The Incredible Architecture of Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood
Note: This is the hundred-and-sixteenth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my favorite 1922 film, ROBIN HOOD, directed by Allan Dwan.
Douglas Fairbanks starred in and produced some of the best silent Hollywood blockbusters, and his best was ROBIN HOOD. The slow-moving first half (Fairbanks’ Earl of Huntingdon doesn’t take on the Robin Hood persona until more than an hour into the 132-minute run time) nevertheless gives way to thrilling vigilantism. And the whole film is defined by a sense of scale that was rarely matched during the 1920s, and certainly not by a lot of other Hollywood productions. Fritz Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN films (1924) and METROPOLIS (1927) and Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON (1927) come to mind as competitors, but they were made over in Europe. But even still, ROBIN HOOD’s massive scope (I do mean literal set size, in addition to the story’s length and relative complexity) is singular.
And hey, money will work wonders. ROBIN HOOD was one of the most expensive films of the silent era, apparently costing something in the area of $930,000 dollars. In 1922! That’s almost $14 million in today’s dollars. Nevertheless, the movie made around $2.5 million in North America, solidifying the Fairbanks swashbuckling success after THE MARK OF ZORRO (1920) and THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1921), the transition points for the “King of Hollywood” from comedies to action spectacles. Fairbanks’ (and Mary Pickford’s, Charlie Chaplin’s, and D.W. Griffith’s) fledgling distributor company United Artists was off to a good start. ROBIN HOOD was also apparently the first movie to have a formalized Hollywood premiere, which was held at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater and had just opened the same year.
All this pomp and circumstance was deserved. ROBIN HOOD is almost an overwhelming movie, for good and bad. The bad: as mentioned, it’s definitely a slow burn. The good: I cannot believe the intricacy and vacuousness of the architecture of its architecture, open fields, and forests (which Frank Lloyd Wright may have contributed to in some form). The grand castle hall of the Richard the Lion-Hearted (played by the always craggy Wallace Beery) has ceilings so high (emphasized by the illusory depth of fantastic painted backdrops) that the blank space truly does transport you into another world. And it’s semi-functional; stairs lead up to ramparts that Fairbanks cavorts around, a drawbridge provides a stage for one of Fairbanks’ most impressive stunts (I believe he climbed it himself), and massive curtains provide Robin Hood a quick slide for escape.
When the action moves to the open fields of France on the way to the Holy Land, fascinating perspective plays set illustrated backgrounds of looming castles behind incredible “extreme long” shots that transpose the minuscule caravan onto the tableau. The forest scenes look to be shot on location, but a wooded abbey must have been shot at the studio (even if it’s outdoor space), and the forestation is dense and convincing! ROBIN HOOD was certainly ahead of its time in creating a stylish universe of Hollywood artifice. Quite simply, it’s a visual spectacle, leaning into the roots of the medium by dazzling with impressive images.
Robin Hood is also the quintessential Fairbanks swashbuckler. The performance has got every aspect of the Fairbanks persona, which by the way was brilliantly parodied by his own son Jr. in the early Joan Crawford success OUR MODERN MAIDENS (1929). Fairbanks stalks with shoulders set forward, reels back with jolly laughter, skips and hops around, brandishes weapons with an exaggerated flourish; he perfectly inhabits the larger-than-life legend of the character and the film’s own aesthetic.
It was clear that “legendary” was the status that Fairbanks and director Allan Dwan were going for. Preemptive intertitles, nestled between heavenly images of now ruined medieval architecture, play up the romanticizing of the era and characters and admit its basis in fiction. And though there had been cinematic adaptations of the Robin Hood tales before, this installment in the tradition did indeed set up a lot of the conventions that now swirl around the character.
Its legacy can be traced even more directly. The now-lost sequel RICHARD THE LION-HEARTED starred Beery, and Alan Hale Sr., who played Little John, reprised his role for the most famous of Robin Hood movies, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938). And ROGUES OF SHERWOOD FOREST (1950)! A treasured character actor of the silent years and beyond, Hale delivers a sympathetic and trusting performance as Robin Hood’s right-hand man and squire.
It’s difficult to resist the ubiquity of the Robin Hood legend. And Fairbanks, in many ways, established that universal appeal by making the tale into popular entertainment, just as he had done and would do with other now-archetypal characters and settings. ROBIN HOOD is a comfort food movie, sure, not challenging and easy to digest for the most part. But it still existed in an era of incredible experimentation and template-setting, and so its perhaps conventional storytelling structure isn’t boring. It has the magical weight that the developing aesthetic of polished, enjoyable Hollywood productions could provide.