Behind the Curve: Robin Hood

Robin Hood is one of those perennial sassy bad-ass characters who sits well with audiences of all generations.  From Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling days through the Disney adaptation up to 2010’s Ridley Scott/Russel Crowe version, Robin Hood has been parrying, thrusting, and arching (God, that came off sexual) his way through legions of dastardly French infiltration teams and facing off against evil King Phillip’s goons to the delight of children of all ages.  Wait, what?

Can you see my confusion?

I distinctly seeing previews for Robin Hood a while back and thinking to myself, “What’s this movie?  Gladiator II?”  When it announced “Robin Hood” at the end of the trailer, I was a bit surprised.  It looked nothing like the Robin Hood we’re all familiar with.

Of course, gritty reboots demand more gruff, scowly heroes.

At it’s heart, the 2010 Robin Hood bears little resemblance to the Robin of ore.  For starters, Robin Hood is traditionally the bandit alias for one Sir Robin of Loxley.  “Not so!” says Ridley Scott.  In his film Russel Crowe plays himself..I mean, he plays Robin Longstride, a petty archer in King Richard the Lionhearted’s Crusader Army.  Sir Robert of Loxley is one of Richard’s knights.

The film opens as Richard has nearly arrived home from Palestine, ready to restore himself to the English throne.  His “runt” brother John has been screwing around in Richard’s absence (Note: Here “around” means “a young member of the French royal family”) and their aged mother acts as a regent of sorts.  John’s negative attitude seems to be a harbinger of events to come, to the surprise of no one.

What is surprising, however, is that this reenvisioning of Robin Hood places Robin neither in or from Nottingham and King Richard rather close by to England.  Typically, Robin is a bandit opposing the offensively high taxes of usurper King John and fighting his local nemesis the bungling Sheriff of Nottingham all the while.  Plots usually resolve just in time for the triumphant return of good King Richard from the crusades.  Richard deposes his sneaky little brother and sets England right again.

In 2010, however, the story is turned neatly on its head.  Richard is already back and John hardly has any kingly ambitions.  In fact, any thoughts of the throne seem to be traceable to his petite francaise.  As Richard storms one final French castle before reaching the shoreline, the audience is cast further adrift by his sudden and unremarkable death at the hand of a French cook.  Richard gets shot right through the neck by a character described in the credits as “Slovenly French Cook” who shouts “J’ai tue le roi!” (I killed the king!  Also, as an aside, I don’t know how/don’t want to bother with discovering how to properly accent my letters on WordPress.  Sorry French, you’re about to get butchered [Also a likely summation of Robin Hood’s motivational words in the film’s climactic and final battle]).

Sorry Ricky, looks like you won't get to be the literal knight in shining armor this go-around!

This King Richard, prior to his death, had been a more complicated character than the rosy one often portrayed in previous films.  He grappled with his deeds in the Middle East, complaining to his aide-de-camp (to borrow a phrase from the noxious, villainous French!) that the English people need never know the horrific things he’d done while crusading.  While routinely interrupting a soldier’s brawl between Robin and Lil’ John, he asks Russel Crowe, “Will God be pleased with our actions?”  Crowe answers with conviction that, “No, God will be most displeased that we slaughtered thousands of women and children on your word.”  The Crusades aren’t as pretty for this King Richard.

Shucks! And they're usually such a pleasant affair, too!

With Richard thusly dispatched, Robin and his comrades (Lil’ John, a funny red-haired Welshman, a bard, and a dispensible young lad) escape their stockades and flee towards the coast.  Little do they know, adventure is awaiting them!

(Un)fortunately for Robin and his band of mildly jolly men, the dastardly French King has bigger plans for Richard.  In an ambush of the King’s knights, all are killed by the sneaky French, depicted throughout this movie as the ultimate villains.  The crown escapes into Robin’s hands and he counter-ambushes the French soldiers, wounding Scowling Villain Guy with a loosed arrow.

Mark Strong sure seems to get stuck playing the bad guy a lot lately. Or maybe always.

The villain in this movie is rather underwhelming.  Though he hatches a clever scheme to divide England against itself, thus enabling a French invasion to capture the kingdom, he never does much worthy villaining.  Sure, he leads a French infiltration team on a rampage of pillaging and destruction, but his most notable achievements in the department of nefarious deeds is limited to a) interrogating an already-impaled knight, b) defeating a blind septuagenarian in single combat (while sustaining only minor scarring across the forehead [Seriously?  Nicked by a blind geezer??]), and partially drowning a woman in armor.  Weak.

In fact, throughout the movie, Mark Strong never seems very threatening.  There is little sense of doom as he goes about his business.  The bit of dramatic atmosphere created by the villains is owed to his deputy and to the French soldiers themselves.  They do a good number on the English tax-collectors in one scene and engage in all sorts of evil sacking of English towns, but Mark Strong seems like the limp-wristed armchair general behind the action.  He is often seen running away and manages to acquire quite the collection of scars (one from running away and one from a blind man’s sword).  He’s really quite ineffectually cowardly.

Robin Longstride eventually takes on the identity of aforementioned tortured and impaled Knight Sir Robert of Loxley.  He takes up residence at Sir Walter Loxley’s estate and joins Maid Marion in a faux-marriage designed to keep up appearances that Robert has returned from the Crusades.  Robin is supposed to provide the strong leadership to the village to bring them back together.

The village in question is suffering from a curious series of problems.  The evil former priest has absconded with all the grain; the boys of the village have taken off into the forest and live in an anarchic commune, raiding farms for chickens and such; and the spineless, greasy sheriff is taxing the villagers into oblivion.  Friar Tuck arrives on scene to provide comic relief and grain, with the help of Robin’s men (They miraculously sow the entire village’s fields in one night!  Just goes to show that if the peasants weren’t so damned lazy they wouldn’t be in such dire straights in the first place!)

A word about King John.  He’s almost an interesting character in this movie.  His character arc has a lot of potential, but, sadly, it gets squandered on senseless manic shifts in tone and intent that can only belie an underlying Bipolar disorder.  The King swings wildly from one extreme to the other.  At William Hurt’s suggestion that they ride north together to talk with the disgruntled and rebellious barons, King John tells his former minister (whom he had just visited seeking council) that he will go alone!  His defiant and suddenly angry tone comes as a big jolt.  Conciliatory one moment and rebelliously arrogant the next.  One gets the feeling that King John was made arbitrary so as to serve the needs of the plot, rather than his own needs as a character.

This is particularly visible in some of the most promising/silly scenes of the movie.  When the Barons are arguing with William Hurt, out of nowhere the King shows up to meet with them.  Here we see King John doing exactly what he said he wouldn’t do just to service the scene’s needs.  In this case, the scene wants to set up Robin as a hero for a modern American audience.  What does that even mean? one might ask.

Robin Hood can be lampooned as a Communist.  All that wealth redistribution that he does is down right Leninist if you ask the right members of the conservative, wealthy establishment.  I bet Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry would not lightly tolerate a Robin Hood in their midsts.  In order to better acquaint him with an American sense of values, Robin Hood must not only be a champion of the poor, but he must also become the father of Western Democracy.

Robin Hood, here seen in the guise of John Locke.

In a rousing speech to all assembled, Robin insists that every man’s “House is his castle” and that the English must be ruled by a just set of laws outlined in a charter.  (A great charter?  Or, to use the Latin, a Magna Carta, perhaps?)  The Barons rally and King John agrees to sign such a charter once the French are dispatched from the shores of England.

At the end of the movie, King John promptly about-faces, shocking all, including his French wife and the 21st century audience, and burns the Magna Carta, declaring Robin Longstride “Also known as Robin of the Hood (though never before until this moment has anyone in the film referred to him as such)” an enemy of the state.  The only reason given for this change of heart is that he doesn’t want to give up his God-given powers to any lower man.  In reality, however, King John’s decision is presumably a reactionary backlash based on his jealous insecurity towards Robin.

During the final battle with the French, we have a lot going on.  The setpiece is designed to serve as a reverse D-Day with the medieval versions of the famous landing craft in use.

Pictured Above: French troops landing on the beaches of Southern England sometime in the twelfth century.

The French are depicted as arrogant, evil, and incompetent throughout this movie.  Though they deftly nail Englishmen inside a house and set it on fire, they seem unable to remember to bring their pikes with them from the landing craft to the shore.  As a result, when the English cavalry charges they’re caught flat-footed and suffer enormous casualties.  In the final confrontation, I do not recall a single Englishman getting killed, though countless French fall to the arrows of the English archers, King John’s eager sword, Lil’ John’s hammer (?), and Robin’s derring-do.

Adding to the cliche silliness of the film, out of nowhere a trim English soldier appears before Robin offering to assist with his little soldiers in tow.  Of course, it’s Maid Marion in disguise, with the Lost Boys of Nottingham Forest along for the ride.  Naturally, these untested, incompetent (as demonstrated previously in the film when Robin escapes their capture) boys perform admirably and Marion nearly offs the inneffective Mark Strong herself.  Their presence is entirely unwarranted and unforecasted.  There’s no reason for it except to give Robin a damsel to save in the heat of battle.

Future iterations of Cate Blanchett would be far less helpless in the face of their adversaries. Certainly Irina Spalko didn't need Russel Crowe to save HER sorry ass from drowning.

Ultimately, Marion’s arrival on the battlefield felt as necessary as the entire movie.  The arbitrariness of King John, the silly and pointless changes to Robin Hood mythology, the Magna Carta–all of these are symptoms of a larger illness, namely, the useless addition to the Robin Hood franchise.  For a good portion of the movie I assumed that conventions would be annulled and that King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham would join the ranks of the film’s heroes, and they nearly did.  But then eleventh hour character shifts and poorly conceived subplots undermined the reboot-y nature of the story.

The film ends with Robin shooting an arrow through the Sheriff’s proclamation to nail it to the tree in a cocky act of bravado characteristic of Robin Hood but missing from the rest of the movie.  Once the penultimate evil of King Phillip of France has been thwarted, King John resumes his role as the villain and the Sheriff his goon.

Believe it or not, I actually rather liked this movie.  I was prepared to sit and continue watching as a more traditional Robin Hood story played out, despite the already-lengthy running time.  I would have happily enjoyed another entire story arc that placed Robin in his ‘hood as he fought off the English tax collectors and earned his reputation.  Instead, the movie ended as mentioned above and ultimately serves more as a revisionist prequel than anything else.

In summation, I think that the movie would have been better served by ditching the Robin Hood moniker and all the baggage that comes with it.  There would be no expectation that King John must be evil and no confusion at Lil’ John using a giant hammer instead of a bowstaff.  The movie could have soared on its own merits and told the story of the Magna Carta without having to shoehorn it in to this extraneous mythos surrounding Robin Hood.  Rather than creating a new medieval hero that Americans can look to as their founding Great-Great Grandfather, the film frustratingly arbitrarily clung to the Robin Hood name and muddied its own waters in the process.

Cultural Importance: Robin Hood gets a 2.  Not only did it make little splash when it came out, but it needlessly borrowed the name “Robin Hood” to tell a distinctively and pointlessly un-Robin Hood-y story.

Quality: Despite all sorts of curious details that rankled the historian in me, the setting was quite well executed.  Though inconsistent, the acting and the action was fairly passable as well.  Let’s go with 6.5

Ground-Breakingness: It broke Robin Hood conventions only to circle back and reinvigorate them by the end of the story.  It tried to “gritty reboot” Robin Hood but largely did not succeed.  2.

Enjoyment: I enjoyed this movie a lot!  It was compelling enough and I rarely got bored.  Yeah, I rolled my eyes a lot and got confused a lot, but neither of those factors caused me to enjoy the movie less.  8.

Would I Do It Again?: No.  It’s long and I’m satisfied having seen it once.  I’d be more inclined to check out a sequel (which it practically begged for with its, “And so the saga began” at the end) after having seen it though.

PS- I saw Russel Crowe once!  My dad’s friend has lots of connections in the film industry and got us on to the set of A Beautiful Mind.  We ate lunch with some 1950s eras nurses and soldiers and visited John Nash’s office.  The space was tight so Ron Howard’s directing chair was set up in the hall with a bunch of monitors hooked to the cameras in the rooms.  When we arrived on-set we saw Russel Crowe pealing out (peeling out?  Bells do one, bananas do the other, but which do cars do?) to go to lunch in NYC and blasting some rap music.  And then I found five dollars.

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