Robin Hood
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Matthew Macfadyen, Mark Strong, Oscar Isaac, Kevin Durand, Mark Addy, William Hurt, Danny Huston, Max von Sydow
140 minutes

The Adventures
of Robin Hood (1938) starring Errol Flynn will always be for my
generation, and for many others, the definitive film version of the
legend.  The Robin Hood (1922) of Douglas Fairbanks, however
admirable in its buoyant American hero, pales before the Technicolor
glory, then new, of the Warner Brothers production. Hollywood followed
by making two films about the sons of Robin, The Bandit of Sherwood
Forest (1946), starring Cornel Wilde, and Rouges of Sherwood
Forest (1950), starring John Derek. It also produced a B version,
Prince of Thieves (1948), with Jon Hall in the lead. Everyone loves
Robin. Several TV series about Robin have appeared, most notably the
one starring Richard Greene (1955-60) which ran for no less than 143
episodes, and led to an English production, Sword of Sherwood Forest
(1960).

Then Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn starred in a “sequel,”
Robin and Marian (1976), which showed the two lovers at a
more advanced age.  I remember that in one scene Sean had difficulty
climbing a wall. In 1991 Kevin Costner appeared in Robin Hood: Prince
of Thieves, which may well have inspired Mel Brooks’s 1993 parody
version, Robin Hood; Men in Tights.
Now we have the “prequel,” what might be termed “Becoming
Robin Hood,” directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe
and Cate Blanchett.

The 1938 version
presented a New Deal perspective on the legend. Robin is a populist
champion of the oppressed Saxons (the “people” of the U.S.),
opposing the Norman overlords (the Republican oligarchy who have plunged
the nation into distress) and Richard the Lion Hearted (FDR) the
benevolent
patriarch who gives legitimacy to Robin’s common sense reforms. Unlike
this and all the other versions, Brian Helgeland, the A list
screenwriter
(Mystic River, L.A. Confidential) has recast the legend into
its original historic context.  Accordingly Richard the Lion Hearted
(Danny Huston) never returns to England from the Crusades, but is killed
in France by an arrow during a siege. King John (Oscar Isaac) is forced
by the costs of the Crusades and the loss of French lands to impose
heavy taxes. In response, the Northern Barons revolt and force him to
sign the Magna Carta, which he agrees to and then rejects. All the while
Philipp II of France schemes against the English. Hegeland also
introduces
into the story two real players of the time, Eleanor of Aquitaine
(Eileen
Atkins) and William Marshall (William Hurt), who was chief advisor to
King John and later the Regent of the realm who reissued the Magna
Carta. 

All this
is true, but my own deep researches via Wikipedia,
into the  English history of the late twelfth and early thirteenth
centuries have revealed some politically correct biases such as
indicting
Richard  as a war criminal for his treatment of Muslims and depicting
a rapacious Church robbing the people of their grain. In the whole film
Robin’s only act, as the Robin we love, that is in taking from the rich
and giving to the poor, consists of his robbing the ecclesiastical
thieves
and returning the grain to their rightful owners. The film also portrays
King Richard as plundering France as well as despoiling Palestine,
whereas
previously historians thought that he, as the Duke of Normandy, was
attempting to recover the domains which the French occupied while he
was on Crusade. It telescopes King Philip of France with his son Prince
Louis, the one who after King John’s death invaded England, an event
which provides the climactic battle of the film.

What strikes
one as most strange about this most historic of Robin Hood films is
its anti-French bias.  Admittedly, the French and English rulers,
all related, all with legitimate claims to each other’s territories,
were continually at war, but why make King Philip and his henchman,
Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), the English traitor, the chief villains?
Previously the Legend had focused the villainy on domestic overlords,
such as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, memorably played by Basil Rathbone in
the 1938 version. It would seem that Sir Ridley has converted the Legend
into a nationalistic epic in the manner of Shakespeare’s Henry V.
The defeat of the French invasion fleet concludes with the drowning
of the Fleur de Lys.

So how does
screenwriter Helgeland weave Robin into this “realistic” world? 
Well, for starters, Robin is not Robin of Loxley, as we all thought. 
He is Robin Longstrider (Russell Crowe), a yeoman archer in King
Richard’s
crusading army. When the real Robin Loxley (Douglas Hodge) is killed
by Sir Godfrey, Longstrider impersonates Loxley in order to escape from
France and complete Loxley’s mission of bringing the royal crown to
the new King John. In the guise of Sir Robin, he continues to Nottingham
and there encounters Sir Robin’s widow, Marian (Cate Blanchett). Urged
by Sir Robin’s blind father (Max von Sydow) to continue the
impersonation,
a kind of comedy of remarriage begins as the two, observing all the
proprieties, gradually fall in love. Meanwhile Longstrider and his
veteran
pals Little John (Kevin Durand) and Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes) help
Marian preserve her lands from the Church and the destructive tax
collectors
led by Sir Godfrey. Just as Robin has only one outfit of dingy brown,
no green for him, so Marian works in the fields.  Realism! Needless
to say Robin, who eloquently claims that every Englishman’s home is
his castle, joins the Northern Barons and goes to the defense of the
homeland. So too does Marian, who dons mail, armor, and helmet, as a
kind of English Joan of Arc.

The English
victory results in King John’s signing of the Magna Carta. But, almost
immediately, John blames his troubles on Robin, and not on his confused
policies vis a vis the French, so as he burns the newly signed document,
he declares “Robin of the Hood” an outlaw and public enemy
number one.  So in the final scene, as the Sheriff of Nottingham
(Michael Macfayden) attempts to post a reward notice for Robin on a
sturdy English oak and asks for a nail, an arrow comes whizzing out
of Sherwood Forest, landing between his fingers and doing the job for
him. Robin Hood is born! The Legend begins! Robin has organized the
‘lost boys,” the shadowy war orphans we see skulking about the
Forest, into his freedom fighters, though one doubts that in this
version
they will ever become “merry men.”

Is the film
worth seeing? That after all is what reviews are supposed to tell you.
No, if you look for edification and some effort to explore the mysteries
of life. Yes, if you like epic battle scenes, great casting, and superb
acting. For the film juxtaposes two different styles, the kinetic, fast
cutting, sensational one popularized by Sam Peckinpah in The Wild
Bunch (1969), the year after the demise of the Production Code;
the other a more classical, intimate one which gives scope to the
actors.
The opening siege of the Castle of Charlus and the closing invasion
at Dover are visually brilliant, dramatically exciting, and perhaps
even accurate about medieval warfare. Scott excels at this kind of
moviemaking.

Then the two Australian leads never falter. Crowe lends conviction to
every screen moment, and Blanchett, who resembles a late medieval
Flemish
portrait, exudes beauty and inspires sympathy in her every scene. 
They make one believe in their affection for one another.  Eileen
Atkins turns in a superb performance of Eleanor, regal, principled and
even endearing.  Oscar Isaac plays King John as a spoiled, immature,
and decadent tyrant, much in the manner of Caligula in other Hollywood
epics. Kevin Durand is as convincing a Little John as Alan Hale, who
played the role in three Hollywood versions. Michael Macfayden looks
and acts as feckless as previous Sheriffs of Nottingham. And not least,
Mark Strong interprets the immoral Sir Guy with a wicked gusto which
such a part deserves. The film contains a great deal of violence and
one attempted rape scene, but it avoids nudity, foul language, and
blasphemy. 
In almost every regard, this Robin Hood is superior to most
contemporary
action films.

As a footnote,
I cannot resist mentioning that King John, known by his contemporaries
as “Lackland” because of his loss of Norman lands to the French,
turns out to be a direct ancestor of all American Presidents, with the
exception of Martin Van Buren.  Which all goes to show that, for
better or worse, we are all related.

William Park is a veteran film
reviewer and the author of Hollywood: An Epic Production, a highly
praised verse history of American cinema. He lives in California.