The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
[Since the birth of our son, Archer, on March 1, 2002, folks have been asking how we came up with the name. My wife is Jewish, so when we wanted to name him in homor of her grandfather, Abraham, we had to use the letter "A", but couldn't use the precise name (don't ask me why; I'm a WASP). I wanted Abner, but was threatened with divorce, so I proposed Archer, not telling her where I was deriving it from. The following will explain why I liked it. It helps that Ross MacDonald's great private eye is Lew Archer.]
It goes nearly without saying that The Adventures of Robin Hood is one of the very best swashbucklers in Hollywood history. Errol Flynn's archetypal star-turn as Robin so defined the genre that it lives on through innumerable parodies and homages, including a classic Bugs Bunny cartoon and Peter O'Toole's character in My Favorite Year. In addition, the film features a host of great costars and character actors from Hollywood's Golden Era : Claude Rains (Prince John); Basil Rathbone (Guy of Gisbourne); Olivia de Havilland (Lady Marian); Alan Hale (Little John); Eugene Pallette (Friar Tuck); Una O'Connor (Bess); and so on. There are banquets and festivals, swordfights and courtships, and loyalty and treacheries. But most of all, and I don't really understand why this seems to surprise people, there's a political vision, one that shaped Britain and thereby America, and which lives on today : that the legitimacy of the state depends on the consent of the governed.
The Robin Hood story has taken many forms over the years and been used to serve many purposes. When I was a kid, in the woebegotten 1960s, the Left had managed to turn it into a kind of a proto-socialist dialectic : "He robs from the rich and gives to the poor." They read the story, or read it to us, as one of wealth redistribution. But, perhaps because I learned my Robin Hood from this film and from the inestimable Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, I've always though that it worked better, and its popularity and endurance in the Anglo-Saxon world was more easily explained, if we look at it as one of the first and probably the greatest of democratic myths. For, while Robin and his men do steal tax money, they do so less to help the poor than to ransom King Richard, who was taken hostage while off crusading. They are not concerned with creating an egalitarian society, but with the orderly transfer of power by their rulers, with bringing Richard back home to resume his rightful place on the throne of England.
In the best scene (politically speaking) in this film, and one of the more conservative scenes ever committed to film, Robin has just met up with King Richard who is disguised as a cleric. The cowled Richard plies him with questions about his motives and the topic of Richard himself comes up. Robin says that he blames Richard for the state of affairs in England and particularly blames him for creating a situation where ruffians like Robin and his men have to take the law into their own hands. Here is the matter in a nutshell, the fight against Prince John has nothing to do with economics and fairly little to do with the specifics of John's brutal rule, it is instead a simple matter of upholding the implicitly agreed upon and explicitly delineated line of succession. Nor do Robin and his men take undue pride in their activities, recognizing that their rebellion is a sign of a badly disordered society. When Richard finally does get back his throne, Robin asks for no reward, other than Marian's hand in marriage; the return to normalcy is obviously its own reward.
The other thing I've always loved about the movie is its demonstration of my own admittedly odd, and more than a little antihistorical, Longbow Theory of Democracy. This theory holds that it is the development of cheap but lethal personal arms and their widespread dispersal throughout English and American society that, as much as anything, explains the unique rise and maintenance of democracy in the Anglosphere. We're all familiar here in the States with the Colt .45's affectionate nickname, "The Equalizer". This sobriquet reflects the idea that a good weapon can make it possible for inherently unequal or socially disparate men to face one another on a level playing field. A similar notion is at work, though it is seldom recognized, in the story of David and Goliath. Forget everything you've ever been told about David as an underdog and think of him as Indiana Jones in the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark where the giant scimitar-wielding Arab confronts him in terrifying fashion, only to have Indy whip out a pistol and shoot him. That's all the story of David and Goliath really boils down to is the resort to superior technology to defeat a seemingly more powerful foe. The sling was long recognized as one of the most lethal and, because of its range, effective weapons of ancient times. It is only the fact that the slingshot has become a plaything for growing boys that allows us to misunderstand this story so badly.
Ranking right up there with the sling and the handgun in terms of low cost and equalizing power is the longbow. We see this theory brought to life in Robin Hood, where all the might and armor of Prince John and the Norman nobles avail them naught against a determined band of men armed with longbows. Where once the great wealth of the crown made it possible to hold a populace in bondage, the superior firepower of the longbow creates a situation in which the people are capable of striking back with a vengeance. In the film, it is the longbows of Robin and his men that determine who will rule Britain (though within a narrow range of choices). Within a few short years, John, who would by then be king in his own right, would be forced to accept the provisions of the Magna Carta (1215), placing himself and his successors under the rule of law, and Britain would be launched upon the long to freedom and democracy.
I'm as big a believer in the power of ideas as anyone, but it seems
obvious that the idea of democracy is not as powerful on its own as it
is when backed by a well-armed citizenry. Somehow the people's ready
access to deadly weapons has always served to focus the concentration of
our leaders quite usefully and made them appropriately concerned with maintaining
our trust. It can hardly be a coincidence that totalitarianism has
been easiest to impose where the people are disarmed and the power of government
is most constrained where rulers truly have to worry about the dissatisfaction
of those they rule. There's a relatively recent movie--not a great
one, but a wise one--that nicely illustrates this point : Red Dawn.
It's a mistake to dismiss this tale of High School students battling Soviet
invaders as merely a Cold War relic. At its heart it is really a
retelling of the Robin Hood myth and reflects a truth that we forget at
our own peril : for centuries now, liberty in the West has been protected
by the guns and arrows of a freedom-loving yeomanry. Such is the
lesson of Robin Hood.
-INFO : The Adventures of Robin Hood (Rotten Tomatoes)
-FILMOGRAPHY : Michael Curtiz (Imdb.com)
-FILMOGRAPHY : William Keighley (Imdb.com)
-FILMOGRAPHY : Errol Flynn (1909-59) (Imdb.com)
-Learning Guide to: The Adventures of Robin Hood (Teach with Movies)
-REVIEW : of The Adventures of Robin Hood (Tim Dirks, Greatest Movies)
-REVIEW : of The Adventures of Robin Hood (KEITH WILTON, The Reel Images)
-REVIEW : of The Adventures of Robin Hood (Damian Cannon, Film U)
-REVIEW : of The Adventures of Robin Hood (Tom Knapp, Rambles)
-REVIEW : of The Adventures of Robin Hood (Doug Pratt LaserDisc Reviews)
-REVIEW : of The Adventures of Robin Hood (UNF)
ROBIN HOOD :
MAGNA CARTA :
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