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Ridley Scott's reworking of the story of Robin Hood is not existentially serious or historically accurate, but the battle scenes are terrific.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) starring Errol Flynn will always be for my generation, and for many others, the definitive film version of the legend. The Robin Hood (1922) of Douglas Fairbanks, however admirable in its buoyant American hero, pales before the Technicolor glory, then new, of the Warner Brothers production. Hollywood followed by making two films about the sons of Robin, The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946), starring Cornel Wilde, and Rouges of Sherwood Forest (1950), starring John Derek. It also produced a B version, Prince of Thieves (1948), with Jon Hall in the lead. Everyone loves Robin. Several TV series about Robin have appeared, most notably the one starring Richard Greene (1955-60) which ran for no less than 143 episodes, and led to an English production, Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960).
Then Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn starred in a "sequel," Robin and Marian (1976), which showed the two lovers at a more advanced age. I remember that in one scene Sean had difficulty climbing a wall. In 1991 Kevin Costner appeared in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which may well have inspired Mel Brooks's 1993 parody version, Robin Hood; Men in Tights. Now we have the "prequel," what might be termed "Becoming Robin Hood," directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett.
The 1938 version presented a New Deal perspective on the legend. Robin is a populist champion of the oppressed Saxons (the "people" of the U.S.), opposing the Norman overlords (the Republican oligarchy who have plunged the nation into distress) and Richard the Lion Hearted (FDR) the benevolent patriarch who gives legitimacy to Robin's common sense reforms. Unlike this and all the other versions, Brian Helgeland, the A list screenwriter (Mystic River, L.A. Confidential) has recast the legend into its original historic context. Accordingly Richard the Lion Hearted (Danny Huston) never returns to England from the Crusades, but is killed in France by an arrow during a siege. King John (Oscar Isaac) is forced by the costs of the Crusades and the loss of French lands to impose heavy taxes. In response, the Northern Barons revolt and force him to sign the Magna Carta, which he agrees to and then rejects. All the while Philipp II of France schemes against the English. Hegeland also introduces into the story two real players of the time, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins) and William Marshall (William Hurt), who was chief advisor to King John and later the Regent of the realm who reissued the Magna Carta.
All this is true, but my own deep researches via Wikipedia, into the English history of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries have revealed some politically correct biases such as indicting Richard as a war criminal for his treatment of Muslims and depicting a rapacious Church robbing the people of their grain. In the whole film Robin's only act, as the Robin we love, that is in taking from the rich and giving to the poor, consists of his robbing the ecclesiastical thieves and returning the grain to their rightful owners. The film also portrays King Richard as plundering France as well as despoiling Palestine, whereas previously historians thought that he, as the Duke of Normandy, was attempting to recover the domains which the French occupied while he was on Crusade. It telescopes King Philip of France with his son Prince Louis, the one who after King John's death invaded England, an event which provides the climactic battle of the film.
What strikes one as most strange about this most historic of Robin Hood films is its anti-French bias. Admittedly, the French and English rulers, all related, all with legitimate claims to each other's territories, were continually at war, but why make King Philip and his henchman, Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), the English traitor, the chief villains? Previously the Legend had focused the villainy on domestic overlords, such as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, memorably played by Basil Rathbone in the 1938 version. It would seem that Sir Ridley has converted the Legend into a nationalistic epic in the manner of Shakespeare's Henry V. The defeat of the French invasion fleet concludes with the drowning of the Fleur de Lys.
So how does screenwriter Helgeland weave Robin into this "realistic" world? Well, for starters, Robin is not Robin of Loxley, as we all thought. He is Robin Longstrider (Russell Crowe), a yeoman archer in King Richard's crusading army. When the real Robin Loxley (Douglas Hodge) is killed by Sir Godfrey, Longstrider impersonates Loxley in order to escape from France and complete Loxley's mission of bringing the royal crown to the new King John. In the guise of Sir Robin, he continues to Nottingham and there encounters Sir Robin's widow, Marian (Cate Blanchett). Urged by Sir Robin's blind father (Max von Sydow) to continue the impersonation, a kind of comedy of remarriage begins as the two, observing all the proprieties, gradually fall in love. Meanwhile Longstrider and his veteran pals Little John (Kevin Durand) and Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) help Marian preserve her lands from the Church and the destructive tax collectors led by Sir Godfrey. Just as Robin has only one outfit of dingy brown, no green for him, so Marian works in the fields. Realism! Needless to say Robin, who eloquently claims that every Englishman's home is his castle, joins the Northern Barons and goes to the defense of the homeland. So too does Marian, who dons mail, armor, and helmet, as a kind of English Joan of Arc.
The English victory results in King John's signing of the Magna Carta. But, almost immediately, John blames his troubles on Robin, and not on his confused policies vis a vis the French, so as he burns the newly signed document, he declares "Robin of the Hood" an outlaw and public enemy number one. So in the final scene, as the Sheriff of Nottingham (Michael Macfayden) attempts to post a reward notice for Robin on a sturdy English oak and asks for a nail, an arrow comes whizzing out of Sherwood Forest, landing between his fingers and doing the job for him. Robin Hood is born! The Legend begins! Robin has organized the 'lost boys," the shadowy war orphans we see skulking about the Forest, into his freedom fighters, though one doubts that in this version they will ever become "merry men."
Is the film worth seeing? That after all is what reviews are supposed to tell you. No, if you look for edification and some effort to explore the mysteries of life. Yes, if you like epic battle scenes, great casting, and superb acting. For the film juxtaposes two different styles, the kinetic, fast cutting, sensational one popularized by Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch (1969), the year after the demise of the Production Code; the other a more classical, intimate one which gives scope to the actors. The opening siege of the Castle of Charlus and the closing invasion at Dover are visually brilliant, dramatically exciting, and perhaps even accurate about medieval warfare. Scott excels at this kind of moviemaking.
Then the two Australian leads never falter. Crowe lends conviction to every screen moment, and Blanchett, who resembles a late medieval Flemish portrait, exudes beauty and inspires sympathy in her every scene. They make one believe in their affection for one another. Eileen Atkins turns in a superb performance of Eleanor, regal, principled and even endearing. Oscar Isaac plays King John as a spoiled, immature, and decadent tyrant, much in the manner of Caligula in other Hollywood epics. Kevin Durand is as convincing a Little John as Alan Hale, who played the role in three Hollywood versions. Michael Macfayden looks and acts as feckless as previous Sheriffs of Nottingham. And not least, Mark Strong interprets the immoral Sir Guy with a wicked gusto which such a part deserves. The film contains a great deal of violence and one attempted rape scene, but it avoids nudity, foul language, and blasphemy. In almost every regard, this Robin Hood is superior to most contemporary action films.
As a footnote, I cannot resist mentioning that King John, known by his contemporaries as "Lackland" because of his loss of Norman lands to the French, turns out to be a direct ancestor of all American Presidents, with the exception of Martin Van Buren. Which all goes to show that, for better or worse, we are all related.
William Park is a veteran film
reviewer and the author of Hollywood: An Epic Production, a highly
praised verse history of American cinema. He lives in California.
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