Ridley Scott Steals from Rich History to Give Poor Final Product
Movie Review: Robin Hood
by Jeff Ritter
Published: May 14, 2010
I don't know anyone who doesn't enjoy the legendary tale of Robin Hood, the beloved outlaw of English folklore. A near-mythic hero, there's some evidence to suggest he really existed, but many of the tales of his daring and bold adventures in the service of the downtrodden populace against the tyranny of the authority figures of the day -- the mad Prince John and his corrupt Sheriff -- are fanciful yarns passed down from oral tradition. Today, grand legends such as this are ripe for movie-makers who know they can capitalize on a long-beloved character's pre-existing popularity.
This is why I cannot fathom how Ridley Scott, himself an Englishman and a director of deserved renown, managed to get it completely wrong. "Robin Hood" is a movie bereft of heart or soul -- a poorly edited mess that desperately wants to be Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" and borrows heavily from other films as well.
The film opens with Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), the King of England, sacking a castle in France. The siege is fairly well done, but Robin Longstride (frequent Ridley Scott collaborator, Russell Crowe) misses part of the battle when he and his cohorts, John Little, Alan a Dale and Will Scarlett are placed in stocks for speaking the truth to the King the night before. We all know by now that leaders never like to be told they're wrong. Richard promptly takes an arrow shaft the size of a broomstick in the neck, a devastating shot by someone who had just brought a bucket of soup to the French ramparts. Seriously, the King of England was laid low by a guy whose primary function was to dole out rations to the soldiers. The King is dead, long live the King.
Robin and his merry men soon escape their imprisonment and dash off for the nearest harbor to gain passage back to England. Along the way they discover a detail of English soldiers left for dead by an English mercenary named Godfrey (Mark Strong). After they chase off Godfrey's men, Robin discovers one of the victims is still alive. That man's name is Robert Loxley. Sound familiar? Loxley is one of the more commonly used Robin Hood identities, used in Kevin Costner's "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" among others. The dying Loxley asks Longstride to take his sword back to his father. Longstride doesn't seem to be a particularly heroic person at this point, but he agrees to this last request. He also conveniently discovers Richard's crown in the saddlebag of His Majesty's horse nearby. The merry men pack up whatever loot they can find to pay for transport back to England.
When they arrive in London, Robin solemnly carries the crown to Richard's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Prince John (Oscar Isaac) is immediately crowned. During this sequence, the first of many questionable film editing decisions is made obvious. About three-quarters of the way down the path to the waiting royals, the scene cuts to Godfrey and his right hand man galloping into the courtyard. A servant says, "The King is dead and Lord Loxley has returned with the crown!" Godfrey, resplendent in black eyeshadow (apparently all the rage in 1199 AD), and his man take a spot behind the other courtesans before we cut back to Robin who has apparently made little to no progress during that interval. People on either side of me in the theater mumbled, "What was the point of that?" I wish I knew. That was a perfect moment to build tension. Loxley was the Lionheart's right-hand man, but he'd been in the Holy Land for awhile. Does anyone recognize him? Is someone about to run him through for handling the crown no matter how honorable his intentions? But instead of any build up of suspense, Scott breaks away to show the enemy arriving. The movie jumps around like this quite often -- not with Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" deliberateness, but with the randomness you'd expect from an amateur.
From there the movie really begins to spin away from the traditional takes on the legend. Robin brings Robert's sword to Sir Walter, his elderly blind father who sometimes seems a little senile but is actually quite shrewd. Played by the ageless Max von Sydow, Walter is probably the brightest spot in this movie. Walter knows that when he shuffles off his mortal coil his lands will be forfeited to the crown. Equal rights among the sexes being nonexistent in the 12th century, Robert's widow Marion (Cate Blanchett) will have no claim to them. Walter asks Robin if he would participate in a ruse by pretending to be the deceased Robert Loxley in exchange for information Walter has about Robin's vague past. Robin agrees, and enters into a false relationship with Marion.
As Robin tries to do right by Marion and the villagers under his care, Godfrey abuses his relationship with King John to foster dissent amongst the lords and barons in the outer reaches of England. They organize to depose the king, but the sharp William Marshall (William Hurt), a former member of Richard's court, uncovers the plot: Godfrey is actually in league with the French who are preparing an invasion. Robin Longstride and King Richard both converge on the gathering of lords, and a truce is established. The assembled might of all of England will defend against the French invaders in return for a say in the laws of the land, as decreed by a charter to be endorsed by the King. This idea was originally conceived by Robin's own late father, as explained in a flashback. After the battle, the King reneges on his promise, burns the charter and declares Robin to be an outlaw, just in time to run the closing credits. The credits, I might add, are run against an animated comic book-style background that depicts scenes far more bloody and violent than any part of the actual film. The landing of the French forces on the beaches of England will look familiar if you've seen "Saving Private Ryan." It's the Normandy invasion right down to the troop carrier boats, boats I find highly suspect in the year 1199.
The first hour is completely unnecessary. Surely most everyone has seen some version of Robin Hood by now, so we all know how he returned from the Crusades to be quickly embroiled in the feud between the people of Nottingham and the Sheriff and his benefactor, Prince John. That's the thing about legends -- they're comforting because we all know them so well. Like Homer's Ulysses, or the more modern exploits of the Frank and Jesse James, we know what to expect from these famous adventurers. And like Marvel Comics has done with their once famously enigmatic character Wolverine, delving too deeply into the character's back story distracts the reader or viewer from what they really want: the comfortable, traditional tale. That's why we don't have new versions of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or even "A Christmas Carol" or "It's A Wonderful Life" every year. We still watch and enjoy the classic versions (for Scrooge you can't beat George C. Scott) even though we probably have them memorized. It was frustrating to sit through an hour of mostly bland, poorly lit sequences that you know won't matter one bit when it's over.
That said, I'm not completely opposed to innovation. When this new "Robin Hood" film was originally conceived, the story was supposed to be from the point of view of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin Hood would have been the bad guy. Think about it: television is saturated with cop dramas, so people must like them. "Robin Hood" should have been subtitled "CSI: Nottingham." Though I know and love the traditional version of the swashbuckling rogue, this idea would probably have worked very well. You could still do the archery contest where Robin splits the arrow. You could still have Robin's band of highwaymen and the fair maiden who falls for the bad guy. You could explore how a meddling boss -- Prince John -- can destroy the good Sheriff's plan to bring the criminal to justice. I don't know what happened. Perhaps the studio got cold feet. Perhaps Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott felt it would be too different to work, or they couldn't come up with a script that made the Sheriff look heroic enough against an outlaw who has public support behind him. Whatever the reason, I think this film would have benefited immensely from being either completely traditional or completely original. Trying to shoehorn divergent versions of the legend into a single origin clearly doesn't work.
Scott has helmed some deservedly acclaimed films, such as "Alien," "Blade Runner," "Legend," and "Gladiator." "Robin Hood" starts off feeling like leftovers from his fine 2005 Crusades epic "Kingdom of Heaven" and ends up being a poor send up of Mel Gibson's "Braveheart." His supporting cast is never properly developed. The Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen) is as developed and as important to the proceedings as Jimmy Smits' Bail Organa was in the "Star Wars" prequels, which is to say not developed at all. In fact, he's never given a proper name and is merely credited as "The Sheriff." Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) offers virtually nothing to the plot, nor does Will, Alan or Little John. Their roles are so marginalized I'm surprised they were used at all. There is a completely useless subplot where we learn that the village boys that were too young to go to war but too old to be easily controlled have fled the village to form a society of scavengers in the vein of "Lord of the Flies." They raid their own village early in the film but show up to save Marion from the French towards the end? It makes no sense and should have been omitted altogether.
Cate Blanchett's considerable talent is wasted by the ill-conceived plot. By the end of the film, when Robin and Marion start to proclaim their love for each other, I wanted to cry in frustration. Why would she love him? He's usurped the land and title of her dead husband. No matter how much he tries, Robin Longstride is an impostor. Their relationship is an unconsummated sham of a marriage that would not produce any romantic stirrings in a mourning widow so quickly. Scott should have sent screenwriter Brian Helgeland back to square one. The poor pace, thin plot and uninteresting characters are extremely surprising when you add Scott's pedigree to that of Helgeland, who has scripted many films I quite enjoyed, such as "L.A. Confidential," "Payback," "A Knight's Tale," and the immensely underrated "Man On Fire."
It is inconceivable that these clearly talented creators and actors could bungle what should have been an easy blockbuster. I'd like to say that Crowe's performance was fine, and Blanchett gave a worthwhile effort despite the shortcomings of the script, but I honestly cannot. Crowe's Robin Hood is more gladiator than swashbuckler. He has a few lightly comical lines, but he doesn't crack wise the way Robin Hood should. He's the original Han Solo. By words alone he should be the most wanted man in the kingdom, but unfortunately he doesn't have that many clever lines. Deeds don't make up the difference as he only robs one coach without so much as a single arrow being fired. In fact, there are maybe three instances during the whole 140 minute running time that he or anyone else even refers to him as "Robin of the Hood." One robbery and one decent arrow shot late in the film is not nearly enough. Blanchett, possibly the only actress capable of pulling off the role of Bob Dylan, is absolutely wasted on this mess. I don't blame her for how contrived the Robin and Marion romance feels. Clearly neither Crowe nor Blanchett were able to overcome the direction, writing, or editing that doomed this picture. I can't help but wonder if the actors could tell as the film came together just how bad this would be.
This pastiche of other films that all did it better will be a sorry blight on the careers of the many involved. If your own masochistic tendencies won't allow you to avoid this soulless shell of a movie, at least wait and see if someone re-edits it for a "Director's Cut" DVD. If you're like me and just want to enjoy a solid rendition of Robin Hood, seek out the animated 1973 feature from Disney. You can't go wrong there. Even Mel Brooks' "Robin Hood: Men In Tights" is more faithful. I'll give Scott and Hegleland every chance to redeem themselves, but this film is one to avoid. I cannot remember when I've been more bitterly disappointed.