Robin Hood, Russell Crowe, and the self-importance of critics

So, I saw Robin Hood the other day.  Personally, I really liked it.  I’ve seen an awful lot of criticism of it, mostly of ill-informed folk who have decided to pan it because it wasn’t the film they wanted to see.  Perhaps they’re right.  I picked out an awful lot of good bits which paid homage in some way to various historical circumstances of the late 12th and early 13th centuries.  But then, I’ve spent more than 5 years studying this stuff, and I can notice those things, which only an enthusiast, if not a scholar, would pick out.  So perhaps it’s actually more disjointed than I think it is, and deficient in story.

But I’ve also seen an awful lot of criticism from people who should know better, and who seem to expect that Ridley Scott will render some kind of scholarly study or cinematic rendition of the Robin Hood literature.  That, in my opinion, is a ridiculous assumption on three counts.  First, because Scott’s business is entertainment, not scholarship.  That he claims this is the most “historically accurate” of Robin Hood films doesn’t change this: in many ways, it is the most historically informed one I’ve seen.  That doesn’t mean that I expect historical accuracy; this is Hollywood, after all.  Second, because a cinematic rendition of the literature would make far less sense than even this current edition.  Straight-up medieval lit won’t sell, and a conflicted, complex version of Robin Hood would have to transcend the genre, which, given Prince of Thieves and the BBC series, would be problematic at best, and highly risky.  So, playing it safe makes sense.  Third, and as those who know better should definitely know, Robin Hood didn’t exist.  He is more the legendary archetype, who can be modified for whatever purpose the storyteller wishes.  And considering the ridiculous post-modern, war-on-terror posturing we’ve seen in the BBC series, criticizing a well-acted, well-filmed story because it simply gives a new twist to an old tale is hardly fair, to say the least.  So much for the critics.

Now for my own take on the film [WARNING: some spoilers follow!!!].  Cinematically, it is a tour de force, much more lush and imaginative than Kingdom of Heaven.  There is a certain deftness with angle and lighting which is refreshing, and I would say that, visually, this film recalls The Duellists as much as it does KoH.  The acting is great all around.  Kingdom of Heaven‘s main problem, in the last analysis, is the lack of a truly sympathetic protagonist (even in the director’s cut, of which I’m a great devotee).  Robin Hood doesn’t have that problem, as Crowe plays a believably disillusioned chap who is faced with certain choices, and we believe him as his decent side wins out over the cynical.  The same applies to most characters.  Their motivations are clear, consistent, and generally devoid of the overblown hyperbole in other Robin Hood renditions (BBC, cough, cough…).

Some historical positives: The “liberty by law” and Magna Carta themes, while cast as somewhat more “revolutionary” than they were, are reasonably accurate.  Magna Carta formalized custom and tradition, but it did so because King John had been disregarding them, and acting arbitrarily and without asking or accepting council from his barons–more-or-less as is shown in the film.  So, that’s not as far fetched as I’ve heard some-who-should-know-better say it was; a read of Holt’s Magna Carta would be useful.  At least Crowe’s speech isn’t that puke-inducing pre-battle one from Kingdom of Heaven, which makes me shudder every time I hear it.  Other positives: arms and armor generally; one-handed swords (later thirteenth-century models, granted), and they say “release” or “loose” instead of “fire” (another bugbear from KoH for me).  The modified Burgudian sallet with visor is a bit far-fetched, but on the whole the costuming is pretty good.  King John’s character is also not badly done–a bit over-the-top at times, but his frustration at the state of the kingdom, as well as his distrust of folk in general, is reasonably accurate.  Read Warren’s biography of John in the Yale Monarch series, for starters, and then try Church’s book for a newer view.  The French did invade, though only toward the end of John’s reign, and the invasion was tied up with the split with the barons and a papal excommunication.  The French army, led by Philip II’s son Prince Louis, was still in eastern England when John died, and William Marshal, at this  point regent of England (after some rocky career points), managed to negotiate their withdrawal.  All hinted at in a mish-mashed fashion, but kudos to the film for tying in all these different strands of a complex period.  From my perspective, that’s a brave decision!  Also, Lady Marian’s character is well-done, if also a bit over-the-top toward the end.  She is fairly accurate in terms of what one could expect a medieval woman when she was in a position of lordship (refer to Deborah Gerish’s article in Palgrave Advances in the Crusades for an overview of gender theory and medieval studies…there’s a newer work out there, too, dealing with female lordship, but the title/author escapes me at the moment).

A couple of low points: the kids and the ponies at the end, as has been pointed out by others.  Also, and many folks have mentioned this, the World War II-style French landing craft.  Higgins boats, with oars.  C’mon guys, you can do better than this!!  And that has to be one heck of a choice of a landing site…One might also mention the too-clear linguistic division between “English” and “French”…sigh.  A bit more complicated than that, but it would be unrealistic to expect more.  Also, Robin’s family origins story strikes me a tad far-fetched, but eh, whatever.

Random stuff: There’s a lot of good, random medieval factoids buried in the dialog, and I attribute that in part to Brian Helgland’s involvement.  As the writer/director for A Knight’s Tale, he’s put much the same spirit into Robin Hood–some amusing or dramatic non-sequiturs, historical allusions, and nuggets of info for the informed viewer… I would expect a sequel, and an improved director’s cut.  So, people shouldn’t get their knickers all twisted.  It’s a film, and a darned good one.

Here are a couple articles on the film.  One on the torturous screenwriting process, with a link to the original script, Nottingham (here’s another article on the same thing).  And an amusing and well-done review.

Anyway, don’t let other people make up your mind for you.  Go see the film for yourself.  Just don’t go expecting to see a lot of chaps in Lincoln green skipping around the forest.  If, instead, you go expecting to see a film which makes a decent nod to the complexities of the period in which Robin Hood is usually set, you won’t be disappointed.  Oh yeah, and for those who should know better, lighten up and go read some history…

3 Replies to “Robin Hood, Russell Crowe, and the self-importance of critics”

  1. A wonderful review Dan! It’s great to have someone so informed and thoughtful provide such insights on the film. I think I will definitely go see it now.

  2. A good movie but it would be much better without that ahistorical and totally deceitful speech of Robin about evil king Richard and slaying innocent muslims.

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