Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, Essex
25 February 2017
This evening we’re making our first ever visit to Saffron Hall, a rather impressive state-of-the-art performance venue, to see a screening of Douglas Fairbanks’ 1922 classic Robin Hood with the a live performance by the BBC symphony orchestra of a new score by Neil Brand. Having been disappointed to miss the first performance of this score at the Barbican last autumn, tonight’s screening provided a welcome opportunity to catch up with what was a very well received event.
The film opens with a jousting contest to mark the imminent departure of an army led by King Richard (Wallace Beery) to the crusades. Despite cheating, the evil Guy of Gisbourne (Paul Dickey) is defeated by the Earl of Huntingdon (Douglas Fairbanks) but the shy and bashful Earl is then flustered by the attentions of so many ladies of court that he dives into the water to escape. At a subsequent banquet he comes to the aid of Lady Marian Fitzwalter (Enid Bennett) when she is accosted by the King’s evil brother Prince John (Sam de Grasse) and the two fall in love. The next day the Earl reluctantly leaves Marian to accompany the King as his second in command on the crusade. Already anticipating usurping his brother, Prince John instructs Gisbourne to ensure that neither the King nor the Earl returns alive from the crusade. The hand of Marian will be Gisbourne’s reward. With the King now out of the way, Prince John is free to rule in his absence and does so by raising taxes and confiscating the property of any who cannot pay. With much of the country starving as a result, Marian sends word to the Earl of the country’s situation. Huntingdon fears that telling the King of the situation back in England would be the end of the crusade. Instead, he asks the King for permission to return to England without revealing the reason. When the King refuses, Huntingdon decides to desert but is caught by Gisbourne and thrown into jail, with Gisbourne instructing that he be left to rot.
When Prince John learns that Marian has sent word of his rule to Huntingdon he orders her arrest. She escapes his castle and fakes her own death to throw off the chasing soldiers. Huntington also manages to escape from his prison and returns to England where he becomes Robin Hood, leader of the rebels opposing Prince John’s rule and challenging him at every juncture. On the crusade, Gisbourne seeks to stab the king but unknowingly kills his jester by mistake. Word eventually reaches King Richard of the situation in England and, having concluded a treaty with the Muslims, he sets off to return home. Back in England Robin Hood learns that Marian is not in fact dead and the two are reunited but Prince John now learns Robin Hood’s true identity and that Marian is still alive. He sends soldiers to capture Marian and to kill Robin Hood and his followers. But Robin turns the tables. With the Prince’s men absent he captures the city of Nottingham while his followers ambush the Prince’s men. Meanwhile, a mystery knight arrives in Sherwood Forest to join Robin’s men. Robin Hood sets off to rescue Marian and arrives just in time to save her from Gisbourne whom he kills. But outnumbered, he surrenders to the Prince’s soldiers knowing that his own men are on the way. Robin is about to be executed when his men arrive at the Prince’s castle and the mystery knight saves Robin. As Robin’s men capture the castle, the mystery knight reveals himself to be King Richard. With Prince John and his henchmen overthrown Robin and Marian wed.
This was not the first time that the story of Robin Hood had been put on film. In fact there are at least six earlier versions, made either in Britain or the US. But Fairbanks’ telling of the Robin Hood story would be by far the biggest and most spectacular to date. Fairbanks came to Robin Hood hot on the heels of two highly successful big-budget, swashbuckling epics, The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Three Musketeers (1921). For his next film it would have to be something bigger, better and more spectacular. Work began on a gargantuan new studio set for Robin Hood. Fairbanks was in Europe on honeymoon with Mary Pickford while the sets were being built (image, below right but on his return he was so concerned that the sheer scale of the set would dwarf his performance that he apparently considered abandoning the whole project. Convinced to carry on, Fairbanks eventually ended up investing over a million dollars of his own money in the project making it the most expensive film made to that date. But he had little need to worry; the film was a huge critical and popular success, reportedly earning $2.5 million in the US alone. It also had the distinction of being the first movie to open with a gala premiere at Grauman’s newly built Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. The film was also a major international success and, according to one report, when the film was released in the Soviet Union in 1925 it played in 11 of the 12 first run cinemas in Moscow, completely overshadowing Battleship Potemkin (1925) with 300,000 people supposedly turning out to greet Fairbanks and Pickford when they arrive in Moscow on a promotional tour.
On viewing Robin Hood it is impossible not to be overawed by the sheer scale of the production, all the more so when its shown on the big screen. The sets are on a gargantuan scale, with the castle reportedly the biggest set ever constructed for a silent movie, covering almost ten acres and more than ninety feet tall. Top art directors Wilfred Buckland and William Cameron Menzies were recruited to help with set design as was top costume designer Mitchell Leisen to help with dressing the stars and thousands of extras.
Much has been made of the unduly slow build up in the film and it is true that Robin Hood does not appear until the second half. But this long build up is eminently watchable and provides a well plotted storyline development to his eventual appearance and firmly establishes the characters of all the major players allowing the film build to an exciting and suspenseful climax with some superbly handled action scenes.
Much of the credit for the success of Robin Hood must go to Fairbanks. As well as producing the film he also provided the story (under the pseudonym Elton Thomas) but it was in the starring role that he excelled. His energy and enthusiasm radiated from the screen but he was never one to take himself too seriously (right from Huntingdon’s first appearance, when he gets his moustache caught in his visor). Fairbanks’ Huntingdon might be a character with a well attuned moral compass but he didn’t strike one as being the sharpest knife in the draw. His idea of fun was a good joust and a beer with the lads but when it came to the ladies he was unnerved and tongue-tied. The scene where a panic-stricken Huntingdon was chased by all the eligible ladies of court is particularly amusing, reminiscent of and predating Buster Keaton’s similar predicament in being pursued by all those prospective brides in Seven Chances (1925) although how Huntingdon survived jumping into the water while wearing his armour is beyond me.
As for Fairbanks’ Robin Hood, this was someone just a little too prone to cavorting around Sherwood Forest, rather more like he’s off on a mission to press wild flowers or check on his butterfly collection than taking on the despotic Prince John. But it is in the action scenes that Fairbanks came into his element. Probably at the peak of his acrobatic and athletic prowess, he was the epitome of the action hero, whether it be ascending castle walls, climbing up the chain of the closing drawbridge or sliding down the huge tapestry curtain to make his escape (albeit with the aid of a playground slide carefully positioned behind the fabric, or with some well placed nets (image, right)).
As for the other players, Sam de Grasse was excellent as Prince John, all sinister and brooding and Paul Dickey equally good as his evil henchman Sir Guy of Gisbourne, you almost heard the hiss from the audience when he first appeared. Perhaps not surprisingly, de Grasse went on to specialise in villainous roles, most notably as the evil King James II who orders a permanent smile to be carved on the face of The Man Who Laughs (1928). Dickey himself was better known as a screen-writer and as far as I can see this was his only acting role. Enid Bennett as Lady Marian (image, left) didn’t really have a great deal to do, as she herself freely admitted, “…. the part was not too demanding, I just walked through it in a queenly manner.” Australian-born Bennett was married to director Fred Niblo (image, below right, directing on set) with whom she made a number of films which far better showcased her acting ability. Also of note was Alan Hale as Huntingdon’s squire, Little John. Hale would go on to play Little John again in Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and once again opposite John Derek’s Robin Hood in The Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950), 28 years after first playing the character! Thats got to be some sort of record. The only sour note regarding the casting was Wallace Beery as King Richard for whom everything seemed to be a cause for hearty laughter although he did provide some amusement while in disguise wearing what looked to be an upturned bucket on his head! But Beery would go on to much better things, both in silents and talkies. As for Canadian-born director Allan Dwan, he was already a Hollywood veteran, having worked there since 1911. He would go on to direct Fairbanks again in The Iron Mask (1929) which heralded a long and successful career in talkies before his eventual retirement in the early 1960s.
So, all in all Robin Hood proved to be an enjoyable action/adventure yarn. Despite the scale of the production, the performers and the story were not overshadowed. The film moved at a brisk pace, there were some nice touches of humour, plenty of action and the performances were largely excellent. While not playing it for laughs, Fairbanks didn’t take himself too seriously and his athleticism in the action scenes was at times breathtaking.
My only real issue with the film was in its projection rather than its content. With the screen set up behind the orchestra, there was far too much light coming from the orchestra’s lights, which served to badly diminish the image on the screen, particularly towards the lower half. I’m not sure how this problem can be overcome but it did serve to significantly lessen the impact of what looked to be a beautifully preserved and restored print.
Last but by no means least, the live musical accompaniment by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Timothy Brock and performing a new score composed by Neil Brand, was superb. I had previously been at a screening of Blackmail (1929) in 2010 with an orchestral score by Neil Brand which had left me slightly underwhelmed, but this was something different. The music just soared and thundered during the action scenes aided by the superb acoustics of the Saffron hall. Yet it was beautifully controlled and nuanced during the more intimate moments. It was uniformly well performed by the musicians and conducted perfectly in synch with the action on screen, even down to the snap of Gisbourne’s back as Robin Hood bends him around a stone column. This was a monumental film that cried out for a monumental soundtrack and tonight they came together beautifully. After this score was first performed at the Barbican last year there was talk of a new BluRay/DVD release but I have heard nothing more since. We can but hope!
Robin Hood is available on DVD in a number of different versions/formats. It can also be viewed on YouTube, albeit with an awful score.