Disney’s Robin Hood

Rotten Tomatoes describes Disney’s Robin Hood as “one of the weaker Disney adaptations”, lacking “the majesty and excitement of the studio’s earlier efforts”, but it’s one of my favourite Disney films, thanks in part to an early memory of seeing it at the cinema and being captivated by one particular moment which has stayed with me for years.

In reality, the fox would now eat the rabbit

Robin Hood was released in 1973, but I can’t imagine myself remembering it from then (I’d have been 2). It was re-released in the early 80s (1982 in the USA, though IDMB has no record of when or whether it was re-released in the UK), and I distinctly remember seeing it in the very crowded, deep red gloom of the East Grinstead cinema-that-was, a gloominess I can’t help feeling added to my appreciation of this particular moment.

Of course, the fact it was a Disney take on an English legend may have helped, but I don’t particularly remember liking it for that reason. (Though I may have been unconsciously responding to the voices of Peter Ustinov as Prince John and Terry-Thomas as Hissing Sid — I mean Sir Hiss — both of them part of that wonderful family of actors you come across time and time again in old British films.) But this would have been before the TV series of Robin of Sherwood, so I wouldn’t have had any particular fondness for the legend, Robin Hood up to that point always seeming to me a bit pantomimish, particularly if Robin was represented (as he is here) in a silly be-feathered cap and the sort of Peter Pan-style tunic you’d rather have seen on a thigh-slapping young woman only pretending to be a boy.

I think it was the mood of the film that got me. Robin Hood is (for Disney) an uncharacteristically muted film, both in terms of emotional tone and colour scheme. Yes, it still has the sort of slapstick moments you’d expect (all the outwitting of the rhinoceros guards after the archery contest, for instance), but there’s a tantalising air of weariness and resignation throughout, just behind the action, like a light, damp English mist that’s seeped into the usually sunny Californian optimism.

The troubadour rooster who acts as the storyteller, for instance, seems to have a particularly world-weary tone, as if to suggest that for all Robin Hood’s triumphs, the outlook for the poor and downtrodden in England is grim in the long run. Friar Tuck is another character whose voice seems burdened by the weariness of Prince John’s relentless, greedy and wilful oppression. Prince John’s voice, on the other hand, plays wonderfully on the essential selfishness and childishness of the character (he’s a lion without a mane, so presumably physically immature, too), rather than a more traditional Disney evil — there’s a feeling that all this misery is the result of one character’s pettiness, self-absorption and inability to grow up, a boorish bully rather than the sort of raging adult evil you get from, say, the Queen in Snow White.

PJ in his PJ's

The moment I most remember from this film, and that brings me back to re-watch it, isn’t an action sequence, and in fact occurs when there are no characters on screen. It’s just after the evil Sheriff of Nottingham (here, a mere village) has clapped pretty much everyone in jail for non-payment of recently doubled/trebled taxes, and we’re closing in on the outside of the jail. It’s just a scene-setting slow zoom. For some reason that mood of sadness and defeat, combined with the gentle rain and muted colours of the usually bright Disney, took me right into the film’s world. It was like it was one of the first moments in my cinema-going history when I really thought, “Yes, I know exactly how that feels.”

It’s a moment that happens in many Disney films, of course — the low point just before the hero snaps out of it and devises a plan to turn things round. But here, this particular air of sadness and defeat seems to be characteristic of the film as a whole, an undertone that has been sounding gently throughout, mostly drowned out by the antics of baby rabbits and thumb-sucking lions, but which is here allowed to come to the fore for one brief moment, because there’s no other action to distract from it.

So, in a sense, it was that very lack of “majesty and excitement” that makes the film what it is, for me. A moment of pure cinematic poetry.

Why I Like… Theodore Sturgeon (in three stories)

“Bright Segment” (1955, in the collection Caviar) displays Sturgeon’s stylistic abilities as a writer. The story is about a slow-witted, lonely man, and is written in suitably plain language, with simple statements and and-joined sentences. This was my first encounter with this sort of writing (Hemingway is of course the main one known for writing like this, and Roald Dahl (in his early stories) and Ian Fleming took the technique from him). Sturgeon has a very flexible, often poetic, writing style, but “Bright Segment” shows him tightly focused in one cut-back voice, and using it very effectively. The plainness of the sentences and the simple actions keep you close-up focused on what the protagonist is doing, as he finds an injured girl in the street outside and very carefully, very consideredly, sews her up and nurses her back to health. The protagonist’s concentration comes out in the writer’s, and so comes through to the reader who is (I was, anyway) quickly involved in the story, and thoroughly hooked by the action. Here’s the beginning:

He had never held a girl before. He was not terrified; he had used that up earlier when he had carried her in and kicked the door shut behind him and had heard the steady drip of blood from her soaked skirt, and before that, when he had thought her dead there on the curb, and again when she made that sound, that sigh or whispered moan. He had brought her in and when he saw all that blood he had turned left, turned right, put her down on the floor, his brains all clabbered and churned and his temples thumping with the unaccustomed exercise. — “Bright Segment”, by Theodore Sturgeon

(Another example of Sturgeon as wordsmith is “Killdozer”, which is somewhat more difficult to read. This one is written from the point of view of some men using heavy digging equipment, and Sturgeon has both the nomenclature and the feel of using such equipment spot on.)

“The Professor’s Teddy Bear” (1948, Weird Tales, also in the collection E Pluribus Unicorn) always leaves me stunned at what a bizarre story it is. How does someone come up with a plot like this, and make it work? It starts with a young boy being put to bed for a daytime rest by his mother. He’s laid down with his teddy bear, who turns out not to be a teddy bear at all but some sort of parasitic psychic vampire that feeds on the boy’s future. It encourages the little boy to fantasise about events in his life to come, and change them to make terrible things happen, and as they happen, the creature somehow manages to feed on the blood that will be spilled. Then we’re actually in the future, as the boy, now a grownup university lecturer, recalls a vague memory of having once thought about being in this particular hall, delivering this particular lecture, and having the feeling that something terrible is about to happen to the brown-haired girl in the audience, and can he stop it? Sturgeon has a wonderful audacity as a storyteller, often hitting the reader with it from the first sentence and not letting go.

But it’s “A Saucer of Loneliness” (Galaxy, 1953, and again in E Pluribus Unicorn) that goes to the core of what struck me most forcefully about Sturgeon when I first encountered him. He’s a great wordsmith, and an original storyteller, but here you see how he always uses the science fictional, fantastical or horrific ideas behind his stories to talk as openly as possible about the most vulnerably human side of his characters. In “A Saucer of Loneliness”, a young woman is standing in a park in the middle of a large city when a small flying saucer descends, hovering over her head and making some sort of brief contact before leaving. After this, the girl is pursued by government agents, sensationalist reporters and UFO nuts, all wanting to know what the saucer said. She refuses to tell anyone, to the extent of living a life virtually cut off from human company, because the message the saucer gave wasn’t the usual science fictional one — it wasn’t a warning about an oncoming disaster or a scientific secret — it was a personal one, a message in a bottle sent out across the universe from one lonely being to another, and not meant to be shared with governments and other less-than-human organisations.

There are many Sturgeon stories I could mention, and many wonderful moments where a line of description lights up an otherwise average Sturgeon tale (a description of desert cacti, for instance: “It was sahuro country here, and all about they stretched their yearning, other-worldly arms upward, as if in search for a lover who might forget their thorns”, from “Cactus Dance”), but that’s three to be getting on with…

(There’s an excellent Sturgeon page here, including a pretty thorough bibliography.)