Home > Film, History, Reviews > Film Review: Robin Hood (2010)

Film Review: Robin Hood (2010)

Robin Hood (2010; Directed by Ridley Scott)

Ridley Scott is resolutely the wrong filmmaker to make a Robin Hood movie. Russell Crowe is utterly the wrong actor to play the leader of the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest. Their Robin Hood is not the beloved, merry Robin Hood of Errol Flynn and Disney’s underrated anthropomorphic 1973 animated version, for certain. It follows the much darker, much more violent rendition of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, with its relative period accuracy and invocation of the quotidian horrors of the medieval life. Such an adaptation is not wholly unwelcome. The Robin Hood of benevolent redistribution of wealth, athletic derring-do, good-tempered comradery, and mischievious defiance of villainous authority is a prime carrier of the romantic myth of the chivalric Middle Ages. This myth is one of history’s great white lies, suffusing the heritage of European civilization with a nobility and pride that the historical record of grasping exploitation, divisive superstition, and pervasive barbarity greatly undermines. Why not demystify?

Unfortunately, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood demystifies with a self-flagellatory determination before naively re-mystifying. Crowe’s Robin Longstride is working his way back to England after crusading in the Holy Land in the army of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston). Richard, often a romanticized figure of glory of arms who righteously descends to restore justice at the conclusion of Robin Hood narratives, is no such hero here. He’s a galvanizing military leader, certainly, but that only makes him a king of thugs, and Robin challenges him for the massacre he carried out at Acre on the Crusades that tarnishes his legacy. Richard is equally tarnished at home, where his constant campaigning has bankrupted the royal treasury, placed noble and commoner alike under an undue taxation burden, and exasperated his younger brother John (an appealingly preening Oscar Isaac) and their imperious mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins).

The Lionheart is felled by a crossbow bolt during the siege of a French castle, and then his right-hand man Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge) is killed in an ambush while en route back to England to deliver the news of the king’s death along with the crown for John. Robin and his comrades Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes), and Allan A’Dayle (Alan Doyle of the Newfoundland folk-pop band Great Big Sea, a buddy of Crowe’s who gives the film some needed verve with spirited performances of period music) happen upon the dying Loxley, who extracts a promise not only to return the Crown but also his father’s sword to the family estate in Nottingham.

After a pit stop in London to see the protean John made King, Robin arrives at his promised destination and finds Loxley’s resilient widow Marion (Cate Blanchett, doing absolutely everything that she can to overcome material clearly that is beneath her) and his blind, aged father Sir Walter. The latter is quick to press Robin to pose as Robert to put off the king’s tax collectors and to protect the family estate, much to Marion’s consternation (the Robin-Marion hate-to-love arc is completely paint-by-the-numbers and is dotted with stultifyingly awful attempts at lightness and humour). His acceptance of this role puts Robin and his allies on a collision course with a marauding shakedown effort led by King John’s advisor Godfrey (Mark Strong), which is secretly the vanguard of a planned invasion of England by King Philip II of France (Jonathan Zaccaï).

The resulting cinematic product is classic late-period Ridley Scott: an impressively staged and detailed historical epic, but bloated, broad, and stubbornly whitewashed. If it’s not as pretentious as some of his recent efforts, then it does not scratch fitfully at Big Ideas as they do, either. It’s a collection of reproduced tropes, its forward movement distinctly inert, its existence sustained by common recognition of its stock concepts and familiar elements of the Robin Hood myth (not all of these are bad; Mark Addy, for one, was utterly born to play Friar Tuck at some point in his career, and does not waste the opportunity offered to him here). Crowe, not exactly a figure of onscreen magnanimity on a good day, stalks through medieval England with an adamant glower, about as far removed from Flynn’s chortling acrobatic trickster as a crocodile is from a puppy.

In terms of its politics, Scott’s Robin Hood betrays the persistent tendency of Hollywood historical epics to reflect and appeal to contemporary conceptions of personal freedom in reference to state power. Like the hint of religious tolerance in Scott’s Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven but ultimately more similar to the proto-democratic yearnings of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, Robin Hood imagines the embryonic contract of post-despotic liberty known as the Magna Carta as the product of some broad-based populist sentiment rather than a tensely-forged and oft-discarded definition of contentious power relations between a king and his least cowed nobles.

It’s telling that a document that has been granted such mythic status requires a myth of a man to champion it, as well as a fantasy foreign threat to motivate it. The jumbling of the historical chronology around the events of King John’s reign and his conflicts with the northern barons and King Philip II of France serves the quasi-democratic urges of the English people, as focused through the proxy of Crowe’s Robin. As an archer, he cuts an apt figure in this role, although the most notable overthrow of aristocratic privilege in war by the common folk of the English longbowman ranks was at Agincourt, two hundred years in the future. In historical fact, Philip never invaded England itself, only its territories in Normandy, where he thumped King John’s armies soundly and repeatedly in the early 13th Century. The rebellion of the northern barons was launched in response to King John’s discarding of the Magna Carta agreement, and was fomented by the intriguing Philip, not as a defensive measure against his incursion onto English soil.

The threat of French invasion sets up a climactic battle sequence that is both staged and symbolically couched as a sort of inverted 13th-century D-Day. French landing craft disgorge warriors on an English beachhead, where a vicious engagement commences, ostensibly in the name of liberty from autocratic tyranny. It’s June 1944, sometime in twelve-oh-whatever. Martial brutality carried out under the banner of lofty principles of freedom is the sole acceptable method of justifying war to a modern popular audience; the cocktail of territorial ambition, greed for plunder, and desire for power that fuelled most medieval warfare (like Richard the Lionheart’s campaigning at the start of the film) seems too petty and small, and heroism is ever defined by service to a larger cause.

One of the things one learns very quickly about medieval history if one actually studies it, however, is that there are precious few larger causes available to serve. The fealty of vassalage was almost always all that was required to put boots on the ground. If a lord wanted to fight, he did, and his dependents fought and died for him. The Crusades, with their fanatical mutual jihad, are virtually the only exception to be found in the rich annals of medieval warfare, and modern sensibilities (including Scott’s own, as expressed by Kingdom of Heaven) don’t find such zealously religious motivations to be righteous at all.

Overlaying myths of freedom onto these wars typifies the modern imperialist notions towards history as having worth mainly as a seed-planting operation for our current neoliberal capitalist democracy (Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history”). Robin Hood gets the surface details of the Middle Ages broadly correct, but like many of Hollywood’s popular historical fictions will not let the Middle Ages be what they were: a cruel grind of hopelessness for most, the pain and resentment of which was soothed and/or strangled by aggressively enthusiastic and unquestioned (and unquestionable) religious fervour, punctuated by endemic deadly violence. The fundamentally alien quality of the medieval world, its preternatural distance from our modern experience, is subsumed, understood as primarily a question of placement at a juncture of less sophisticated technological and ideological development rather than reflecting a deep gulf of sensibility and conception of life.

Perhaps this re-mystifying is perfectly appropriate for a Robin Hood movie. As a popular myth, the Robin Hood legend can be traced to a period of great social pressures and general discontent about ingrained economic inequalities in medieval England, where tales of the greenwood outlaws expressed a colourful fantasy of defiance and limited inversion and overthrow of that unjust order. All periods of history across the globe witness such periods and such myths in reaction to them, and that includes our own. What are anti-social anti-heroes like Walter White, Don Draper, or Batman but Robin Hoods of their particular context? They are vessels for anxieties, for discontent, for sentiments of revolt against inequitable power relations.

But Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood makes for a poor fit in this thematic receptacle. Linked to historical figures and events, inhabiting a reconstruction of the medieval world that spares no expense or detail in achieving a convincing simulacrum, this film purports in both its production and marketing to imbue the Robin Hood legend with a veneer of historicity that it has never previously possessed. Whether it is a worthwhile aim to grant a popular myth such historical authenticity, Robin Hood does a creditable (if not very enjoyable) job of it.

But it must have its myths too, albeit of a more grimly self-serious, less merry sort. Liberty in the Middle Ages reposed not in hard-won rights (which were rarely fought over and even more rarely won), but in brief interludes of festive celebration. Tellings of the Robin Hood legend have often operated as part and parcel of those celebrations, and Hollywood versions have often joined in the festivities. But this quasi-historical take on the myth renders the merriment very briefly indeed. Robin Hood is a bit of a joyless slog, which makes it quite a bit like the Middle Ages, after all.

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Categories: Film, History, Reviews
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