Robin Hood has always been a character easy for our age to lock onto. His altruistic stealing from rich and giving to the poor prefigures our ideals of social justice, and it is easy to dress up the medieval outlaw as Martin Luther King meets Dirty Harry. His story has been retold and revised with each Hollywood generation, and director Ridley Scott’s latest version adds today’s required revisionist elements. The world of the past is a rougher, rawer, grittier, less pious, and more “realist” than previous Hollywood generations have depicted it. And according to the new storyline, for thousands of years, common man justice seekers have been trying to found the United States of America. Judging from the fictional products of our time, the past seems to have been filled with manly regular guys who just wish his contemporary’s sense of justice would look at lot more like 21st century America (Braveheart, Gladiator, etc.)
Ridley Scott’s movie seems to want to do to Robin Hood what Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins did for the cowl-wearer – build a new back story for the character and ready the ground for a string of sequels. The film is set in the years before most other Robin Hood tales, telling the story of how Robin Longstride became Robin Hood. As a result, some of the story lines we are familiar with don’t appear. The Sheriff of Nottingham is a bit part, and when at the hour forty five mark Robin still isn’t in Sherwood Forest, you can tell you’re in for either a different story or a long movie (both, it turned out).
The film opens with Robin fighting in the army of King Richard the Lionheart. The army is on its way back from a crusade in the Holy Land, and out of funds, it is forced to sack its way home. In these opening scenes, we discover Robin is an honest, courageous, forward-thinker. He doesn’t think much of King Richard’s ideals. He is a mercenary and an orphan who doesn’t know his personal history. When King Richard is killed in the battle, Robin and some close cohorts realize that it is now every man for himself, and they flee the battle scene to return to England.
On the way home they come upon an ambushed group of English soldiers, forcing Robin’s band of men into a larger political storyline. Godfrey (Mark Strong) is a double agent working for the French king and Prince John, Richard’s brother. He is trying to get the weak prince on the thrown of England so that he can arrange a French invasion. Godfrey’s men have ambushed King Richards’s aide, Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), who was returning the king’s crown to England. Robin and his men then ambush Godfrey’s men, and Robin ends up with the crown, knights’ armor and money, and a mission from a dying Sir Robert to bring his sword back to his father in Nottingham (you can see why it takes some time for Scott to get all this plot established).
Robin and his men pose as knights and use the crown to make their way to England and then to Nottingham where they encounter some familiar characters: Maid Marion Loxley (Cate Blanchett) and Friar Tuck (Mark Addy). Robin returns the sword to Sir Robert’s father, the blind Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow), and Sir Walter asks Robin to stay in the manor house and pretend to be Sir Robert in order to avoid panic spreading through Nottingham about the succession and land inheritance problems Sir Robert’s death has caused. Sir Walter also insinuates to Robin that he knows something about Robin’s back story.
For the most part this new Robin Hood is well-told. The principals are aided here by strong performances by Max von Sydow as Sir Walter Loxley and Oscar Isaac as Price John – an electric, magnetic dandy. Cate Blanchett is good fun as Marian Loxley, reimagining the woman as a tough knuckled firebrand from the English midlands, running the manor and unafraid to get knee-deep in the mud with the plowman. As a result Robin and Marian’s budding relationship is charming in a John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara in the The Quiet Man way. The medieval setting is also generally well-conceived. Some time and attention seems to have been paid to getting small details right. Nottingham, a run-down collection cottages and a drafty old manor house, dispels many romantic reimaging of medieval life. Robin’s rough and tumble men – Little John, Will Scarlet, and Allan A’Dayle – are hard drinking, whore mongers who add salt to this world.
What undoes Robin Hood in the end is the emergence of Robin Hood as a Boston Tea Party revolutionary who is the brains behind the Magna Carta. So much of the charm and originality of the movie’s first part is lost to a derivative plot that culminates in a predictable battle scene – Saving Private Ryan meets chain mail – filled with so many historical faux pas you have to laugh. The French row across the English Channel in boxy medieval versions of World War II amphibious assault boats, and then jump out, seemingly well-rested and ready to fight. The beach is an unlikely setting considering nautical technology at the time wouldn’t allow for a predictable landing spot – the French would have been happy to land where they drifted to. Robin isn’t the only one turned into a warrior-revolutionary. Friar Tuck and Marian Loxley arrive at the beachside battle scene, and both the chubby priest and curvy maid are in well-fitted chain mail (who made / paid for that?). There’s also the undeveloped presence of the forest kids who ride from Nottingham and help in the fight against the French army on ponies. It seems to be okay, though, because Scott gets in the shot of the camera arrow POV that follows Robin’s arrow into the head of a bad guy. Cinematic thrill-seekers cheer.
In a sense, this how history has always been re-written – one time imposing its values on the stories of another. But the problem with the watered-down movie versions is that history is rearranged for the sake of spectacle. Despite Robin Hood’s valiant efforts to string together a historically fleshed-out, re-imagined version of the Sherwood Forest-dwelling bow slinger, it is all for naught when Ridley Scott’s movie degrades into just another Braveheart – everything at the service of making the audience feel good about the thrill of the movie – and themselves. But it’s the start of the summer movie season, after all. Time for the cinema to turn into a football stadium.