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.

Robin of Sherwood

What a magnificent piece of TV Robin of Sherwood was/is. Rewatching its first two series recently, I was struck by how much it creates its own special atmosphere, its own world. I know this has to be true of every successful TV series, and by being set in a specific historical period, complete with Medieval costumes and crumbling Norman-conquest era castles, Robin of Sherwood certainly has a shortcut to establishing a visual signature that programmes set in modern times don’t have, but the series works its magic in other ways, too. At times, it’s as much mood-piece as it is drama, set in a timeless realm of myth and imagination as much as it is in recognisable English history. And quite appropriately, too, for the retelling of an oft re-told tale, and one which takes the resilience of myth and memory over mortality, and the old ways over the new — its credo is “Nothing is forgotten” — as one of its tenets of belief.

A big chunk of its atmosphere, of course, comes from Clannad’s enchanting soundtrack, which mixes the ancient (folky & medieval-sounding instruments) with the modern (the occasional bit of soft synth). The fact that it reuses a stock set of pieces, rather than (as was the practice with, say, Doctor Who) having a completely original score for each episode, just goes to emphasise this timelessness, as each piece — “Battles” for action sequences, “Strange Land” for mounting tension, “Lady Marian” for romantic bits, and so on — both adds to your anticipation of the particular atmosphere of each scene, and gives the feeling that this is a replaying of an ancient set of mythical, archetypal events. Sometimes a single sound effect does all the work, as with the weird, echoey wolf cry (usually accompanied by a sudden camera zoom) that announces moments of supernatural surprise; and that blurring of the distinction between soundtrack and ambient sound adds to the feeling that this is a magical land we’re in, one as “full of noises, sounds and sweet airs” as the island in Shakespeare’s Tempest. Plus, the music is just a damned good listen on its own.

The show mostly takes place in a quite limited set of characteristic locations, each one with its own distinct feel. There’s the lush leafy greens of the outlaws’ hideouts (it’s never winter in Sherwood, only timeless summer), the heavy stone walls and murky interiors of the Sheriff’s castle, and the muddy peasant messiness of forest-clearing villages. These three settings must make up about 90% of the locations used in Robin of Sherwood, as if this were a three-tiered world, like the various myths (Norse and Christian, for instance) which have three levels or sub-worlds — the Good Place (Heaven), the Bad Place (Hell), and the battleground (Earth) — which their heroes move between, fighting their endless fights.

So much of the dialogue of this series has stuck with me (admittedly, through many viewings over the years). Robin’s counter-curse to the bullying Templar knight: “Evil to him who thinks evil”. His first line to Maid Marian: “You’re like a May morning.” That mad old man in the dungeons: “Feet first — it’s the only way.” And the wonderful comedy of the Sheriff and his sidekick Gisburne (Gisburne: “The halfwit, my lord!” Sherrif: “Which one?”), occasionally joined by the self-satisfied (but cannily fearful of paganism’s powers) Abbot Hugo (“Leviticus? Leviticus!”). You can’t help but love the Sheriff. He’s the ultimate pantomime villain, and Nickolas Grace revels in wringing vitriolic sarcasm from every line (“It’s not a celebration, it’s a wedding!”). (My favourite Sheriff line has to be when he’s driven to mad hallucinations in “The Children of Israel”: “Leeches! See the leeches!” I see them, Nickolas, I see them!)

Most of all I love the way the series took on the supernatural, becoming a sword & sorcery version of the Robin Hood myth, with distinct Hammer Horror flavourings (particularly in the Baron de Belleme and “Seven Swords of Wayland” episodes). Robin of Sherwood takes place in a world where both paganism and Satanism have a real, magical power. (Oddly, Christianity doesn’t. Perhaps, being the established religion, it has enough worldly power not to need it. In the series, it’s seen as the religion of the conquerors, not the peasants and outlaws, a religion of silver crucifixes, gold chalices, heavily be-ringed bishops and gothic churches, not the woods and fields.)

It all comes together to create a timeless world in which the series tells its stories — a world that is part historical, but a good thick slice of myth & fantasy, too. “Nothing is forgotten”, is both the outlaws’ credo and their ultimate defence against the overwhelming might of their oppressors; but it could just as easily refer to the show itself, or the myth it’s retelling — for us, it’s the stories of Robin Hood that will never be forgotten.