Much of this carping seems to me not just wrong but fundamentally misguided. I’m a huge and unapologetic fan of Flynn’s classic 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood, but that movie’s already been made, and it’s out there on disc for anyone who wants to enjoy it again. This film isn’t an attempt to remake that, or the much more forgettable 1991 Kevin Costner version of the story, or any of the other literally dozens of film and TV adaptations to which the Robin Hood legends have been subjected. It’s not trying to give viewers the same old cereal in a new box. It’s trying to come up with a new take, a story different enough to be worth telling. In large part it succeeds, and taken on its own terms, it’s a heartily enjoyable film.
Neither the creative revisionism nor its success should be a surprise. Ridley Scott is the director who gave us such films as Blade Runner and the classic Thelma & Louise, not to mention—in previous work with Crowe—Gladiator, American Gangster, and Body of Lies. As for Crowe, those three films alone demonstrate his phenomenal range as an actor (nearly as much of a chameleon as Edward Norton), even without looking at his work in other roles as diverse as L.A. Confidential, his Oscar-nominated turn in The Insider, and his incredibly layered performance in the otherwise mediocre A Beautiful Mind. Both men are prolific, but neither is known for doing retreads of familiar work. Teamed with Brian Helgeland, the screenwriter behind L.A. Confidential and the recent and unjustly neglected Green Zone, Scott and Crowe have turned out a Robin Hood that does not attempt to cater, as Kenneth Turan observes, to “those expecting traditional Robin Hood satisfactions.” It’s more history than Hollywood—or at least a well-balanced compromise between the two.
It is not, actually, quite as revisionist as it might have been; at one point in development the film was reportedly to be titled Nottingham, with the sheriff of same as the actual hero. That particular twist got written out along the way, and perhaps the more conventional framing of the story is responsible for the more conventional expectations… but nevertheless the filmmakers have refused to take the material for granted.
This is a serious movie, inasmuch as the turn of the 12th century was a serious period. The film takes some minor liberties with historical context, but nothing beyond what’s excusable when trying to insert into that context a character cobbled together over 700+ years of legends; on the whole, it seems far more diligent about its research and far more deliberately authentic than any other version I’ve seen, and indeed than most historical fiction in general. If the details of Richard the Lionheart’s death are not precisely as depicted, for instance, it’s still true that he was mortally wounded during a seige in France, on his way back to England after bankrupting the country with his attempts at conquest during the Third Crusade… and notwithstanding his glorified nickname the film is accurate to portray him as an absentee king “so morally compromised that he’s played by Danny Huston,” as the SF Chronicle‘s Mick LaSalle aptly puts it.
Likewise, if it’s true that medieval royal courts tended to be itinerant, and that Prince John and his mother Eleanor were at any given time more likely to be found among their holdings on the Continent (Eleanor of Aquitaine, remember?) than in London as portrayed here… still, for the purposes of a tale so deeply rooted in England, we may presume they were there as the story requires. (It’s well-documented that John was formally crowned at Westminster, at least.) As the story enters England the shot of the river approach to rustic 12th-century London is truly breathtaking, one of the best, most understated and convincing uses of CGI I’ve seen in a long while. It’s also historically authentic enough to have the first stone-built London Bridge still under construction in the background. (Although the town beyond the Tower looks perhaps too rustic; London had a population of over 25,000 at the time and was England’s commercial center, and would surely have had as many stone buildings at thatched ones.)
The historical context, both authentic and invented, also complicates the film’s politics. This is, fundamentally, the story of the radicalization of a man who becomes a willing outlaw: of what he chooses to stand for (and against) in a society still rigidly bound by class entitlements, in the midst of the historical transition away from feudalism. This backstory has been treated in radically different ways as the legend has evolved over the generations, to suit the mood of different times, including the lighthearted dismissiveness with which many modern versions treat the politics. Here, though, those aspects are important. Unfortunately, they’re also somewhat muddled.
It is unquestionably true that the motivating force behind the Magna Carta, the Great Charter of Liberties that John ultimately signed in 1215, was dissension among the nobility, upset at ever-increasing taxation and other, even more arbitrary and ruinous royal impositions upon their traditional rights and privileges (including burning towns as depicted here, as well as forced marriages and even kidnappings). It is precursors of these dissenting forces with which Robin aligns himself in the film’s third act: the grumbling was among the elites, not the common man; the pressure was from reformers, not populist revolutionaries. It is perhaps disappointing that this is a less overt challenge to established power than the traditional “rob from the rich, give to the poor” mantra that’s been attached to Robin in intervening centuries (although at least one sequence in the film, in which Robin and his men “liberate” a shipment of grain from greedy churchmen, does prefigure the kind of behavior later associated with him). However, the historical context fits, and it seems to me to be reading in far too much to imagine that this is a bone thrown to today’s anti-tax Tea Partiers, as surmised by critics from O’Sullivan to A.O. Scott to the Village Voice‘s Karina Longworth. After all, arbitrary and excessive taxation without representation was a genuine and legitimate grievance at the time, which is far more than the Tea Partiers can claim.
Moreover, the story does an elegant job at splitting the difference between conflicting past origins for Robin—in some versions he was a dispossessed noble, in others a mere yeoman (a free but untitled peasant)—and their corresponding class allegiances. It makes him a yeoman by birth who through circumstance assumes the identity of a dead nobleman to save the property of his widow, Lady Marion of Loxley, from the crown’s depredations. The notion that the film is a symbolic vehicle for conservative politics is also undermined by its overt distaste, expressed by Robin and others, for arrogant military adventuring in general and mistreatment of Muslim civilians in particular, sentiments not much seen on the American right.
However, more disturbing (because it’s less easily explained) is the way the story resorts to explicit nationalism—making its ultimate villains the French, even to the point of having the shock troops of King John’s evil henchman Godfrey be secret French imports, rather than locals. Any king of the period, and certainly John, was more than capable of pillaging his own subjects with men-at-arms who were actually loyal to him. More significantly, the whole modern concept of the nation-state really didn’t exist yet: allegiances were dynastic, not nationalistic, and in fact the official language of Richard’s and John’s courts and of the “English” nobility remained Norman French. (Indeed, it was the Magna Carta itself that first firmly established the notion of the state as something greater and more enduring than the king himself.) It’s true that John was engaged in an on-again-off-again war for most of his reign with Phillip II, nominally King of France—but half of what we now think of as France (Normandy, Aquitaine, Brittany, Anjou) actually belonged to John at the time, part of the Plantagenet dynasty handed down by his father Henry II. Historically, Phillip’s real ambition was to bring those adjacent lands under his Capetian dynasty, not to launch an invasion across the Channel.
In narrative terms, introducing this external threat provides an artificial sense of unity for the “English” side that dilutes the issues of class and human rights that are otherwise so central to the story, and there should have been some other, more thematically relevant means to justify giving the film a climactic battle scene. This shortcoming is somewhat remedied, however, by the dénoument in which John (quite in character historically) betrays his recent allies in the name of his “divine right,” and in which Robin and his cohort are thus formally outlawed.
Moving beyond thematic questions and matters of legend vs. history, the film stands up wonderfully as a piece of cinema. The cast is impeccable; Cate Blanchett may seem a trifle old for Marion, but she’s a match for Crowe’s Robin in a contest of wills, and there’s a natural chemistry between them. Max von Sydow has a nice turn as her elderly father-in-law; Oscar Isaac (previously unknown to me) is quite good as John; and while it’s hard to compete with the memory of Katharine Hepburn, Eileen Atkins provides an impressively feisty yet dignified Eleanor. William Hurt, a somewhat surprising choice, turns in an effective performance as the historically genuine William Marshal. Mark Addy is an inspired choice for Friar Tuck, and the rest of the nascent “Merry Men” (Alan A’Dale, Will Scarlet, and Little John) provide solid support and a bit of humor, even it’s a little disconcerting to see the last of these portrayed by Kevin Durand, who’s such a memorably despicable shitheel as Keamy on TV’s Lost.
And speaking of despicable, the invented villain Godfrey (perhaps Guy of Gisborne in a previous draft?) is well played by Mark Strong, who seems to have emerged as casting directors’ go-to guy for charismatic baddies in the past year, with malevolent turns in Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass, and this picture, not to mention an upcoming role as Sinestro in the much-anticipated Green Lantern. Godfrey is the most blatantly Hollywood-ish character in the film, however, and as such there’s little room to humanize him.
The music is vivid. The cinematography is lush and gorgeous. The dialogue is sharp. The battle scenes are tense. The pacing is brisk (indeed, perhaps too much so; notwithstanding the film’s length, I couldn’t escape the feeling that a few good scenes had been edited out). Despite a complex plot, the storytelling never founders. The character development is clear but not heavy-handed, as the jaded and war-weary Robin discovers things that are actually worth fighting for, and in turn finds within himself the charisma of a natural leader. And while the film is serious in thematic terms, as noted, it is not somber nor lacking in excitement.
Some critics do get it: the NY Post‘s Lou Lumenick sums it up neatly when he writes “it’s possible to have a rousing good time at Ridley Scott’s smart, revisionist and typically dark “Robin Hood,” which wisely (I think) goes out of its way to avoid comparisons to earlier films inspired by the English legend.” As for the naysayers, while many of them lament the way this film seemingly sets up a successor, I actually wouldn’t mind seeing one and find it almost a shame that Scott and Crowe have a history of avoiding sequels. However, I honestly think they’ve said what they had to say about these characters. Not everything is meant to be a “franchise.”Tags: history, movies, Ridley Scott, Robin Hood, Russell Crowe