October 22, 1922 [Robin Hood/Douglas Fairbanks in "Robin Hood"]

Given the title, one would assume the movie was all Fairbanks--and it mostly is, his mad caper infecting everything, from his men (Alan Hale as Robin's Squire is particularly nimble, given his generous frame) to their foes, to their foes' victims--even to the film's editor--everything cutting, back and forth, or just UP, like a flapper seeing a man about a dog, and accompanied by a constant roar, like the Polo Grounds with Ruth at the plate one last time.

But two things upstage Fairbanks:

1. The sadism of Prince John and his minions, indulging in Grand Guignol--oh, let's be honest: At its heart, the cinema is the true home of the extremes of easy morality and casual depravity, a strange space where one can laugh, cringe and sob all within the space of five minutes. And even stranger, the cruelties serve the film's morality--for how else could Robin be allowed to dispose of Sir Guy of Gisbourne by bending his spine backwards like a bar of lead, Maid Marian cringing, unless we had seen the villains beating and burning women, hanging the innocent, all the while giggling in maniac glee? And Robin lifts Gisbourne's corpse above his head, and flings him over the parapet, garbage for the dogs. It is a macabre scene, all the more unsettling because it is so satisfying.

2. A sudden moment of tender respect amid all this scattering upheaval, a hushed tableau: Robin realizes Marian is not dead, and joins her in a forest clearing, and they stand facing one another, motionless, as the camera hangs back, leaving them alone--and in so doing drawing us closer to their breathless moment than we could otherwise be, discrete witnesses to the relief and wonder of knowing that sometimes there is life, not yet the end, and everything holds still as you think it over.

I will duly note Fairbanks' usual athletic prowess and the sheer size of things, from castles to armies to endless plains, that swell the boundaries of this movie. But in the end the crazed morality and the sweetly awestruck encounter in the glade remain strongest with me, the two of them both counter and compatible.


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