Stark says: “Listen Friar, you’re mighty preachy, and you gonna preach your neck right into a hangman’s noose.”
Sounds like a Western, doesn’t it? What if I told you there was also a corrupt Sheriff, a ruthless Land Boss, a shooting contest, a root-tootin’ barn dance, a pair of outlaws and a stagecoach heist? No, it ain’t The Quick and the Dead. It’s Disney’s Robin Hood and for this month’s review I’m going to forgo my usual Good-Bad-and-Ugly rating and bust a gut trying to convince y’all that this film is actually a Western.
Now, I might not have noticed it as a child, but when I watched Robin Hood again, my crotchety old adult self detected a definite Western flavour. And I swear, it’s not just because I’m Western-ed up to the eyes and reading too much into things. Give me a minute and I’ll prove it. First: the cast. Remember how the film opens, with a Southern-drawling rooster by the name of Alan-a-Dale? Well, he’s played by Oklahoma-born, Country singer-songwriter Roger Miller.1 Miller, as well as voicing the rooster, was responsible for writing some of Robin Hood’s most memorable songs, including the infuriatingly catchy "Whistle-Stop" (you know the one) and my favourite "Oo-de-lally".
So what’s a country folk singer doing in a supposedly medieval English setting? Good question, and he’s not the last of them: if you know your Westerns, you’ll recognise more than a few familiar names. Friar Tuck, the kindly badger, is played by cowboy sidekick legend Andy Devine (Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and the voice of the Sheriff of Nottingham? That’s Pat Buttram (Green Acres) who made hundreds of cowboy movies with Gene Autry. Ken Curtis, one of the Sheriff’s vulture henchmen, played Festus in Gunsmoke and, incidentally, was the son-in-law of John Ford. George Lindsey (better known as Goober Pyle) was also in Gunsmoke and The Rifleman, and plays the other vulture, Nutsey.
What the hell is going on, I hear you cry, why are half the cast paid-up veterans of the Western circuit? Well, I’ll tell you: because, in Disney’s original concept, the setting for Robin Hood was the Old West.
It’s not actually a vast leap, thematically speaking. A story with outlaws and sheriffs and jails, it takes place on the small stage of Nottingham and Sherwood, rather than a grand fairy-tale landscape. In that sense, it’s got a lot in common with traditional setting of the frontier town. It makes sense that a modern (well, modern in the 1970s) concept team would imagine the story through the familiar lens of the Western, even if they dropped many of the trappings along the way.
Robin Hood is, after all, the original outlaw. Even in Disney's version, he's a fox-on-the-run, drifting into town, evading the law. He's witty and charming; more like the wisecracking cowboys of the matinees than a taciturn Man-With-No-Name. He’s got a trusty sidekick, a badass preacher on his side and a corrupt Sheriff to tangle with. There are even wanted posters. Conspicuous by their absence though are Robin’s Merry Men. Apparently, director Woolie Reitherman got rid of them in order to make Robin and John feel more like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Suddenly, Roger Miller’s salt-of-the-earth, folksy tones aren’t feeling so out of place…
One of the most common criticisms levelled at Robin Hood is that, structurally, it’s a mess. True, it doesn’t have the clean, fairy-tale progression we’re used to, but when you start thinking about it as a Western, it starts to make a lot more sense. Outlaw rolls into town and shakes things up a bit; land boss puts a bounty on his head. Outlaw gets cocky and continues to evade capture. Enraged, land boss takes it out on local populace. Things go to shit. Outlaw stages intervention, is nearly killed in dramatic showdown, only to survive through cunning. In the end, fair law and order are restored; outlaw is pardoned and gets the girl; land boss is reduced to breaking rocks in a chain gang.
Have I convinced you yet? If not, I don’t entirely blame you. Although structurally Robin Hood is definitely a Western, it’s never overtly one. Yet, I’d argue that the Western influences are a big part of what makes this film feel so utterly unique. It's somehow laid-back - almost cosy - rather than a high-stakes, political, people-versus-state drama. The imagining of the Sheriff of Nottingham as a town sheriff flanked by deputies, for example, rather than a traditional land-owning Lord, localises the action and pulls it back to the scale of a small town.
Perhaps it’s due to the intimate scale, but Robin Hood also seems cheekier than other Disney films. Take Little John’s boob-jiggling gypsy costume during the coach heist, or Robin’s many disguises. (Blind beggar, Vulture Guard, the Spindle-legged Stork from Devonshire… all testament to Brian Bedford’s excellent voice acting). In keeping with the Western theme, parts of the film are also bleaker than you might expect. In the second half, when King John triples the taxes and sends everyone to jail, the colour palette plunges into murky greys, accompanied Roger Miller’s gloriously down-beat, ‘Not in Nottingham’.
Although half the cast is decidedly Western-sounding and other half are BBC British, it somehow works. Probably because the voice acting is so brilliant, especially Peter Ustinov’s whiny, thumb-sucking Prince John (“You procrastinating python! You eel in snake’s clothing!”) and Terry Thomas’s wheedling Sir Hiss. But it’s also down to the animators, who manage to imbue the characters with undeniably human characteristics.
Unlike the animaly-animals in films like The Aristocats (1970) or The Rescuers (1977) the characters in Robin Hood are highly anthropomorphic. Look, hands up who had a massive crush on Robin or Marian as a kid? I rest my case. They’re not Mickey Mouse; they're corporeal beings, in a sense that they can be injured, like the blacksmith Otto, or killed by an arrow or a dagger. The film has a realism to it, at the same time as being an eccentric, imaginative mash-up.
All in all, Robin Hood is a real melting pot. It’s crammed with physical comedy, quick jibes, glorious swashbuckling action (I’m looking at you, Robin’s proposal to Marian mid-escape), even a tribute to American football as Lady Kluck barrels her way through a field of rhinos while “On, Wisconsin” plays in the background. It’s not the most polished Disney film. It isn’t stunningly beautiful, or eerie or even that coherent, but it’s memorable. For all its idiosyncrasies, or maybe because of them, it’s charming and fun and has stood the test of time.
Robin Hood was created during a financially and emotionally difficult time at Disney. It was the first film to be made after Walt’s death on a comparatively tiny budget and an absurdly tight schedule. And sure, it’s scrappy in places. The animators cut a lot of corners, re-using and recycling old sequences from other movies. The music is erratic; Roger Miller’s contributions sit alongside bursts of jazz and even a seventies-style ballad ("Love") and to this day I hate the contingent of tacked-on child characters. But none of these weaknesses, which I can acknowledge as an adult, bothered me as a child.
And surely that’s the point? As a small Stark, I adored this film and on re-watching it after twenty years, I’ll be damned if I don’t appreciate it all the more for its hidden Western identity. And I’ll be damned too if I don’t still smile every time I hear: "Oo de lally! Oo de lally!"
1: As a lad, Roger Miller was taught to play fiddle and guitar by his cousin, stalwart Western-actor Sheb Wooley (who was in High Noon, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Rawhide... even if you can’t picture Wooley, you’ll have heard his voice; he performed the original Wilhelm Scream).↩