A Proto-Puritan Robin

A review of Robin Hood; produced and distributed by Universal Pictures; directed by Ridley Scott; screenplay by Brian Helgeland.

Since his earliest appearances in folk ballads of the 13th century, Robin Hood has been a slippery fox of a hero. He’s a man who thumbs his nose at the powerful while going his merry way aiding the powerless. To this day, the King Johns and Nottingham sheriffs the world over fume at his impudent exploits and hurl interdictions at his spritely, elusive form. But to no avail. The outlaw of Sherwood Forest can no more be captured than can a will-o’-the-wisp.

There will always be a Robin, especially on the movie screen, which has become a second home as natural to him as Sherwood. Robin has appeared in over 80 films. He ranks with Tarzan and Jesse James in his wide popular appeal, and this explains why he has been so cinematically successful. The economics of film—big-budget film, anyway—require that productions draw audiences in the hundreds of millions if they are to be profitable. The best way to guarantee attendance in these numbers is to feature heroes with whom the masses can gladly identify. Given the choice between a Louis Auchincloss boardroom patrician and a Raymond Chandler mean-street habitué, a filmmaker knows where to place his bet.

In short, since Robin Hood appeals to everyone who has ever felt stymied or abused by those in power, his demographic, as the marketers would say, is virtually boundless. He’s the perfect film hero.

In his new adaptation of the ancient legend, Ridley Scott has kept this firmly—too firmly—in mind. While almost all film incarnations of the rascally hero have invoked the class antagonism implicit in the original stories, Scott has done more than invoke: He’s pounded it home. And that’s where his film’s problem begins. Obsessed with his message of class strife, Scott and his favorite actor, Russell Crowe, have squeezed the fun out of the story by treating it with a seriousness that at times borders on the looney.

In the first 15 minutes of the film, we meet Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), that famously un-English English king who, by some accounts, spent no more than a few months on English soil, not that you would know that from this or any of the other films that celebrate him. Scott’s Richard is making his way home from the Third Crusade, but he has stopped at the Château de Châlus-Chabrol, a castle in Normandy, so he can sack it both for his amusement and to recoup the funds he’s squandered in Jerusalem. As his archers unleash a storm of arrows at the defenders manning the ramparts above, a French cook appears on the walkway behind the castle’s parapet. He is bringing a bucket of soup to his beleaguered warriors, who have been busily returning a fusillade of their own on the English below. “Get your soup, get your soup,” he calls out amid the fletching. With Gallic sang-froid, these fellows refuse to forego their luncheon because of a military inconvenience. They have their principles, after all. When one of the castle’s defenders falls to an English arrow, the others carry on with their meal. The cook takes up the abandoned bow, notches an arrow, and, without taking much aim, sends it flying. Thunk: It goes right through Richard’s neck. Seeing this, the cook does a little dance to celebrate such a felicitous regicide. More than two hours later in this long film, another commoner will shoot another arrow through another aristo’s neck to the unparalleled jubilation of a cast of plebeian thousands.

In between these blows against the privileged, we watch other instances of class difference being dispelled. Robin (Crowe) and his men disguise themselves in the armor of dead knights in order to pass for nobles. When one of his followers raises fears that their imposture may be discovered, Robin assures him in fine egalitarian tones, “There’s no difference between a knight and any other man but what he wears.” Nonetheless, he will shortly find himself frostily hosted by a knight’s widow, the doughty Marian (Cate Blanchett), who makes him sleep on the floor outside her bedroom in the company of her hounds. Her father-in-law, Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow), has decided that Robin should be passed off as his dead son (and, thus, Marian’s husband). This stalwart, he reasons, will be able to defend their land and Marian’s honor from the designs of the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham, for Robin now carries the Loxley family’s sword, engraved with their commitment to democratic revolution: “Rise and rise again, until lambs become lions.” (Sounds a bit too 1776 for the 13th century, doesn’t it?)

For her part, Marian has doubts about Robin’s designs. “If you so much as touch me,” she chillingly warns him, “I’ll sever your manhood.” Just to show he’s not too uppity, Robin later joins her peasants plowing and seeding her fields. But when he discovers that his long-dead father had been a visionary stonemason with a bent for political philosophy, all bets are off. About 1160, it seems, Robin’s dad concocted a proto-Magna Carta that would find its more lapidary form in 1215. Robin likes the early version so much that he defiantly proposes its virtues to the notorious tax-gouger King John. Upon hearing the charter’s stipulations regarding the rights of men (in a rare deference to history, Scott’s scriptwriter, Brian Helgeland, doesn’t mention women’s rights), John scoffs, “Would you have me build every man a castle?”

Robin responds blandly, “Every Englishman’s home is his castle.” The commoner onlookers go wild with democratic glee. I wonder if at the time the fettered among John’s subjects would have joined in so lustily. They weren’t slated to get much out of the charter. Few of them would have understood it at all.

Populism was the theme of previous Robin Hood productions, but they usually kept the proto-proletarian dynamic in check. In Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood (1922) and Michael Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Robin was a noble. Curtiz made Errol Flynn’s Robin a minor sort of baronet until the very end, when good King Richard returns and elevates him a goodly number of ranks and grants him the right to marry Olivia de Havilland’s Maid Marian. It was an ending meant to bring Robin the outsider back within the precincts of civilized decorum. (Speaking of which, I am reminded of an anecdote Miss De Havilland related in an interview she gave in the 1970’s. In a bid to add verisimilitude to their performances, Flynn had tried to convince the 19-year-old that they should practice the marriage act in their off-hours. De Havilland asked Flynn if he weren’t already married. He stammered, well, yes, but he was going to get a divorce at the first possible moment; she laughed and politely turned down the Australian roué.)

Unlike Curtiz’s Robin, Scott’s is still on the outs when we see him last. In fact, he has arrived at the starting point of Curtiz’s film, and Scott ends with a title card reading “The Legend Begins.” We know what that means.

Crowe makes a fine commoner brimming with righteous anger at royal injustices. He’s dour, stolid, and gruff. His hair is shorn short in Roundhead fashion, betokening his seriousness. He might almost be a proto-Puritan plotting revolution, so glumly determined does he seem as he lumbers about. Although his followers display some liveliness now and then, this Robin is decidedly not the merry fellow of the ballads, and Crowe is not the man for this role. You only have to imagine how ridiculous he’d look if, instead of going hatless as he does, he had worn Flynn’s bright green cap and pheasant feather on his round head. The one sure accomplishment of Scott’s film is that it reveals how inspired Curtiz’s version was and how perfectly Flynn inhabited the role. Flynn’s characteristic stance in scene after scene is to stand apart from others, hands on hips, arms akimbo, as he laughs delightedly at whatever foolery has just transpired, whether it’s the dastardly Sir Guy (a wonderfully hammy Basil Rathbone) seething at having been forced to don peasant’s garb, or his own discomfiture at the hands of Little John, who gives him the famous lesson in wielding a staff on a log bridge, a scene that Scott oddly ignores.

Then there are the companion scenes that open and close Curtiz’s film. In the first, Robin confronts King John in his own castle. He sits lounging insouciantly before the king’s table, one leg thrown over his chair’s arm, as he casually indicts the king for his many wrongs. John quietly signals his retainers, and they circle and pounce on the impudent Robin. As they reach down for their prey, he slips from underneath their clumsy arms, wrests a sword from a bewildered knight, and begins to make his nimble escape. Curtiz echoes this scene in the final minute of his film. King Richard rewards Robin by performing an impromptu marriage for him and Marian. After the ceremony, the former outlaw, now turned loyal vassal, and his new wife are surrounded by his cheering followers, who soon grow baffled when they realize the couple seems to have disappeared mysteriously from underneath them. They and the king look round the royal court and discover Marian and Robin have slipped away to the hall’s great doors, where they turn and salute their friends before running off. These scenes perfectly express the nature of Robin Hood. He’s a spontaneous, mercurial fellow, unbound by protocol and propriety, a free spirit whose purpose is to remind his audience that those who oppress others are inherently ridiculous and, with luck, can be overcome with daring and good humor. Naive, certainly, but nevertheless tonic, especially so in 1938 during the Depression and on the eve of the war. This timing may explain the partial paradox of making Robin a noble. Left-leaning Curtiz, a Jewish Hungarian émigré, surely looked to the aristocratic Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the Robin who would save Europe from the Nazis.

I don’t mean to say that Scott’s film is a failure when compared with Curtiz’s. It has many interesting features. Its recreation of the look and texture of medieval life is quite convincing. The grim, rudimentary buildings and halls, the dirt and noise, the muddy fields, the soiled clothing—it all looks genuine. When Marian is forced to help Robin out of the chain mail and underclothing that he hasn’t removed for months, you can almost smell the odor she has to endure. The direction and acting aren’t bad. It’s just that Scott’s Robin has nothing much to do with the quicksilver charm of the legendary figure whose name he so unaccountably bears.

This article first appeared in the July 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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