SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST: Blu-ray (Hammer/Columbia, 1960) Twilight Time
Director Terrance Fisher makes the least of a polite retelling of the time-honored fable of Robin Hood in Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), a production that, while far from glamorous, nevertheless retains a faint air of respectability for this green-tights-wearing outlaw who presumably steals from the rich to satisfy the poor. On this outing, political intrigue fuels the narrative of Alan Hackney’s screenplay, or rather, weighs it down in abject tedium, interpolated by some featherweight exchanges of dialogue between the boisterous Robin of Locksley (Richard Greene) and his band of rather prissy ‘Merry Men’. Greene, a promising Fox contract player, whose career as a male ingenue dated all the way back to 1934, had had a good run as the jovial prince of the forest on television, the series running from 1955 to 1959. So, the big screen launch/reboot was considered something of a foregone conclusion, produced by the Hammer Films as a way to capitalize on the franchise’s popularity. Alas, the results here are less than impressive, partly because Greene is older, and partly due to the fact his middling acting talents, while suited for the small screen, get perpetually lost in the vast expanses of this Megascope production. Greene is just not enough of a presence to pull it off. And while kiddies of a certain post-war generation were weaned on his swashbuckling in their living rooms, for oldsters – and yours truly – the likely opinion held by anyone over the age of thirteen was that Greene was no Errol Flynn, whose incarnation in Warner’s big and glossy 1938 Technicolor masterpiece, The Adventures of Robin Hood will likely remain the exemplar for all screen re-incarnations yet to follow.
Sword of Sherwood Forest is not a terrible movie. It simply fails to distinguish itself from the other ‘Robin Hood’ movies come before and since; and this, despite some excellent British talent hired on for authenticity. The roster includes Peter Cushing as a predictably vial Sheriff of Nottingham; Niall MacGinnis - a bumbling Friar Tuck; Richard Pasco, the enterprising Edward, Earl of Newark; Jack Gwillim, a sobering Hubert Walter Archbishop of Canterbury, Nigel Green, a robust Little John, and Sarah Branch, reconstituting Maid Marian Fitzwalter as a sort of curvaceous sexpot with a decidedly sixties bob that looks hopelessly out of place in this 16th century tale. The story, such as it is, takes far too long to get off the ground; the action sequences that gradually build to a not-so-grand finale, shot with pedestrian verve by cinematographer, Ken Hodges and rarely to jangle the nerves. Worse, Greene and his cohorts appear as though to have never picked up a sword before the moment the cameras began rolling. A screen duel is only successful if the audience believes the combatants are in real/reel mortal peril with every clash of steel. By contrast, Greene is a poseur, going through the motions of his first fencing lesson; each thrust, done with an over-emphasized theatricality to stymie the thrills. Greene has better luck with his bow and arrow, during an archery competition with the Earl of Newark, who marvels at Robin’s skill as he is put through a series of exercises, puncturing pumpkins, shooting bullseyes through moving targets and cleaving anemic branches off a distant twig of a tree. We will admit and forgive the fact, Greene likely did not do his own stunts here. But the staging of the tournament and director, Fisher’s pacing capture at least a hint of exhilaration wholly absent from the rest of this movie.
The machinations in Hackney’s screenplay really do not add up, beginning with Marian’s mistaking Robin and his men for the murder of one of the Archbishop’s emissaries (Desmond Llewellyn), when only moments before he was mortally wounded by the Sheriff’s posse while trying to escape with a message for His Grace. Never you mind. This Marian is defiant, willful and pretty much unamused by our Robin’s jovial attempts to ingratiate himself into her company. Given her immediate aversion to him, it seems more than a tad odd that a short while later, Marian sends Robin a message to meet her at the nearby Owl Inn. Little John advises Robin to ignore the invite as it is so obviously a trap. Nevertheless, Robin arrives at the Owl; first attended by Marian, then the Sheriff of Nottingham. The Sheriff offers Robin a small ransom for the return of the Archbishop’s wounded man. Unbeknownst to either Marian or the Sheriff, the man they seek to bargain for is already at death’s door, having forewarned Robin he must get to a small village several miles away. Marian coaxes the Sheriff to offer Robin his most regal bargain – a full pardon in exchange for the prisoner. Robin refuses, knowing well the Sheriff has no intentions of honoring this generous offer.
Sure enough, as Robin departs the inn he is confronted by the Sheriff’s posse. Narrowly escaping, Robin returns to his ‘merry men’ deep in the forest. The encampment quickly packs up and departs. Not long thereafter, the Sheriff and his men arrive to inspect the former camp site, taking as their prisoner one Martin of Eastwood (Derren Nesbitt), whom the Sheriff extends an as gracious offer – to spare Martin’s life if he will betray the whereabouts of Robin and his entourage. In a moment of weakness, Martin reveals Robin’s plans and is executed shortly thereafter. Having witnesses this heinous betrayal firsthand, and knowing now Robin was quite right in not accepting the Sheriff’s pardon – as he is clearly not the enemy of the people – Marian quietly realigns her allegiances. Not long thereafter, the Archbishop comes upon the Sheriff and his men attempting to whip an innocent man in a diabolical plot to claw back land grants for the purposes of building another castle. The Archbishop orders the Sheriff to release the tortured man. As his authority is law, the Sheriff begrudgingly complies. But now he begins to formulate a more devious and sinister plan with Edward, the Earl of Newark to rid themselves of the Archbishop’s nobler influences. Not long thereafter, Robin makes his journey to Friar Tuck’s modest cottage in the woods. He is intercepted by Edward and his travelling contingent to include the rather pompous, Lord Melton (Oliver Reed).
Toting a falcon on his arm, Melton demands that Robin attend him with a drink of water. Rather insolently, Robin approaches with a pitcher, then deliberately spills its contents into Melton’s boot. This infuriates Melton, but amuses Edward, who inquiries whether Robin is as competent with his bow and arrow. As proof, Edward orders Melton to release his falcon. He then commands Robin to shoot it from the sky. If Robin misses, Edward will allow Melton his revenge. Alas, for Melton, Robin knocks the bird out of the sky. Impressed, Edward invites Robin to his castle for a series of exercises to further prove his shot of the falcon was not merely a fluke. The tournament clearly illustrates Robin’s archery prowess in full flourish – precisely the man Edward is looking to join his forces. Regrettably, the Sheriff arrives. Recognizing Robin, he attacks. Robin again escapes. Meanwhile, the Sheriff hatches a diabolical plot, disguising his posse as Robin’s merry men, sent to ambush the Archbishop and Marian as they travel across the countryside. Learning of this plot, Robin and his men intercept Edward’s entourage and save the day. The Archbishop and Marian take refuge inside a nearby convent. They are taken in for the night by the Portress (Maureen Halligan) who, unbeknownst to either, is in cahoots with Edward. Meanwhile, having tired of the Sheriff’s repeatedly bungled attempts to carry out his dark purpose, Edward has him executed by Lord Melton.
Robin arrives at the convent but is unable to convince the Portress to allow him to speak with the Archbishop. As the nuns gather in the chapel for prayers, Robin and his men, disguised as monks, quietly form a ring of protection around the Archbishop, who is still oblivious to the dangers that await him. Robin whispers to the Archbishop to arm himself with a sword Robin has smuggled in beneath his robes. At that moment, Edward, Melton and the rest of his men invade the chapel. An all-out confrontation erupts as each side clashes in a display of swordsmanship. Little John is wounded, but survives. Edward is not so lucky. Moreover, his men are defeated; the Portress, rushing to Edward’s side as he expires, thus revealing her part in this treason. Not long thereafter, the Archbishop and Lady Marian accompany Robin and his men back to Sherwood forest. Marian makes good on her claim to have the late Martin of Eastwood’s properties rightfully restored to his widow and young son. The Archbishop also issues Martin a full posthumous pardon. However, he is unable to do as much for Robin as – technically – Robin remains an outlaw. The Archbishop does promise to attend to the matter at his earliest convenience when King Richard returns from his crusades. And thus, the Archbishop casually suggests Friar Tuck confer his marital blessings on Robin and Marian, who are so obviously in love. Thus, concludes our tale, with a reprise of the ballad warbled by Alan A’Dale (Dennis Lotis) – previously heard over the main titles.
Sword of Sherwood Forest is not an altogether prepossessing story. The adventure yarn falls flat, or rather, gets repeatedly deflated by interludes of exposition that only muddle the story line. The romantic entanglement between Robin and Marian is paper thin. The performances are uniformly cordial with a faint whiff of embalming fluid creeping in from the peripheries of the screen. Richard Greene’s Robin of Locksley is a genial sort – but one who rarely smiles, except when exercising a sort of smug superiority to outfox and counterbalance Peter Cushing’s beady-eyed and perpetually scowling Sheriff of Nottingham. In point of fact, Greene’s hero is never quite heroic enough, and Cushing’s villain is just a little too reserved to be truly wicked or menacing. Ken Hodges’ cinematography makes the most of the leafy green foliage of this fictional Sherwood setting, shot primarily at Ardmore Studios in Bray, County Wicklow, in Ireland for the Hammer Film Corporation. But John Stoll’s Art Direction leaves much to be desired, capturing neither the earthiness or grandeur of feudal England. The costumes are obvious hand-me-downs; Rachel Austin, awarded the title of ‘wardrobe mistress’ and John McCorry getting the nod as ‘costume supervisor’. In the end, Sword of Sherwood Forest did respectable box office – most likely with the kiddie sect. Today, it is a minor diversion at best, and a forgettable bit of B-grade fluff and nonsense at its worst.
Twilight Time’s association with Sony continues to trundle out the goodies from their deep catalog, although I sincerely wish they would focus more on the great Columbia classics still MIA in hi-def: including You Were Never Lovelier, The Talk of the Town, the original My Sister Eileen, The Three Stooges’ shorts (all of them), Queen Bee…and on and on. Sword of Sherwood Forest arrives on Blu-ray in a very pleasing 1080p transfer. One thing that must be said of Grover Crisp’s supervision of the studio’s deep – and deeply flawed archival materials; Sony’s home video division, under Crisp’s guidance is at the forefront of film preservation. So, Sword of Sherwood Forest looks fabulous; a very clean image with robust colors, a light smattering of film grain indigenous to its source, and wonderfully nuanced contrast. Fine details abound. There is certainly nothing to complain about here. The 1.0 DTS mono audio is adequate for this presentation. TT gives us an isolated score and SFX track, celebrating composer, Alun Hoddinott’s contributions. Bottom line: a barely passable entertainment with a fabulous looking transfer. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)