Behind the Curve: Robin Hood Men in Tights

I’ve been incredibly busy lately.  All week long I’ve been working at my new job and continuing to get settled in my lovely new apartment!  Angela arrives soon and I’m making friends with my new coworkers!  Life is going really quite well at the moment and I foresee it continuing in this vein!  My writing has taken a big hit since I got here, though, and being cameraless I can’t provide to proper documentation of my new apartment that I would like.  I’ll try to take pictures using my built-in webcam this week, once I clean up a bit!

But at any rate, it’s time for another installment of Behind the Curve!

This week’s focus, as promised, is on the bafflingly convoluted sequel to Russel Crowe’s Robin Hood.  It eschews much of the lore established in the first movie and strikes a wildly different tone than the original.  Both thematically and contentually the film feels like it was made in a completely different time and with a completely different set of values.  Namely in the nineties and by Mel Brooks.

This man looks nothing like Russel Crowe!

“Something’s rotten in the state of England,” or so said a young prince once.  Yes, much ill has fallen England since Russel Crowe retreated to the forest to begin his predations upon the English tax collectors of Nottingham.  For starters, Robin has been forced to evacuate his home and begins the film trapped in an Arab prison.  With the help of the Chef, he escapes and swims to freedom in England.  Though there is little or no segue between the two films, one can assume that Robin has fled the country when the popular opinion turned against him for the repeated burning of one particular village. 

(Apparently the entire movie is on YouTube.  Who knew?)

Robin returns to Loxley Hall (which has received a major upgrade to stone from it’s timber construction of old) only to see it carted away by tax collectors.  Robin has apparently fully embraced his new patron, the late Sir Walter of Loxley, and appears to have adopted himself into the family.  He refers to himself as Sir Robin of Loxley, which, as we know, is bunk.  He is Robin Longstride, impersonating Sir Robert of Loxley.  But Robin must have found the life of the wealthy knight appealing, because he not once refers to his long-dead libertarian father, Mr. Longstride.

In another shock to the Loxley bloodline, Robin encounters a blind manservant who could only be blind Sir Walter’s illegitimate son, Blinkin’.  Unphased, Robin greets him with warmth and familiarity.  After all, if Robin can impinge upon the Loxley line, why can’t a bastard son happily coexist with him?  The Loxley coat of arms is so sullied by this point that it hardly matters anyway.

With the help of a Moorish “study-abroad student,” Achoo (A distinctly un-Arabic sounding name if ever I heard one), the three embark on a quest to discover what has gone wrong in England, to right that wrong, and to free Maid Marion from her imprisonment in King John’s castle.

A word about King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham.  Both have prospered wildly during their reign.  King John has fully embraced his new power, though he still demonstrates tremendous spinelessness and seems to change his mind a lot.  He lost his French Queen and seems more or less content to remain a childless bachelor.  Rather than claiming Maid Marion for himself, for example, he allows the lowly sheriff to claim her for himself.  While such a young, vivacious bride could surely rekindle the royal line, John never once even suggests that he has any interest in such matters.

He has also developed a peculiar sort of facial cancer in the intervening years since Russel Crowe's outing as Robin Longstride.

The Sheriff, on the other hand, has risen in station by light years.  Before, the sheriff was a poor, greedy, lecherous public servant in the remote town of Nottingham.  Now, however, he seems to be the main advisor to the king.  William Hurt must have died and the French Queen either returned to France or suffered a similar fate.  The Sheriff is still a sniveling whiner, as always, but while he had some minor heroic potential in the first movie, here he is depicted as helplessly bad (evil seems to strong a word to describe this bumbling fool).

His lust for Maid Marion has remained intact, however, and he nearly manages to wed her this time around--in the previous film there were only vague threats of such ends, here it comes quite close to being realized!

Other characters have suffered more or less drastic changes.  Funny Red-Headed Guy and the Bard from the first film have disappeared and Little John has traded his mega-hammer for a bowstaff.  He’s also traded his muscle-bound physique and chiseled face for a broader, beardier Brendan-Frasier-plus-2-feet look.  There’s only one reasonable explanation for the drastic change in characters from the first film.  And the answer lies in the apparent change in the setting.

While the original Robin Longstride’s story was heavily grounded in the Middle Ages, the sequel’s Robin appears to live during the High Middle Ages/Early Renaissance.  The dress, technology, and architecture belies a great passage of time.  Or at least a major technological and cultural revolution that took place in the intervening years.  Combined with the disappearance of previous major characters (William Hurt, Friar Tuck, Funny Red-Headed Guy), only one explanation remains:

The Black Death!

Ye verily!  Little John is, in fact, dead.  Bearded Brendan Frasier has taken up his name, probably to take up some of Little John’s reputation in the region.  Where the hammer-wielding brute likely garnered much respect for his ferocity and bravery, a man who can’t swim and who fights with sticks stands to gain much by adopting the name of a local legend.

Friar Tuck’s absence is also easily explained with this line of reasoning.  Town priests, such as Tuck, were often the best-qualified local figures for administering to the sick and dying.  Not only could a priest ensure the spiritual salvation of a dying member of the parish, but the very nature of the plague seemed to beg divine assistance.  Who better than the local friar to serve the community in such a time?

Many communities believed that the Black Death was brought on by excessive sinfulness.  Priests led pilgrimages and prayers in the best of times, and witch-hunts and pogroms in the worst.  This makes Rabbi Tuckmann’s presence a little bewildering.

Possibly the luckiest Jew in all of Christendom at the time, Rabbi Tuckman remains free to peddle his wares (Sacramental wine and circumcisions) while Jews in many other communities were burned or beaten to death.

With this information in hand, we can pinpoint the historical setting of the film.  Robin left North Africa when he swam to England.  There were no signs of plague in Morocco, indeed, life seemed to be going pretty well.  But by the time he arrived in England, the plague had already come and gone.  Using a geographical timeline we can determine both the length of Robin’s swim and the timing of his return to Nottingham.

Please take note of the location of Nottingham on the map.

Here’s what this map tells us.  The plague came to Nottingham in the summer of 1349.  When Robin arrived, spring had sprung and the plague had passed.  This places his arrival in spring of 1350, when most of the worst outbreaks had likely subsided.  Though the plague periodically returned, the hardest-hitting waves had gone by Robin’s arrival, killing their victims (William Hurt, Friar Tuck) and scarring others (King John).  But if there was no plague in Morocco, when did Robin leave on his epic swim and how long did it take?

During the 14th century, most of Spain was under the rule of the Moors.  The administration of Iberia was based out of North Africa, where Robin was imprisoned.  Given the level of contact between the two major regions of the Moorish Empire, it is safe to assume that the plague outbreak dates depicted on the map for Spain will roughly correlate with outbreaks in North Africa.  By no later than the end of 1348, we can be sure that North Africa was being devastated as badly as Spain by the Bubonic Plague.  With this in mind we can estimate that Robin’s swim took him eighteen full months.  He would have had to leave no later than autumn 1348 and, as we calculated above, he arrived in England in the spring of 1350.  Quite the champion swimmer!

In the wake of such a disaster, it makes slightly more sense that Robin and Maid Marion especially would feign ignorance of each other and pretend that they were meeting for the first time.  Rather than focusing on the traumatic events of the past (Sir Walter’s murder by French agents-provocateur, the death of so many of their friends, the devastation of their community by taxes and plague), Robin and Marion have a tacit agreement to start completely fresh, even going so far as to reintroduce themselves and claim to have discovered love at first sight.

"No, I've never met this young woman in my life, your honor."

Given that Cate Blanchett and Russel Crowe never truly consummated their relationship in the original movie, Marion’s chastity belt can be viewed less as a new development and more as a complicating revelation that will throw a wrench into their romance.  Pun fully intended.  It also explains Blanchett’s Marion’s comfort while wearing iron:

Cate Blanchett as Maid Marion during the climactic battle of the first Robin hood.

During 14th Century Post-Apocalyptic Europe, who wouldn’t want to just pretend it was all a bad dream and start over?  You know who might want that more than anyone?  Dead King Richard.

When we last saw King Richard, he was dying on a French battlefield with a crossbow bolt through his neck.  Slovenly French Cook had shot him right in the jugular.  His death, in fact, propelled much of the original’s plot.  But the audience should ask itself, did we ever see King Richard buried?

In the ultimate surprise twist ending (M. Night Shyamalan would be jealous), King Richard is revealed to be alive and well at the end of the sequel.  He’s lost a lot of hair both in his beard and on his head (an unfortunate side effect of the plague or another recurrence his family’s tussle with cancer?), but there are no other signs of poor health.  Indeed, Richard seems fitter than ever!

Notice how he cocks his head to hide the surely-unsightly scar that the bolt must have left on the left side (audience's right) of his neck.

Tragically for King John, Richard returns and counter-coups him.  Happily for everyone else, Patrick Stewart has a wonderful, regal voice.

The End.

Cultural Importance: This is really one of Mel Brooks’s less memorable outings.  I’d say that it hardly makes a splash at all.  Though most people have seen it I don’t think anyone reveres it the way they do Young Frankenstein or Space Balls.  Still, it’s no Dracula, Dead and Loving It.  So I’ll give it a 2 instead of a 1.

Quality: Right down to the casting of the lead, this movie wishes it was as clever or funny as The Princess Bride.  Switch out Andre the Giant for Little John and Inego Montoya for the blade-slinging, Steve Buschemi-looking Will Scarlet and you’ve got yourself a full house!  It wasn’t as funny as it thought, but the action and the musical numbers made up for that a bit.  How does a 4 sound?  Fine, you talked me into a 4.25.

Ground-Breakingness: Parodies are, by definition, not ground breaking.  Though granting equal citizenship to Africans, Jews, and the disabled during the High Middle Ages, it’s depiction of historical England is woefully Hollywoodized.  It really just follows the Robin Hood story without offering many change-ups.  Now, if it had embraced it’s post-plague setting a little more overtly that would have been an innovation.  2.

Enjoyment: I think I would have liked it a lot more if I watched it with someone.  As a solo venture, it’s not terribly funny.  2

Would I Do It Again?: No.  Unlike other Mel Brooks movies, I have no desire to rewatch this one.  Except maybe I’ll delve deeper into the whole Black Death thing.  It would probably make the goofy executioner more compelling!  Also, I would rewatch it if I could also recast it.  Let’s see Brendan Frasier as Little John, Ben Stiller as King John, Billy Crystal as Blinkin’, Robert Downey, Jr. as the Sheriff, Steve Buschemi as Will Scarlet, and bring Russel Crowe and Cate Blanchett back to their original roles.  Patrick Stewart makes a mighty fine King Richard, though.  We’ll keep him.

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