Unlike many depictions of the character, John is not shown to be a bumbling coward. In fact he is quite sinister and ruthless, witty and intelligent. He is depicted as an icy Norman nobleman who has a deep-seated contempt for the English who are of Saxon descent. While his brother Richard is away fighting in the Crusades and is captured by Leopold of Austria, rather than pay Leopold's ransom and free his brother, John begins taxing and oppressing the Saxons to enrich himself, aided by his loyal Norman allies, the ruthless and evil Sir Guy of Gisbourne and the bumbling High Sheriff of Nottingham.
Initially, the only men standing in his way are the heroic Robin Hood and his friends Will Scarlett and Much the miller's son. But their bravery soon inspires the downtrodden Saxons to rise up in rebellion. Over time, as John's reprisals grow ever more brutal, many Normans also begin joining the side of freedom, including John's own relative, Maid Marian, much to his anger.
When Richard returns to England after having escaped from Leopold, John schemes to have him murdered by Dickon Malbete while he is staying at the Kent Road Tavern. With Richard dead, John will be able to sit on the throne legally. Marian overhears them and tries to warn Robin, but is captured and imprisoned by Sir Guy. John intends to have her executed for treason. Even though only a king can condemn her, John wryly says it will be a king who condemns her - as soon as he is crowned.
Unfortunately, the assassination attempt fails. Marian's lady in waiting, Bess, overheard her conversation with Guy and tells Much, who is able to kill Dickon and warn Robin. With Richard's safety assured, the heroes go to storm Nottingham Castle, where John is about to be crowned. Before he can be named king, the Merry Men attack, and a fierce battle erupts inside of the castle. Guy is slain in a swordfight with Robin, while John and the Sheriff are captured. John begs Richard for mercy, and Richard, rather than kill him, has him and the Sheriff banished from his kingdom forever.
- The historical John Lackland really was banished by Richard after his return, but later, at the insistence of their mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, the two brothers reconciled. John later succeeded Richard (lawfully) as King of England after Richard's death. He was not well liked as king, and became known as Bad King John.