Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men
Feared by the bad, loved by the good
Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood!"
What bold action! What grand excitement! What... broad political metaphors? From 1955 to 1960, ITV's "The Adventures of Robin Hood" riveted television audiences on both sides of the Atlantic with daring escapades of the legendary outlaw and his merry men. The show set the standard for costume adventure, thanks to top notch production values and quality storytelling. The stories were so thrilling, in fact, that youngsters can be forgiven for overlooking the devilishly subversive messages being delivered to them from the leftists and the Commies working behind the scenes. How scandalous!
Of course, the marriage of Robin Hood and exiled Communists makes perfect sense - who better to champion the cause than a character celebrated for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor? Robin of Loxley's redistribution of wealth plan must've appealed greatly to writers and producers escaping HUAC's grip in the early 1950s.
The series was produced by Hannah Weinstein, the political activist (and apparent member of the Communist Party) who fled to England in 1952, at the height of McCarthyism. Through her new company Sapphire Films, she went to great lengths to hide the identity of her writing staff, made up almost entirely of blacklisted writers; Ring Lardner, Jr., and Ian McClellan Hunter wrote nearly all of the show's first season, using a variety of pseudonyms. (Weinstein and her staff then had to simultaneously ward off executives eager to meet the writers and dodge mail from the States that might contain HUAC subpoenas.)
Lardner and Hunter slipped plenty of anger into their teleplays. One episode, "The Alchemist," involves a literal witch hunt; several stories involve villagers wrongly accused of theft or murder; others involve threats of betrayal and the pressures put on villagers to "rat out" our heroes. Authorities often realize the innocent civilian is indeed innocent, a fact they intentionally hide from the public in order to advance their own agendas. The most trustworthy characters are those who had to leave their past lives behind after persecution and those (like Friar Tuck or Maid Marian) who have to hide their true beliefs lest they too feel the wrath of those in power.
Could it all be that simple, Robin Hood as Marxist champion and blacklist analogue? The metaphors are hard to ignore, especially in some episodes (again, that witch hunt story), but the writers for the most part downplay such things, sneaking in the analogies but not making it too overt, opting instead to remain true to the general sense of the Robin Hood myth. Yes, Robin robs from the rich and gives to the poor, but this is often an act of retribution, not socialism; Robin is usually returning stolen or otherwise improperly taken money. Sure, the merry men often imposes a "toll" on noblemen passing through, but sometimes they counter this with charity - or, at least, an assurance that those surrendering their monies are loyal to those scoundrels Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham and therefore deserve to be swindled.
Indeed, underneath the Robin Hood myth is a tale of great loyalty; Robin remains faithful to King Richard while doing all he can to prevent Prince John from stealing the throne. For all its blacklist metaphors and the fear of power that comes with it, this series ultimately shows no ill will against honest leadership, and advocates allegiance to such. In one episode, King Richard himself appears in disguise, recruiting Robin and his men for a special mission, and in another, the Queen Mother enlists Robin in a scheme against French ambassadors seeking a treaty with Prince John. Here, the outlaws are presented to be working in Richard's favor; the king even asks Robin to stay in Sherwood instead of rejoining the Crusades, saying Robin is needed in England, to be its defender from within.
All of this lends the stories a sense of nobility and old-fashioned chivalry that rise above any Communist underlines or blacklist allegory. For the most part, it's all a much simpler bit of fun. The first season's early episodes take their time recounting the Robin Hood legend, with episodes devoted to the introduction of each key player: Little John (Archie Duncan; Rufus Cruikshank temporarily replaced Duncan midway through the season when the actor was injured on set), Friar Tuck (Alexander Gauge), Marian (Bernadette O'Farrell), and later, Will Scarlet (Ronald Howard). (Rounding out the regular cast were the endlessly charming Richard Greene as Robin and Alan Wheatley, deliciously devious as the Sheriff of Nottingham.) Each episode would begin with a brief ballad highlighting the themes to come, as if we're watching another chapter in an unfolding epic. (I noticed a few of the more generic ballads repeated here and there, but for the most part, each episode got its own song.)
Exceptional production values were put to the best use in turning the show into a great big adventure. Episodes were shot on 35mm film, often using outdoor sets; indoor shoots utilized gorgeously realized faux castles and villages. This lends each chapter the feel of a feature film. And when complex swordfights and other thrilling stunts (is that Greene himself leaping several stories down to a haystack?) are added to the mix, the whole thing becomes an endless source of entertainment.
Sure, a few episodes rely on cornball plotting - in one tale, Robin must pretend to be Marian's husband (what is this, "Three's Company"?), and in another, Robin pretends to be an Earl to help a friend seem socially important - but more often, we find big, action-packed adventures here, stories of prison breaks and archery duels. More importantly, the writers made sure to avoid too much repetition, following a big action story with a smaller fable about tolerance, and so on. This "Robin Hood" is never redundant, and always exciting.
Mill Creek collects all thirty-nine of the series' inaugural episodes for their three-disc set "The Adventures of Robin Hood: The Complete First Season." The three discs are housed in a double-wide keepcase.
Episodes appear to be culled from a wide variety of sources (resulting in a wide variety of quality). Most episodes are from their original ITV broadcast; several others are from the CBS re-edit, which kept the episodes themselves intact but altered the opening and closing to include an American voiceover and slates for the sponsors (Band-Aids in some episodes, and Wildroot Cream-Oil in others). One episode (in particularly bad shape) replaces the intro with slates reading "Richard Greene is Robin Hood in 'The Adventures in Sherwood Forest'." Considering the series has long been in public domain, these discrepancies aren't so surprising. Despite these differences, all episodes appear to be presented in their original run times, about twenty-four minutes apiece.
The episodes included in this set are:
Disc One: "The Coming of Robin Hood", "The Moneylender", "Dead or Alive", "Friar Tuck", "Maid Marian", "A Guest for the Gallows", "The Challenge", "Queen Eleanor", "Checkmate", "The Ordeal", "A Husband for Marian", "The Highlander", and "The Youngest Outlaw".
Disc Two: "The Betrothal", "The Alchemist", "The Jongleur", "The Brothers", "The Intruders", "The Sheriff's Boots", "Errand of Mercy", "The Vandals", "Richard the Lion-Heart", "Ladies of Sherwood", "Will Scarlet", "The Deserted Castle", and "The Miser".
Disc Three: "Trial by Battle", "Children of Greenwood", "The May Queen", "The Wanderer", "The Byzantine Treasure", "Secret Mission", "The Inquisitor", "Tables Turned", "The Traitor", "The Thorkil Ghost", "The Knight Who Came to Dinner," "The Wager", and "The Prisoner".
Video & Audio
All episodes are presented in their original 1.33:1 broadcast format. As mentioned, there's a wide variety of quality seen in these transfers. A few are crisp and clean, with a crisp, bright look to the black and white image. But those are the exceptions. The rest is sort of a variety pack of visual ugliness: some episodes are too dark and murky, others are washed out and too bright. Mass digital artifacting pops up throughout, especially in darker scenes, as if these were blown up from overly compressed online videos. Print damage is inescapable, with only a handful of episodes missing the mess of dirt, grain, and scratches. A few episodes even look overly green. I also noticed a few video tracking problems; I assume these episodes were sourced from VHS dubs.
(Curiously, there's a Region 2 release of the show that features nothing but quality prints of each episode. Nothing like that appears here, although I'd guess Mill Creek's get-what-we-can approach to collecting these episodes helps keep the asking price down.)
The audio fares only slightly better, in this mono presentation. Most episodes are clean enough for the dialogue and music to come through despite the tape hiss, but a few sound pretty murky or tinny. No subtitles are offered.
The show is excellent all around, but episodes are difficult to find Stateside in any decent release - all versions so far have been public domain sets. The question, then, comes down to value, and with such a low asking price (retailing at about 38 cents an episode!), then yes, Mill Creek's collection is Recommended to those willing to work through the iffy transfers in order to get to the terrific storytelling.