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Robin and His Merry Men: A Rich Tradition, Sometimes Poorly Done

September 02, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith writes regularly about film for the Times Orange County Edition. and

Put a gang of lawbreakers in the woods and what do you get? The Bloods and Crips on holiday? The Mafia on a camping trip?

What you get is a fine setting for a spoof. Mel Brooks had thought so for years. His "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" is a disappointment--the sword Brooks wields as a director is too broad to surgically slice the Sherwood legend--but it's still a good idea.

The notion of Robin and his klatch of do-gooding thieves is a great target for satire. They take from the rich and give to the poor, and play in the glen the rest of the time. Will these boys ever grow up?

But that's what we like about them--they're over-age Peter Pans, living the free, manly life. It's a cool fantasy. Brooks' lampoon notwithstanding, Robin Hood has been a touchstone for the movie industry ever since "The Adventures of Robin Hood," starring Errol Flynn, came out in 1938.

That version, directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, is at the top of the ladder, a picture that hasn't been improved on despite several tries. Most of the other swashbuckling adaptations have their merits, but this venerable old-timer is impossible to usurp.

It's kitsch, but super kitsch, mainly because Flynn has such a way with the character. There's a self-mocking gleam in his eye, as if he doesn't expect anybody (least of all himself) to take all his high-flying heroics seriously, and that carries you through the Hollywood hokum. Plus, Flynn looks as though he's really enjoying himself.

Olivia de Haviland is, by comparison, a fairly dull Marian, but at least she's chaste enough to catch his eye. Pretty, too; De Haviland, corseted in tight Medieval gowns and hair wraps, still glows. She's required to mouth some ridiculous romantic platitudes to Robin (he has a few himself) but, with Flynn's spirited guidance, De Haviland is able to overcome them.

Terrific supporting cast, too. Basil Rathbone does some expert snarling (and a fine hissy fit or two) as Sir Guy of Gisbourne. He also shows physical flair in his sword-fighting climax with Flynn; jumping here, jabbing there.

In 1952, director Ken Annakin ventured into Sherwood with "The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men." Made by Disney, this version starring Richard Todd and a youthful Peter Finch isn't quite up to its predecessor, but zippy nonetheless. Action dominates, sometimes at the expense of the characters (you miss Flynn's humor in Todd's Robin).

Still, the movie has an authentic feel. It was filmed entirely in England, and that may have something to do with it.

There are lots of splashy Technicolor scenes of the lush countryside, castles towering in the background.

Turning to what it does best, Disney attempted a full-length cartoon adaptation in 1973. "Robin Hood" fails the test when compared to the studio's other animated classics, but it's a decent enough diversion for kids. The twist here is that animals play the key roles: Little John is now a chunky bear, with the voice of Phil Harris. Other voices include Terry-Thomas, Andy Devine, Roger Miller and Peter Ustinov.

A jaunty spin came in 1964 with "Robin and the Seven Hoods." Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack, including Sammy Davis Jr. and a bleary-eyed Dean Martin, jet the story to gangland Chicago where Sinatra plays a likable mobster with a good heart.

Not great, but pleasant and funny enough (there's an amusingly off-handed rapport between Sinatra and his pals). The film introduced a few popular songs like "My Kind of Town" and "Style." Anyway, it's always a kick to hear Sinatra sing.

"Robin and Marian," released in 1976, is director Richard Lester's soft-edged, almost melancholy look at the famous lovers deep into middle-age. Sean Connery is, as usual, a solidly heroic presence (even with a bald spot and a bit of a gut) and Audrey Hepburn shows how beautiful an older woman can be. The picture is honest and well-intentioned, albeit ponderous in many stretches.

The 1991 made-for-TV movie, "Robin Hood," stars Patrick Bergin as Robin and Uma Thurman as Maid Marian.

He's appropriately roguish and she's less innocent and more sexy that most of the Marians we're accustomed to. Director John Irvin is into moodiness (everything looks shadowy, damp) and that often bleeds the joy out of the familiar story.

Anyway, it's still a more accomplished version than "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," the much-publicized theatrical release starring Kevin Costner that came out the same year.

The flick is a stinker; Robin should never have to endure such shame.

Costner slips in and out of his English accent and plays Robin like a frat-boy president. He's sneaky and doesn't fight fair; this Robin even sucker-punches the bad-to-the-bone Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) in their final confrontation. Sheesh, Robin may be a crook, but he'd never let himself slip to that guy's level.

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