After effectively revitalizing many of the classic Hollywood monsters, it’s not surprising that England’s Hammer Films would take on a folklore hero most famously played by Errol Flynn in 1938. Though this is not the first (1954’s MEN OF SHERWOOD FOREST) or last (1967’s A CHALLENGE FOR ROBIN HOOD) time Hammer would depict the legendary character, 1960’s SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST is certainly the best known of their Robin Hood features. As part of a grand promotion of classic adventure and excitement, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is releasing the film on DVD along with THE BANDIT OF SHERWOOD FOREST (1946), PRINCE OF THIEVES (1948) and ROGUES OF SHERWOOD FOREST (1950).
A loner riding on horseback (Desmond Llewelyn, soon to be “Q” in the “James Bond” series) is shot with an arrow in the back by the henchmen of the Sheriff of Nottingham. The man barely escapes with his life, falling in the hands of Robin Hood (Richard Greene) and his men, all notorious outlaws. The fair Marian (Sarah Branch, HELL IS A CITY), witness to the well-meaning abduction becomes an acquaintance of Robin, soon setting up a meeting between him and the Sheriff (Peter Cushing), but our hero does not want to hand over the injured man, even with the large monetary offer on the table. Soon, the Sheriff and his henchmen are on the track of Robin and his camp, even killing one of their rogues in cold blood. A wanted man, Robin disguises his identity to come into the attention of Edward, Earl of Newark (Richard Pasco, THE GORGON) who competes with him in various archery competitions in the hopes of exploiting him as a paid assassin. But as Robin is lead to believe it’s the Sheriff he wants slayed, a plot to kill the incoming Archbishop Hubert Walter (Jack Gwillim, THE MONSTER SQUAD) becomes our do-gooder’s top concern, and he’ll do anything in is power to prevent harm's way.
SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST is one of many Hammer big-screen projects adapted from a popular television series (a practice they would continue successfully well into the 1970s), in this case "The Adventures of Robin Hood" which was produced in England from 1955 through 1960, and also featured Greene in the title role (he co-produced the movie in association with Yeoman Films). Terence Fisher – at the time Hammer’s ingenious darling for resurrecting Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy to worldwide revenue – had directed some episodes of the series, so he was a natural to helm this larger-scale theatrical production. None of the other major players from the TV series (where Alan Wheatley portrayed the Sheriff of Nottingham for five years) would be cast in the film, instead Hammer used a lot of their stock players and a number of other familiar thesps.
SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST is never going to top any Hammer fan’s “best of” list, and although it’s far from a perfect film, you should still give it a try. Beautifully shot in widescreen on location in Ireland as well as the impressive confines of Bray Studios, director Terence Fisher injects the film with sorted horse chases, sword fights, and the expected comic book violence in which characters are hit with arrows left and right. But the screenplay is one dimensional, many of the action sequences fail to make a memorable impact, and even though the cast is of top caliber, nobody really stands out with Greene being a passable Robin and Sarah Branch a beautiful but forgettable Marian. With a number of elaborate costume changes, Peter Cushing makes a great Sheriff of Nottingham; you only wish his character was allowed to be more evil, or at least more villainous. Ultimately, he’s upstaged by Richard Pasco who actually shares more scenes with Greene.
The players also include a well-cast but underused Nigel Green (THE FACE OF FU MANCHU, COUNTESS DRACULA) as Little John, Dennis Lotis (CITY OF THE DEAD/HORROR HOTEL) as Alan A'Dale, Derren Nesbitt (BURKE AND HARE) as the doomed Martin of Eastwood and Niall MacGinnis (NIGHT OF THE DEMON) as the rotund Friar Tuck, who is played mostly for giggles. In one of his numerous early 1960s appearances for Hammer, a young Oliver Reed plays Lord Melton, one of Edward’s (Richard Pasco’s) bratty cronies. Introduced by harassing Robin and then having his pet falcon pierced by his mighty arrow, Reed’s Melton sports a ridiculously exaggerated lispy accent, and the actor has very little screen time, but is instrumental in one of the key death scenes.
Never before available on home video in the United States, SWORD OF SHERWOOD FOREST makes its DVD debut courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment as part of their “Robin Hood Collection”. Continuing a high standard of quality attributed to all their recent Hammer/Columbia DVD releases, the film is presented in its original 2.35:1 MegaScope aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, and needless to say, it looks terrific. It’s a perfect blemish-free transfer with scrumptious colors and excellent detail, and the mono audio track is crystal clear. Optional English subtitles are included on the disc. Extras include the original theatrical trailer (matted to 1.85:1, as we assume it was too when projected in theaters), a promotional trailer for Columbia Pictures classics available on DVD and a trailer for A KNIGHT'S TALE starring the late Heath Ledger.
REVIEW: George Reis
IMAGES: Marcus Brooks