This time out in our series of reviewing the highest-grossing film of every year since 1915 to present-day we reach 1922 and it’s top grosser Douglas Fairbanks classic, Robin Hood or in its full title Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (well he did produce, write and star in it, so why not throw your name in the title!?) Other than being the runaway success of the year, it was the first Hollywood motion picture to have a premiere. Let’s get into it, shall we?
King Richard the Lionheart leaves for the beginning of a new crusade leaving his brother John as regent in his stead. Lionhearts second in command Earl of Huntingdon returns to Nottingham to help his country after hearing about Prince Johns cruel rule. He disguises himself and recruits a merry band of outlaws to protect the public and try to overthrow the Prince.
The scale of Robin Hood cannot be understated. The opening scenes are filled hundreds if not thousands of extras in massive sets in 12th Century Nottingham. In actual fact, Douglas Fairbanks and his wife Mary Pickford constructed a life-sized replica of the city and castle for the film. So while the film obviously succeeded at the box office, there were a fair amount of money thrown at it to succeed, $1 million dollars, in fact, so the pressures of making sure the film becoming a hit were huge on its producer, writer and star, luckily for all involved the film made its costs back and then some totalling a staggering $4.6 million ($68 million today) over its run and it has to be remembered that ticket prices were $0.07! (In today’s money just over $1, so if it was released today with current ticket prices it would have grossed over $680 million which is simply astounding considering the era.
Thankfully any stresses Fairbanks had about the film were squashed and he was able to give one of his best acting performances. After playing d’Artagnan and Zorro a charismatic swashbuckling hero was easy fodder for him. Audiences would have been in awe with his stunt work and while it was very impressive and he was able to match the scale of the production with it, his acting limitations were highlighted a tad more than he would have liked. Examples of this are when he is meant to be in peril and although he hopes the outlaws will make it to the castle in time, he shows no signs that he is in danger. In fact for the final 30 minutes of the film, he shows too much overconfidence, which removes the viewer from the danger.
This is frustrating as, the first hour we see Fairbanks show emotion very well. When he finds of trouble to Maid Marian and of England he shows pain and frustration with his King, yet for some reason, he decides to negate this for the final act. A funny frustration also comes when he is stopped from going to England by being shot by an arrow into his hip. While this would truly down a man. Fairbanks thought the best response would be to turn and lean on his horse as he gave a woe is my response. It is only after he is captured that he becomes incapacitated.
While the camera is static for most of the film, the choice in angles is inspired. The high almost birds-eye view angle of Huntingdon/Robin Hood tackling the city guards are unique. This is the case for most of the action sequences throughout, with the editing assisting with making the action scenes seem intense and chaotic.
For those expecting to watch the usual Robin Hood story, they will be disappointed here as instead of those we have almost half the film centering on Robin as the Earl of Huntingdon and not having as many interactions with his outlaws. This seems as if it was to give Fairbanks more to do in the acting capacity, but as mentioned, this did not fare as hoped. The aim of building up his character causes the film to stall for almost an hour which simply cannot happen in any film. The film only begins to awaken when it gets to the final act and even then it is struggling to get going as any momentum is seemingly lost.
This is not helped by the supporting cast with Wallace Beery dramatically failing as King Richard III. A buffoon of a character that can only be classed as comic relief and that is not a positive place to be for someone who is meant to be playing the great King. There are multiple characters that simply do not come across well and these ultimately hurt Fairbanks own performance as he has to amp up the action and his own mannerisms to keep the film going.
For what I was expecting to be an entertaining film, I found myself thoroughly bored and the final battle is merely people running into positions and not really doing anything. For the size and grand scale of the sets, I had hoped more would have happened within them to warrant their inclusion. What appeared to be a vehicle to show that Fairbanks was more than an action star was, in the end, a box office success even if it does fall a little flat in other areas.
It is worth noting that his next films that expanded on his expanding range were even more successful becoming two of the best silent era action films. So, it appears that Robin Hood was a tester for audiences, would they pay to see Fairbanks expand his range and still get the same amount of action? This would then show that other than being a financial success it was also a career success for one of our greatest ever action stars.
Robin Hood in truth has the same plot lines of one specific type of genre film now. The superhero film. We spend at least an hour developing the protagonist’s backstory with some action interspersed throughout with the ever more deranged bad guy causing more havoc. Then we get the grand finale where either the hero solely or a team he has created come back and take control. Peace and happiness etc, etc. Robin Hood has that same formula and it just goes to show that when Hollywood sees something that works, it will repeat it again and again.
To check out our previous years have a read below!