Special Report

From Black List to Green Wood

Written by exiled leftists, the 1950s Robin Hood television series turns out to have been much more freedom loving and suspicious of collectivism than they knew.

By 10.25.11

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I think it was Thursdays, but it might have been Tuesdays. I'm pretty sure the day started with a T.

It was the best day of the week that year in elementary school for me, because we could get optional chocolate milk with our school lunch, and Robin Hood was on TV in the evening.

Loved that show -- the swashbuckling adventures of Robin (Richard Greene), Little John (Archie Duncan), Maid Marian (Bernadette O'Farrell, later Patricia Driscoll), and Friar Tuck (Alexander Gauge), battling the corrupt (but always well dressed) Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Wheatley), week after week. I have no doubt it was that program that instilled in me the love for things medieval that motivates me to dress up as a Viking reenactor on weekends, even at my age.

My adult experiences with rediscovering beloved childhood television programs have mostly been disappointing. When I get a chance to see an episode (or, worse still, buy the DVD set), I can usually expect a rude collision with shoddy writing, wooden acting, and cheap costumes and sets.

So it was with some misgivings that I approached the complete collection of The Adventures of Robin Hood. But it was on sale at a very low price at my local used book store, and I took the chance.

I was pleasantly surprised. The acting is good, the costumes not bad, and the sets (by artistic director Peter Proud) were groundbreaking, achieving an illusion of variety on a limited budget.

Still, for any conservative fan of this series, there must always be the problem of the Legend of The Adventures of Robin Hood. Not the original legend of "Bold Robin" based on English ballads, but the (factual) political legend of how the show came to be written.

Producer Hannah Weinstein was an avowed leftist, and made a point of hiring expatriate American writers, notably several members of the Hollywood Ten, like Ring Lardner, Jr. These writers, living in England where the show was filmed, worked under pseudonyms. They were happy to relate, in later years, how they managed to smuggle redistributionist propaganda into American homes during the Eisenhower years.

All true.

And yet, my own impression is that -- at least a lot of the time -- the stories they wrote did not bear out their principles nearly so well as they thought.

The very first episode, "The Coming of Robin Hood," tells how Robin of Locksley -- no member of the proletariat, but lord of an estate -- comes home to find his property unjustly confiscated by the authorities. His resistance to this injustice makes him an outlaw, and much is made of the fact that the government has no right to steal private property.

That's not what I'd call a good start for a series promoting Collectivism.

An episode called "The Salt King" in Season Three concerns a nobleman who holds a monopoly on the sale of salt in Nottinghamshire. His underhanded scheme to decrease supplies and raise prices is the stuff that Progressive propaganda is made of, I'll admit. But, interestingly, the solution Robin and his friends come up with involves not the nationalization of the salt wells, but the threat of competition, when the individual landowners convince the monopolist that they've found salt on their own lands.

Another interesting episode from Season Three is "One Man's Meat," in which a nobleman with nutritional theories tries to force his servants and serfs to live on a miracle diet composed of nuts and roots. Modern leftists, many of whom are vegetarians, will probably be distressed to see Robin smuggling meat in to the suffering castle occupants. He then proves by means of a blind study (apparently having invented modern science single-handedly) that the nobleman's food is healthy for pigs.

And what kind of government is more likely to force dietary laws on its citizens, anyway? Capitalist or Communist?

An episode called "The Minstrel," also in Season Three, certainly sprang from the deepest hearts of the blacklisted American writers. A minstrel composes a song making fun of the Sheriff. The Sheriff, concerned that the city look good for an upcoming visit by Prince John, outlaws all singing. Obviously this is a poke at the United States, which had imprisoned some of them (though technically they didn't go to jail for what they'd written, but for refusing to reveal Communist connections).

Yes, yes. I see the point.

And yet, if you were to look for a country that sent people to prison (and even put them to death) for the content of their writings, wouldn't the most obvious parallel be a certain world power located to the east?

A similar episode, "The Doctor," from the same season, involves a principled physician who is threatened with a show trial (sentence predetermined) for the crime of treating Little John.

I take the point, of course. Still, it seems to me that while the Hollywood Ten's treatment by the House Committee on Un-American Activities may not have been the high point of American constitutional jurisprudence, there was another world power whose show trials were far more brutal, and whose victims generally ended up dead, not living comfortably abroad, writing television scripts.

All in all it seems to me that The Adventures of Robin Hood wasn't nearly the propaganda engine the writers wanted it to be. The reason, I think, is simple. Good writing mirrors real life. And real life is essentially conservative. These writers were too good to really try to impose Marxist principles on their stories.

Another notable element, through the entire run of the series, is its treatment of the Roman Catholic Church.

Although in the ballads Robin Hood was always a faithful Christian, his relationship with churchmen was ambivalent. His alliance with Friar Tuck notwithstanding, "fat abbots," who were also feudal lords, were frequent victims of the Sherwood robbers.

But in this series, churchmen are always friends to the people, and the church promotes liberty 100% of the time.

No doubt this was due to the broadcast standards of English television in those days. Criticism of Christianity was not permitted, particularly in children's fare. The Communist, atheist writers must have chafed under that restriction, but they bit their tongues and wrote as they were told.

Because if there's one thing Communists are good at, it's obeying government orders.

As long as it isn't the United States government, under Republicans.

I will admit, though, that my set of DVDs does live up to the standards of the Soviet Union in one important respect.

They're shoddily manufactured. Half the episodes on the last three discs are garbled and unwatchable.

The spirit of the Revolution lives on.

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About the Author
Lars Walker is a librarian and Norwegian translator, and the author of several published fantasy novels, the latest of which is an e-book called Troll Valley, available for Kindle or Nook.