Excellent Films for the Family: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

The movie takes great pains to show that Robin is no scofflaw or rebel. Rather, he is a man who has been placed into a situation where out of duty and love for his people he must pursue justice under exceptional circumstances.

You are what you eat. This is particularly true when it comes to the media that one consumes. Parents have to be very careful when it comes to picking what small children will read, listen to, or watch. Younger children are less discerning, more easily influenced, and more deeply impacted by media than older, more discerning children. Parents ought to be especially discriminating when it comes to choosing movies that become family favorites. There is a time and place, especially with older kids, to watch movies with imperfect messages or content, because the good that is taught or the specific issues raised in these movies may be worth our time. I am not seeking to review movies such as these in this series. The movies I wish to hold up are films that are excellent, films that you want your children to be shaped by and treasure, films that the whole family can not only enjoy and learn from, but that you would want as part of your family culture.

The Adventures of Robin Hood is a classic movie about a story deeply ingrained in the English-speaking world. As a boy, I loved the film for the adventure: the sword fights, the narrow escapes, the ambushes, and the battles. Robin tricks his enemies, leads his men to victory, and in the end, gets the girl. You know you’re in for a treat the moment the credits start. The music is beautiful, the artwork classic, and within minutes you see that the sets are incredible. The main characters are wonderfully portrayed by the actors. And the more you watch this movie, the more you notice the subtle and careful work which went into giving the secondary characters great depth and bringing them to life. It is a masterpiece.

As I’ve reacquainted myself with the movie as a father introducing it to his children, I’ve come to more fully appreciate how the film revolves around the themes of duty, authority, and loyalty. Robin Hood’s on-screen introduction sets the tone for all these themes. After slaying one of the king’s deer in desperate need, Much the Miller’s Son is caught by Sir Guy of Gisbourne. The punishment Much faces for his crime is execution. After watching the confrontation unfold, Robin rides in to intervene. Sir Guy questions Robin’s intrusion, “By what right do you interfere with justice?” “By a better right than you have to misuse it,” responds Robin. Robin proceeds to mercifully take Much under his protection by claiming that he is his servant and thereby transfers the responsibility for the crime to himself. After Guy retreats, Much joins Robin not only because he has saved him, but also because of Robin’s reputation as a just, true leader of men, pledging, “From this day, I follow only you. There isn’t a poor Saxon in Nottingham shire that doesn’t know and bless Sir Robin of Locksley. Take me as your servant…I ask no pay, just to follow you.”

The movie takes great pains to show that Robin is no scofflaw or rebel. Rather, he is a man who has been placed into a situation where out of duty and love for his people he must pursue justice under exceptional circumstances. The brother of King Richard, Prince John, plans to usurp the throne while Richard is out of the country. Furthermore, John’s plans include a policy of terrorization and oppression of the Saxons, Robin’s people. As Robin verbally jousts with the Prince and his supporters, he mockingly claims to talk treason fluently, but his actions are those of a man loyal to his king and his people. Robin Hood declares that Prince John is a traitor along with every man who offers allegiance to such an oppressive, illegitimate tyrant. Many men can observe and identify evil. Robin, however, promises to do something about it. He is a Saxon lord with the position, means, and duty to do something about the situation—and he does. He promises “to never rest until every Saxon can stand up, free men, to strike a blow for Richard and England. From this night on, I use every means in my power to fight you.”

Word goes out. Robin gathers men to him in Sherwood. Again, it is noteworthy why he gathers them and what he makes them swear. He gathers them as freeborn Englishmen, who have had notorious injuries committed against them and know that further irremediable crimes will be committed against them and their families if they do not act. He has them kneel and swear an oath: “That you, the freemen of this forest, swear to despoil the rich only to give to the poor. To shelter the old and helpless, to protect all women, rich or poor, Norman or Saxon. Swear to fight for a free England. To protect her loyally until the return of our king, Richard the Lion-Heart. And swear to fight to the death against our oppressors!” The oath, the rationale, Robin’s methods and means all point to an awareness that this is an extraordinary situation and an exceptional remedy. Robin is no utopian revolutionary nor bloodthirsty rebel. He is a lesser lord who loves his people, who understands his duty to protect them against oppressors, and who takes up arms in order to restore the rightful and true king.

And then the fight is on. He does indeed use every means at his disposal. He fights with bow and sword, and he throws pretty much every possible object at his enemies—chairs, benches, and candles. Robin is the dashing swashbuckler—brave, clever, resourceful—and he has fun while battling Prince John’s forces, laughing all the way.

But Robin is no lofty loner with mindless followers. He is a true leader of men. He needs good men, and they flock to him. Men compete in order to cooperate. Little John knocks Robin into the river, and Friar Tuck matches him in swordplay, but Robin loves a man who can best him. Will Scarlet, his loyal lieutenant, is a friend who banters with him. Much is the “everyman” character of the movie. He isn’t the best fighter or a dashing hero, but contributes as he can—inspired and brought to full potential by a good lord. The merry men tease and compete with each other just as Robin does with them. They are a brotherhood, unlike the followers of Prince John who constantly are at each other’s throats, bickering and threatening each other, united only by their mutual usefulness for their individual greed.

And Robin laughs. He laughs when he wins and laughs when he loses. He laughs when he’s teasing Marion or playing a joke on Friar Tuck. He loves his men and the brotherhood they share. You can tell he loves life. Robin’s bombastic overconfidence does get him captured. However, it is precisely his love of risk and adventure that also inspires his companions to gather around him and rescue him for the sake of friendship and loyalty. He was there for his men, and they are there for him when he needs them.

The movie is light-hearted and fun, but there are moments of suspense when it takes on a more serious tone, particularly in regard to Maid Marion. Marion is beautiful, discerning, and courageous—a medieval Abigail (1 Sam. 25). Marion uses her position to help Robin and risks her life by getting critical information to the outlaws. Yet the movie does not masculinize her. She is entirely feminine, desirous of a home and family with a good man whom she can look up to, be taught by, and respect. When Robin teaches Marion why he turned outlaw by showing her those who had been brutalized by forces loyal to Prince John, Marion points to what makes Robin different from most men. It isn’t strange in her mind that he feels pity for the downtrodden, but that he would do something about it. Robin is even obviously a Lutheran when he shakes his head at the idea that he does his good works for the sake of a reward. He sees what he does as part and parcel of what he is called to do in faith toward God and fervent love toward his neighbors.

Issues concerning vocation run throughout the movie, culminating with the return of King Richard. When Richard reveals himself to the outlaws, you can see in the countenance of each character who kneels the retrospective review that each outlaw takes. Each one considers his weaknesses, his actions, the stands he’s taken. What will the king do? How will he judge? What does it mean that he has returned? Robin, “the outlaw who showed his king his duty,” also kneels. Richard recognizes the faithfulness the outlaws have shown him in his absence by saying, “All these that remained loyal, rise Sir Robin, rise men of Sherwood.”

The film culminates by bringing all the threads together at the planned coronation of Prince John. Before the ceremony, a priest prays that all princely virtues would be bestowed upon the new king, while John looks into a mirror and gloats that his brother is undoubtedly dead. The final battle is glorious, which includes the best sword fight in cinematic history. In the end, all the swords and shields and banners of the enemy are thrown down. There is peace with the rightful king on the throne. And the outlaw is restored to hearth and home, as is right.

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David Ramirez

Rev. David Ramirez is Pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Union Grove, WI and is on the Planning Committee for the Bugenhagen Conference.

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