Monday, 27 February 2017

Epic in Essex… Robin Hood (1922), Saffron Hall, BBC Symphony Orchestra

"Robin Hood should be made lavishly or not at all…” Douglas Fairbanks

Robin is in the heart of Prince John’s castle, he’s up against dozens of soldiers in a huge fortress with impenetrable walls, chased up stairways and surrounded on all sides by the solid steel: the cold-stone certainty of death. The situation looks hopeless and yet he’s laughing, bouncing towards danger and improvising joyful escape… this, I should imagine, is pretty much how Neil Brand felt when composing his new score.

You are almost floating on a cloud of sound in the intense confines of Saffron Hall, as purpose-built acoustics allow the full-force of the BBC Symphony Orchestra to blast forth. I’ve seen many loud rock gigs but this is the most elegant noise: precision volume… you are aware of all the players with Timothy Brock pulling forth the different sections like Thor controlling the weather. Blasts from the brass and agitation from the strings, lightened by the woodwind and relieved by percussion. Waves of sonic satisfaction with music that fills the huge spaces of Fairbanks and Allan Dwan’s film whilst moving in perfect sympathy with Robin and Marion’s romance, Prince John’s evil schemes, King Richard’s noble course, the merry men… and, don’t worry Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Mr Brand has your back…

Douglas Fairbanks or is it Neil Brand?
Robin Hood is a mighty film, from the unsurpassed dynamism of its producer, writer and lead to sets designed to induce shock and awe. Mr Brand’s lionhearted score matches the action and emotion step for pirouetting step. It is a powerful work and full of joy – a celebration, not just of this film but of the art of scoring itself; a sequel of sorts to Neil’s series on the subject.

I’d previously seen Robin Hood at London’s Cadogan Hall with John Scott conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing his own score. That was a special evening but I have to say that the epic played better in Essex, lifting the spirits with all the agility of Fairbanks himself.

Big cast and even bigger set
It’s hard to believe that Dwan had to work hard on his star to make the film; he just didn’t see Robin as cinematic enough but, after interesting Doug in archery, the idea of incorporating Richard’s crusades hooked him in. “The robust, heroic figure of Richard… stirred me at once. The period contained every dramatic element: a strong religious impulse, a kingdom undermined by treachery… fair maidens won by valour… all the colour of the adventurous Middle Ages…” purred Fairbanks (according to Robert E. Sherwood in The Best Moving Pictures of 1922-23). It’s not my period, but this is, of course, the Twelfth Century as viewed through Hollywood’s rose-tinted time-telescope.

The film’s centrepiece was Richard’s massive castle, the largest physical set of the silent era even bigger than Intolerance’s Babylon. Fairbank’s biographer Tracey Goessel reports that one million feet of lumber were used along with thirty tons of nails and twenty thousand yards of “heavy velvets”.

Our baddies: Guy and John
The story goes, as told by Dwan to Brownlow in The Parade…, that Fairbanks, doubting even he could fill these gigantic spaces, considered cancelling the project upon seeing the almost completed set. This seems unlikely given Fairbanks’ intentions for the film and his reported reaction to first the set from French director Robert Florey: Doug had already worked out the new stunts he was going to perform against this backdrop he knew it would make his movement all the more dramatic.

As The Film Daily critic wrote, “Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood out-spectacles all that we have seen before on the screen...” and it is precisely his juxtaposition of relentless kinetics against overwhelming scale that makes this proto-blockbuster complete. Well, that and the thousands of extras – in knitted hemp “chainmail” – on horseback or in Lincoln Green.

And the part of Wallace Beery is played by Richard I...
There is also the monumental presence of Wallace Beery as King Richard who plays a far greater part in this tale than later versions. Beery’s energy magnifies Fairbank’s own and the two dominate from the opening pageantry onwards.

The film features a good hour of set-up before the first arrow is set loose from Robin’s bow. At this point, the future outlaw is the noble Earl of Huntingdon, right-hand man to the King and therefore the man in the way for the wicked King John (Sam De Grasse on top form, with evil beard and unforgiving fringe) and his henchman Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Paul Dickey).

Robin and Marian
Huntington’s a fighter not a lover but soon changes his mind when he encounters Lady Marian Fitzwalter (Enid Bennett) who is also attracting the attention of the dark Prince and his loathsome pal, Guy. It feels like the film is deliberately marking time before the fireworks start but the score brings out the most form this sequence with some splendid romantic lines as Robin and Marian fall in love.

Richard and Huntington head off for the Holy Land leaving a Squire (Alan Hale) to look after Marian but the country at large is completely at the mercy of Prince John and the bodies are soon hanging from the battlements, maidens are being whipped and peasants tortured as The High Sheriff of Nottingham (William Lowery) enforces his master’s presidential orders…

It’s only a matter of time before Robin makes his return and the real story can begin but first he must overcome the connivances of Gisbourne…

The Merry Men
A year passes and the fun begins with Friar Tuck (Willard Louis), Will Scarlet (Bud Geary), Alan-a-Dale (Lloyd Talman) and Little John (Mr Hale) all in place: the men make merry and conduct a resistance in King Richard’s name, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor…

In many ways, Robin Hood is a superhero film; an individual changing the course of events through physical prowess and mental strength. Its appeal is universal and enduring not because of historical truth but because we all need to believe that good will eventually triumph in the end.

Tonight its glorious monochrome was amplified by a super-powered score to renew our faith in heroes once again.

Robin Hood is available on DVD from Kino but this score deserves a release on its own. Here’s hoping…


  1. Another fantastic review, thanks!

    1. Thank you! I re-watched on DVD and it's not nearly as much fun without the band and the new score!