Robin Hood (1922) was the first blockbuster movie. It cost $1.4 million to make and made 2.5 million. Most of the budget was spent on the massive set for King Richard’s medieval castle and the village of Nottingham constructed at the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio in Hollywood – the largest constructed in the silent era, a masterpiece of design some of which was courtesy of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Robin Hood cemented Douglas Fairbanks’s reputation as a swashbuckling hero with his unrivalled athleticism and boundless energy – whether swinging out of trees, climbing up a rising drawbridge or most famously of all sliding down a massive curtain inside the castle. It set the standard for all future Hollywood adventure films. Without Robin Hood there would be no Star Wars.
It is also rather a strange film with many changes of tone. The first half is taken up with the back-story of Fairbanks as the Earl of Huntingdon and his relationship with King Richard in the Crusades. The romance between Maid Marian (a subdued Enid Bennett) and Robin is quite restrained. Allan Dwan mixes comedy and spectacle brilliantly but it is a movie of atmosphere rather than characterisation.
It must be difficult to score. Most of the audience will know the marvellous Erich Wolfgang Korngold music for Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) or Edwin Astley’s equally famous opening theme to the 1950s television series and will come with musical preconceptions. The silent version is quite long at 127 minutes and there is much comic business to cover as well as many fast-moving action sequences.
Neil Brand in his fourth score to be performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra has risen to the challenge. He covers the film with an orchestral sheen that gives the film a sense of unity that may not be there on the screen. There is great energy as themes are used cyclically with rhythmic variations. The sense of bounce in the music mirrors Fairbanks’s spring-heeled vitality and Brand revels in the large-scale invention required.
Our first view of Fairbanks is as he prepares for a joust at King Richard’s court, to a heroic brass fanfare. King Richard and the Earl of Huntingdon lead their army off to war with stirring patriotic motifs. There is a long wait for Fairbanks’s Robin Hood to appear, to jubilant music as he is revealed in silhouette in a castle window and his Merry Men proceed to their hidden forest lair. This is a resourceful score with few if any dull moments.
Brand’s work is also erudite, referring to William Walton and John Williams. The lengthy but diffident love-scene is given more intensity than in the film, the music slowly unfurling with shimmering strings that reference Korngold. The main achievement is that Brand captures the innocent joy that is at the heart of Fairbanks’s characterisation.
Timothy Brock precisely coordinated sound with image and drew playing of flexibility and commitment from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which was on tip-top form. This Robin Hood may be ninety-four years old but there isn’t an arthritic bone in its body.