Walt Disney is one of the most quintessentially American figures of the twentieth century. His name is synonymous with a nostalgic, homespun vision of small-town American life. He’s held up as the embodiment of the classic American Dream, building an empire out of nothing but talent, hard work and determination. So it must have been somewhat galling for Walt to have to make his first several live-action features in the United Kingdom about quintessentially British subjects.
With millions of dollars still frozen thanks to England’s post-World War II recovery program, Walt had little option but to establish an overseas production presence. Perce Pearce, who had transitioned from animation to live-action, had been dispatched to oversee the production of Treasure Island. Pearce had not gotten along with director Byron Haskin, with Walt having to act as mediator during the movie’s contentious post-production. But Walt stood by his longtime employee, sending Pearce back to England in 1950 to produce three more features.
Walt had apparently decided that if he was going to have to make pictures in England anyway, he’d might just as well make them as English as he possibly could. For his follow-up to Treasure Island, Walt settled on one of the most famous tales in English folklore. The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men (complete with quaint spelling for extra Englishness) was Disney’s first crack at the oft-filmed legend. It would not be their last.
At first, Pearce tried to reunite the team from Treasure Island. Script duties once again fell to Lawrence Edward Watkin, Disney’s go-to writer on the live-action British projects. Robert Newton was a contender to play Friar Tuck. They even tried to find a role for Bobby Driscoll, although considering his young age, he would have been more of a Merrie Boy than a Merrie Man.
Byron Haskin jumped the Disney ship after Treasure Island wrapped, so Pearce hired English director Ken Annakin. Annakin had been a documentarian during the war who had transitioned to features. He was known in England for the comedy Holiday Camp and its three sequels revolving around the working-class Huggett family. Annakin evidently got along with Pearce better than Haskin had, as he’d stick around to direct three more live-action Disney features.
As Robin Hood, Disney cast Richard Todd. Todd had become a major star in England after his Oscar-nominated performance in the 1949 war drama The Hasty Heart. He makes for a fine, if not exactly inspiring, Robin Hood. He’s earnest and idealistic but he’s not going to erase all memories of Errol Flynn. Nevertheless, we’ll be seeing more of Richard Todd in this column.
As is often the case, the bad guys make for more compelling figures than the good guys. Songwriter and radio personality Hubert Gregg is suitably weaselly as the treacherous Prince John. He’d reprise the role a few years later on a couple episodes of the popular British TV series The Adventures Of Robin Hood.
Peter Finch is even better as the Sheriff of Nottingham. Finch had started his acting career in Australia before returning to England with Laurence Olivier’s Old Vic theatre company. His star began to rise in England after his performance as the Sheriff. He’d go on to international success with films like Sunday Bloody Sunday and, of course, his legendary turn in Network, for which he won a posthumous Oscar. We’ll see him again, too.
Robin’s Merrie Men are filled out by an assortment of character actors who would have been readily familiar to contemporary British audiences. James Robertson Justice is a burly and boisterous Little John. James Hayter, who also had the lead role in the 1952 adaptation of The Pickwick Papers, is a capable replacement for Robert Newton as Friar Tuck. Hayter would go on to play the role again years later in Hammer Films’ A Challenge For Robin Hood.
While none of the actors are miscast, The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men could use a star of Newton’s caliber to really elevate the material. Newton’s flamboyant performance as Long John Silver in Treasure Island defines that movie, for better or worse. No one in Robin Hood stands out, which makes this suffer in comparison. Not only to Treasure Island but also to Errol Flynn’s definitive The Adventures Of Robin Hood, which was packed full of outsize personalities.
Flynn’s movie casts a long shadow over Disney’s interpretation, as it has over every other Robin Hood movie since 1938. There are echoes in Robin’s first meeting with Little John, in the introduction of Friar Tuck, and in the archery contest with the golden arrow prize.
But Disney’s version does manage to make some interesting tweaks to the familiar story. Here, it isn’t Robin who splits his opponent’s arrow. Rather, it’s Robin’s father, Hugh Fitztooth (Reginald Tate), who splits Robin’s arrow, with both father and son declared winners of the competition. When Fitztooth is later killed by the Sheriff’s men, Robin takes up the life of an outlaw to avenge his death.
The introduction of Robin’s father puts a new focus on Robin’s motivations and history that the Flynn movie is largely unconcerned with. Robin and Marian (Joan Rice) also have an existing relationship that predates his life as an outlaw. That makes her more of a natural ally and active participant, rather than someone who must be won over to Robin’s cause.
Disney’s version is also unique as one of the few versions of the story that was actually shot in Sherwood Forest. Cinematographer Guy Green, who won an Oscar for his work on David Lean’s Great Expectations, does an excellent job capturing the natural beauty of the locations. Matte wizard Peter Ellenshaw, fresh off his work on Treasure Island, enhances Green’s work with a handful of subtle but stunning matte paintings.
The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men became another success for Walt Disney, especially in the UK. Its reputation has faded over time, overshadowed by countless other Robin Hood films and the continued influence of Errol Flynn’s classic. Disney itself has contributed to the glut of other Robin Hoods that are more fondly remembered than this one. In 1973, they dressed a cartoon fox in people clothes for an animated version. But we’ll get to that later.
This first attempt certainly isn’t a bad little movie but it does feel somewhat inconsequential. Treasure Island had scope, grandeur, and Robert Newton’s larger-than-life performance. It felt like a movie. The Story Of Robin Hood feels more like a pilot for an unrealized television series. It’s entertaining enough while you’re watching it. But don’t be surprised if you’ve forgotten most of the details the next day.
VERDICT: It’s enough fun to be considered a Disney Plus but a very, very minor one.