Like a certain Saxon archer landing an arrow right down the center of a bullseye, another Robin Hood movie being around the corner is inevitable. One of the oldest and most beloved figures of English folklore, Robin of Locksley has evolved through the centuries from grifter and trickster to fallen nobleman, and finally to righteous social justice warrior enamored with a serious income distribution plan. He also has more easily made the jump to cinema in the 20th century than many of his legendary peers of yore like King Arthur and Beowulf.
Indeed, thanks in large part to the charms of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, Robin has been the star of one of the most important Hollywood films in cinema history, and that is just one of many silver screen adventures that have spanned more than a century. For like any icon of myth, the Prince of Thieves lends himself to constant reinvention and recontextualization. Every generation must have their Robin Hood… even if some are gifted with better variations than others.
Below is our ranking of the 11 generally most well-known Robin Hood movies. We have not included every production, and even intentionally excluded famed shorts, such as Robin Hood’s cinematic debut in the 1908 film, “Robin Hood and His Merry Men,” as well as television movies and series, including BBC’s popular 2000s Robin Hood show and Gen-X cult favorite, Robin of Sherwood (1984). But we’re confident we have all the most important movies about Robin and his bow, so if you don’t like these rules, take it up with the Sheriff.
11. Robin Hood (2018)
Only a few short years ago, the race was on between five studios to be the first to produce a Robin Hood movie in the wake of Marvel Studios’ massive success, each vying to launch their own “universe” of Robin Hood movies. Well, you might want to stop holding your breath for that Friar Tuck spinoff, because we live in one of the darker timelines where Joby Harold’s pitch for an anachronistic “War on Terror” Robin Hood (originally titled “Robin Hood: Origins”) reached the finish line first.
A failure on every level, no one comes away from this movie clean, including the usually charming Taron Egerton and the often amusing Ben Mendelsohn. Less Alan Rickman in Prince of Thieves and more Rickman in Quigley Down Under, Mendelsohn’s villainy is on autopilot, and he’s one of the better aspects. The picture attempts to turn Robin Hood into a muddled metaphor about Western misadventures in the Middle East, complete with Crusaders wearing camouflage and treating crossbows as IEDs. Meanwhile at home, everyone treats “Rob” like Bruce Wayne (he’s a superhero outlaw) while Will Scarlett and Marian talk of political votes and union organizing, as if anyone had rights in feudal, pre-Magna Carta England. Let’s just say if the people did have the vote, no one would’ve cast it for this seismic disaster.
10. Robin Hood (1991)
Ah yes, that other Robin Hood movie from 1991. The proto-hipster’s preference to the bombastic Kevin Costner version released in the same year, this British production is imagined to be more “authentic,” even if Robin Hood actor Patrick Bergin is an Irishman and Uma Thurman’s Marian is about as British as Costner’s cowboy Crusader. But more than casting, this movie’s problem is it just looks cheap and plays worse.
Without the budget of Costner’s film, or some of the homespun magic of the various Disney adaptations, this is a garish looking film that is as empty as its sets. While taking a few passing cues from the Errol Flynn picture, Bergin’s Robin Hood is no more faithful to legends and beloved tales than Costner’s movie, yet its additions are louder, lousier, and ultimately ludicrous. The narrative comes down to a love triangle between Robin, Marian, and original character Sir Miles Folcanet, whose climactic slaying at the film’s limp climax convinces his patron, an inexplicable original creation named Baron Roger Daguerre, to pardon and befriend Robin. Personally though, this Robin isn’t even worthy of a Facebook friend request.
9. Ivanhoe (1952)
Here’s an awkward one. Technically, Ivanhoe is one of the most celebrated and well-recognized movies on this list, at least in its time. Like The Adventures of Robin Hood, which was released 14 years before this, Ivanhoe is a Technicolor spectacle embraced by the box office and Academy Awards. Nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture, Ivanhoe was the toast of MGM, and likely their stealthy redo of a Robin Hood movie after Warner Brothers’ 1938 classic killed momentum for their then-planned Robin Hood musical.
And yet, unlike the ‘30s Errol Flynn movie, no one talks a whole lot about Ivanhoe anymore, because… it’s just not very good. A stuffy and overcooked pageant that could only come out of the excesses of 1950s Hollywood, Ivanhoe is a beautiful looking bore, in no small part because MGM’s leading man Robert Taylor is more wooden than the oaks in Sherwood. In the film, Taylor does not actually play Robin Hood, but rather the titular Ivanhoe. This is true to the Sir Walter Scott novel on which it is based. That book, in proper 19th century fashion, is also the source for reimagining Robin Hood as a fallen lord (it is Scott who we have to thank for the title “Robin of Locksley”), and Robin still appears in the film as Ivanhoe’s outlawed benefactor, played here by Harold Warrender. Nevertheless, MGM attempts to recreate many of the iconic sequences from Adventures of Robin Hood with Ivanhoe at the center, emphasizing a jousting tournament just as that earlier film did its archery contest.
It’s a fabulous looking movie, but it now mostly holds value as a relic of stilted Hollywood blockbusters from the studio system’s most decadent decade, as well as a testament to how dull Taylor is as an actor (or how absurd many of Elizabeth Taylor’s early ingénue roles were, such as her part here as Ivanhoe’s Jewish damsel in distress, Rebecca). But at least Robert Taylor would fair better a year later with Knights of the Round Table… in a supporting role.
8. Robin Hood (2010)
Alas, poor Ridley Scott. The filmmaker responsible for the best “ancient” epics of the last 50 years, including Gladiator (2000) and Kingdom of Heaven’s Director’s Cut (2005), had toyed with the idea of a Robin Hood movie at various points in his career. One possibility he considered was making a sequel to Kingdom of Heaven where Orlando Bloom and Eva Green’s characters ride after Richard the Lionheart and wind up outlaws in his Sherwood Forest, inspiring the legend. More intriguing still, Scott then approached this project as a reimagining where the Sheriff of Nottingham would be the main character, and Robin an unfairly romanticized brigand.
Either of those would’ve been more interesting than what we got, which is an exquisitely designed recreation of late 12th century England that is often all dressed up with no place to go. Frequent Scott collaborator Russell Crowe apparently urged Scott to go in this direction because he wanted to play Robin Hood instead of a deconstructed Sheriff. Pity, since the man who was Gladiator turned out to be far too old for the role of a Robin who’s just getting started. But at least this allowed Cate Blanchett to be cast as Marian, more widow than maid. Her presence is always a weclome one, however, the fact that the movie ends with her suiting up in armor alongside Robin for a lame battle sequence like every other wannabe epic in the post-Lord of the Rings 2000s underscores how little anyone knew what to do with this movie.
Attempting to make Robin more a libertarian warrior against over-taxation of wealthy estates than a defender of the poor, the film is filled with half-baked Scottisms, but its reputation has hidden some of its better virtues. Once again a gorgeous production, the film recreates the Tower of London when it was the seat of English power to tremendous effect, and traces the fallout from King Richard’s death that few Robin Hood films have time for. Also by working as a more effective metaphor for the Iraq War than the 2018 movie, Richard (Danny Huston) is presented as a vainglorious fool, and John as even worse. Portrayed by Oscar Isaac before movie stardom, King John is given poignancy in his sneering insecurity. Something like a medieval Fredo Corleone, John is a great villain in a not-so-great movie. For the curious though, it is worth visiting.
7. Robin Hood (1973)
For many a millennial whose parents treated Disney as a beloved uncle (or at least reliable babysitter), this is the only Robin Hood movie that matters. That’s unfortunate given the six movies above it on this list, but there is no denying there’s a folksy charm about this shabby animated production. Produced after Walt’s death, the film was a rush job that combined one of Walt’s most elusive projects that never came together (an adaptation of “Reynard the Fox” fables) with a reimagining of 1952’s Robin Hood and His Merrie Men.
As a slap-and-dash effort that cheaply reuses animation from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Aristocats, and most damningly The Jungle Book—many of the character designs in Robin Hood are lifted straight from that movie, including Baloo as now Little John—the film historically marks the beginning of a decade of decline at Walt Disney Animation Studios after Walt’s passing. It is also tonally confused in its emphasis on Southerner culture in England (the movie was originally pitched as a spiritual sequel to Song of the South that would move Robin to the Land of Dixie. Yikes.)
And yet, there’s a reason children love it. By turning Robin Hood into a kind of counterculture beatnik with foxy eyes, and Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham into square authority figures whose stuffiness wouldn’t be out of place among villains in a Beatles movie from a few years earlier, the film enjoys an easygoing affability. That whistle even still gets caught in your head too, doesn’t it?
6. The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952)
The other Disney-produced Robin Hood movie that most fox-obsessed millennials know nothing about, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men is a quaint, if not necessarily enthralling, alternative to MGM’s Ivanhoe bloat from the same year. As Disney’s only second live-action film produced for theaters after the much more fondly remembered Treasure Island, this take on Robin Hood is one of the few films that skews much closer to the folktales of yore.
Often playing as a more wholesome, and financially limited, version of the Errol Flynn movie, it’s easy to see why Merrie Men has mostly vanished in the cultural memory, especially when it features more or less the same scenes as Flynn’s with half the pizazz or costumed extravagance, such as Robin’s confrontation with Little John or meeting Friar Tuck. However, it brings a winning charm of its own. Focusing on some of the pre-Walter Scott legends, Walt’s Robin Hood, played dashingly by Richard Todd, is actually Robert Fitzooth, a real historic figure many have falsely claimed inspired the Robin Hood legend (this angle was also used in Robin of Sherwood). This “Robin” wants to go on Richard’s Crusade but is prevented when the Sheriff of Nottingham murders his father and Robin flees to Sherwood as an outlaw.
The film works best, however, when it plays up in traditional Disney fashion the hero’s love story with Maid Marian (Joan Rice), his childhood sweetheart who will wait for him and eventually flees her father to join Robin in the forest. And for fans of the Disney animated movie, you can find this as the inspiration of Allan-a-Dale singing introduction songs over the opening credits and a saccharine love ballad while Robin and Marian sneak off in the woods for some chaste eye-gazing. These songs are better than the animated ones too.
5. Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922)
The most popular Robin Hood production of the silent era, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. left his stamp on the property… including in the title. As much an exercise in showcasing Fairbanks’ athletic stunt work and derring-do as it is a full narrative, it is still a remarkably entertaining swashbuckler that was a clear influence on The Adventures of Robin Hood in the following decade. A tale of Robin going into exile and saving Maid Marian from the dastardly Sir Guy of Gisbourne, the picture includes moments still thrilling to this day, such as when Robin climbs a drawbridge’s chain or literally launching himself between battlements and towers to begin climbing on vines. That ain’t CGI, folks.
If nothing else, this is the movie that cemented in the imagination that Robin Hood must wear tights. So you’re welcome.
4. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
Robin Hood: Men in Tights never got its due upon release. While hardly a comedic masterpiece like earlier Mel Brooks spoofs, such as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (both 1974), Men in Tights is a delicious send-up of Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood from a few years earlier, as well as a love letter to Brooks’ favorite: The Adventures of Robin Hood. With Brooks being an unabashed Errol Flynn fanboy, having even met him briefly while working in television in the 1950s (and using that story as the basis for the delightful My Favorite Year), Brooks attempts to make an old-fashioned swashbuckler that brings the jokes.
The end result is a movie where the laughs can be hit or miss, but when they hit, they’re bullseyes. Highlights include Robin and his Merry Men finally addressing that they’re tough guys who like to wear tights; the inclusion of Dave Chappelle as Ahchoo (a send-up of Morgan Freeman’s inclusion in Costner’s movie); and Patrick Stewart’s satire of Sean Connery’s Scottish-accented English king. The movie is also quite disarming as a light adventure unto itself, especially since it’s best gag is that star Cary Elwes could’ve easily played a more exciting Robin Hood in an earnest production. Having already been Robin-like in The Princess Bride (1987), he would’ve made WB’s Prince of Thieves a less guilty pleasure, because, to paraphrase Brooks’ script, unlike some other Robin Hoods, he can speak with an English accent.
3. Robin and Marian (1976)
A Robin Hood movie definitely not intended for children, Robin and Marian is likely the most underrated picture on this list. Choosing to adapt some of the bitterest Robin Hood mythos that Hollywood has otherwise always steered clear from, Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian’s original title might’ve been more accurate: “The Death of Robin Hood.” This is a deconstructionist drama released in a decade that reveled in deconstruction… yet not of Robin Hood given the box office numbers.
As the first Robin Hood story to turn him into a Crusader returning from the Holy Lands, the film reimagines Robin as a bit like one of the anti-heroes of New Hollywood, a la Clyde Barrow or Popeye Doyle. He might be our hero, but he is hardly heroic. Coming home to England after 15 years of war, Robin is well past the beginning of middle-age and only slightly less off-kilter than crazed King Richard (Richard Harris). But Robin doesn’t come back to find peace; he wants to relive his glory days, even if it is to the detriment of everyone around him. His romancing of Marian (Audrey Hepburn) left her disgraced and secluded in an abbey with a nun’s habit, and now he seduces her again, getting her to renounce her love for God in favor of him… even as he drags her and Little John (Nicol Williamson) into a destructive lifestyle.
In the film’s best addition, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) isn’t fully a villain either. He is merely a respectful adversary who anticipates meeting Robin alone on the dueling grounds out of pride, honor, and even a perverse sense of friendship. Forty years before Hugh Jackman’s Logan, Robin and Marian revisited a silver screen hero through a mournful prism, albeit this elegiac film is far more romantic in no small part due to Connery and Hepburn’s tender chemistry. It’s the only time the two ‘60s icons worked together, and in their middle-age, they still shine brightly, which makes the ending where Marian and Robin’s lights are extinguished all the more shocking.
2. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
A film that’s better than you remember, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves remains the most exciting Merry Men movie this side of Errol Flynn. While Kevin Costner is obviously miscast as Robin (and with a silly ‘90s haircut to boot), he also plays the role with more gusto and appeal than the half-dozen or so actors who’ve portrayed Robin on film or television since. He also is luckily aided by a production that gets much more right than wrong.
Being the first major Hollywood film to shoot in actual English forests and rolling hills, Kevin Reynolds’ movie snapshots an England countryside eternally cast in autumn’s brittle thrall. Like Robin and Marian, Prince of Thieves turns Robin into a Crusader, but this is the movie that first explores that concept as an origin story, with a younger Robin Hood using those experiences to inform his adventures. Every Robin Hood movie and TV show ever since has stolen the idea, including with Robin returning with a Saracen sidekick. It’s a facet that will likely remain in all Robin Hood stories to come too, although none have yet matched Morgan Freeman’s Azeem, who says more while silently refusing to bow before King Richard than a dozen speeches by Jamie Foxx about the evils of the West.
Of course the most striking reasons to remember this movie is Alan Rickman’s scene-stealing Sheriff of Nottingham, as well as Michael Kamen’s stirring musical score. On the first count, Rickman had free reign to do whatever he wanted as the Sheriff and arguably surpasses Hans Gruber in Die Hard with a performance that so happily chews the scenery that it’s a wonder Sherwood wasn’t deforested. Kamen’s score, meanwhile, evokes rousing medieval fantasies with vigor. Production company Morgan Creek Entertainment was even impressed enough to make it part of its title card, all while the romantic theme’s luscious sweep became one of the biggest Top 40 hits of ’91 after they added some dippy Bryan Adams lyrics to it. Throw in excellent action sequences that favored stunts over visual effects, the best Little John and Robin confrontation in movie history, and Sean Connery’s surprise reveal as King Richard, and you have a bonafide classic on your own hands, warts and all.
Just a tip: Stick with the theatrical cut; the extended cut only kills the pacing to magnify the film’s other weak element: the tacky inclusion of a witch (Geraldine McEwan) and her superfluous subplot with Rickman.
1. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
There are Robin Hood movies, and then there are Robin Hood movies. And then there’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. As perfect a swashbuckler as there’s ever been, one could write a whole article on just this film and how effortless it makes everything appear. The magic of the illusion is even more striking when one realizes most of the film’s best elements nearly didn’t happen. From Errol Flynn only getting the green tights after James Cagney pissed Jack Warner off for the umpteenth time to director Michael Curtiz coming on board to salvage the film after William Keighley had already been shooting for over a month, this movie could’ve very easily been just another Hollywood product. Instead it’s a masterpiece.
The most faithful big budget adaptation of Robin Hood’s legends, the film adapts iconic moments like Robin’s archery contest, his first encounter with Friar Tuck, and teaming with King Richard to depose Prince John with an infectious joy. All of the action sequences are likewise directed with kinetic energy by Curtiz, who invented the cinematic vernacular of what we associate to be “a swashbuckler” in this film, such as the dueling shadows of Robin and Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) in the climax, or Robin stealing away Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland) in his arms while leaping from the vines outside her castle window. There is an effervescent magic that propels the movie like a Technicolor daydream made by a studio system at the peak of its powerful craft. The cast is also uniformly perfect, including Rathbone, de Havilland, a wickedly effete Claude Rains as Prince John, and Errol Flynn at his very best.
Imbuing Robin with a devil-may-care cheer that is boyishly arrogant, yet nothing short of endearing and even seductive, Flynn is the Robin Hood by which all other actors are measured, and by which all are found wanting. His film likewise remains the quintessence of the legend on the big screen. More than any single book, The Adventures of Robin Hood defines what the character should be, how he should dress, and what he must sound like. Simply put this is the Robin Hood movie. All others must live in its dazzling Technicolor shadow.