid or Lady Marian is his love interest, but sometimes he marries Matilda or Clorinda, Queen of the Shepherdesses. Sometimes he robs the rich to give to the poor, but sometimes he just robs the rich. Even the setting changes. Some ballads have Robin pardoned by King Edward (not specifying which Edward), while today we generally set Robin’s adventures in the late 12th century when King Richard the Lionhearted was off fighting the Third Crusade, and his brother John was left behind to heavily tax England (to, you know, pay for Richard’s Crusade).

The closest to a canonical text is Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883). Pyle’s collection of short stories codified the important episodes in Robin Hood’s story: fighting Little John with quarterstaves; tricking Friar Tuck into carrying him across the river; wooing Marian; entering an archery contest in disguise; a daring prison break; and King Richard’s return.

Even Pyle’s version leaves out parts of the story. Pyle cleaned the stories up for a children’s audience, removing much of the sex and focusing on protection of the poor. Also Pyle keeps Robin a local hero uninterested in who is king. Richard, John, and the Crusades are only mentioned in passing as why the Sheriff of Nottingham can get away with as much as he does.

The lack of a definitive version means anyone creating a new version of Robin Hood has a lot to play with. Robin Hood stories vary to reflect the times they’re made in and the priorities of new storytellers. Robin can be a nationalist figure, a deposed noble seeking to restore the true king to power. Or he can be a communist revolutionary, fighting an oppressive government to redistribute wealth to the neediest. Or he can be an anarchist rogue, living outside the laws and conventions of normal society because he’s just got to be free.

Which is one reason I’m spending the holidays watching Robin Hood movies. The other reason is that they’re fun!

There are more Robin Hood movies than there are days of Christmas, so we’re sticking with five major films from the last century: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Disney’s Robin Hood (1973), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), and Robin Hood (2010). Seeing how the legend changes in the telling from the late thirties to today reflects changing ideas about economic justice, racial and gender roles, the history of the English crown.

And like any worthwhile academic pursuit, this one comes with a drinking game!

So pull up a flagon of mead, sit down in front of the couch, and drink along with us as we try to determine how good these Robin Hood movies are at hitting the mark!

Steven Padnick is a freelance writer and editor. By day. You can find more of his writing and funny pictures at

Rewatching Robin Hood on index | next ›
David Levinson
1. DemetriosX
While I won't deny the importance of Pyle in the modern reception of Robin Hood, I think he was also strongly influenced by Scott's Ivanhoe. From codifying Robin as Locksley to the setting in the time of Richard I, Scott is pretty crucial.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
2. Lisamarie
This has always been something I've been vaguely interested in (in that, when I watch Robin Hood, I wonder where the story draws from and if there is a single story it derives from).

But to me, the story/character of Robin Hood is either Men in Tights or the Disney I like that those are the two that are in your graphic at the top :)
David Levinson
3. DemetriosX
Another film very worthy of watching, although perhaps less iconic, is Robin and Marian. Fantastic performances by Sean Connery, Robert Shaw, and Audrey Hepburn, not to mention Nicol Williamson, Ian Holm, and Denholm Elliott. It even draws from some of the legends about the later life (and death) of Robin.
4. Garrick
You really need to watch Robin of Sherwood to see when a Saracen became one of the merry men and to see the pagan influences
Walker White
5. Walker
Garrick @4 is correct. That show introduced a number of things that became canonical in later versions.
6. Jenavira
Seconding (thirding?) the love of Robin of Sherwood; I had to laugh when I found out that the whole reason Morgan Freeman is in Prince of Thieves is that the crew of RoS didn't want to let Mark Ryan go.

I've also always wondered how much connection there was between Robin Hood and Finn MacCool - I ended up (entirely accidentally) reading scholarly studies of both figures at the same time, and the overlap is outstanding.
7. Wizard Clip
@DemitriosX: Another vote here for Robin and Marian. Also worthwhile is the version with Patrick Bergen that came out around the same time as Costner's. It got a theartrical release in Europe, but I think it was only shown on TV in the US. It's been showing up lately on the Sundance Channel--or maybe it's IFC.
Del C
8. del
You had a tough set of choices to make, but I do think it's a bit of a leap from 1938 all the way to 1973. What about, for example, the 1952 film with Richard Todd, James Robertson Justice (the original Brian Blessed) as Little John, and Peter Finch as the Sheriff of Nottingham?
Constance Sublette
9. Zorra
@#1 -- That's what I was thinking also, the long and broad influence of Scott's Locksley in Ivanhoe -- not to mention his Friar, and a few others. As they don't generally speechify either, they are snappy characters who liven up the story on several levels. There is also the 1952 film of Ivanhoe, with the two Taylors -- Robert and Elizabeth -- with the merry fellows.

Then there are all the ballads featuring this fellow or someone similar! In times when literacy was not universal the ballads are the most important mode of spreading the legends.

Love, C.
Karl-Johan Norén
10. kjnoren
My favourite Robin Hood version isn't even English! He's named Per Stigman and was created in 1942 in Sweden. A farmer's son who had to flee the German soldiers and nobles that dominated Sweden during the 14th century, and pursued a guerilla war against them with his merry men.

He turned out to be quite popular (the magazine where his adventures appeared had a print run of nearly 100.000 at its peak) and more than 500 stories were published during 20 years.
11. pootle
I loved the 2008 TV series with Thorin and Keith Allen as the villains. Such a fantastic mixture of self-knowing camp (ninja nuns!) and decent moments of examining soldiers' PTSD.
Keith DeCandido
12. krad
Wizard Clip is correct in that the Patrick Bergin film from 1992 -- same year as Costner's train wreck -- deserves more kudos than it generally receives. It is, in my opinion, the best Robin Hood film ever made, with its only flaw being in the casting of the ever-mediocre Jeroen Krabbe as the main bad guy. But it was a superb telling of the story, with more historical accuracy than any other filmed version of the story, without ever sacrificing story interest for said accuracy. (In fact, the Norman-Saxon conflict of the era made the story better....)

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Shelly wb
14. shellywb
The Daffy Duck version is in my Top 5. Parry! Dodge! Spin! Ha! Thrust!

But the Errol Flynn will always be my favorite. It's so much fun!
Brian R
15. Mayhem
Although this is probably mostly visual representations, I also feel it needs a shoutout for Stephen Lawhead's King Raven trilogy, where he recasts the Robin myth a few hundred years earlier to the ancient forests of Wales, and the enemy are Norman rather than English.

As he himself put it
It will seem strange to many readers, and perhaps even perverse, to take Robin Hood out of Sherwood Forest and relocate him in Wales; worse still, to remove all trace of Englishness, set his story in the eleventh century, and recast the honourable outlaw as an early British freedom fighter. My contention is that although in Nottingham, the Robin Hood legends found good soil in which to grow -- they must surely have originated elsewhere.
Sky Thibedeau
16. SkylarkThibedeau
@3 I've always liked 'Robin and Marian' . Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn and Robert Shaw chewing up scenery. A great Romance and a perfect end to the legend.
17. Evan H.
I suppose it's too much to hope that the rewatch series will include Danny Kaye's The Court Jester...
18. AwesomeAud
This is great! and yes please do Robin and Marion as a bonus to round out the series.
Chris Meadows
19. Robotech_Master
You really should add the Connery and Bergen (his Maid Marian is an early Uma Thurman!) movies. Maybe even give nods to the TV series, including the one where Sean Connery's son played Robin. I mean, really, you should always be looking for ways to make a good blog series longer!
20. Shazza
I'm somewhat amused and disappointed, both, that Mel Brooks' first Robin Hood comedy, When Things Were Rotten, hasn't been mentioned yet. I loved that series, and was beyond thrilled when A&E showed the extant episodes, and still want my own copy.

I also adore Robin of Sherwood. It's one of my all-time favorite television series, and Clannad's music for it just makes me shiver, sometimes.

I totally agree for Robin and Marion - I remember being so disappointed no one would take me to see it as a child (as I recall, it is an R-Rated movie, and being pre-teen, and none of my family being interested in Robin at all, meant I didn't see it until years later). Hepburn's last movie, if I remember correctly, before she retired from acting; Connery playing a world-weary Robin; yes, I think I might need to find it for a rewatch.

And while we're talking novels people (fans? Hoodites?) might want to read, why not Robin McKinley's Outlaws of Sherwood, which adds a lot of humor to the novelized Robin while still retaining a serious tone, or Jennifer Roberson's Sherwood series, where Robin has PTSD, and dealing with the death of Richard the Lionheart.
21. Teokiya
British people of a certain age (30s) will probably remember Maid Marian and her Merry Men most fondly (scripted by Tony Robinson of Blackadder fame)...
Joseph Ash
22. TedThePenguin
Thank you for using the men in tights picture for the title :) its one of my favorite movies

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment