The Dream of Peter Finch

Peter Finch as the Sheriff of Nottingham

This is a section from the biography Finch Bloody Finch, written in 1980 by Elaine Dundy, about the film star Peter Finch (1916-1977). Peter played the part of the Sheriff of Nottingham for Walt Disney in The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952), a role by him that is often overlooked by film critics. But in my opinion, was a stand-out performance, like many actors in this Technicolor masterpiece. I am sure my readers will find this interesting.

Dundy begins:

“ Immediately after Captain Carvel closed, Peter worked forty-eight hours round the clock, learning a huge role in order to take over the lead from Dirk Bogarde in a mediocre Anouilh play, Point of Departure, in the middle of its run. Next he found himself bewigged and bearded as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Walt Disney’s film Robin Hood. For research, he went to Nottingham, studied ninth-century records [?] and roamed around its Sherwood Forest for days. Peter made such an impact on the early rushes that he ended up with a part three times its original size.
The filming of Robin Hood was noteworthy for Peter mainly because during this time he suffered a major artistic disappointment. “ Most actors want to play parts they are not suited for,” says Peter’s friend Alan White, “ but the parts that Peter burned to play, Till Eulenspiegel, Peer Gynt, Robert Louis Stevenson and Don Quixote - were all parts he would have been magnificent in. They were all, like him, seekers after the romantic quest.” To play Don Quixote had always been Peter’s most cherished artistic dream. He had often talked about it to John Kay during the Mercury days in Australia and to Olivier in England. Now he talked to the producers of Robin Hood. They listened to Peter with interest and, watching Peter’s work, they daily became more enthusiastic about the project. Beautiful colour stills were taken of Peter as Don Quicote in full costume and make-up with James Hayer as Sancho Panza. If it is possible for one to judge how good an actor is going to be merely by stills (and it is surprising how often it is), Peter would have been “brilliant” as Don Quixote.

The Sheriff (Peter Finch) displays the King’s ransom money

When the producers saw the stills they became more enthusiastic. Peter himself was now in a state of high excitement as his dream seemed to be taking the shape of reality. All the project needed to get underway was the O.K. of the great Walt Disney who was shortly arriving in England to view Robin Hood.

Peter Finch as the Sheriff

At last the all-powerful Disney arrived in London. He was given a special private showing of the rough-cut Robin Hood. And ... and ... he was observed to be drumming his fingers throughout! It was the Emperor’s thumbs down.

Don Quixote was abruptly cancelled. It’s death, still born, marked Peter’s first realisation that Australia did not have a monopoly on artistic frustration.

After chasing Robin Hood around Sherwood Forest for four months Peter, suffering from exhaustion and disillusionment  was fervidly planning on a long rest to catch his breath. Sir Laurence, however, had different plans for him which was equally fervid. He had managed to capture that elusive magic balloon Orson Welles and tether him down to appearing as Othello at the St James Theatre for a limited engagement for nine weeks. Peter Finch, Olivier had impressed upon Welles, would be his perfect Iago”.

(Finch Bloody Finch, A Life of Peter Finch by Elaine Dundy, published by Holt McDougal in 1980)


Clement Glen said...

Finch Bloody Finch, A Life of Peter Finch by Elaine Dundy, published by Holt McDougal in 1980

K. Brittany said...

Thanks for the information. You can get the robin hood sword from swordskingdom.

Neil said...

I didn't know of the Don Quixote film that might have been made by Walt Disney, nor of Peter Finch's longing to take on the role. In some ways it surprises me and in other ways not because Walt Disney seemed to have an unpredictable style when it came to choosing subjects for his excellent films. After he died, those left used to try to assess 'What Walt would have done' but as one of them said, it was impossible to get anywhere down this line as his choices followed little reason - but was very successful. In 'The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men' Peter Finch was superb, as was Hubert Gregg. Ken Annakin's book gives a lot of detail on the making of the film but he does mention, as you do, Walt seeing the first cut of the film and was seen to be drumming his fingers which apparently was not a good sign. I wonder about this, because he must have known that he had a very good film here which was beautifully made, and being the instinctive man he was I would have thought he would be well pleased - and think he probably was. It was very successful. No, I don't give much credence to Ken Annakin's thoughts on that. Mind you, he was there and did a wonderful job - and remains one of my favourite film directors so what do I know ?