Ridley Scott wants you to know that the Crusades were a bad thing. Five years ago he made a whole movie about it, Kingdom of Heaven, but you may have missed it, or perhaps you saw it and forgot pretty much everything but the battle scenes.
Now Scott has made another movie with a more formidable leading man, Russell Crowe rather than Orlando Bloom, not to mention a more marketable title. While it’s not as central to Robin Hood, Scott would like to remind you of some of the finer points from Kingdom of Heaven you might have missed or forgotten: Christians committing atrocities against Muslims as well as their fellow Christians; the hypocrisy and corruption of bishops and even popes.
Like Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood is replete with the opportunism and foolishness of the Crusades. That the whole business was originally a Christian reaction to aggressive Muslim expansionism is an idea even more studiously ignored here than in Kingdom.
Once again a peasant hero reminds us that no man is a knight or peasant but thinking makes him so, and a blacksmith or a stonemason can, and in all likelihood will, shape the destiny of nations. Would you be astonished to learn that there is a proto-feminist heroine who dons armor for the climactic battle? That not only is Richard the Lionheart’s brother John a degenerate, perfidious schemer, Richard himself (briefly seen at the end of Kingdom of Heaven at the outset of his crusade) is a cruel and venal marauder, as bereft of honor as of funds?
So Robin Hood is better than Kingdom of Heaven, or at least more watchable in most respects. I’ll give it that. The story by screenwriter Brian Helgeland is more interesting, the moral issues less muddled, the hero more compelling, the heroine more relevant and the romance at least relatable if not especially engaging. It’s refreshing to see an action movie cast with grown-ups. (Nearly everyone seems to have reached, or passed, their fourth decade. Crowe is 46 — the same age, it’s been pointed out, that Sean Connery was as an aging Robin in the epilogue film Robin and Marian!)
At this point I suppose I ought to discuss how the film is a sort of revisionist origin story in the gritty epic mode of Braveheart, Gladiator and King Arthur. It should be noted that the legend’s traditional themes of economic oppression, noble banditry and derring-do have been displaced by a Norman scheme of conquest, seditious Scottish noblemen, the sacking of England and the great principles of Magna Carta.
I might mention the initially confusing introduction of a character called Sir Robert Loxley who is not played by Crowe, and how it comes about that Crowe’s character, a peasant named Robin Longstride, takes to calling himself Robert Loxley after the real Loxley dies in battle in Normandy. Robin even goes to Loxley’s Nottingham home and winds up helping Loxley’s widow Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett) retain her husband’s lands by continuing to pose as the dead man. (Shades of The Return of Martin Guerre, although Marion does make Robin sleep on the floor.)
There’s a scheming French monarch, a couple of bald bad guys, a loyal regent (William Hurt) trying to save England from the folly of John (Oscar Isaac), and some inexplicably masked feral youths running about in …
No, wait. I’m sorry. I can’t pretend to be objective here.
I’m just so sick of this. This grim, joyless, faux-realist medieval world, with its constant brutality, hypocrisy and debauchery all but unmoved by beauty, serenity and humanity.
I’m sick of movies in this King Arthur / Kingdom of Heaven mold that seem almost entirely lacking in sympathy and affection for their hero’s world. (Isolated moments — Robin’s fellows boisterously harmonizing on the Channel crossing back to England — seem almost to belong to another movie.)
I’m sick of movies that seem obsessed with rubbing our noses in the supposed harsh reality behind our romantic illusions of nobility and courtesy — especially in our age, when the harsh reality is taken for granted, and the romance and nobility and courtesy are all but forgotten.
Here is a small example. On the eve of the siege in which he will fall prey to an archer’s arrow, King Richard, noting Robin’s courage and honesty, and asks him candidly whether God will be pleased with Richard’s sacrifice. Somberly, Robin answers that by massacring innocent Muslims they have become godless men. Specifically, he recalls a Muslim woman whose last look was not one of fear or hatred, but pity. (Bad Crusades! Bad!)
Richard’s capricious response to Robin’s candor is to have him clapped in stocks. You see, Robin is brave, honest — and naïve. Betcha didn’t see that coming, huh?
Now here is another story about an archer and Richard’s death, from Wikipedia. Spotting a defender on the castle walls with a crossbow shooting at him, Richard was amused and applauded the archer — until a shaft went home. Later, the archer was captured and brought before the dying king, whose wound had become gangrenous. The archer (who said he was avenging family members killed by Richard) expected to be executed — but Richard, in a last act of mercy, pardoned him, gave him 100 shillings and sent him on his way. Isn’t that a better story than Richard clapping Robin in stocks?
Where Kingdom of Heaven made a flawed but credible effort to treat the Church with some measure of even-handedness, Robin Hood can’t be bothered. “Between the sheriff and the bishop,” Marion snaps, “it’s hard to say who is the greater curse on common English folk.” She says she’s praying for a “miracle,” namely, that the bishop (never seen) might show “Christian charity” and not rob the people of the seed corn they need for planting. At least there’s a suggestion that Christianity itself is better than its leaders.
It’s implied the pope (also never seen) annuls John’s marriage to Isabel of Gloucester (enabling him to marry his French mistress Isabella of Angoulême) because Isabel is “barren as a brick.” (Is the echo of A Man for All Seasons deliberate?) As far as I know, John’s marriage to Isabel was actually annulled on grounds of consanguinity (they were second cousins).
In other productions, Friar Tuck often serves as a positive if not especially pious clerical type. Here Mark Addy’s Tuck is at pains to make clear that he is “not a churchy friar,” and certainly he’s given nothing “churchy” to do or say.
Robin seems capable of a sincere expression of Christian piety, crossing himself and uttering a prayer for God to accept the soul of a man Robin has buried under a makeshift cross. Later, though, he builds a funeral pyre for an old man killed by one of the villains. Wasn’t cremation pretty much abolished as a pagan rite at that point in England?
In the end, Scott tries belatedly to bring in the familiar iconography of the Robin Hood mythos: a carefree, idyllic outlaw existence in Sherwood. There is even a shot of Robin with a contraband deer over his shoulders, echoing an early scene in the 1938 Errol Flynn classic.
Apparently, there is talk of a franchise. Can anyone see this Robin, after this story, becoming a merry outlaw? Can anyone imagine a sequel to this sprawling epic having anything to do with any of Robin’s traditional adventures? How do you follow up civil war and invasion with robbing from the rich and giving to the poor?
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I’m on sabbatical in Warsaw and was tempted to see the new Robin Hood flick just because I am something of a fan of Russell Crowe, and because I had forgotten (easy to do) that Ridley Scott had also done Kingdom of Heaven (interesting how even Caligula got almost sympathetic treatment, non? a tyrant yes, but when that had a certain greasy charm).
Anyway, you just saved me a great deal of pain as I tried to tear out my very short hair from watching another effort to uglify the Middle Ages. In all fairness we both know that in a sense this is really about Robin Hood as a Code Pink activist in King Richard’s war on terror/shredding of the Magna Carta, so in a sense it is nothing really personal, but yes, I can easily live without such bosh. So thank you for doing your office: I shall find some entertainment that is simply more fun.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.