I love the 1939 version of The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn as the eponymous Robin and Olivia de Havilland as the beautiful Maid Marian and the superb Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne.
It is a good exercise to ask why we like the things we like–to tease out of our inner selves what things appeal to us about those things that draw us to them. Some years ago I created a website for my class and I had the following pictures on it (all down-loaded from Google images): 1) Robin Hood; 2) Yoda; 3) Don Quixote; 4) Sir Gawain; 5) Yoshi (or Oishi) from Chushingura or The Treasury of Loyal Retainers or The 47 Ronin. A colleague of mine remarked to someone else that my website was filled with people with weapons–this had never occurred to me any more than placing pictures of some of my literary heroes on the website had occurred to me.
What do these 5 have in common? At first blush perhaps not much. But a closer look reveals them all to be characters that are immensely offended by injustice and determined to right some wrong. Robin Hood, Don Quixote, and Yoshi are all essentially anonymous until their society needs them to come forth (Robin Hood and Don Quixote change their names to become the new characters). The great knight Gawain, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight–ably translated by–variously–Burton Raffel, Marie Boroff, and JRR Tolkien–and brilliantly retold in Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex–participates in the exchange of blows with the Green Knight in part to protect Arthur and the other court members from having to endanger themselves and even Yoda–long since retired from the world–is called back for one more teaching session to pass on what he knows to Luke Skywalker. They represent those who are called to rectify some injustice in society (comically but no less seriously in Quixote’s case). I began to think that maybe this was how I conceived of teaching; at least part of me wants to arm my students (with the weapons of the mind–rigor, wide and deep learning, the ability to think about the best that has been thought and said and lots of good pulp stuff besides) so that they could defend themselves and make the world more just. Of course it’s not just the ability one needs; one needs to cultivate an attitude towards injustice, too.
Back to Robin Hood though–I have seen many if not most of the versions of Robin Hood ranging from Disney cartoons to Mel Brooks’ satire to the BBC series to versions starring Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe–but it’s the 1938 version that intrigues me despite its garish color (new at the time), its day-for-night filming, and generally minimal production values (by today’s standards). It has none of the medieval grittiness of many more contemporary versions–but it has a tremendously cool depiction of evil that has its roots in Dante’s Inferno. (I can almost hear the head-smacking and the concomitant whispers that I have really rounded the bend this time).
Dante’s Inferno presents three distinct types of evil–in this order of seriousness: 1) the Incontinent (those who cannot control themselves–they are buffeted about by their desires); 2) the Violent; and 3) the Fraudulent (or betrayers). My students are often thrown off by a couple of things. They sometimes want to forgive the Incontinent by arguing that their sins were beyond their control (Paolo and Francesca)–and I understand their desire here–it is an attempt to forgive themselves. They also believe that Violence is far worse than Fraud. Indeed, this is a demanding argument by Dante. All of us understand the horror of driving a truck loaded with explosives up to the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, or the crashing of planes in to the twin towers, or a beating on the street of a young man for his tennis shoes. Those are tangible evils. But, even given the scope of Bernie Madoff’s fraud, it is difficult to feel quite as viscerally the pain involved. Having read Michael Lewis’ The Big Short and followed the Enron scandal with some care; I mostly feel a sort of disgust but my anger is not quite as white hot about that as it is when confronted with violence. Is that because part of us recognizes Violence as something that could compromise our physical being but we don’t quite feel that about Fraud? The sense of being stalked in a dark alley, cornered, frightened, over-powered and violated gets my heart going much faster than the sense of having my pension stolen–even though that may be more damaging long-term.
In any event, Dante in his genius argued that Fraud represents a distinctly human capacity for evil (and he has lots of theologians and philosophers for company) whereas we share violence with the beasts and therefore, this corruption of reason, is deserving of its being treated more harshly and seriously. And intellectually I agree (viscerally–not so sure about that).
Back to Robin Hood. In the 1939 version Robin (and the other rebels) face a three-headed evil. The comic Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) has an enormous belly that gives evidence of his gluttony (Incontinence) and in the manner of those tossed by their desires, his cowardice. When Robin is captured he accepts a slap in the face from Sir Guy–and promptly boots the Sherriff away when he attempts to slap him–Robin and Sir Guy are enemies but at least Robin respects Sir Guy. The dangerous Sir Guy of Gisbourne with Rathbone’s predatory look and simmering Violence that erupts and culminates in my second favority on-screen sword fight (The Princess Bride fight scene is number 1 and various Japanese movie scenes [Harakiri has a great one as does The Twilight Samurai but there are so many!] and Star Wars fight scenes come in third through tenth) is a real tangible evil. But, finally his sword serves the genuinely reptilian Prince John (Claude Rains is great) who has betrayed his country and his kinship, who has violated the guest/host relationship and betrayed a lord and benefactor (the four inner rings of the 9th circle of Hell–how’s that for a foursome! Dante would be so proud) who presents the greatest evil. Still, Prince John’s punishment (banishment) seems anti-climactic (as does Bernie Madoff’s prison sentence) and carries none of the memorable flair of the sword fight.
No other retelling of the Robin Hood story has, to my mind, captured this particular representation of evil as a three-headed creature that needs to be fought on all levels.
I spent a day this week with a brilliant and gifted teacher working on Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales–so more about taking up arms against outrageous fortune and injustice next week.