Three versions of ''Robin Hood'' new to home video -- See just how much Kevin Costner robbed from the rich legacy of previous movies

By Ty Burr
July 19, 1991 at 04:00 AM EDT

Three versions of ”Robin Hood” new to home video

More than anything else, the Robin Hood story is about lightness. Set in a benighted stretch of the Dark Ages, it gives us a Saxon rogue who leaps through trees, swings from portcullises, and generally makes merry. He and his gaily clad men rob from noblemen and give handouts to the poor, but the real danger Robin represents isn’t thievery; it’s nonchalance. He’s proof to the peasants that man’s spirit can’t be broken.

The current hit Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves misses that buoyancy, partly because its superstar Robin seems more concerned with the mortgage on his tree house than dallying with saucy maids. But hie thee to a video store, and you’ll find a forest of Hoods who can get their derring-do done. There’s the other brand-new Robin Hood, starring Sleeping With the Enemy‘s Patrick Bergin, intended as a theatrical release but shown on TV instead to avoid dueling with Kevin Costner’s star power. Also, Disney’s animated Robin Hood, featuring a literally foxy Robin, is being rereleased after languishing too long in video limbo, and Richard Lester’s revisionist Robin and Marian, starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn, is being repromoted at a lower price.

The best place to start, of course, is 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, a Technicolor gem featuring the unbelievably graceful Errol Flynn. This is where Robin Hood the movie legend comes from — it’s so firmly lodged in our cultural memory that every version since has had to live up to it.

In Disney’s cartoon telling, for instance, Robin speaks in a veddy British voice intended to recall Flynn’s swashbuckling cadences. So why are most of the other characters saddled with corn-pone Southern accents by the likes of Andy Devine and George ”Goober” Lindsey? Is this Sherwood Forest or Mayberry? A product of the lean years between Walt Disney’s death and Michael Eisner’s rise, this Robin Hood is an uninspired retread of the studio’s Jungle Book: There’s a snake like Kaa, and Phil Harris’ Little John is simply Baloo with a hat. It is Disney, of course, and kids should sit still for it, but Errol delivers more action without turning silly.

So does Patrick Bergin, who for my money has more dash than the Gloomy Gus of Prince of Thieves. Both of these new Robin Hoods want to give the story a stronger sense of period (i.e., more mud) while delivering on the sword-flashing dazzle. But where the Costner film wastes time pushing summer-movie Bigness in your face, Bergin’s Robin Hood (directed by John Irvin) aims its catapults lower and comes closer to hitting the castle door. Uma Thurman is also fine as a cool, laconic Maid Marian, and she isn’t above slinging a sword in her man’s defense. Like its big-screen big brother, Robin Hood suffers from a sagging narrative, but the banter is better, and so is Bergin.

He can’t erase the memory of Flynn, though. The only actor alive who could do that is Sean Connery, who portrays Robin in a film that lovingly trashes almost every aspect of the myth. Robin and Marian brings the hero back from the Crusades 20 years after his youthful triumphs, only to find that Marian (Audrey Hepburn) long ago stopped waiting and entered a nunnery. But the religious orders are being persecuted in the wake of King John’s tiff with the pope, and Robin has a chance to ride to her rescue again. In so doing, he finds autumnal love and a chivalry he thought the Crusades had beaten out of him.

Exquisitely photographed by David Watkin, Robin and Marian still shows the Middle Ages to be a brutal time. Swords are unwieldy, muscles rebel, loved ones wither and die. So where’s the lightness? It’s everywhere, oddly — in the joy Connery’s Robin takes in defying his aging body, in the serenity of Hepburn’s Marian, in the aching loyalty of Nicol Williamson’s Little John. Here — not in any big-budget summer toy — is the right response to Errol Flynn’s beautifully impossible heroism.
Robin Hood (Disney): C
Robin Hood (Bergin): B
Robin and Marian: A