Saturday, February 1, 2014

Robin Hood (1922)

Director: Allan Dwan                                    Writer: Douglas Fairbanks & Allan Dwan
Film Score: John Scott (2004)                      Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Enid Bennett, Wallace Beery and Alan Hale

There’s something inexplicable about silent films from the twenties, as if not only the actors but the scenery itself can hardly contain the excitement of being onscreen. The story takes on a fairy-tale quality with the quick movements, the pantomime, and the silence of the voices, only music to convey the emotion that the eye sees. Douglas Fairbank’s Robin Hood certainly benefits from this effect in a brilliant way. There’s a genuine sense of playfulness in this film that makes The Thief of Bagdad seem forced and artificial by comparison. And while he had a host of collaborators on his projects, more recent scholarship has exposed the fact of how instrumental he was in the production of his own films, writing, starring, and even co-directing. As such, this really is a “Douglas Fairbanks” picture.

The story opens with the ruins of a castle and a cute story about history being part truth and part legend as the castle becomes new again. The final day of the tournament before leaving for the Crusades has Fairbanks as the Earl of Huntingdon facing Paul Dickey as Sir Guy of Gisborurne. When Fairbanks wins he must receive the crown from Enid Bennett as Lady Marian and confesses to King Richard, Wallace Beery, that he’s afraid of women. With that he’s surrounded by all the fair maidens and narrowly escapes. It’s a wonderful sequence that Fairbanks performs effortlessly. The whole film is a fascinating take on the story, with Fairbanks compelled to go with Beery on the Crusades and needing to find some way back to England when he learns that the king’s brother John, Sam De Grasse, has taken over. Once he returns, that’s when the traditional tale begins, but even than there’s a nice twist with Lady Marian.

One of the best parts of the film for movie lovers has to be the presence of Alan Hale as Fairbanks’ squire, Little John. What makes it so great is that he plays a similar part in support of Errol Flynn in the Warner Brothers version of Robin Hood from 1938. It’s a real treat. If there’s a disappointing aspect to the film, however, it’s in the casting of Marian. There were lots of incredibly beautiful actresses during the silent era, but Edna Bennett wasn’t one of them. She’s rather plain looking, which diminishes our belief in the emotion that Fairbanks is supposed to feel for her. She had a solid silent career, however, but retired after only a handful of sound films. Wallace Beery is terrific as King Richard and makes me want to seek out more of his silent work. The rest of the supporting cast is good as well and makes for a strong telling of the story all the way around.

Director Allan Dwan was a legend in Hollywood, directing over four hundred films in his career. Granted, half of them were shorts made in the early silent era, but he is still a respected figure. He made films in nearly every genre, and his most famous later work is probably The Sands of Iwo Jima with John Wayne in 1949. Dwan also help direct Fairbanks again in The Iron Mask in 1929. The silent version of Robin Hood is a great film, full of action and humor and romance. It’s everything that the great films from that era ought to be, and is a terrific introduction to Douglas Fairbanks. It comes highly recommended.

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