A classic mix of action, love and adventure, the legend of Robin Hood has been recreated many times but yet still endures with remake after remake. Why so?
David Hull

14 May 2010 - 1:38 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

Every decade or thereabouts, a new generation of audiences are served up a fresh helping of Robin Hood, the dashing English outlaw who steals from the rich and gives to the poor whilst defying the evil Sheriff of Nottingham with bow-and-arrow and winning the heart of a well-bred heroine.

Presenting a story where there's a clear divide between good and evil with scene after scene of armed combat, together with lavish sets and costumes, has proven to be a potent box office recipe.

All manner of A-list actors have been drawn to silver screen versions of the Anglo-Saxon myth which dates back to the 14th Century; from Errol Flynn to Sean Connery, Kevin Costner and, um, Cary Elwes. In addition, Robin (with or without his Merry Men) has over the years found himself pressed into unexpected cameos in such diverse titles as Shrek, Blackadder, The Ren and Stimpy Show and Robin Hood Daffy.

1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood remains the benchmark and Flynn's chandelier-swinging portrayal remains the most recognisable Robin Hood, thanks in part to a pair of fetching green tights.

Down the years there's been a steady production line of Hood-themed or inspired movies including the 1964 Frank Sinatra musical Robin and the Seven Hoods (where 12th Century Nottingham was replaced by gangland Chicago), a 1973 animated film (which substituted the human characters with a troupe of talking animals), 1976's Robin and Marian (with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn playing the titular characters in their advancing years) and 1991's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (which cemented Costner's star status and committed a sonic crime by extending Canadian rocker Bryan Adams' career into the '90s).

TV producers have also flocked to the myth with the BBC alone having had at least three separate stabs at a Robin Hood serial. Robin of Sherwood, which began in 1984 and starred the likes of Jason Connery and Ray Winstone, was hugely influential. The series relied heavily on the natural environment, making the sanctuary of Sherwood Forest central to the storylines, and was lent a mystical air by the presence of Robin's spiritual guide, Herne the Hunter, and an ethereal Clannad soundtrack. Robin of Sherwood also featured among its characters a Saracen outlaw, in a precursor to Morgan Freeman's appearance as Hood's Moor sidekick Azeem in Prince of Thieves.

There were no émigrés to be found in the recent BBC series, which spanned three series from 2006. That show's axing in the wake of its writers committing sacrilege by killing off Maid Marian could have been interpreted as a signal audiences had had their fill of Robin, but seemingly not.

Why is it that the mythology of Robin Hood – an outlaw who steals from the rich and gives to the poor – continues to resonate so strongly in the English-speaking world?

The appeal can partly be attributed to the reality that relatively few Anglo-Saxon medieval stories have survived with as much clarity. Outside of the legends of King Arthur and the Round Table they are thin on the ground; certainly compared to, say, the rich library of ancient Greek legends or Scandinavian sagas.

The specifics of the story (to this day fiercely debated by archivists, historians and skeptics) also have cultural and political resonance.

A true underdog, Robin embodies the 'people's hero' (much like the bushranger Ned Kelly in Australian consciousness) and the idea of a loyal band of Merry Men, disenfranchised misfits, standing up to a common evil is attractive. Common to the various screen productions are the notion that the poor can rise up to receive their share of the spoils and the romantic ideal that love can overcome a class divide.

The role of Marian is a particular sticking point for Hood-watchers. There is a theory among archivists that Robin Hood became especially popular with authors and playwrights in the Victorian era because its straightforward love affair was viewed more favorably than the troublesome love triangle of King Arthur.

Ridley Scott's new film, originally titled Nottingham, draws on its director's considerable skill with historical epics (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven). All involved have stuck to the line that this a fresh take and maybe it is, but then that's what we heard in 1991. Tongues are wagging about Crowe's overtly butch portrayal, whilst Blanchett's empowered Marian adds to the many takes on his love interest; this time around she is far from the passive damsel-in-distress that audiences have become accustomed to. Perhaps it's not fair to seek a definitive version of what is, after all, a myth.