The title screen preceding Ridley Scott’s 2010 film Robin Hood reads, in big, curly, Ye Olde font: “In times of tyranny and injustice, when law oppresses the people, the outlaw takes his place in history.” You can read this one of two ways:
- As the cultural grammar surrounding Robin Hood: a tale in which a handsome, charming, highwayman-slash-philanthropist hassles the local government out of abject corruption and into slightly less abject corruption using nothing but his smirk, his street smarts, and his bow and arrow.
- Or, less literally, as an acknowledgement that there will always be Robin Hood movies so long as social structures can fail spectacularly, and people in power are capable of abusing it. If the rules are unfair, we can make folk heroes out of the people who break them.
Another reason there can be infinite incarnations of this story: the character’s obscure origins. As in, no one has read the original version of Robin Hood. Because there isn’t one. There is some paper evidence that suggests there was a rogue Englishman of Sherwood Forest who gave the local authorities no rest, but it’s more likely that the figure was an amalgam of several rogues the region over. Before the children’s books, the story was passed down through generations for centuries—since the 15th and arguably since the 12th—via oral tradition. There were songs, and there was hearsay. The details that remained consistent became standard: there was Robin; his Merry Men; the fair Maid Marian; and the Sheriff of Nottingham, a talentless villain. The main themes were love, death, and taxes.
So again: endlessly rebootable. “It’s a buddy story. It’s a moral tale. It’s an incredible romantic tale. It’s ‘us against the world!’” This is from a recent interview with Ben Mendelsohn, who plays the Sheriff of Nottingham as a modern political actor in the newest iteration, Otto Bathurst’s Robin Hood, which opens in theaters on Wednesday. The story was first told on the silver screen in 1908, and there have since been approximately 1 billion on-screen adaptations, with even more currently in production. (Robin Hood 2058, coming soonish.)
On the occasion of the latest theatrical re-telling, we look back on the most memorable Robin Hood adaptations, and also see where Bathurst’s figures in on the list. (Hint: not very high.)
10. The One With Frank Sinatra
Riding the success of 1960’s Ocean’s 11, Sinatra reconvened the Rat Pack for Robin and the 7 Hoods in 1964, which ports the story from Sherwood Forest to prohibition-era gangland Chicago. Robin becomes “Robbo” (Sinatra), Marian his “main squeeze,” and Sammy Davis Jr. carries a gun, just like in real life. In a breakout performance, the late Peter Falk played a hilariously flustered Guy Gisborne (leader of a rival gang, the Sheriff character, and Robbo’s foil). His film career stretched out another 45 years afterward, although you probably knew him best as television’s Lieutenant Columbo. Being that Robin Hood is the product of English ballads, the story makes flat sense as a musical, just not such a slapstick one.
The MVP: Peter Falk
9. The One With Taron Egerton
I have a confession: As a person who enjoys absurd, almost inebriated action and jumpy editing, I enjoyed Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur. I can’t recall what the actual stakes were, or why David Beckham was there, but King Arthur as in-flight entertainment or on demand during the holidays—if not necessarily for actual U.S. currency at a movie theater—slaps.
The new Robin Hood, which telegraphs Not Being Your Dad’s Robin Hood, is of the same strain. The Crusades are more or less cast as the Iraq conflict, people keep bows taut and at the ready like assault rifles, and for some reason, there’s a pseudo casino sequence. Egerton acts as if it were the third Kingsman movie, Ben Mendelsohn reprises his role as the Nefarious Middle Manager from Rogue One, and Jamie Foxx, as a Moorish Little John (Robin’s sidekick), well … Jamie Foxx does as Jamie Foxx always does. Commit. Like, diving clear over the scorer’s table for the ball in the first quarter commit.
The MVP: Jamie Foxx
8. The One With Russell Crowe
Here’s screenwriter William C. Martell, in a 2010 blog post for Scr(i)pt Magazine, about how Ridley Scott’s Nottingham project became Robin Hood:
So, Ridley Scott wanted to change the NOTTINGHAM script which featured period forensics to a script about archers and archery ...
Then he came up with a brilliant idea! What if the Sheriff Of Nottingham and Robin Hood were the *same person*! Kind of like FIGHT CLUB. He’d be chasing himself for the whole damned movie! And there were some drafts of the screenplay written like that, until someone (maybe [screenwriter Brian] Helgeland) must have hinted that it might be a little silly.
And draft after draft, the script changed - evolved - twisted - becoming something completely different. The way the most expensive meal you have ever eaten turns into something else when it goes through the digestive process.
What actually came out is a story in which Robin Hood was Robin Longstride, a gruff soldier played by Crowe in King Richard the Lionheart’s army who takes up the name Loxley once Loxley dies, and backs up into his role as socialist folk hero, eventually falling in love with Original Loxley’s widow, played by Cate Blanchett. Blanchett is amazing. The Sheriff, sufficiently slimy, went on to become Tom from Succession. The movie is fine.
The MVP: Cate Blanchett
7. The One With Keira Knightley
Remember The Wonderful World of Disney? On ABC, on the occasional Sunday, there’d be a new original television film, and one of them was Princess of Thieves, which takes place after the events of the Robin Hood story. Robin and Marian have a daughter named Gwyn, played by Knightley, who lops off her locs, puts on pants, and takes up her father’s fight against the patriarchy monarchy.
By the time the movie came out, in 2001, Disney had already begun to shift its focus back to theatrical films, like Pirates of the Caribbean. Good thing for Knightley that her turn as Robin Hood may have set her on course for the role of Elizabeth Swann.
The MVP: Keira Knightley
6. The One With Sean Connery
And now, the story as pure romance. Richard Lester’s 1976 film Robin and Marian catches up with the titular characters 20 years after the events of the Robin Hood story, where a graying Loxley (Connery, two years removed from Murder on the Orient Express) tries to rekindle his romance with the Maid Marian—now the Nun Marian—played by Audrey Hepburn.
It’s sort of boring, but very pretty, in the way that movies in which confessions of the heart are made tearfully, filmily, in picturesque locales can be.
The MVP: Audrey Hepburn
5. The One With Kevin Costner
Sean Connery is actually in this one too, uncredited, as King Richard. In 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Costner, a gleamingly square Loxley, and Morgan Freeman, a Moor, ride through the English countryside stealing stuff and making almost no jokes at all. Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham, who knows the meaning of the word “dastardly,” appreciates that the movie should be at least a little funny.
The MVP: Alan Rickman
4. The One With Cary Elwes
The on-screen history of Robin Hood is one of inflection and revision, but the original story is sort of goofy, if you think about it. However, it’s not quite goofy enough to warrant almost two hours of parody. And yet Robin Hood: Men In Tights, Mel Brooks’s 1993 film, is essential—if not for Elwes’s Robin Hood, which is maybe as close as a live-action version has gotten to Brian Bedford’s carefree take on the character in 1973’s animated version, then at least for Dave Chappelle and motherfucking Isaac Hayes. (Ahchoo and Asneeze, respectively.)
The MVP: Cary Elwes
3. The One With Daffy Duck
Chuck Jones did Robin Hood twice, once with Bugs Bunny. But when it comes to the Looney Tuniverse, Robin Hood is Daffy Duck’s corner.
This is my entire life philosophy. And also, a synopsis of my entire life:
The MVP: Chuck Jones
2. The One With Errol Flynn
If I were to ask you who your Batman is, you might say Christian Bale or Michael Keaton—hopefully you don’t say Val Kilmer. If I were to ask you who your Robin Hood is, you’ll probably say someone other than Errol Flynn, because odds are that if you are reading this, you were also not around in 1938. But it’s commonly understood that all Robin Hoods and Robin Hood adaptations must kiss the ring of Michael Curtiz and William Keighley’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. This is the object lesson in the action-adventure film: The villains and heroes are equally dashing; romantic love comes at a steep price; daring escapes are made; and sword fights double as trials of character, and wrap around gorgeously lit spiral staircases.
For the record, Daffy Duck wanted nothing more than to be Errol Flynn.
The MVP: Duh.
1. The One With the Anthropomorphic Fox
In rewatching all of these adaptations, what I noticed was that it almost doesn’t matter who Robin Hood is. It’s not that a Robin Hood movie can survive Robin Hood being played poorly, but that Robin Hood, the character, is sort of a fixed point. It’s the supporting cast—more than tweaks to the setting—that gives each version its individuality and makes it memorable. For instance, I may not remember much beyond the vibe of Brian Bedford’s animated Robin Hood, but I can sing every word of Allan-a-Dale’s “Robin Hood and Little John,” and recite maybe 85 percent of Peter Ustinov’s lines as a hilariously immature and vaudevillian Prince John.
“Sheriff! Release my budd—oof! Not so hard, you mean thing.”
The MVP: Peter Ustinov