Obviously cashing in on Ridley Scott's current Robin Hood, a Universal release, Sony has unearthed four classic and not-so-classic swashbucklers for DVD: The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946), Prince of Thieves (1948), Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950), all Columbia efforts, and the underrated, Hammer-produced Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), filmed in England. Though lacking extra features each title has received an excellent video transfer and all are at least interesting.
The first, The Bandit of Sherwood Forest, is pretty standard stuff but features extremely vivid three-strip Technicolor photography supervised by Tony Guido, who shot The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) in a similarly lush style. Its cast of seasoned character players is another plus, as is the film's Disneyland-like fantasy art direction.
Adapted from Paul A. Castleton novel The Son of Robinhood (sic), its story is set many years after the defeat of Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. The film opens with a much older Earl of Huntington, alias Robin Hood (51-year-old Russell Hicks), calling his former Merry Men together to face a new crisis. It's a lively opening, as Robin's men, including Will Scarlet (John Abbott), Friar Tuck (Edgar Buchanan), Little John (Ray Teal), Allan-A-Dale (Leslie Denison) and others ride to meet their one-time leader.
Robin explains that William of Pembroke (slippery Henry Daniell), the Regent, has called a meeting of the Council of Barons. Just as Robin predicts, the Regent orders the boy king (Maurice Tauzin) taken into custody, banishes the Earl of Huntington, and abolishes all rights protected under Magna Carta*. Aided by Fitz-Herbert (dastardly George Macready) and Lord Mortimer (conniving Ian Wolfe), the Regent's plans are quickly enacted.
Robin, meanwhile, sends for his son, Robert of Nottingham (Cornel Wilde, curious billed fourth, after Edgar Buchanan, for cryin' out loud). Robin Hood fans will be amused to find that he wears a green costume and tights closely patterned after the Errol Flynn Robin Hood while Dad wears duds similar to Richard Greene's '50s TV show Robin Hood.
Robert decides to rescue the young King, and enlists the aide of Lady Catherine of Maitland (Anita Louise), Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen Mother (Jill Esmond, later Queen Eleanor on the Richard Greene TV series).
Despite an original story, The Bandit of Sherwood Forest's plot machinations are pretty much like every other Robin Hood movie, a limited sub-sub-genre. The filmmakers succeed in livening up these familiar situations, however. The climax, for instance, pits the Robin-like Robert in a trial-by-combat swordfight with the Sir Guy of Gisbourne-like William of Pembroke, and while Columbia's budget was probably less than half that of Warner Bros.'s 1938 classic, the moody, subtler lighting (compared to the earlier film) and staging keep things interesting.
Except for Missouri-born Edgar Buchanan, whose gravelly, accented drawl is alarmingly out of place (though his characterization of Friar Tuck is otherwise spot-on), the cast is a lot of fun to watch. Daniell, Abbott, and Wolfe were late of Universal's Sherlock Holmes series and fit in quite nicely here, while familiar Columbia bit players like Gene Roth, Philip Van Zandt, and Dick Curtis have fun in smaller roles. (Ross Hunter, later the famous producer, is supposedly in there somewhere as one of the Merry Men, but I didn't spot him.) It's particularly nice to see prolific character actor Hicks, who turned up in hundreds of films, often uncredited (e.g., The Bank Dick, as Porthos in the 1939 Three Musketeers, etc.), featured as an older, distinguished Robin Hood, in Technicolor, no less. Hicks must have thought he had died and gone to heaven.
The film has a beguiling air of fantasy: the impressive (especially by cheapskate Columbia's standards) castle sets and gorgeous glass paintings/matte shots, the Disneyland-attraction look of the place; Anita Louise's wildly anachronistic costuming, hair and makeup (she resembles a '40s pin-up model throughout, even wearing bright ruby red lipstick when impersonating a nun). Then again, that's part of the fun.
Video & Audio
The full-frame transfer of The Bandit of Sherwood Forest is stunning, with the kind of richness and subtlety once impossible on home video and in syndicated television versions. This transfer has the kind of color that, in the past, you could only see in rarely screened original nitrate prints. Much of the film takes place at night and/or at the castle, but the nuances of the lighting and understated colors (Technicolor's Natalie Kalmus must have had that month off) are gorgeous throughout. It's too bad the Ridley Scott remake is a Universal release; something like this would be the perfect thing to include on that film's Blu-ray as a high-def extra feature. The audio is English only, with optional SDH subtitles resembling blocky closed-captioning. There are no Extra Features.
Though not particularly distinctive, The Bandit of Sherwood Forest has a lot of production value, a fun cast of character players clearly enjoying themselves, and stunning Technicolor lensing - all adding up to a pleasant evening's entertainment. Highly Recommended.
*The Joseph of Lieberman also proposes stripping peasants of their English citizenship, but this is rejected.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.