Saturday, July 25, 2015

Sword of Sherwood Forest

(1960) Directed by Terence Fisher; Written by: Alan Hackney; Starring: Richard Greene, Peter Cushing, Niall MacGinnis, Richard Pasco, Sarah Branch and Oliver Reed; Available on DVD.

Rating: ***½

“I know the sheriff. A free pardon from him is not worth the breath he uses to make his promises.” – Robin Hood (Richard Greene)

“Who is the authority in this country? I am. It is my duty to deal with lawbreakers, and I shall do that duty.” – Sheriff of Nottingham (Peter Cushing)

The present incarnation of Hammer seems to rely solely on the company’s reputation as a producer of horror movies, ignoring its rich history with films from multiple genres. During the ‘50s and ‘60s, a number of Hammer films, falling under the rather nebulous category of “swashbuckler,” were released. While they may not have provided the sort of revenue of titles from the Dracula or Frankenstein series, the Hammer swashbucklers were an important staple of matinees around the world. One such movie, Sword of Sherwood Forest, is one the most notable, albeit forgotten examples. It was the second of three Hammer Robin Hood films (the first, being The Men of Sherwood Forest in 1954, and A Challenge for Robin Hood in 1967), and was the only one to star Richard Greene, who also appeared as the title character in the long-running British television series, The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Although I’m not familiar with his work in the TV series, Greene appears confident reprising his role, and deserves kudos for his affable portrayal of the famous populist hero. He takes an almost casual approach, belying the desperate stakes he faces, openly defying the leadership placed in the King’s stead. As far as big-screen Robin Hoods go, Greene falls somewhere in the middle of the pack, not as charismatic as Errol Flynn, but he’s no Kevin Costner, either (thankfully). As Maid Marian Fitzwalter, Sarah Branch provides a plucky counterpoint to Greene’s laid-back performance. While she doesn’t quite steal the thunder from Robin and his men’s heroics, she scores a few points in one scene, where she briefly wields a sword against a band of assassins. Her petulance soon gives way to affection as she witnesses his better traits. Marian professes she wants him to be an honest man, not an outlaw, but her standards fly out the window, as the script demands. Their romantic scenes seem more perfunctory than natural, since the characters are never allowed suitable screen time to develop a believable relationship.

Proving he was equally adept at playing protagonists and villains, Peter Cushing rises above the rest of the cast as the icy, scheming Sheriff of Nottingham. His only allegiance is to his version of the law of the land, much to the detriment of anyone who would question his authority. He’s the portrait of treachery, untrustworthy, unless you’re allied with the right side. In one scene, he promises one of Robin’s captured men a pardon if he reveals the whereabouts of his compatriots, only to promptly dispatch with the outlaw when he’s completed his inquiry. Later, when the Archbishop of Canterbury (Jack Gwillim) intervenes on behalf of villagers who are about to lose their land, the Sheriff hatches a plot to assassinate him. One of the biggest disappointments is that we get a taste, but never experience the payoff of a final showdown between Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, which was promised in an earlier scene.

Sword of Sherwood Forest features some other fine supporting performances, including Richard Pasco as Edward, Earl of Newark. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, he and Robin engage in a challenge of marksmanship, which includes shooting an arrow through a spinning wheel, or hitting a moving bell. Oliver Reed is also notable, in an early uncredited role, as Edward’s brutal, loose-cannon associate, Lord Melton. Nigel Greene is engaging as the ironically named Little John, as well as Niall MacGinnis as the perpetually hungry Friar Tuck (although he isn’t given much to do, other than eat large quantities of food and argue with an obstinate donkey). On the other end of the spectrum, the most annoying character award would go to Alan A’Dale (Dennis Lotis), who introduces and concludes the film in song. After he brought the first third of the movie to a screeching halt with another unwelcome ballad, I half expected someone to do the audience a favor, and smash his lute against a tree.

As with many Hammer films, Sword of Sherwood Forest looks like a more expensive production with its high-caliber performances, colorful costumes, detailed sets and gorgeous scenery (filmed on location in the Irish countryside). It’s a thoroughly competent, if not overly surprising, interpretation of the Robin Hood legend, but maybe a bit too familiar. That shouldn’t deter anyone from checking it out, however. Sword of Sherwood Forest is a well-oiled entertainment machine that does everything it should. I could easily picture myself with an early ‘60s matinee audience, enjoying my popcorn and Milk Duds, and buying every scene without reservation.

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