This week the world lost three English performers who were all film actors, although the first, David Bowie, was mainly a musician, and the other two, Alan Rickman and Brian Bedford, were Shakespearean stage actors before making any films. Only Rickman was best known as a film actor; Bedford, whose death came between the other two and drew far less attention, worked mostly on the stage.
I happened to be watching Errol Flynn in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” with my family when I glanced at Twitter during an intermission and learned that Bedford had died. Ironically, Bedford’s best-known film role was in Disney’s animated “Robin Hood” (1973), in which he voiced the legendary outlaw. Rickman, who died the next day, had played the Sheriff of Nottingham in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991), starring Kevin Costner.
David Bowie, alas, never made a Robin Hood movie.
I haven’t seen “Prince of Thieves” in decades, but I recall it as a dreadful mess, vacillating between leaden seriousness, goofy comedy, gritty brutality, and political correctness — with Rickman’s sheriff, alas, stuck somewhere between all these moods, never more awkwardly than in the attempted rape of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Marian.
I don’t recall how Mike McShane’s Friar Tuck is portrayed, or how the Church or Christian faith are (or aren’t) depicted. What I do remember, of course, is Morgan Freeman’s Azeem the Moor, on hand to add racial and religious diversity to an English Christian story, and the occultism of the Sheriff of Nottingham’s witchy mother. Who on earth thought any of this was a good idea for a Robin Hood story?
Disney’s “Robin Hood” I know much better. It may not be a masterpiece either, but compared to the Costner film, it might as well be Shakespeare. It’s also one of the most Christian-inflected tales among Disney’s animated features, thanks to the portrayal of Friar Tuck, who (unlike most live-action Friar Tucks) seems to spend most of his time ministering to the poor of Nottingham, in particular acting as Robin Hood’s confederate in returning stolen tax money to the people.
The cartoon is an odd beast, and not just because the characters are all literal animals. Bedford gives a fine swashbuckling vocal performance as an archetypal, properly English Robin Hood, albeit one who happens to be a fox.
Other English cast members include Monica Evans as Marian (also a fox), Peter Ustinov as Prince John (and, briefly, King Richard, both lions), and Terry-Thomas as Sir Hiss. Intriguingly, an early line attributes Richard’s departure for the Crusades as the result of John scheming to get rid of his brother utilizing Sir Hiss’s hypnotic powers. (In an alternate ending available on the “Most Wanted Edition” DVD, however, after deposing his brother and restoring peace to England, Richard departs again for the next crusade!)
Other cast members are American — very American. Phil Harris lends his deep, growly voice to Little John (a bear), who, in this telling, is not only Robin Hood’s sidekick, but his only real “merry man” in Sherwood. Wheezy Andy Devine voices Friar Tuck, who visits Sherwood but seems to live at the village church. There’s also Alan-a-Dale (a rooster, played by country singer Roger Miller), but he acts mainly as a singing narrator, and is barely a character. Between Miller’s country crooning and a number of other actors, including Devine, associated with Hollywood Westerns, there’s a distinct cowboy-musical vibe to the ostensibly medieval European setting.
“Friar Tuck, the old do-gooder, out doing good again,” the Sheriff of Nottingham chuckles good-naturedly in an early establishing scene. To the sheriff, it’s all a game: He steals the people’s money in taxes for Prince John, Robin Hood steals it back, Friar Tuck returns it, and the sheriff takes it away again. Tuck takes a more serious view of the matter, but the sheriff brushes him off: “Save your sermon, preacher. It ain’t Sunday, you know.”
Their antagonism takes a more serious turn in a late confrontation at Tuck’s church. At this point nearly everyone in Nottingham has been locked up for inability to pay taxes, but even though no one is coming to church, Tuck rings the church bell anyway, explaining to his sexton, a church mouse, that the sound may “bring those poor people some comfort.”
Noting that the poor box, like the church, is empty, the church mouse’s wife produces a coin, admitting that it’s all they have, but urging the friar to take it “for the poor.”
“Your last farthing?” Tuck asks with a smile. “Aw, little sister, no one can give more than that!” (This is an allusion to the Gospel story of the widow’s mite in Mark 12:41–44, in which Jesus declared that the tiny donation to the Temple treasury of a poor widow, valued at about a cent, was worth more than the lavish donations of the wealthy, “for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had.”)
At that moment the sheriff shows up and claims the coin for Prince John’s taxes, warning the indignant friar that “you’re mighty preachy, and you’re gonna preach your neck right into a hangman’s noose.”
Outraged, Tuck thunders, “Get out of my church!” and a scuffle ensues, ending in the friar’s arrest. (This scene was inspired by “The Mark of Zorro,” which also suggested the idea of a priest confederate distributing the hero’s stolen tax money — though in “The Mark of Zorro” we actually see the priest only accepting donations, never giving them back. For all the Catholic themes in “The Mark of Zorro,” there’s more onscreen social justice in Disney’s “Robin Hood”!)
The sheriff’s warnings about Tuck’s “preachiness” aside, Tuck does no actual preaching. At least he’s allowed to say a line like “Thank God! My prayers have been answered!” as if he really meant it. And when Prince John plots to hang the friar in order to lure Robin Hood out of hiding, Sir Hiss gasps, “Hang Friar Tuck? A man of the Church?”
Is this the only direct mention of the Church in a Disney animated feature other than “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” with its mixed reflections on Catholic spirituality?