Friday, 13 July 2012

Douglas Fairbanks in… Robin Hood (1922), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Cadogan Hall, London

Smiling Through (covered last week) may have been one of the biggest hits of 1922 but this film was the monster, pulling in over $2.5 million, creating the “Blockbuster” and underlining the star power of the uniquely energised Douglas Fairbanks.
Robin Hood was shown in the plush Byzantine-style environs of London’s Cadogan Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing a wonderful new score specially composed by John Scott, who also conducted. In his programme notes, Scott describes how in the process of writing the music he developed a very personal intimacy with the actors…” ghosts, that were very much alive at the time and at the pinnacle of their creative powers”.

It is to his immense credit, that this relationship was transmitted through his score; soulful and energetic music that was beautifully played by the RPO – with special mention to the brass section whose muscular blasts drew audience to film in an almost physical way!
All of this was very much in the spirit of Fairbanks and, introducing the film, Scott revealed an even greater connection: the presence of Fairbanks granddaughter, Melissa along with her daughter: “…proof that Fairbanks is immortal.”

Originally entitled Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, the film was directed with panache and considerable bravery considering the budget and the risk, by Allan Dwan, but was produced and written by Fairbanks who no doubt found time to pitch in with the odd idea on how the film should get made.

The result is a bone fide classic which still packs a visceral punch with loads of thrills, spills and merriment against the backdrop of one of the most massive sets ever constructed in Hollywood and it feels like it… You can’t fake “huge” with in-camera trickery the scale is there for all to see and sets the film off on an epic footing from the start: as close to 3D as it was possible to get in 1922.

Douglas Fairbanks, of course, is excellent as Robin Hood, a role that was surely made for him. He bounces around and free-runs across the set, climbing up the castle walls and sliding down the drapery in a manner reminiscent of the Thief of Bagdad. He’s exhausting!

The other elements of acting charm are also fully on show as Fairbanks runs the gamut of emotions as King Richard's loyal Earl of Huntington falls from grace, is dispossessed by Prince John and finally gets redemption with the girl, naturally, thrown in for free.

We all know the story but this version is one of the key templates for all that was to come and differs in emphasis. There’s more on the “origin” with the first half of the film focused on Huntington’s role at court and his friendship with larger-than-life King Richard (“…and the role of Wallace Beery is played by King Richard” quipped Scott, giving due respect to Beery’s own unique presence and power).

The regime is challenged by the dastardly Prince John (Sam De Grasse giving an excellently evil turn) and his thoroughly-repugnant henchman, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Paul Dickey).

The story begins on a grand day of jousting, in which the noble Huntington (Fairbanks) emerges triumphant (defeating the cheating Gisbourne) much to the chagrin of John but to the delight of Richard and the Lady Marian Fitzwalter (Enid Bennett winsome but somewhat overshadowed by the energy of the other players) who crowns him.

Huntington is very popular with the women of court but, in an inexplicable twist, confesses that he’s frightened of women. This play on our expectations doesn’t last long though and soon Robin (to be) and Marion are an item.

All is interrupted as the King takes Huntington off to the crusades. Prince John takes over and starts to abuse the population causing Marion to go into hiding. She gets a message to Huntington who returns to her aid.

Now the film really picks up pace as Fairbanks is transformed from the loyal knight to the outlaw in green and the anticipated pieces fall into place. The arrows start flying as we’re introduced to the merry men including Little John as played by Alan Hale who was to reprise the role with Errol Flynn and again in the 50s. There’s Friar Tuck and Will Scarlett too and an enormous merry hide-out in Nottingham Forrest that Bruce Wayne would envy...

The High Sheriff of Nottingham (a cowardly William Lowery) is led a merry dance as the band rob from the rich and give to the poor, running rings around the local militia. But the Sheriff kidnaps Marion and captures Robin on his loan rescue mission. Will Robin’s men breach the walls of Nottingham Castle in time and just who is that mysterious knight with the black helmet?

It’s expertly directed with economy and zest by Dwan and is good fun throughout maintaining a slick pace that every blockbuster since has tried to emulate.

The cast is very strong especially Beery who almost steels the show with his strength and humour: you really believe he could be king. But, ultimately, it's Fairbanks’ show – a human dynamo who never stops holding your attention. He is incapable of a still moment, and literally bounds across the set, always in motion and looking for moves that reinforce the characterisation.

It's really no surprise he was the most popular action hero of the day but can you ever imagine a quiet Sunday afternoon at the Pickfair house, Mary doing the crossword and Douglas trimming the hedge?

After rapturous applause, John Scott called over to Melissa Fairbanks and asked her how she though it had gone. She was delighted and was sure grandpa was looking down and smiling. The audience certainly left happy, smiling themselves through the rain-sodden London streets on the way home.

Robin Hood is also available in a clean print, spruced up by Kino - the version I appropriated the above screen shots from: I heartily recommend that you go out and buy it! Forget Flynn, Cosner and Crowe... Douglas Fairbanks is Robin Hood (and Alan Hale is, almost literally, *always* Little John…)!


  1. I recently saw this film on the big screen with live music and it was a honey. As you said, everyone walked out of the theater happy and might have been thinking "doesn't he remind you of that fellow in 'The Artist'?"

    1. It was more of a concert audience than a silent film one - a few laughing at the film than with it - but I think most were blown away! Fairbanks has superhuman energy and to see this with his grand-daughter present was pretty special.

  2. I'll just go ahead and assume you can feel my jealousy that you got to see this on the big screen with and orchestra dripping through my keyboard. It's definitely not my favorite version of the character, but seeing it projected must have been amazing!

    1. It's difficult to better Errol Flynn but it was interesting to see what must have inspired the later versions. And we were very lucky to see this live. London has its downsides but we're not short of silent cinema right now + long may it continue!

  3. I have seen the movie in youtube. It's really amazing.Douglas Fairbanks is Superman to me. So graceful, athelic, handsome, now I am a big fan. I dream to watch it some day in a big screen with live music!

    Silvia from Lima Peru

    1. It looks stunning on the big screen - I hope it comes to Lima one day. We're lucky to have the chance to see so many silents in cinema but it seems like a World-wide trend!

      Thanks very much for your comment Silvia!