…directed by Ridley Scott, written by Brian Helgeland, starring Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, William Hurt, and Mark Strong. In this latest version of Robin Hood, the filmmakers attempt to turn to history in a big way to retell this familiar (some may say overly familiar) story. While this will no doubt bother a very small percentage of professional historians – they always get upset when certain details are wrong – for me it’s a very welcome attempt. This is very much an origin of movie. And it become pretty obvious early on that we would see a very different Robin Hood.
Our first glimpse of Crowe as Robin leaves no doubt about him. He’s striding out of the forest, wearing the authentic leather archer’s hood, a longbow in hand and a brace of fowl on his shoulder for the cooking pots. King Richard’s army is besieging a castle and France, but Robin is more concerned with feeding his men. The first action sequence – the siege – is as historically accurate as any I can remember on the big screen. Ridley Scott and company have done their research, and rather than copy the more epic fantasy scope of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, they film a siege that would make Von Clausewitz proud. Archers, siege engines, and sappers: the yeoman, the rank-and-file commoners – they’re the ones the lords and knights depended on to breach a castle – and that’s what we see here.
King Richard goes down with a crossbow bolt to the neck, setting in motion the main plot line. This is another nod to history, how it really went down: Richard dead at a nondescript siege in France. The Lion Heart won’t be coming back to England to clear up any misunderstanding and preside over Robin and Marion’s marriage like every other version of the story.
The plotting goes into overdrive. You have foppish Prince John yearning to exert some authority of his own, while his childhood friend Godfrey schemes with Philip the Fair of France to split England’s nobles from the crown in preparation for a French invasion. You have no less historical personages than Eleanor of Aquitaine and William Marshall trying to keep the kingdom together. In France, you have Robin and his men bugging out after the King’s death, intent on a return to Albion. Along the way they happen upon an attempted ambush of the already dead Richard by Godfrey. Robin and company drive off the French and decide to assume the identities of the slain English knights (who were taking the King’s crown back to London). Among these knights, one Robert Locksley of Nottingham, who implores Robin to return his sword and final words to his father. Thus Robin now has a reason to head for Sherwood.
The sequences in Nottingham are probably my favorites from this movie. The filmmakers have painstakingly recreated a medieval village and woodland manor. It’s beautifully shot and conceived and truly adds to the story. You get a sense of how important the relationships between the Lord of the Manor (old Sir Walter Locksley) and Marion (Sir Robert’s widow), the church, and the villagers were in keeping the manorial system working. Of course Prince (now King) John and his outrageous taxes serve to threaten that balance, and sending Godfrey out to pillage and maim only makes matters worse.
When Robin makes it to Nottingham, meets with old Sir Walter and Marion, they quickly conceive a plan to adopt him in place of his dead son. This will not only keep the estate out of the hands of the crown, it sets the stage for the burgeoning romance of Robin and Marion. Again, this is a much different take than the traditional Robin Hood story, and it’s done with great care. You have the situation of a man coming home from ten years at war abroad. You have a widow whose dead husband was in that same campaign. Everyone knows its Robin and Marion, and yet Scott doesn’t rush things -which adds to the authenticity and tenderness of their courtship. Robin and his men (somewhat merry at this point) are quickly embraced by the villagers who are only too glad to have menfolk back in town.
We learn that Robin’s father was a stonemason and a philospher who’s radical ideas got him killed when Robin was only six. But those radical ideas – in the form of an early draft of the Magna Carta – could be the only way to reunite the angry nobility of the north with King John’s forces from London in time to take on Godfrey and repulse the French. I enjoyed this as well – even though 3/4 of all Americans couldn’t tell you what the Magna Carta is, it remains a very important piece of history from this era. And thus the stage is set of a showdown with Godfrey and the French.
Some have complained about Crowe’s grim portrayal of Robin. It’s true, he’s not very merry. This is not Erol Flynn ho-ho-hoing as he pulls over another one on the Sheriff. Crowe’s Robin is a veteran campaigner conflicted over whether to just get what he can out of a situation or do what’s right. Others have complained about pacing and plotting, but with so many stupid/simple movies coming out, you won’t catch me criticizing an intelligently conceived if complex story – especially one with lots of characters and ideas steeped in actual history. Yes, the movie is over two hours, but it has to be and it’s well worth it. If you’re going to re-do Robin Hood, you do something different – which is exactly what Scott and company have achieved.
The movie feels like a prequel and the ending leaves little doubt they would like to explore this iteration of Robin Hood further. I hope they get the chance. This new Robin Hood might not be as merry or carefree as the traditional versions, but it’s grounded in history and very much worth a look.