The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952)
Peasants, Townspeople, and Social Life
The incredible success of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) loomed heavily over the heads of any filmmaker aspiring to retell the legend of Robin Hood on film, and none other than Walt Disney stepped up to the challenge, personally overseeing the 1952 adaptation The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men. Prior to 1952 Disney had only produced one other live action film, but because the possibility of reaping profits from the UK’s box office was not allowed for American-made films in the postwar era, Disney decided to shoot Robin Hood in England. Robin Hood was chosen as the subject for a live action film because of the readily available locations to shoot the movie on site; one such example is Nottinghamshire’s Sherwood Forest serving as the set for the fictional Sherwood of Robin and his men. As for the subject, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Mendraws inspiration from two sources: 1938’sThe Adventures of Robin Hood and a 1909 novel by John Finnemore, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merry Men. It is the deviations from these past sources that highlight Disney’s commentary on contemporary issues, and in this way the history of Robin Hood as a character and story through which to provide social commentary continued.
It is next to impossible to create a Robin Hood film without in some way being influenced by The Adventures of Robin Hood and Disney was no exception to this rule. The influence of the 1938 Robin Hood on Disney’s Robin Hood is apparent to anyone who has seen both films, as many scenes from the 1952 film seem to be copied directly from its predecessor. A scene that stands out as a clear example of this is the staff fight with Little John. In both films, Robin meets John, whittles a staff from a nearby tree, and has a quarterstaff duel with Little John on top of a fallen tree over a river. Disney also employs the same type of historical synthesis as the 1938 Robin Hood, mixing timelines to create a recognizable story. For example, the reign of King John ended well before any historical records of a potential man named “Robin Hood” were written, but he serves as the antagonist in both films.
When examining Disney’s film next to Finnemore’s book some more significant comparisons come to light. A lot of scenes in the Disney film not in the 1938 film are taken from The Story of Robin Hood and His Merry Men, although this is also where we start to see differences that indicate the message behind the work. Disney’s portrayal of Friar Tuck fits more closely with the 1938 depiction, in fact exaggerating his foolishness, but differs greatly from the book in which he is much more competent both as friar and fighter. The text has Robin encountering Tuck in the middle of reciting psalms, and in the following fight he deflects Robin’s entire quiver of arrows without taking a single hit, an action scene perfect for a Robin Hood movie that was, unfortunately, omitted. Disney still does a far better job of depicting Tuck as a fighter than the 1938 film, however, with Tuck not only turning the tables on Robin several times in their interaction as in the book, but also having him courageously take on the Sheriff of Nottingham upon his arrival.
One major plot point from the novel that Disney purposely excluded was how Robin became an outlaw, as this story went against the political message he was trying to convey. In the novel, Robin is seeking to join the Sheriff’s Foresters, but is tricked by the Sheriff into killing a deer, which is against the law. This film was produced in the height of the Red Scare, less than two years after Joseph McCarthy’s accusations of communism against government employees, politicians, and Hollywood writers and actors. When looking at the film through this historical lens, we can see the exclusion of Robin’s outlaw background as a way for Disney to present an anti-communist argument. With John and the Sheriff as the primary antagonists, we can understand them to symbolize communist governments (and what was perceived to be their confiscation of wealth through heavy taxation). Having Robin attempting to join them at the beginning of the film would have undermined this message.
Instead, a new origin story for Robin is created with the introduction of his father. Robin’s father is shown to have an extensive legacy in the forest, both as a man loved by the people and as a skilled archer. He even beats his son in an archery contest, splitting Robin’s arrow in the same way Errol Flynn did 14 years earlier. Following this contest he speaks out against the Sheriff’s oppressive policies and is assassinated on the way home, with Robin’s killing of the assassin being what forces him into the life of an outlaw. After this, Robin takes over his father’s role in the same way a prince would succeed a king in a monarchy, becoming the figure representing the peasantry, eventually leading to his control of a militia of archers in the forest. This deliberate change to Robin’s origin story changes him from a sympathizer with a totalitarian government to a figure who reluctantly takes arms against the country he loves to save it from an oppressive and overreaching government.
The deeper message of this film can only be understood in the context of the Cold War, in particular the film’s anti-communist message, but the rest of the film is also influenced by other postwar concerns. The Norman and Saxon conflict present in The Adventures of Robin Hood is absent from Disney’s film. His goal was to show the West, including France and England, as a unified force against the common enemy: communism. The inclusion of Eleanor of Aquitaine is unique to the Disney film as well; she serves as a representative for the monarchy when Richard is away. It is this monarchy that John and the Sheriff of Nottingham fight against, a theme that culminates in a scene in which Robin personally saves the queen from the Sheriff’s men.
Speaking of Richard, Robin stresses his loyalty to the king throughout the movie in several different scenes, each evoking anti-communist sentiment. Marian asks Robin if he would stop being an outlaw if he could choose otherwise, and while Robin admits the freedom is nice, he ultimately tells her that he and his men desire to live an honest life if that option were to present itself in the form of living under a just king. In response Marian suggests that the men give their money to the ransom of King Richard, and Robin and his men eagerly agree to plan. To ensure the ransom is collected in full, Robin also leads a group directly into the Sheriff’s quarters, risking his life to take the Sheriff’s stolen wealth and give it for the ransom. Lastly, when King Richard finally appears to Robin and his men, they immediately swear loyalty to him and work to remove John from power. It is only when Richard is back in his rightful place on the throne that peace can return to the kingdom and John’s influence is locked away with him in the castle. These examples of the intense loyalty to the monarchy that Robin and his men possess are but some of the many choices Disney made that emphasized an anti-communist message.
Disney’s political message in this film came second to making an entertaining movie. The influences of the Cold War are not thrown in the face of the viewer; on the surface the film is colorful, lighthearted, and full of charm, especially in its memorable cast of characters and original songs. The political message is certainly present in the movie, evident by the changes made to the source material, but because knowledge of the 1909 Finnemore novel is required to understand many of the political themes, much of this message may go over the viewer’s head.
Disney’s approach to the Robin Hood story was liked by audiences and critics alike, with the film garnering mostly positive reviews, according to the data available on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, with most critiques mentioning that the film didn’t do anything to significantly improve on The Adventure of Robin Hood. As such, Disney’s The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men is a successful retelling of the classic Robin Hood story, containing a political message for the era without sacrificing any of the Disney charm loved by audience members of all ages.
High Middle Ages (c. 1000-1300)
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