Thursday, 20 May 2010
Sword of Sherwood Forest
Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960) dir. Terence Fisher
Starring: Richard Greene, Peter Cushing, Sarah Branch, Nigel Green, Niall MacGinnis, Oliver Reed and Desmond Llewelyn
By Greg Klymkiw
With the theatrical release of Ridley Scott's abominable revisionist prequel "Robin Hood", movie fans have been blessed with the DVD releases of virtually every piece of Robin Hood cinema produced in the western world. Of course, the best film of this great character will always be Warner Brothers' Errol Flynn technicolor epic, but I'm extremely pleased to see a decent transfer of a movie I loved as a kid - "Sword of Sherwood Forest".
Starring Richard Greene, who portrayed Robin for five years on the great British television series "The Adventures of Robin Hood", this big screen rendering was a staple for me during Saturday kiddies matinees and later on Sunday afternoon television movie broadcasts. Even as a young lad, I knew this movie was nowhere near as good as the television series, but that never stopped me from seeing it over and over again. Seeing it now, for the first time in over forty years, I had a rollicking good time and see why I enjoyed watching it so many times. It's extremely entertaining - pure and simple. It also features some robust merry-man comedy and a terrific final twenty minutes of swashbuckling action.
The relatively simple plot involves Robin and his band of merry men thwarting an assassination attempt upon the Archbishop of Canterbury. The wicked Sheriff of Nottingham (played to utter perfection by Peter Cushing) is teamed up with a group of greedy landowners to gain control of some strategically important land to fortify with a new castle - one which would place them in a position of considerable power over the Crown. This, of course, will never do - not with King Richard away at the Crusades - but with Robin Hood on the case, it's never in question that good will triumph over evil.
Seeing the movie now, there's a fair bit about it that's pretty interesting and engaging. First and foremost is how the entire story hinges on assassination. While this flew over my head as a kid, many people would have, at the time, first seen the picture second-run and/or on television soon after JFK's assassination. Because the political intrigue of the film involves cold-blooded murder and conspiracy it probably had some impact on people - though that impact seems even more profound decades later.
In the context of what we know now, there's one sequence that's genuinely well written, expertly directed and very chilling. Robin is recruited by one of the evil landowners who takes considerable interest in Robin's prowess as an archer. Robin takes up this post to gain as much information as he can, but his character soon becomes as appalled as we are as well. Robin is given a series of archery challenges and as they progress, it slowly and creepily becomes apparent that he's being tested for his ability to perform a public political assassination. It's not quite Pakula's "The Parallax View", but director Terence Fisher - no slouch in the suspense department - handles this sequence with the kind of efficiency he was known for.
Fisher, of course, is one of the other interesting aspects of the film. Produced by Hammer Studios, renowned both then and now for their superb science fiction and horror films chose very wisely in assigning their star director to this project. Fisher was not only a director of numerous episodes of the Robin Hood series, but was a highly skilled and stylish filmmaker who delivered such classics as "Curse of Frankenstein", "Horror of Dracula", "Brides of Dracula" and "The Mummy" (in addition to numerous other pictures which, ranged from solid to excellent, if not always in the classic vein).
In addition to the aforementioned assassination test sequence, Fisher handles a number of scenes very well - one in which the Sheriff offers one of Robin's men a pardon in exchange for information and chillingly kills the man in cold blood once he gets what he needs, and another involving the storming of the priory to commit cold-blooded murder which is thwarted by a truly thrilling action sequence. There's also a surprise murder sequence which I won't ruin for you, but Fisher handles it with such vicious relish that on this recent viewing, even I was kind of shocked in spite of all the times I saw the movie as a kid.
The surprise murder is committed by the completely psychotic Lord Melton who is played by none other than the magnificent Oliver Reed. Reed's given so many great performances, but this has to be one of the weirdest he's ever delivered. He plays his character with a truly bizarre, non-descript, but definitely "foreign" accent and he minces about so foppishly, nastily and Nancy-boy-like, that he seems to be auditioning well in advance for a role in "Cruising". One of the more delightful moments involves Reed prissily riding his horse with a beloved falcon on his shoulder that he strokes with the same kind of finger-gesticulating relish as Charles Gray or Donald Pleasance as Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the Bond pictures. When something completely shocking happens to the falcon, Reed's stuttering, twittering response is priceless.
The picture has other small pleasures. For movie geeks, Desmond Llewelyn who played "Q" in all the pre-2000 Bond pictures, plays a small role and for Hammer aficionados, the unfortunate non-actress playing Maid Marian (the lamentably wooden and rather unfortunately sur-named Sarah Branch) is more than suitably endowed in the mammary department - one of Hammer's more delightful trademarks for all its leading ladies.
I can't actually defend the picture as anything resembling exceptional cinema, but "Sword of Sherwood Forest" is a perfect picture to curl up with on a rainy afternoon.
And like I said earlier, it shames Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood" and was, no doubt, made on a budget SLIGHTLY less than would have been paid to Cate Blanchett's manicurist. And while Richard Greene as Robin is starting to be a tad long-in-tooth for the role, he's at least not as Friar-Tuck-like as Russell Crowe.
"Sword of Sherwood Forest" is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment along with three other Robin Hood pictures in the "Robin Hood Collection" - "Prince of Thieves" with the inimitable Jon Hall, "Rogues of Sherwood Forest" with the astounding John (former husband of Bo) Derek and "The Bandit of Sherwood Forest" starring the always-versatile Cornel Wilde.