United States, 1922
Directed by Alan Dwan
With Douglas Fairbanks (The Earl of Huntington/Robin Hood), Wallace Berry (Richard the Lion-Hearted), Sam de Grass (Prince John), Paul Dickey (Sir Guy de Gisbourne), Enid Bennett (Lady Marian Fitzwalter), Maine Geary (The Earl of Huntington’s squire/Will Scarlet)
The movie goes back a long way, and in depth, to the origins of one of the most mythical and appealing characters associated with the European Middle Ages. Robin Hood was named in old ballads, with some key features clearly settled in the 15th century; he was somehow rediscovered from the 18th century onwards, with some new interpretations claiming he was born a knight. And this is this hypothesis the screenplay chooses, with a host of consequences.
The remarkable length of the film, with a running time of 140 minutes, derives from the broad sweep of the life the lead character is supposed to have. From a tournament to a wedding, Robin Hood is first and foremost the Earl of Huntington, a knight loyal to King Richard the Lion-Hearted, a brave fighter who first seems only interested in jousting and battling and is scared by women and romance, an odd feeling that amuses his king, does not fit all all with the behaviors of his fellow nobles, but of course is a tongue-in-cheek take on the strong appeal of the lead actor playing the part – and also producing the film. But during this tournament starting the narrative, the earl is stunned by the beauty of the lady bringing him the big prize after his victory, Lady Marian Fitzwalter. And the following sequence, a long feast, is devoted to his cautious courting of the lady, the beginning of the romance that would prod him into action later, and the occasion to confront his future nemesis, the king’s brother, Prince John.
Then comes the time when the king and other knights must go to the East, fighting a new Crusade. The Earl of Huntington follows him, while Prince John is left to keep the government running. Instead, the wicked royal dismisses officials, puts sidekicks in charge, levies crushing taxes, and spreads terror. He reckons to be the next ruler, and is keen to exploit the nation. Clearly, he hopes his brother would get killed, and if fighting does not do the job, his loyal aide Sir Guy de Gisbourne who is part of the Crusade expeditionary corps, would be ready to act in their best interests (de Gisbourne was promised the hand of Marian Fitzwalter).
Switching back and forth between the kingdom and the Levant, the increasingly complicated plot focuses then on the personal revolt of Marian Fitzwalter, even as droves of poor commoners chose to become outlaws, taking refuge in the Sherwood forest, near Nottingham. The lady protests and sends a messenger to her lover (it is his own squire), before running away from the grip of Prince John. But the earl fails to escape the duty of the battlefield and is trapped by de Gisbourne. But as the situation is getting worse in the kingdom, the earl and his squire muster their courage, and manage to leave the East to reach the West.
And so the Earl of Huntington becomes Robin Hood, a newcomer who succeeds in organizing and leading the rebels of the Sherwood forest. This second part of the feature begins and ends in the royal castle, the true battleground between those who are loyal to Richard the Lion-Hearted, his principles, and the idea of fairness for all and the supporters of the treacherous and tyrannical rule of his malevolent brother. First it is a stunning in-your-face attack, tinged with mockery, against officials, a wonderful and risky act spurred by chutzpah and irreverence, a one-man-show illustrating how daredevilry and disobedience are the main, real stuff of the folk hero; later, it is an epic battle, full of suspense and trickery, ending with the rebels, aided by King Richard who has returned from the Levant, overpowering the soldiers of Prince John, arriving in time to rescue their leader who was trying to free Marian Fitzwalter who has been kidnapped. Both lovers get married the same day, and the night would belong to them (no matter what the king thinks, who hopelessly bangs at the door of the nuptial bedroom, in a final funny flourish of the film).
Between the two great sequences at the castle, a series of vignettes show what the audience could have been expecting for quite a time: the daily life of the rebels, their provocative harassment of the soldiers and officials, their efforts to help the poor, but also the merry collection of personalities surrounding the beloved leader, the gay companions literature has etched in memories and their playful but pugnacious ways. But the film just takes notice of these aspects: characters are more acknowledged than portrayed, with the exception of Will Scarlett, who is actually the earl’s squire. The film does show what defines the Robin Hood adventure, but does not dwell on the findings: the love of the forest and the love of men, the solidarity and the generosity, the allure of rebellion and the appeal of brotherhood. It is far more concerned with the smartness and acrobatics of the titular character, obsessed with his love affairs, pleased with the skills and seduction of the actor, a quintessential star vehicle – and indeed, Douglas Fairbanks is perfectly dashing, daring, and droll.
Stunts are great, for sure; but they are woven into a wider vision that makes the medieval hero just a knight who discovers love, and through this discovery, happens to fight a mere political treachery. To explain every twist and expose every feelings the film is doomed to be this long-winded, skewed tale where the Sherwood forest seems rather like a sideshow to the royal castle’s intrigues. The narrative is coherent in its own ways, from the first ominous appearance of Prince John to his final humbling loneliness; in particular the implausible oversized, incredibly high and spacious rooms of the royal castle, where it could have been impossible to get warm or to feel comfortable, find their relevance in the second part, as the ideal stage for highly spectacular stunts and breathtaking fighting. But this detail just underlines that the film is self-indulgently trying to be a record-breaking entertainment; arguably, few movies at this point in time in film history were so expensive, with countless extras hired and sprawling sets built. This is a truly impressive production, and it shows it, or rather shows it off. Yet the director manages to shoot fleeting images, small episodes that are truly wonderful, and often graciously illustrate the power of love, like the delicate drawing of a profile against a wall, or a meeting, shot at a long distance, in a convent’s lush garden.