LOS ANGELES - The legend of Robin Hood, king of the rogues, is best summed up by Roger Miller, the guy who sang "King of the Road."
"There's been a heap of legends and tall tales about Robin Hood. All different, too," Miller says as the voice of the minstrel rooster who narrates Disney's 1973 animated "Robin Hood."
That version cast the thief of Sherwood Forest as a wily fox. The latest rendition, Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood," has Russell Crowe as a bit of a poser and huckster named Robin Longstride, a brooding, scruffy foot-soldier back from the Crusades and a siege in France.
Although a skilled and loyal archer of King Richard the Lion-Heart, Crowe's Robin returns to England such a footsore, slovenly wreck that when he gets a nice dinner invitation, he's told to bathe first because he stinks.
It's a wild contrast to Hollywood's standard-bearer as the merry bandit of Sherwood Forest, Errol Flynn, who starred in the 1938 Technicolor extravaganza "The Adventures of Robin Hood."
Flynn's Robin dresses like a dandy in green tights and tunic, with frills and spangles, plus a feather in his hat. Crowe and Scott had no interest in perpetuating that cliched fashion sense, and they wanted to spin a more authentic period drama of the late 12th and early 13th centuries to explain how the legend arose of a Robin Hood who steals from the rich to look after the poor.
"He's a guy who's been on the road, as opposed to a guy walking around with a feather in his hat and wearing a little green skirt. I never liked that Robin Hood. I couldn't buy it," Scott said. "The film starts to build the process of how Robin becomes Robin Hood. In a funny way, it's like a prequel to Robin Hood."
"Robin Hood" was the opening-night premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, coinciding with its release in France. The film debuted in the United States Friday.
The film co-stars Cate Blanchett as Lady Marian, more of a warrior princess than the Maid Marian damsels of past films, including Olivia de Havilland as Flynn's romantic interest.
Dozens of movies and TV shows have taken up the "Robin Hood" story, the earliest dating back to silent film days a century ago. Douglas Fairbanks starred in the 1922 silent epic "Robin Hood," a blockbuster of its era whose acrobatic action was a blueprint for Flynn's swashbuckler 16 years later.
A rush of B-movies followed the 1938 version over the next two decades, such as 1948's "The Prince of Thieves" and 1954's "The Men of Sherwood Forest," featuring Robin Hoods cast in the mold of Flynn.
"He is to Robin Hood what Sean Connery is to James Bond," said Allen W. Wright, a Robin Hood enthusiast who oversees the website www.boldout-law.com, dedicated to the lore and literature of the hero. "If I close my eyes and someone says, 'Robin Hood,' I see Errol Flynn."
Richard Greene played the lead in the 1950s TV series "The Adventures of Robin Hood." Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack buddies updated the story to Prohibition-era Chicago with 1964's "Robin and the 7 Hoods."
The Disney cartoon carried on Robin's traditional green-clad style, while Connery embodied a more frazzled, world-weary look in 1976's "Robin and Marian," co-starring Audrey Hepburn as Robin's great love.
Kevin Costner scored a blockbuster with 1991's "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," playing the character as a sensitive New Age dreamboat. Then Mel Brooks turned around and mocked the legend with 1993's "Robin Hood: Men in Tights."
The versions all differ in the details, yet a few key threads run through most Robin Hood tales, from the 15th and 16th century ballads that first popularized the figure through the films and TV shows.
"The one consistent thing is he's an outlaw," said Alan Lupack, director of the University of Rochester's Robbins Library, which houses the Robin Hood Project, a collection of texts, images and other materials. "He's outside the law and often resisting unjust authority, but whatever he's doing, there's always that conflict with authority."
Like many Robin Hood stories, Crowe and Scott's new take is set in the era of King Richard and his conniving brother, Prince John. Crowe's Robin returns to an England bankrupt from "foreign adventures," the citizenry fed up with high taxes and leaders scheming to profit at the expense of the little guy.
Good timing, given today's economic and political climate, yet Robin Hood stories always have bended to the times.
Flynn's isolationist speech in the 1938 film reflects the mood of noninvolvement that preceded World War II. The disillusioned homecoming of Connery's Robin in the 1976 version mirrors Vietnam. Costner's Robin takes on a Muslim sidekick (Morgan Freeman) in the 1991 movie, a reflection of the time's growing cultural diversity.
"Robin Hood really can accommodate any number of values we want to project on to him," said Thomas Hahn, an English professor at the University of Rochester who organized a conference there last fall called "Robin Hood: Media Creature."
"People could be sitting in the theater going, 'He's against big government, against taxation, he's a rugged individualist, he's a Libertarian,'" Hahn said.
"They could be sitting next to people who say, 'Robin Hood believes in social networking and making sure everyone is taken care of. Of redistributing the wealth. He's a liberal, he's on the left, and therefore, he's our hero.' He has something to offer everyone."