The BBC’s new series Robin Hood, showing on BBC America on Saturday nights at 9 EDT, is all right, but it’s not even in the same universe of quality as the glorious 1938 Warner Bros. production The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Alan Hale, Eugene Pallette, Melville Cooper, Una O’Connor, Patric Knowles, Ian Hunter, Herbert Mundin, Montagu Love, and the rest of that superb cast, directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighly.
In terms of sheer entertainment and the joy it brings, The Adventures of Robin Hood is one of the greatest motion pictures of all time. Few films in the years since it was made have reached this level of delight, and for a TV series to get even close is to ask far too much.
But it’s not too much to ask it to get a good deal closer than the new BBC Robin Hood.
The first two episodes are mildly entertaining but no more, are not particularly thoughtful, and are entirely uninspiring. The program is not an entire waste of time, as it does have a nice message of resistance to oppression and anger against excessive government taxation, but there’s no real drama or excitement here, little entertainment, and a distinct lack of creativity.
A few comments:
- The main characters of the BBC’s Robin Hood are several years younger than their counterparts in the sublime Warner Bros. version (although Flynn and de Havilland were fairly young at the time, they easily held their own among the veteran cast), and that makes a big difference. The central male characters in ths version have high, squeaky voices which make them much less formidable and interesting than the deeper voiced, more masculine characters played by Flynn, Rathbone, etc. There’s a sense of boys playacting throughout the episodes shown so far, instead of men confronting life-or-death dilemmas. Hence, much of the drama is drained out. This is a trend of our times, unfortunately, with male heroes sounding as if they have been wearing too-tight briefs since they got out of daipers. The thing that most ruined Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves for me was Kevin Costner’s preadolescent pipsqueaky voice, and that’s saying a lot, given how many things were seriously wrong with that film.
- As is the custom today, instead of teaching the actors how to fence and fight or hiring actors who are already skilled at these things—such people do exist, I can assure you—the filmmakers use close-ups and cut-away shots to hide the fact that the actors can’t fight worth a lick. (Contemporary filmmakers do this regularly with dance sequences also, in the rare times they show them at all.) When Curtiz shot the swordfight sequences in The Adventures of Robin Hood, you could clearly see that Flynn and Rathbone were actually cutting and thrusting away at each other. (Rathbone, was well-known as the best fencer among Hollywood actors, and Flynn was extraordinarily graceful and stylish in his fighting.) The fights in the BBC Robin Hood are clumsy and dull in comparison and really not even worth watching. Some boring old ninnies, of course, will argue that people can’t really swordfight the way Flynn and Rathbone did it, and they may be right. But if I want to see a real fight I’ll go down to the local tavern and watch one for free, thank you very much. When I want real art and entertainment, I want some artistry in it, if you don’t mind too bleeding much.
- In an apparent "diversity" element to accommodate modern-day attitudes that everything about the West is and always has been inferior, Robin uses a Saracen bow. This is absurd, given that the British longbow was a truly superb weapon that revolutionized warfare. It could shoot an arrow more than 200 yards with deadly accuracy. The notion that Robin would give that up for a Saracen bow is utterly unfounded and in fact perfectly silly.
- The Middle Ages in Europe are depicted, as is the custom in contemporary media, as dirty, wretched, chaotic, dangerous, and irrational. This is a disgusting lie. The Middle Ages were a time of great human creativity and civilizational advance in the West. The contemporary attitude is a canard depoyed by atheists who hate Medieval Europe for its Christian reliogisity. Anyone who holds to the contemporary view of smug superiority over the Middle Ages is just despicably ignorant.
- Robin Hood entirely leaves out the character of Friar Tuck, one of Robin’s closest assosciates in the original tellings and 1938 film. This is symptomatic of the treatment of religion in the series, consistently ignoring its centrality to life in Medieval Europe.
- Robin returns from the Crusades convinced that fighting does not win arguments. Most soldiers return from war with the exact opposite idea: winning may not persuade anybody that you’re right, but you’re not fighting to persuade people. You’re fighting to protect yourself, your comrades, and your loved ones and neighbors back home. Flynn’s Robin Hood, like any real hero, understands that. The BBC’s Robin Hood is still a silly, idealist boy after all that fighting in Palestine. Not likely. With an attitude like that, he’d never have made it back.
- As in the 1938 film, the BBC’s Robin shows immense Christian charity to the downtrodden, feeding them generously and fighting to release them from oppression. That is one matter in which the series follows the earlier stories greatly to its benefit.
- I mentioned taxes earlier. Not only does Robin oppose the King’s oppressive taxes, he actually takes a supply-side, Arthur Laffer approach, arguing that the Sheriff should cut taxes so that people can create a surplus and get trading again. That’s a message I’d like our Congress to hear.
- The Marian in this version is very non-pretty and hasn’t even a minute fraction of the dignity expressed by de Havilland’s character in the 1938 film, but this one does throw a dagger with impressive accuracy. That makes her rather likeable.
- Robin does a "dry pull" of his bow (i.e., firing it without an arrow) to slap Gisbourne’s face with the bowstring. What actually would have happened is that the force of the bowstring would have transferred to the bow and thus probably have broken Robin’s arm.
- The new BBC version has some effective drama in the main storyline, Robin’s attempt to free his people from oppression. That makes it worth watching even though the production pales in comparison with the splendid Curtiz-Keighley version. It’s a great story, and whenever Robin Hood adheres to it, it works.
- With England at war, the Sheriff has taken the opportunity to suspend normal rights such as trial by jury. Those who see this as a jarringly obtrusive comment on contemporary political issues are entirely correct in doing so.
Keith Allen is the standout among the cast. He’s way over the top in his performance as the Sheriff of Nottingham, but he at least seems to be having fun, and he makes the ride much more pleasant than it would otherwise be.
- The overall moral position of the series is sound and laudable—outside of its occasional, ridiculously anachronistic importation of contemporary sexual latitudinarianism into the Middle Ages.
- The Adventures of Robin Hood taught me some real lessons about what it takes to a man. The moral strength the main characters display showed me that I could and should expect more from myself and less from other people. It’s a lesson that can make one’s life a good deal easier, more comprehensible, and more meaningful.
- The Adventures of Robin Hood had style, elegance, joy, passion, forceful logic, stunning beauty, humor, and a foundation of great moral probity. The BBC’s Robin Hood is clumsy and sloppy but well-intentioned and good-hearted. It’s worth watching, but it won’t change your life.
Summary: Buy The Adventures of Robin Hood now.