Robbin Hood

Did he really rob the rich to give to the poor?

By Dan Gifford
22 May 2010

Robin Hood is back on the big screen in his umpteenth adaptation and 
he’s not only fighting social injustice by robbing the rich and giving 
to the poor, he’s fighting it by forcing English King John the cruel to 
sign the Magna Carta. More on that later. For now, let’s stick with the 
redistribution of wealth by banditry.

People love that idea. And because they do, Robin has had a massive 
influence on popular culture because the implicit anti-establishment 
message in his story can be used as a device to criticize society or 
sell almost any social movement, legislation or outright criminal 
activity in modern societies that have no relation to the brutal feudal 
times in which his legend originated. The result, the Sherwood Forest 
outlaw can be anything one wants him to be.

A Robin who “robs the rich to give to the poor” can be that mythical 
Marxist revolutionary or populist hero righting the wrongs of capitalism 
for the oppressed proletariat — even if he happens to be nothing 

more than a mass murdering rapist like Che Guevara:

or a common stick-up guy like Jesse James

or a 1930s bank robber with a heart like Pretty Boy Floyd,
that Woody Guthrie lionized in song:

     Many a starving farmer

     The same old story told

     How the outlaw paid their mortgage

     And saved their little homes

Looked at another way, a Robin who’s robbin’ the rich of onerous taxes 
they have forced on productive workers to support their bloated 
government might be one of Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform 

Toss in Robin’s opposition to the oppressive King John, who has usurped 
the crown of his brother Richard I and sicced ye Sheriff of Nottingham 
on those who question his authority to enact ruinous taxes, and you have 
the makings of America’s revolutionaries who went to war over the 
legitimacy of British taxation sans representation.

Emphasize the ruling Norman oppression of conquered Saxons that is 
themed in Ivanhoe, the 1800s Sir Walter Scott book that popularized the 
Robin Hood character in the first place, and you’ve got a story about 
racism and intolerance even if Al Sharpton wouldn’t agree ’cause they’re 
all white folks.

That’s why different versions of the story among the scads that have 
been filmed through the years have been used by their makers to touch 
different cultural and political nerves.

I grew up watching “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” starring Richard 
Greene during the 50s without ever realizing its stories about the 
exploitation of serfs and ill gotten capitalist wealth were written by 
blacklisted communist Hollywood writers who were spreading Soviet agitprop.

Neither did I know that Robin’s paranoia about betrayal to the 
authorities was what the pseudonymed writers of those stories worried 
about lest their propaganda jig be up. “The Adventures of Robin Hood 
gave us plenty of opportunities to comment on issues and institutions in 
Eisenhower-era America,” admitted writer Ring Lardner, Jr.

“The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men” was also done during the 
50s but its maker, the anti-communist Walt Disney, emphasized the 
ruinous taxation imposed by an oppressive King John at a time when 
America’s top bracket was 90%.

1938’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood” starring Errol Flynn is the 
only version I’ve seen that really focuses on the oppression of 
the Saxons by the French speaking Norman rulers who won the 1066 
Battle of Hastings.

The Normans were really French speaking Vikings. And the England William 
of Normandy and his cousin -- and my ancestor -- Gauthier Giffard fashioned was one in which 
the Saxons and other subjugated peoples like the Welsh sucked hind teat 
in ways we today cannot begin to imagine. Against that blackness, 
robbing those who had taxed the common man to the edge of existence in 
many cases was both moral and necessary.

Translation of plaque at Castle Giffard, Normandy: "Gauthier Giffard, 
Lord of Longueville carried the Banner of the Duke William. Departed 
from this land to the Battle of Hastings accompanied by his two sons, 
one of whom became the Duke of Buckingham."

Over time, Norman nobles started getting the short end of the stick too. 
That boiled over under the harsh and inept rule of King John (known as 
“Soft Sword” for his military incompetence) to the point that the barons 
forced John to sign a bill of rights against absolute royal power known 
as the Magna Carta.

What I’ve never seen depicted is that those rights only applied to the 
nobility, that John refused to honor them, that he had the leaders of 
the Magna Carta barons killed, and that England plunged into years of 
bloody war between the barons and the king.

Did Robin Hood really exist? Certainly not as he’s been portrayed — if 
at all. But that doesn’t really matter, because the real importance of 
Robin Hood is that he’s an inspiration for taking a stand against 
injustice however one defines it.

Dan Gifford is a national Emmy-winning,
Oscar-nominated film producer and former
reporter for CNN, The MacNeil Lehrer
News Hour and ABC News.