Robin Hood (1912) A Silent Film Review

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen… Or in this case, running through the glen and getting arrested a lot. A loose and chipper adaptation of the popular legend from Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Are you Merry Man enough?

You think we have a lot of Robin Hood movies? It’s nothing compared to the wave of pictures nickelodeon era audiences were offered. There was a 1908 production from Kalem, another from the British Claredon film company, a 1912 picture from the French Éclair company operating in the U.S.A and one from the Thanhouser film company in 1913.

Feared by the bad, loved by the good…

Of this quartet, the only one known to survive in the 1912 Éclair version. In fact, it is considered to be the earliest surviving Robin Hood film, period, so as the latest Robin Hood offering tanks spectacularly at the box office, let’s take a moment to enjoy a look at the cinematic roots of the character.

I should note that while every effort has been made to preserve the film, the print I saw (the only known surviving copy, as far as I know) did show considerable wear and tear and was missing its opening scene. The missing footage has been supplemented by explanatory titles derived from synopses of the film written during its initial release. I have factored these issues into my review. Also, because most people are quite familiar with the Robin Hood story, I won’t be bothering with a detailed plot synopsis.

Thanks, dad.

This particular Robin (Robert Frazer) is more concerned with romancing Maid Marian (Barbara Tennant) than that whole robbing from the rich and giving to the poor thing. Marian is being courted by Guy de Gisbourne (Lamar Johnstone) but, naturally, on has eyes from Robin. The Sheriff of Nottingham (Alec B. Francis) wants to arrest Robin and succeeds several times. But then again, Robin’s Merry Men manage to catch the local law enforcement in cunning traps so it is all very much tit for tat.

While the direction has been co-credited to Herbert Blaché (Mr. Alice Guy) the restoration gives full credit to French director Étienne Arnaud. The film is pretty typical for a reasonably advanced production of 1912 (Glory be, we get medium shots! Near-closeups!) but there are certain appealing touches. For example, when the characters react to some new development, we are shown an animal that symbolizes their emotions and actions. It’s an excellent example of one of the ways films were setting themselves apart from stage productions and taking advantage of special effects in the service of the story rather than as an end unto themselves.

I must say, I love what this film does with Maid Marian. Of all the silent and classic era Robin Hoods, I certainly did not expect the 1912 Marian to be the toughest cookie on the block but there it is. While she is imperiled with the threat of a forced marriage, she also takes an active role in the story and manages to mount an all-lady rescue of Robin and his men by distracting the guards around the prison. That’s more than the Marian in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves managed. English actress Barbara Tennant is extremely appealing and effective in the role.

Marian (center) and her chums plot to save the day. And all without a Bryan Adams ballad.

The real King Richard was a little too into the slice-slash-chop stuff, if you know what I mean, and was so busy killing people in pointless religious wars that he neglected his actual subjects. Oh, them. Those Robin Hood movies that end with Prince John’s exile seem considerably less victorious when you realize that Prince John was later King John and ruled almost twice as long as his brother.

He can’t be bothered to rule his own kingdom but darn if he doesn’t have the most authentic costume.

Prince John doesn’t appear in this film and Richard (Arthur Hollingsworth) is portrayed as kind of a wandering problem solver who swoops into Nottingham to get rid of the sheriff, Guy and the other baddies in one fell swoop. The problem with this is Robin Hood starts to look like a supporting player in his own movie. This isn’t helped by the fact that Robert Frazer is not a particularly dynamic Robin.

I wasn’t kidding about the tree thing.
At all.

Robin Hood films, if they follow the Victorian tales that mold our current view of the character, tend to be episodic and nature and that is clearly the case in this film. Robin and his men dash around the forest and cause mischief and the Sheriff of Nottingham tries to arrest them but neither side inflicts any significant damage on the other until King Richard makes his entrance. In fact, the object of the opposing sides seems to be less Victory or Death and more Tie One Another to Trees. I mean, you do you, medieval dudes, but it does mean a certain lack of urgency in the plot.

“The British are coming! Warn General Washington!”
“We are British, Agnes, and the year is 1195.”

The design of the film is very much in the classic storybook mishmash look of the Middle Ages. So the cast of Robin Hood dresses in a combination of short tunics, tights and puff and slash that in reality was spread out over a period of centuries. And the sheriff’s wife is inexplicably clad in eighteenth century garb complete with a mob cap and fichu.

This isn’t necessarily a complaint. The goal of theatrical and cinematic costuming is to create a mood rather than museum pieces and I certainly prefer this to the generic black leather tunic/jacket that seems to be standard issue for everyone from Noah’s ark to the First World War in modern films. I mean, at least they had a distinct look and were going for it in 1912.

History schmistory, we’re Alsatian milkmaids circa 1698.

(For the record, clothing during King Richard’s lifetime involved a lot of long, graceful tunics, bold patterns and capes. Looked comfy too.)

To be honest, I prefer Robin Hood as a yeoman rather than a noble and to be uninvolved in national politics but with the Game of Thrones-mad state of modern film and television, I likely hope in vain.

Richard and Friar Tuck on the lookout.

You see, Robin Hood and I have a bit of history together. The 1973 animated Robin Hood was the first movie I ever saw and I enjoyed the Howard Pyle stories. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) is one of my favorite movies of all time and, in my opinion, the ultimate Robin Hood film. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was released at the exact right moment for me to resent the pandering fake action girl Marian who folds like a cheap tent under pressure. (Note to guys writing female characters: I don’t care how tough the chick claims she is. If she is reduced to a screaming sissy at the grand finale, I get annoyed.)

Richard saves the day.

I also have to confess that I found the Douglas Fairbanks Robin Hood to be a bit of a snoozer. It takes forever to get to Sherwood Forest and most of the film is taken up with interminable courtly romance. As for the newest version of Robin Hood… well, the critics had me at “so bad it’s good” and I will likely enjoy it enormously once it appears on Netflix.

Where does this 1912 version fit into the grand scheme of things? It’s not the greatest Robin Hood film ever made but it is fast-paced, fun and it has a wry sense of humor. While the damage to the surviving print does make viewing a bit challenging, it is still a perfectly enjoyable adventure.

Where can I see it?

Released on DVD by Milestone as part of their two-disc set celebrating Fort Lee filmmaking entitled The Champion. If you are at all interested in the history of pre-Hollywood American filmmaking, you will find much to love.


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