by Mel Valentin
When word leaked that Ridley Scott ("Kingdom of Heaven," "Black Hawk Down," "Gladiator," "Thelma and Louise," "Blade Runner," "Alien") and Russell Crowe were planning on their fifth collaboration, a medieval epic no less, one part "Kingdom of Heaven," one part "Gladiator," rejoicing was heard all across the Internet. Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but the hope was certainly there for another literate epic from Scott and Russell. Early reports suggested the film would center on the Sheriff of Nottingham from the Robin Hood legend. Secondary reports suggested a shift: the focus would remain on the Sheriff of Nottingham, not as the tax-collecting villain familiar to everyone, but as a hero-in-disguise. Scott and Crowe eventually discarded those ideas for yet another take on Robin Hood, this time as an origin/behind the legend story.That may have been what Scott and Crowe intended, but what they delivered is so far removed from Robin Hood as popularized in dozens of films and television shows, but principally through The Adventures of Robin Hood, the 1938 swashbuckler directed by William Keighley and Michael Curtiz starring Errol Flynn at the height of his career. This Robin, not Sir Robin of Loxley as in earlier versions, but Robin Longstride, the commoner son of a literate stonemason, serves King Richard the Lionheart’s (Danny Huston) as an archer and fought in the Crusades. Now, a decade later, Richard and the remains of his army return from the Crusades, exhausted, eager to pillage and plunder.
"The white knight begins..."
Unluckily for the French, they stand between Richard, his army, and the ships waiting on the coast that will transport them back to England. When they lay siege to a castle, Richard carelessly exposes himself to an archer. He dies from an arrow to the neck. The army in disarray, Longstride and his men, Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes), Allan A'Dayle (Alan Doyle), and Little John (Kevin Durand), decide to strike out for the coast on their own. On the way, they encounter a band of French soldiers, fresh from ambushing the English knights transporting Richard’s belongings, including his crown, back to England. To honor the dying wish of Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), Robin and his men disguise themselves as knights (a crime punishable by death under English law).
After delivering the crown to Richard’s brother, Prince John (Oscar Isaac), Robin briefly meets the king’s senior advisor, William Marshal (William Hurt), quickly leaving London before someone identifies him as an imposter. In Nottingham, Robin encounters Loxley’s widow, Marion (Cate Blanchett), and Loxley’s blind father, Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow). The now sonless decides to “adopt” Robin as his long-lost son (Robert hadn’t returned in a decade). Robin’s subterfuge, however, brings him to the attention of King John’s chief enforcer, Godfrey (Mark Strong), a double-dealing villain manipulating King John to overtax his subjects, including the nobles, and start a civil war, thus leaving a weakened England incapable of defending itself against a French invasion.
Scott, working from a screenplay by Brian Helgeland (Salt, Green Zone, Man on Fire, Payback, The Postman, Conspiracy Theory), plays up the court intrigue, power politics aspects of 13th-century (not 12th-century) Europe, sometimes at the expense of coherence, logic, and, of course, actual history. The real Richard the Lionheart spent little time in England, knew little (Old) English, living primarily on the English crown’s estates in France. Not surprisingly, nationalism, with clearly defined ethnic, cultural, and social groups, clearly demarcated borders, and tradition, didn’t exist to the extent they did in the later half of the millennium. The French-English conflict over territory (as usual) was primarily a conflict between ruling dynasties, not between nation-states which trace their existence to the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) that ended decades of war.
Then again, no one should have been expecting historical accuracy, let alone a history lesson, from another iteration of the Robin Hood tale. While Scott and Helgeland bring out the ambiguities and complexities (if only briefly) in Richard’s leadership, the Prince (later King) John we meet is the same venal, self-interested, unfit-for-monarch recognizable from previous versions of the Robin Hood tale. Unsurprisingly given Scott’s involvement, the good king/bad king dynamic between Richard and John is reminiscent of the similar dynamic between Marcus Aurelius and Commodus in Gladiator (Aurelius and Commodus are father and son, rather than the sibling rivalry found in Robin Hood, of course).
Whether Scott and Helgeland depict Richard and John accurately (an open question best left to academics), the French in Robin Hood are uniformly depicted one-dimensionally, as territory-hungry villains devoid of honor. In Robin Hood, nothing says villainy like speaking French or sporting a cleanly shaved head. Godfrey, already looking the part of villain thanks to Mark Strong’s presence (he played the principal antagonist in Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass, and will essay a similar role in next year’s big-screen adaptation of Green Lantern), speaks French, collaborates with the French king, and preys on English peasants and barons with a contingent of French soldiers. How no one seems to notice French soldiers on English soil is one of those mysteries Scott and Helgeland leave unanswered.
As for the Robin Hood, he doesn’t take on that name until the end of the film which leaves us where most Robin Hood stories begin, with Hood an outlaw from King (or Prince, depending on Richard the Lionheart’s fate) John’s vengeance, living in Sherwood Forest with his Merry Men and Marion, building a utopian society based on liberty, equality, and fraternity (the French motto, by the way). Like Maximus before him, Hood’s beliefs bear little resemblance to those commonly held in the 13th century and in his platitude-heavy speechmaking he sounds like Braveheart, Maximus, or even a modern politician (i.e., ultimately signifying nothing), making him an all-purpose hero against tyranny and injustice that right, left, and everyone in the muddled middle can call their own.Not surprisingly, Scott once again delivers on well-choreographed action scenes, opening with the siege of a French castle and closing with a battle between the English and the French on an English beach. Crowe plays Hood as a brooder, a war-weary veteran who wants nothing more of violence and struggle (but gets it anyway). Cate Blanchett makes a suitably strong-willed Marion. Thankfully, she’s no damsel-in-distress, but Scott goes too far in the other direction, making her a warrior woman eager to fight in battle as an equal. This leads to a particularly misjudged third-act plot development, but luckily it’s one of "Robin Hood’s" few story-related problems, the others being the one-dimensional depiction of the French and Robin’s muddled backstory, that do little to hamper Scott and Crowe’s latest big-screen collaboration.
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originally posted: 05/14/10 09:00:00