Rob from the Past to Feed the Present: Robin Hood and the culture of reboots

In the 1200s, Sherwood Forest covered more than 100,000 acres, stretching from the city of Nottingham all the way northward to South Yorkshire. At the time, this unbound landscape of oaks accounted for a fifth of the entire county of Nottinghamshire. Today the famous hideaway of this article’s eponymous outlaw is reduced to about 450 acres, just under 0.5% of its size during the time of our beloved bandit. If you go on a stroll through the remnants of this forest you will eventually be sucked towards its imposing centrepiece, The Major Oak. It is at least 800 years-old, it weighs an estimated 23 tons and has thick sprawling branches that spread over 92 feet. Under these god-like biceps there are numerous wooden supports, which if removed would cause the tree to collapse under its own vastness. Standing there, the struggle is palpable.

The presence of The Major Oak in its reduced surroundings is as apt a symbol as any for the perception of Robin Hood in cinema. This is because, like the tree that is supposed to have given the famous archer and his Merry Men shelter as they faced off against the evil exploits of the Sheriff of Nottingham, the image of Robin Hood on the big screen is simultaneously abundant and limited; it is in need of consistent upkeep, but is never fully upkept. This November, the Taron Egerton-led Robin Hood will strike our cinemas, making now as good a time as any to explore what the cinematic revamping of one of Britain’s greatest folktales tells us about the character’s enduring popularity and the supposed “era of reboots” we find ourselves occupying.

Taron Egerton as the world famous archer in this year’s adaptation.

Although nobody doubts the importance of the Robin Hood mythos to the growth of folktales, ballads and literature, the character’s importance in the history of cinema is somewhat understated. Since debuting on film one-hundred and ten years ago in the 1908 short film Robin Hood and His Merry Men, the character has consistently appeared in our movie theatres, outlasting whole eras of cinema. From the iconic Douglas Fairbanks to Errol Flynn. From a Disneyfied fox to a grizzled Russel Crow. If you are reading this article – *sorry to all our seven-year-old readers, you will just have to wait a few months for your generation’s green clad outlaw, but good on you for taking the time to read this article, keep it up!* – you will have been alive for at least one major-Hollywood motion picture dedicated to this character. A feat that is only matched by the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet, God and Santa Claus. To put it in perspective, in 1913 there were at least three films featuring Robin Hood, meaning that Robin Hood was playing a similar game to Marvel Studios while Stan Lee was only cameoing as a twinkle in his father’s eye.

There is of course a simple explanation for this abundance: the character, like Holmes, Hamlet, God and Kris Kringle, is in the public domain and if there is one thing film producers disdain it is paying for something unknown when they can get a recognisable property for free. However, as is the case with most Occam’s Razor scenarios, that would be a boring point to conclude on and definitely not worth the time you spent reading about the UK’s biggest oak tree. So let’s overcomplicate things!

Unlike King Arthur, another of Hollywood’s go to mythologic characters, Robin works outside and against the establishment. Arthur is representative of the struggles of the idealistic governing figure, whereas Robin is a symbol of the common individual (although he is somewhat tied with the nobility) standing up against the tyranny and injustice of the ruling elite. This poses an issue of unrelatability for the former and some film versions, specifically the Walt Disney adaptation Sword in the Stone (1963), often seek to present Arthur as orphaned and detached from the princely position of privilege commonly associated with the character. On the other hand, Robin Hood is the archetypal underdog facing off against the huge forces of the wealthy elite. An attribute which does nothing but bolster his popularity. In a 1991 study, 80% of people said they would rather root for the underdog rather than the team heavily favoured to win. And this key character trait is not only an attractive attribute for viewers, but also the creatives behind the camera.

The ITV television series The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-59), was the brainchild of American producer Hannah Weinstein, who recruited writers who, like herself, had been blacklisted from the Hollywood machine for their communist ideologies. The weekly half-hour episodes enabled writers to tackle issues such as the over taxation of impoverished farmers, runaway servants and the poor treatment of returning soldiers. As show writer Ring Lardner Jr. deliberates, the nature of the character provided him and his fellow left-leaning colleagues with “plenty of opportunities for oblique social comment on the issues and institutions of Eisenhower-era America.” As the character’s famous motto ‘Rob from the rich to feed the poor’ suggests, their version of Robin Hood is evidently socialistic, intent on righting the wrongs of the unfair distribution of wealth and social persecution that many on the left perceived as plaguing the McCarthy era.

Jill Esmond, Richard Greene, and Bernadette O’Farrell in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955)

However, this is only half the story. Although it appears this green clad archer is a hotbed for left-wing idealism, the character also promotes an agenda that can appeal to the other side of the political spectrum. In nearly every version of Robin Hood you can find, Robin’s opposition to Prince John is predicated not only on his callous taxation – we will come to that in a moment – but because he is not the true ruler, a right that is reserved for his Crusade leading brother, King Richard the Lionheart. It is therefore important to realise that although the hooded outlaw is often revered as the ultimate anti-establishment figure, he is simultaneously the uncompromising and patriotic upholder of the establishment who remains committed to the virtues of the true ruling body. This also amalgamates with the anti-taxation angle that makes the character appealing to those on the right. You need look no further than the 2017 article by Daniel Mitchell, Chairman of the Centre for Freedom and Prosperity, entitled ‘Robin Hood Is Not a Left-Wing Redistributionist.’ Though, to save you from what is a pretty trite article, you need only look into your childhood to Walt Disney’s beloved 1973 animated film, Robin Hood. The moustachioed filmmaker was a well-known conservative and his anti-left views are well documented – when Uncle Walt’s cartoonists tried to form a union, he brought in armed guards and fired several employees – and the depiction of taxation in his adaptation is dripping with the contempt expected from an individual with such political views. His foxy bandit strives against an interfering big government.

But surely the same could be said of the archer in the 1953 television show? And, at the same time, can’t the Disney film be seen as upholding that left-wing sentiment of making those who can afford it pay-out for those in need?

This is perhaps the most interesting explanation for the character’s frequent onscreen appearances and enduring popularity: Robin Hood is symbolically flexible, enabling him to be claimed by those on directly opposing sides of the political spectrum. The War on Want campaign can advocate a Robin Hood Tax, whilst, at the same time, the most subscribed channel on YouTube dedicated to UKIP news can be called RobinhoodUKIP. At any point, regardless of your political leaning, it appears as though the character can appeal to you.

But why is it that despite this mass appeal and instantly recognisable quality, it has been over 25 years since a Robin Hood film enjoyed any form of popularity? For the last commercially successful version of Robin Hood, we need to look back to 1991 and Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: The Prince of Thieves. The film was the second highest grossing film of that year earning a worldwide gross of $390 million dollars. Although a success on home video, Mel Brook’s Robin Hood: Men In Tights (1993) failed to impress at the box office. Even Ridley Scott and Russel Crowe’s subsequent effort fell a $100 million dollars short of its $200 million budget at the domestic box office. Now of course money is not everything, but sadly it is one of the few objective indicators we have a films success. The other being critical or award recognition, which too falls victim to being only the collective representation of a minute group of subjective opinions. Regardless of the credibility of such a marker of success, these two subsequent films also failed to make an impression in the critical sphere.

Cary Elwes in Mel Brooks hysterical Robin Hood: Men In Tights (1993)

The reason for this lack of success is sadly indicative of the manner in which studios approach offering up a rebooted version of a well-known story. Now, taking aim at reboot culture is akin to flogging a dead horse. Just the mention of the word reboot can leave a foul taste in an audience member’s mouth. But, what I do not want this article to turn in to is an outright condemnation of the process of rebooting beloved properties. Although, sadly, the issues with recent incarnations of Robin Hood do derive from Hollywood’s misplaced notion of what a reboot should entail.

In the case of Robin Hood, we have ourselves a character whose mythos did not arrive from a definitive origin laid out in a definitive text. We have a character who is the amalgamation of generations of passed on stories and tales – a figure drawn at the end of a game of Chinese whispers that remarkably the majority can recognise. Therefore, when the 1908 short film first swung onto screens, director Percy Stow could not reach for the image of Robin Hood, rather he was reaching into a diverse pool of illustrations, tales and plays. Stow’s interpretation laid the ground work for the cinematic sphere, which has been built on with every subsequent reboot in a manner that reflects the growth of mythology. Therefore, every subsequent revamp is another verse in the Robin Hood epic; it provides growth.

Cinematic mythmaking, however, diverges from the incremental mythmaking that led to our image of Odysseus or Beowulf in that it is rapid in its streamlining. Cinema has the capacity to concretise an image of a single character or story faster than any other medium, due to its ability to project an accessible portrait to a large group of people. Therefore, it has the capacity to create a stable and sturdy consensus of what constitutes a Robin Hood story in just over a century, rather than a millennium. The images it reproduces conditions us into adopting certain expectations.

However, the issue that the most recent film incarnation of Robin Hood (Ridley Scott’s 2010 adaption) suffers from – and something that this year’s version may fall victim to – is that it dramatically and unreservedly abandons this consensus in favour of an origin story reboot that concludes with the lead becoming the iconic character which we know and love, rather than starting from that position. As the end card of the film states, ‘And so the legend begins.’ An oxymoron if ever there was one.

Now, creating something that makes us see what we think we know in a new and interesting light should be the goal that all artists strive towards. But, a fixation on drastically reinvigorating the foundation of something like Robin Hood without including fundamental aspects of the character, while at the same time selling us on the familiarity of the project, is bound to garner disappointment. In Scott’s adaptation, there are hardly any central characteristics of the Robin Hood tale that we expect – there are no Merry Men, Prince John is a companion rather than a villain. Gone completely is the incremental growth of the Robin Hood image, and instead we have a complete revamp intended to undermine the value of previous versions. In many ways, it is Robin Hood in name only.

For me, this epitomises the problem with cinema’s current approach to reboots. In life, the best innovators understand the value of the thing they set out to change. How could we have invented the aeroplane without understanding the virtues of the automobile? Such attempts to reboot a project in a manner that neglects the history of a story or its integral premises might as well find a new namesake. This is by no means a sentiment designed to limit creativity or ingenuity. Rather, it is intended to prevent false advertising and the spread of the arrogant notion that there is nothing redeemable in the stories we told in our past. Time will tell if Otto Bathurst’s version of Robin Hood will hold on to what makes the character the loved figure that he is, or whether the filmmakers will cut down the supports that prevent such a story from collapsing from the weight of its history.

Robin Hood shoots into cinemas on November 23rd 2018.