Sunday, March 4, 2012

Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood Movie Review

Apparently rentals of silent films have spiked since The Artist won the Best Picture Oscar last week. If you want to see where Jean Dujardin found the inspiration for his character of George Valentin, look to the classic silent film actor Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks was the original swashbuckler costume adventure hero to become a major star. He started in comic roles and then transitioned to adventure films with The Mark of Zorro in 1920, but one of his most impressive outings has to be Robin Hood from 1922.

Although it was directed by Allan Dwan, Fairbanks wrote and produced the film and almost assuredly the majority of the creative vision of the film belongs to the star. Robin Hood was one of the most expensive films ever made for its time, having an estimated budget of $1,000,000. You can see every dollar on screen. They constructed a massive castle set for the film. When you see it and realize that there were no digital effects in those days, that everything you see on screen, with the exception of the occasional matte painting, is right there occupying the same physical space as the actors, you stand in awe.

One of the film’s problems is its length, made longer by an extended prologue before we even get to Robin Hood prancing around with his merry men and stealing from the rich to give to the poor. It spends an awful lot of time establishing the background and building character, which of course had to be handled with more screen time in the silent era, but it could have done with a bit of editing. It begins before King Richard the Lionhearted (Wallace Beery) heads off to the Crusades in the Middle East. We learn that he is an honorable man with a jealous and covetous brother, Prince John (Sam de Grasse).

Richard’s chosen knight for a jousting competition is the Earl of Huntingdon (later to become Robin Hood) while John’s is Guy of Gisbourne (Paul Dickey). Gisbourne tries to cheat in the competition but Huntingdon still comes out on top. This sort of hammers home the good versus bad dichotomy. Then, in a strange bit of comic interlude, Huntingdon is so scared to receive his prize from the fair maidens that he runs helplessly away and dives into the castle moat to escape, so terrible is his fear of women. But in one of several gaps in the narrative, this fear disappears instantly during the celebratory night when he falls in love with Maid Marian (Enid Bennett). As soon as Richard and Huntingdon head off with their army for the Crusades, Prince John begins casting his designs for usurping his brother’s throne. Gisbourne has already been instructed to make sure that neither man returns from war. But Marian gets a message off to Huntingdon, who deserts the army to return to England to prevent the coup.

It actually takes more than an hour before we even see Fairbanks sporting his tights and feathered cap and wielding his signature bow and arrow. Incidentally, another of those narrative shortcomings is how Huntingdon goes from being a sword-wielding soldier to an expert marksman with a bow without any explanation whatsoever or even an inkling of history to suggest that he’s had some practice beforehand. What does that matter, I suppose, when the film is designed to fulfill the fantasy myth that people had in their heads about Robin Hood?

Once we finally get to the old Sherwood Forest scenes the film takes on a Peter Pan quality with Robin’s Merry Men literally prancing around in tights. Like so many other little amusing moments throughout the film, this is played for obvious laughs. Likewise almost all of Fairbanks’ performance is about hamming it up and mugging for the camera. He’s got a perfect little twinkle in his eye and gestures to suggest a man who has not a care in the world about anything. Wallace Beery as the King seems like such an odd casting choice to me. He’s a bear of a man and that fits the role, but he lacks a regal quality in his performance and comes across as more oafish than awe-inspiring.

It’s this overall approach to the filmmaking that wrests any sense of danger or immediacy from the battle scenes within the castle. We never have any feeling that Robin might get hurt or killed. It’s all like a big game as he laughs his way through every fight. However, the staging of the fights is something to behold especially given the immensity of the sets involved. Fairbanks famously did all his own stunts which allows for a smooth flow to the editing that doesn’t demand interruptions to cut away from the actor’s face in order to cover up the presence of a stand-in.

You can’t deny the film’s standing as a cinema classic. It’s certainly unlike any other Robin Hood film I’ve seen. It’s Fairbanks doing what he did best which was to play fabled adventure heroes with a knowing wink to the audience. And I would take this film’s castle set and hundreds of extras over almost any of the CGI renderings we see nowadays.

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