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Umberto Lenzi’s Merry Men: The Triumph of Robin Hood

For most of his tenure in the “historical hellraiser” genre, Umberto Lenzi was able to mask the paucity of his budgets by leaning on existing costumes, sets, and stock footage. On occasion, however, no amount of lavish ornamentation or camera trickery could disguise the meager resources he was sometimes afforded. This was manifest primarily whenever a film called for a massive battle between two armies, and Lenzi was able to field no more than a few dozen extras, making it look less like a battle for the future of a nation and more like a squabble between tribes. Il trionfo di Robin Hood (The Triumph of Robin Hood, 1962) manages, for the most part, not to suffer for its lack of money. Most of the scuffles — and they are frequent — involve guerilla attacks against small bands of troops. Unfortunately, the finale calls for a battle royale between two armies, and that’s an ambition beyond the film’s means.

On the other hand, it’s hard to care when the sparsely-populated final battle has been preceded by an hour of near plotless derring-do, good cheer, high spirits, and manly laughing.

While there might have been an historical person who served as the basis for the character of Robin Hood, he ultimately exists more in the realm of a figure like King Arthur, where the legends are the more important aspect of their existence. The origin of the character as he’s commonly accepted today is a mishmash drawn from myriad sources, including medieval ballads (the first known mention of Robin Hood is Robin Hood and the Monk, from sometime around 1450 and featuring a number of key elements of the Robin Hood legend, including the bad blood between him and the Sheriff of Nottingham), folk tales and performances spun during May Day festivals (the point at which Robin is first associated with Maid Marian), and historian John Major’s History of Greater Britain (written in 1521 and the first source to tie Robin Hood to King Richard and the Crusades). During May Day festivities, Robin was often given the lofty position of May King, presiding over the festivities and affording local lads an opportunity to cut loose, raising revels so raucous that, at least on one occasion, they became the subject of a formal complaint. The players countered that they were doing it all in the name of raising money for the church.

However, despite the long folkloric record of the exploits of Robin Hood, far and away the most influential tale of this early incarnation of a gentleman thief is the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, and Claude Rains. This lavish Technicolor adventure, high on romance and swashbuckling, was so successful that it actually discouraged imitation rather than spawning a Robin Hood renaissance, as was often the case with popular films. Who, filmmakers figured, could possibly compete with Errol Flynn? Flynn himself had taken on the daunting task of making people forget the previous big screen Robin Hood, Douglas Fairbanks, who played the prince of thieves in an uneven but visually sumptuous silent film from 1922. Flynn at least had the advantage of significant advances in film technology, including vibrant Technicolor (Fairbanks himself had experimented with Technicolor in another of his swashbuckling classics, 1926’s The Black Pirate). For decades, in movie house revivals and later when broadcast on television, Errol Flynn’s portrayal of Robin Hood was the definitive version, and it’s that version that Don Burnett attempts to mimic. In the 1990s, when earnestly good-natured adventure films rapidly fell out of favor, it became popular to reinvent Robin Hood in what was perceived to be a more realistic, grittier fashion, draining the character of its fun, green tights, and much of the point that had originated from those old tales.

Following the template of the rollicking Errol Flynn swashbuckler and Hammer Films’ more recent Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960, starring Peter Cushing as the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham!), The Triumph of Robin Hood follows the same story as most Robin Hood films, but it does so with much less interest in stitching together a cohesive film. Instead, it bounds jauntily from one episodic encounter to the next, following the structure “someone gets kidnapped; Robin and his merry men laugh heartily and ride to the rescue; repeat until King Richard returns.” In the end, it plays less like a feature film and more like a series of “Wonderful World of Disney” episodes strung together until a reasonable feature film runtime was reached. One half expects Robin and his band to ride off in one direction and pass the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, riding in the other.

American actor Don Burnett stars as Robin Hood, leader of a band of good-natured outlaws loyal to good King Richard the Lionhearted, who despite supposedly being a great king, rode off to the Crusades and left the land under the stewardship of his spiteful, evil little brother Prince John and his right-hand fiend, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Arturo Dominici). Robin, Will Scarlett, Friar Tuck, Little John, and the lads spend their days foiling the various plans of the nefarious duo. That is, when they’re not busy mounting high-spirited rescues of whichever member of the band has most recently been captured. It’s a Robin Hood “greatest hits” compilation, never sticking with one thought long enough to develop it into a complete story but getting to the meat of the matter, taking care of business, and then moving on to the next adventure, which will be more or less the same and just as energetic.

While one wouldn’t necessarily claim this to be Umberto Lenzi’s finest hour, it’s still a fun hour. Action scenes come fast and furious, and while none of them are especially accomplished — the archery is executed with all the polished precision of a kid that has made their first bow and arrow at summer camp — they are mounted enthusiastically, with lots of guys falling off horses, tumbling into rivers, and flipping each other. Burnett plays Robin with the “hands on hips, head thrown back in a bellow laugh” panache of a budget Errol Flynn, wisely assuming that subtlety and reserve is not something people want from Robin Hood, especially a Robin that has to communicate to multiple countries and cultures. Like most Italian movies, the cast was stitched together from multiple nations (and filmed in Slovenia) speaking multiple languages, none of which were being recorded for use in the finished film, which would be dubbed. So Burnett is almost performing for a silent film, which means playing it large.

Speaking of large, Robin’s compatriot Little John is played by Samson Burke, who somehow never made it big (so to speak) in the sword and sandal genre, appearing in only one straightforward peplum — The Vengeance of Ursus (1961) — and two comedic sendups of the genre — The Three Stooges Meet Hercules and the Italian film Toto vs. Maciste. After that, Burke headed to Germany and appeared in the 1966 fantasy epic Die Nibelungen and had a small role in the oddball 1967 Eurospy film Death Trip (aka Kommissar X – Drei grüne Hunde), where he matched muscles with series co-star and action choreographer Brad Harris (with whom Burke was lifting buddies; he and Harris built themselves a little gym on a rooftop, and guys like Gordon Mitchell and Steve Reeves would drop by to hang out and work out — no joke!). After that, Burke took acting jobs here and there, including a turn in Federico Fellini’s Satyricon, before the roles began to dry up, largely because of a shift in the way films were subsidized by the government. He decided to move to Hawaii, where he got a job on Magnum, P.I. and, like many former veterans musclemen of the European cult film trenches, started his own fitness business.

The Triumph of Robin Hood was not the first Italian Robin Hood film out of the gate. That honor goes to director Giorgio Simonelli’s Robin Hood e i pirati (Robin Hood and the Pirates, 1960) starring former Tarzan Lex Barker. First though it might have been, it’s not especially recognizable as a Robin Hood film, with Robin joining a band of pirates and spending much of his time in a rocky, Mediterranean setting. Umberto Lenzi’s modest contribution to Robin Hood lore is in no way an essential film, but it’s fun and lacking in pretension. It’s goal is to be a light-hearted, disposable piece of Saturday matinee entertainment, and in that pursuit Lenzi hits the bullseye. The action may be awkwardly staged, the final battle a bit threadbare, and the quality of the acting a bit broad, but in the end, none of that matters. It’s a film full of adventure, narrow escapes, bad archery, guys leaping off rocks, sword fights, and hearty laughing. If you want more than that from Robin Hood, Umberto Lenzi is not your man. Nor, for that matter, is Robin Hood.

About Keith Allison

Keith Allison is a writer and pop culture historian living in New York. His interest in film and adventure started at an early age, when he was left to his own devices in the wee small hours and discovered the Universal monsters, Godzilla, and "Matinee at the Bijou." He has written for Alcohol Professor, The Cultural Gutter, Teleport City and the book Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head. He is also the author of Cocktails & Capers: Cult Film, Cocktails, Crime, and Cool.

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