Originally posted June 8, 2010.
Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is not the story of Robin Hood.
It’s a Robin Hood story.
Some of the time.
For one brief, inexplicable, and borderline insane moment it’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but never mind.
It’s all those other movies for more minutes at a stretch than it’s Robin Hood and, actually, the best parts of this movie are when it’s The Lion in Winter, which is a problem because Robin Hood isn’t in any of those scenes.
I should say Russell Crowe isn’t in any of those scenes. Robin Hood isn’t in other scenes that Crowe’s in.
Movies in which the best scenes are ones without the leading man and you don’t miss him usually star Adam Sandler.
When this movie is about Robin Hood---that is when the story is about the character named Robin Longstride behaving as if he might be or become Robin Hood, as opposed to behaving as if he’s Robert the Bruce, Maximus Meridius, Aragorn (Think it’s a coincidence that Aragorn’s also known as Strider?), or John Cleese---it works as the tale of a real man whose life and adventures became the basis from which the legend of Robin Hood evolved. If Robin Longstride is to Robin Hood what David Crockett is to Davy Crockett, then Longstride compels our attention by the ways he is not like the Robin Hood we know and his story is intriguing for how circumstances and other people force him to act like our Robin.
That story might have made an interesting movie, if only Scott had been content to focus and tell it.
As it is, those parts of the movie are the parts I actually enjoyed. I appreciated the Lion in Winter pastiches. Robin Longstride is a worn down and disillusioned man who has lost all his self-respect fighting for a king who had himself become worn down and disillusioned and lost his self-respect and I liked the story of how this man who is barely more than a thug in his own eyes learns how to be noble and good and virtuous again by pretending to be someone else. And of course part of my enjoyment was due to my knowing that the person Longstride is pretending to be is going to become yet another person, an even nobler and more heroic person, known as Robin Hood.
Unfortunately, Scott not only fails to give this story his undivided attention, he fails to finish it.
I wasn’t looking forward to this movie and had resolved not to see it because I thought Blanchett and Crowe are far too old to play Marion and Robin.
Because he’s kept his hair and some baby fat in his cheeks he doesn’t look it, but Crowe is forty-six, the same age Sean Connery was when he played Robin Hood as an old man.
Old for his time, at any rate.
Even if he was younger, Russell Crowe would not look like my ideal Robin Hood. My Robin cuts a more dashing figure. He doesn’t look exactly like the thirty year old Errol Flynn, necessarily. But he’s taller, lither, keener-eyed, sharper of feature and more given to smiling, charming, flirting, scheming, and joking his way into and out of trouble than any character Crowe has played at any age.
Basically, my ideal Robin looks like N.C. Wyeth’s version…
Crowe looks more like Howard Pyle’s Robin. Brawnier, stouter of limb, broader of face, more of a brawler than a fencer, as likely to punch his way out of trouble as to think his way out and more tempted to.
Both Robins are highly intelligent leaders, inclined to rely more on their wits than on their skill with a sword or a bow and arrow. Wyeth’s Robin looks to me like more of a schemer and a plotter. He likes to make plans and see them through. Pyle’s Robin prefers to think on the fly and enjoys making it up as he goes.
And both Robins have terrific senses of humor. Wyeth’s Robin is wittier. Pyle’s Robin prefers a good practical joke and tells ribald stories in mixed company and gets away with it.
That doesn’t mean Crowe can’t do merriment, just that I don’t picture him as a particularly merry character.
He does do anger, however, a quality of Robin’s that is very important to Pyle’s version of the legend. In many of the retellings, Robin becomes an outlaw by killing one of the king’s deer. He either does it out of hunger or out of youthful exuberance or in solidarity with the poor and hungry of Notinghamshire, but he does it, he breaks the law, and the law is unforgiving. But in Pyle’s version, Robin’s killing the deer is the prelude to his real crime. He kills one of the king’s foresters.
It’s self-defense. The man had bet that Robin couldn’t hit the deer let alone bring it down with a single arrow and he was so infuriated at losing the bet that he tries to kill Robin by shooting him in the back. The arrow barely misses him. Robin reflexively notches his own arrow and lets fly and that’s it, he’s a murderer---in his own eyes as well as the law’s. He takes to the woods to escape his own shame more than any legal punishment. He can’t face his own family.
Pyle’s Robin has a quick and fiery temper and a strong sense of guilt and Crowe has no problem portraying either.
But Pyle’s Robin commits this murder and becomes Robin Hood the famous outlaw when he is eighteen.
This is prologue. Pyle picks the story up a few years later, but only a few, no more than ten, and so when the tales we know as Robin’s main adventures begin Robin Hood is in his mid to late twenties.
Pyle’s Robin, Wyeth’s Robin, Errol Flynn’s Robin, my Robin, practically everybody’s Robin is a young man!
His youth is part of the eternal attraction of his story.
Robin doesn’t swing from chandeliers, scale castle walls, drop from trees on the sheriff’s men just because it looks exciting on film. He swings, climbs, leaps, pounces, and vaults every chance he gets because he can’t resist. He’s too full of energy and exuberance. And, besides, it’s fun!
Robin Hood doesn’t have to be a kid but he has to be young because his story is a summer’s tale. It is always June in Sherwood Forest, even at Christmas.
By the way, Scott barely gives us a glimpse of Sherwood Forest.
Robin and his merry men are in the summers of their lives. They are young but not kids, in their primes, at the peak of both their strength and their skills. But more importantly they are free of responsibilities. They haven’t started families yet. They don’t own farms or shops. (If they had them, they were taken from them by Prince John and the Sheriff.) They are in their twenties, even the ones who get played by middle-aged actors in the movies, and you are never as free in your life as you are when you are in your twenties. When you are younger, you are too dependent on other people. When you are older, too many other people are depending on you.
The essential appeal of Robin Hood is his freedom and that freedom is inseparable from his youth.
In his review of Robin Hood, Anthony Lane looks into the question of the legendary Robin’s social status. I thought the question was settled. Robin Hood is an aristocrat, Sir Robin of Loxley or Robert Earl of Huntington, take your pick. Lane points out that in the earliest known ballads and stories in which Robin appears he’s lower middle-class, a yeoman, from a family of farmers who owned and worked their own small estates. He’d have had some political rights and not much money, although with reasonable expectations of acquiring more, as long as the crops come in and the king doesn’t decide to raise taxes and go to war, taking your sons and hired hands with him.
So, he doesn’t have much to lose when he takes to the woods as an outlaw and he has much to gain in the way of freedom and pleasure.
Somewhere along the way Robin picked up a title and a lot more land and money and in becoming an outlaw he gives up quite a bit. He also changed the nature of his outlawing business. He always robbed from the rich but he only shared with the poor, when they asked for help. Charity work was a consequence of his turning outlaw. When he became Sir Robin turning outlaw was a consequence of his charitable and democratic nature. He sided with the poor and the downtrodden against his own class and the members of his own class brand him a traitor and set out to punish him.
The idea of someone rich and powerful taking sides against the rich and powerful is naturally very appealing to more liberal and democratic times and it’s worth noting that Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood is a product of the Progressive Era and Errol Flynn’s Robin is a blatant New Dealer while Kevin Costner’s post-Reagan Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves turns the aristocratic part of the legend upside down by telling a simple revenge tale and putting the poor on the side of the aristocrat in his personal vendetta to get his money, land, and status back. That isn’t all that makes Prince of Thieves a terrible movie but it doesn’t help to ask audiences to root for a Robin who is robbing from the rich in order to give to himself.
The reason for bringing up Robin Hood’s class background is that Scott’s Robin---Russell Crowe’s Robin---is emphatically not an aristocrat.
He’s not even a yeoman. His father was a stonemason, which would have made him part of a rising urban middle class, but he was killed when Robin Longstride was a boy and Robin grew up an orphan fending for himself. This is fine. Legends are told one way for ages, then some storyteller or poet or balladeer or screenwriter adds a twist that catches on, and suddenly the legend is told a new way that audiences accept as if it was always part of the legend. They even rewrite the legend in their own memory to include it. If Scott’s Robin Hood had been a better and more likeable movie, we might have a new and different Robin Hood legend to tell for a while.
The point is that pushing Robin down the social ladder isn’t a violation of the legend and it had the potential of adding something interesting. The movie implies that Robin and two of his merry men, Alan a Dale and Will Scarlet, have been living the life of the legendary Robin Hood for some time already when we meet them. Longstride’s problem is that he has been living this life to no purpose except survival and, a born idealist, he wants and needs a higher calling. He apparently thought he’d found it in signing on to King Richard’s Crusade, but this hasn’t worked out so well for Robin or the king.
Now, what does all this have to do with the bloom in Cate Blanchett’s cheeks?
When the usual sort of improbable plot twists force Robin Longstride to assume the identity of a dead nobleman, Robin is reborn. Scott includes a symbolic baptism in case we’re slow on the uptake here. What follows is Robin’s sentimental education. He learns manners, politics, refinement, and, most important, empathy and responsibility. He begins to see that he could have a life that has purpose. He is, of course, learning how to be the Robin Hood we know from the legends.
And the closer he gets to becoming Robin Hood, the younger or at any rate the more youthful he grows.
His spirits lighten. His smile broadens. His eyes light up and his step quickens. He isn’t about to swing from chandeliers or scale castle walls, but he moves with more energy and grace. He even dances!
And in the process of growing younger he takes Marian---Lady Marian. As she informs Friar Tuck, it’s a very long time since she was a maid---with him.
Marian has been as worn-down and worn-out and disillusioned by the war as Robin. For all intents and purposes, she’s been living at home as a widow for ten years but unlike Penelope in the Odyssey she has given up waiting for her missing husband to return and buckled down to the grinding and soul-sapping task of trying to make her farms and fields pay, not an easy job when most of what it produces is taken by the crown to support the army.
Her heaviest burden, though, is her loneliness. She has hundreds of people depending on her and not a single person she can depend on herself.
When Robin shows up at her door and, thanks to even more improbable plot twists, goes to work helping her run the estate, her burden is immediately lightened and her spirits lift. She isn’t quite reborn too, but she is rejuvenated, and like Robin and along with him she begins to look and act younger.
Neither Crowe nor Blanchett are meant to be playing their true age. I would peg Robin and Marian as about ten years younger than the actors playing them, Robin in his mid-thirties and Marian about thirty, which in the context of their time, would have put both of them well past the springtime and even the summer of their youth. They are in the early autumn of their lives. What they are granted in the movie is an Indian summer.
This is what makes the movie a Robin Hood story.
Robin Longstride and Lady Marian have their spirits refreshed by the telling of the adventures of Robin Hood. Of course they don’t know that story and they certainly don’t know they are being used to tell that story, but the story affects them the way it affects everyone who hears it and loves it. It makes them feel young and vital and good-hearted and happy and noble and heroic and, best of all, free!
It’s too bad that just as he gets this story underway, Scott lets himself be distracted by the sudden attack on Gondor by the orcs and the Scots rallying to repel them on the beaches of Normandy.
You’d never know it from this movie, but one reason Robin and his men are so merry in the legends is that they are living a comedy.
Think of his most famous adventures. His first meetings with Little John and Friar Tuck, the archery contest, even the moment when the disguised King Richard reveals his true identity to the outlaws. These are comic stories. And Robin’s adventures end happily, with the rightful King’s return, good rewarded and evil punished, and Robin and Marian living happily ever after. The story of Robin’s death is sad but it’s an epilogue. And it happens when Robin is well into middle-age, almost an old man. Forty, at least!
And the point of that story is to begin the story all over again. See my post Robin’s Last Arrow.
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