Robin Hood

One of my favorite movies of all time is the 1938 production of The Adventures of Robin Hood, directed by the Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland. It is a rousing, simple, even naive adventure movie that is nothing but fun. In the interest of plot, it quite properly plays fast and loose with actual history. In reality Richard the Lionheart overtaxed the English to pay for his Crusades and John simply wasn’t all that bad. In this year’s Robin Hood, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland try to address those inaccuracies but in so doing make some howlers of their own. Philip II of France never tried to invade England, at least not during John’s reign. And I’m reasonably certain that a stone mason did not write the Magna Carta.

Technically Robin Hood is a prequel, an origin story that sets the stage for the more familiar tales to come. I won’t go into the plot. It’s somewhat muddled and it’s not worth my time figuring it out, nor yours reading about. Muddled is the word for the whole project actually. From the very beginning they can’t figure out whether Robin, played by Russell Crowe, is a rogue or a decent man. In one of his first scenes he is running one of those cup and ball scams in Richard’s camp. This is supposed to establish him as a scamp, an amoral trickster. But later he gives a speech to Richard himself about some massacre in the Holy Land, where he accuses the King of losing his soul, or something like that. So he’s a decent man. There are plenty of examples like that scattered throughout the film, so you can’t even say that Robin has a an emotional journey. It’s just bad writing.

It’s also the star. Crowe, as talented an actor as he is, possesses a gravitas that he has a hard time shedding. Part of it is physical. He’s a big hulking man with facial features that naturally glower. Another part is the nature of this project. He and Ridley Scott were very consciously trying to recapture the success they had with Gladiator and Crowe’s heaviness worked extremely well there. In the Robin Hood story it’s more like a bad choice, especially compared to Errol Flynn, who played Robin Hood with a sly smile and a twinkle in his eyes. And yet that twinkle could turn into steely righteousness in an instant. Russell Crowe is a far better actor than Errol Flynn ever was and yet he can’t seem to pull off that one trick.

I also have to say that having Maid Marian, played by Cate Blanchett, dress up in armor and lead a group of feral children into the climatic battle is jarringly anachronistic. Now I would not be surprised to learn that there were actual instances in the middle ages where women donned armor and fought in big battles, and I know for a fact that boys were used in combat at least through the Civil War, although mostly in support roles, but if you’re going to use that, set it up, or at least set it up better than it’s set up here. In this film it’s an eye rolling moment.

All that being said, I think Robin Hood is worth seeing despite it’s flaws. It’s a pretty film, as all Ridley Scott films are, with lovingly researched and recreated sets and costumes. The battle scenes are inventive and thrilling. It’s the script that sabotages the project.

The main problem is that the Gladiator formula they’re trying to recreate doesn’t fit in with the trickster persona of Robin Hood. When this project was first being discussed a couple of years ago, the rumor was that it was about the noble Sheriff of Nottingham tracking down a brutal outlaw named Robin Hood.  That might have been an interesting deconstruction of the story and it would have fit in better with Crowe’s proclivities.  Of course it also seems wrong to mess with one of Western Culture’s most prized stories in that way, so I can see why they abandoned that approach. Still, what they did didn’t work.

If Scott and Crowe want to make a grim meditation on medieval warfare, I’m all for it. I think it would be great, but I would refer them to the work of Sir Walter Scott or the Thomas of Hookton novels by Bernard Cornwell. Or maybe even to history. I’m sure there was lots of cool stuff that happened in the middle ages that could be made into rousing adventure movies.

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