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Young Robin Hood, in love with Maid Marian, enters an archery contest with his father at the King's palace. On the way home his father is murdered by hench men of Prince John. Robin takes up the life of an outlaw, gathering together his band of merry men with him in Sherwood Forest, to avenge his father's death and to help the people of the land that Prince John are over taxing. Written by
Now, this is actually worth going to some trouble to see. Probably not to everyone's taste -- the opening sequence, with a nimble-footed and saturnine Alan-a-Dale strumming the theme-song ballad, will sort out the sheep from the goats of those who simply can't stand this sort of thing -- but despite the live-action Disney label, it stands up well amongst all its predecessors and successors.
It steers a skillful and essential line between tendentious over-seriousness and pie-in-the-face humour, and contrives a fresh view on the familiar set-pieces -- the shivered arrow on the bull's-eye, Friar Tuck and the river crossing, the recruitment of Little John -- with, unusually, a sizable part for the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine as the mother of the King and Prince John. In the title role, Richard Todd makes a charming curly-headed rogue, whose merry eyes betray his identity beneath the most enveloping of disguises, and he brings the necessary charisma and impudence to the character: this is the recognisable Robin Hood of legend, whom men follow for freedom and for the fun of it. A little easy-going, perhaps, with little of the passion against injustice that flashes beneath the laughter of Errol Flynn, but this is Disney after all.
Joan Rice is a spitfire wilful Marian, whose involvement is plausibly scripted without any anachronism; she also provides a couple of the best moments in the film, whether belabouring Robin on her fellow-travellers' behalf or silencing him with an athletic embrace at the end. James Hayter as Friar Tuck and Peter Finch as the black-avised Sheriff of Nottingham also give memorable performances -- and could that really have been avuncular Hubert Gregg, of all people, convincing us as Prince John?
My main source of irritation about this film lay in some of the archery embellishments. Every arrow-shot we see zips past with the whine of a ricocheted bullet, presumably in order to make the fights sound more exciting in the absence of gunfire, and the system of signalling by firing colour-coded arrows in relays at one another seemed not only out of place but highly risky (credibility not helped by what I surely didn't imagine as people turning round to look as they hear the arrow coming!) The distinctly unpleasant fate of the forsworn Sheriff, on the other hand, was glossed over in suspicious silence, without so much as a cry.
But caveats aside, the film scores well on sheer energy, with a healthy dash of humour. The 1967 "A Challenge for Robin Hood" (despite featuring Hayter as Friar Tuck again!) is an over-bright and sanitised Ladybird rendition; the 1990 "Robin Hood" (the non-Costner version) went the other way and overdid the historical grime. The latter is the better film, but neither of them has the enjoyability and spirit of the 1952 offering. This isn't on the same scale as the Curtiz/Keighley classic of 1938, and Todd remains an engaging boy rather than a rollicking leader of men, but it perhaps comes closest to matching the verve of its illustrious predecessor.
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