Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max Von Sydow, William Hurt, Mark Strong, Oscar Isaac, Danny Huston, Mark Addy
Released: 2010 / Genre: Action-Adventure / Country: USA/UK / IMDB
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Anyone expecting Prince of Thieves should quickly think again. Of course, Ridley Scott isn’t Kevin Reynolds and Russell Crowe sure as hell isn’t Kevin Costner. Scott’s interpretation of the Robin Hood myth has no Everything I Do, I Do It For You slow-mo romanticism, instead using the working class hero as the central figure in a power struggle between the newly appointed King John and double-crossing knight Sir Godfrey. Both men are the villainous rich folk that commoner Robin Longstride must rise up against in the face of impending invasion by an eager French king.
Indeed, the fabled medieval celebrity takes a backseat to King John’s battle with his mother and his population, and Sir Godfrey’s conniving with the French. The Sheriff of Nottingham does turn up but in a tiny role, reserved for a man who is about as threatening as a toddler who has spit out his dummy. Robin, the man who for so long was the pin-up hero of peasants across the English lands for his ‘take from the rich and give to the poor’ adventures, is disillusioned with the monarchy and out for his own gain.
Russell Crowe is Robin Longstride, an ace archer of King Richard the Lionheart’s army. After the Third Crusade he takes part in the siege against Chalus Castle in France. During a break in the battle, he fights with Little John (Kevin Durand) and is presented to the king to give an honest appraisal of the war. Punished along with Little John and two other archers Allan A’Dayle (Alan Doyle) and Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes), the quartet escape after Richard is killed in battle and head for England. When they happen across dying knight Robert Loxley, who is transporting the king’s armour back to England, he asks Robin to return his sword to his father in Nottingham.
Assuming the identity of Loxley to gain passage to England, he heads to Nottingham where Loxley’s aged and blind father asks him to continue impersonating his son to prevent the crown taking the family lands away. There he meets Loxley’s widow – Lady Marian (Cate Blanchett) – who he immediately has affection for, recovering grain for her townsfolk from nearby looters. But King John is increasingly alienated from his population, taxing the rich and the poor, and oblivious to Sir Godfrey’s violent scaremongering. He must therefore unite his people when the threat of an invasion by France becomes imminent; and Robin may be the only man who can achieve that.
Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is essentially an introduction to the legend. Indeed, the film ends with the title “the legend begins” because it is at this point that he is declared an outlaw and retreats to Sherwood Forest with Marian. What that means is we don’t get a feel for the legend that Kevin Reynolds and Costner exploited in the Prince of Thieves but in steering away from witches and the Sheriff of Nottingham, we get a unique insight into the time period that other Robin Hood films have brushed aside.
Scott is happier showing distrust towards the ruling power in England, King John’s unfair taxes and detachment from the populace, and the ultimate betrayal that Robin feels from the king he has invested his faith in. As an antidote to Stephen Frears awful The Queen Scott’s Robin Hood is a wonderful remedy to thoughts of Buckingham Palace and bloody royal weddings. In this era of crusading kings, the brave men that fought alongside them (or, more to the point, are thrust in front of their leader as human shields) are cast asunder at the mere reconsideration of their role. The bravest of the brave may put their lives on the line, and see their friends butchered for their king’s cause, but question his authority (an all encompassing power that remains unattained) and be put to the sword. It’s medieval, undemocratic, and grossly authoritarian – a concept that should be as old and aged as the Robin Hood myth itself. Then you consider we still have Elizabeth II.
In the film Robin is a common archer, a man of humble stature and no financial wealth. But, despite his tireless work for the country he was born in, he must disguise himself as a wealthy knight in order to get back home. Scott depicts the monarchy as unstable and out of touch, where in-fighting is rife and distrust among its members threatens to unhinge the hierarchy. The peasantry asks for fairer laws and human rights to which the king agrees only because he needs the masses on his side to repel the impending French invasion. When ultimately, it is Robin who unites the populace, King John reverses his decision, pillaging his people and forcing Robin into hiding as an outlaw. The brave, working man is king among men, while the royally appointed leader is a weasel hiding inside his inherited castle.
But as Scott strives for authenticity in his mixture of historical truth with legend, he does lose the swashbuckling adventurism audiences have come to enjoy with the Robin Hood character. Scott’s world lacks humour, and he paints England in gunmetal skies that cast the country in a bleak light that is echoed by the mood of its people. Robin’s romance with Marion is undernourished, as are some of the characters that make the legend so much fun – Little John, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Friar Tuck and Will Scarlett.
Yet, just like Gladiator, and to a certain extent Black Hawk Down, Scott has developed a skill at recreating war with awe-inspiring grandeur. He mixes grimy close-ups and bloody carnage with beautifully composed wide shots all stitched together with expertly paced editing that breathlessly keeps you glued to the action. Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood might not be the tale everyone knows but it’s still an enjoyable historical war movie with some genuinely good set-pieces and the politics to match.