A Flock of Robins : Producers Rush Projects but a Culling Is Expected


Robin of Locksley may be one of the Western world’s most enduring heroes, and post-Reagan America may be the ideal audience for a story about an outlaw who robs from the rich and gives to the poor. But will American moviegoers sit still through three different Robin Hoods next summer?

Probably not. That’s why Morgan Creek’s coup this week in locking up Kevin Costner for the lead in its project, “Prince of Thieves,” has sent two rival studios into paroxysms of doubt about their own Robin Hood films.

“We are in the middle of our process” of deciding where to go on “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” said Fox production chief Roger Birnbaum. “One of the other companies has announced the signing of a major star and that has given us pause . . . I still have a magnificent screenplay. We may make it in the immediate future or in a couple years.”


Tri-Star chief Mike Medavoy said he would only proceed on his project, “Robin Hood,” if he can find the right cast--and soon. “I wouldn’t do this if we were not the first one out,” he said. That will be tough to do, since Morgan Creek is already in preproduction, with cameras ready to roll on Sept. 3, and has moved up its release date from next summer to spring in order to beat its rivals to theaters.

Medavoy added, “I’ve been a big fan of the (1938) version. It’s a picture I’ve seen more times than any I can think of. This was the picture that really got me enthralled with movies. That’s why it’s difficult to part with this.”

“The Adventures of Robin Hood,” Warner Bros.’ first Technicolor release, remains one of the most popular movies shown on TV today. The 1938 film--a big-budget production at $2 million--won three Academy Awards and etched indelibly in the minds of movie fans the face of 28-year-old Errol Flynn as Robin Hood.

But there have been more than a dozen other attempts to bring the 12th-Century English legend to the screen, including a 1952 Disney version called “The Story of Robin Hood”; the 1950 “Rogues of Sherwood Forest” with John Derek as Robin Hood; a forgettable 1968 film called “A Challenge for Robin Hood”; and the 1976 love story “Robin and Marian” starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as the aging couple.

Connery’s son, Jason, starred in a recent Robin Hood TV series on Showtime. Other TV series include “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” which aired in the 1950s, and a 1975 Mel Brooks satire, “When Things Were Rotten.”

While each of the current three scripts sets its own tone, there are enough similarities to raise serious questions about whether audiences will want to see more than one Robin Hood movie.

All three are period-piece dramas--set against the brutality of 12th-Century authorities toward the peasant population--with Robin Hood as hero and Maid Marian as his lover. And all three attempt to explain why Robin Hood became an outlaw hiding out in the Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire.

Morgan Creek’s “Prince of Thieves” opens with Robin Hood’s daring escape from an Arabic prison where he has been held for five years, and shows his return to England where the infamous Sheriff of Nottingham is brutalizing the population. The story is laced with glimpses of pagan rituals and offers a dagger-wielding, feminist version of Maid Marian as well as a big, brooding Arabic sidekick to Robin.

The $40-million production, directed by Kevin Reynolds (“Fandango,” “The Beast”), brings together a design team that includes production designer John Graysmark (“Gorillas in the Mist”); art director Alan Tomkins, who earned an Oscar nomination for “The Empire Strikes Back”; set decorator Peter Young, who won an Oscar for “Batman,” and director of photography Doug Milsome (“Full Metal Jacket”).

In Fox’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” to be directed by John McTiernan--a filmmaker known for his action sequences in films like “Die Hard” and “The Hunt for Red October"--the central character is Sir Robert Hode. This young Saxon noble is more interested in wine and women--until the threat of a lashing by the Norman authorities sends him racing to the woods. The script was written by Mark Allen Smith.

Of the three projects, Tri-Star’s “Robin Hood” most closely follows the 1938 version. But the screenplay, written by “thirtysomething’s” Susan Shilliday, adds a first act that shows Robin as a young man, with a reputation as a “troublemaker . . . but the best shot with a long bow between York and London,” as the Sheriff of Nottingham put it. It is in the course of avenging his father’s brutal slaying that Robin eventually becomes a legendary outlaw.

How three different Robin Hood movies landed on studio schedules at the same time is anybody’s guess. Privately, some of those involved with these projects accuse the others of stealing their idea. And two weeks ago, Fox chairman Joe Roth went public with his own accusations in an unusual tirade that landed on the front page of the industry trade paper Daily Variety.

Roth accused Tri-Star and Morgan Creek of acting “unjustly, if not immorally” in putting competing Robin Hood projects into production when the rivals allegedly knew that McTiernan was developing a story for Fox.

Roth also attacked the William Morris Agency--which represents Fox’s McTiernan and Smith, as well as the two Morgan Creek writers, Pen Densham and John Watson. The Fox chairman said the agency obviously knew about the Fox project when it engineered the sale of the Densham-Watson script to Morgan Creek for $1.2 million last February. The Morris agency declined comment on the accusations.

Roth’s comments caught many in Hollywood by surprise--not only because of their force, but also because Roth was the co-founder of Morgan Creek with its current chief executive, James Robinson.

“Joe and I are the best of friends,” Robinson said when asked about Roth’s remarks. “When I read that stuff in the papers, I figure it’s just a studio head talking.” Roth declined comment.

McTiernan had been developing the project at Fox for two years, and Fox had planned to make the Robin Hood film after the director finished another project, “Road Show,” said Birnbaum.

Fox also hoped that Mel Gibson would agree to star in the film after he had finished “Hamlet” and one other film. Gibson, said Birnbaum, “looked at our project and liked it very much. But he was concerned about doing two period pieces in a row.”

But when it became clear that Tri-Star and Morgan Creek were rapidly moving forward on their own Robin Hood projects, Birnbaum said, Fox was forced to jump into the fray.

The writers and producers on the other projects deny that they were influenced by Fox’s screenplay. Ed Zwick, who is producing Tri-Star’s “Robin Hood” with his “thirtysomething” partner Marshall Herskovitz directing, said the pair first tried to pitch a Robin Hood movie in 1985. “The reaction was polite disinterest,” said Zwick, who directed “Glory” last year.

About two years ago, Shilliday, who is Herskovitz’s wife, began writing a script, he said. The screenplay was put on hold when she joined “thirtysomething” as a writer. At the end of the TV season last year, Zwick said, “she took up the pen again. Then she heard about the other projects. But she decided she was going to finish come hell or high water.”

Zwick added that Shilliday’s interest in the Robin Hood legend is not surprising. “Marshall and Susan are Anglophiles,” he said. “Both are steeped in the period and the lore. It was a natural outgrowth.”

Morgan Creek writer John Watson said he and his partner of 20 years, Pen Densham--both of whom grew up in England--had been eager to write a Robin Hood story for years. In early 1989, he said, Densham came up with a way to reinvent the legend.

“There was no influence from any other source,” said Watson. “We initiated the idea out of our own heads. We heard of one other project in the works (at Fox) but we decided to go ahead with ours . . . When you’re writing, and you get into the creative process, sometimes you just can’t stop.”

If Roth thought his comments would stall the other projects, he was wrong. Even as the Fox chairman was venting his frustrations in Hollywood, scouts for Tri-Star and Morgan Creek were in England combing the countryside for film locations.

“We’ve laughed about that,” Watson said in a telephone interview from his office at Shepperton Studios in London. “What would happen if we were marching through the forest and saw the Tri-Star people? We’d have to borrow the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men.”

This is not the first time several Hollywood studios have produced similar movies at the same time. Last year, three different film companies released underwater action movies--"Deep Star Six,” “Leviathan” and “The Abyss.” “The Abyss” was the only film to garner much attention at the box office.

In 1988 Fox--the same studio that produced “The Abyss"--released a body-change movie called “Big” that followed a slew of others, including “Vice Versa,” “Father and Son” and “18 Again.” “Big,” which was the last to be released, was the only hit.

But the sudden Hollywood interest in Robin Hood is more akin to two recent films based on the same 18th-Century novel--"Dangerous Liaisons” and “Valmont.” “Dangerous Liaisons,” starring Glenn Close, did brisk business--particularly for a period piece--and earned seven Oscar nominations. “Valmont,” which came out a year later, was virtually ignored, even though its director was the highly regarded Milos Forman (“Amadeus”).

Fox marketing chief Tom Sherak, who saw the studio through both “The Abyss” and “Big,” concedes that multiple Robin Hoods will be a tougher sell.

“Yes, it does present a problem,” Sherak said. “But the key is the filmmaker. You tell me that John McTiernan is going to make the movie and I’m going to sit up and listen.”

Susan King contributed to this story.


A Selected List of Robin Hood Projects of the Past

TITLE YEAR ROBIN HOOD CHARACTER MOVIES Robin Hood of El Dorado 1936 Warner Baxter Adventures of Robin Hood 1938 Errol Flynn Robin Hood of the Pecos 1941 Gabby Hayes Robin Hood of the Range 1943 Charles Starrett Bandit of Sherwood Forest 1946 Russell Hicks Rogues of Sherwood Forest 1950 John Derek The Story of Robin Hood 1952 Richard Todd Robin and the Seven Hoods 1964 Frank Sinatra A Challenge for Robin Hood 1968 Barrie Ingham Robin Hood (Animated) 1973 Brian Bedford (voice) Robin and Marian 1976 Sean Connery TV SERIES Adventures of Robin Hood 1955 Richard Greene When Things Were Rotten 1975 Richard Gautier Robin Hood 1984 Jason Connery

Note: “Robin Hood” TV series still airs on Showtime. SOURCES: The Motion Picture Guide; The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows