Back when I was about seven or eight, one of our family’s favorite movies was the classic 1938 action movie “The Adventures of Robin Hood” starring Errol Flynn. For me, Robin Hood has always been a dashing, charming rogue with a penchant for winning archery contests and vexing the Sheriff of Nottingham.
But 2010’s Robin Hood, in Ridley Scott’s film of the same name, does nothing of the sort. Instead, this Robin Hood is perfectly at home wielding a sword or a war-hammer as he thunderously proclaims the importance of individual liberties and the failures of government. It’s perhaps the darkest, most “epic” adaptation of the classic story ever produced.
The film follows Robin Longstride, an archer in King Richard’s army. Disillusioned after the brutality of the Crusades, Robin and his friends (who will later become the first of his “merry men”) return to England after King Richard perishes during a battle in France. But it soon becomes clear that a traitor is lurking among the English…a traitor who would love nothing more than to see England submit to French rule.
Unfortunately, the English people are now forced to bow before Richard’s younger brother – the bratty, womanizing King John. Heedless of his people’s plight, John sends soldiers to collect years of “back taxes” from the poverty-stricken northern barons – and raze their homes and lands if they cannot pay. As expected, Robin won’t stand for it.
Thus begins the most recent incarnation of the classic legend.
I’ll start with the positives: “Robin Hood” is a massive, sweeping epic with gorgeous scenery and set pieces. The beautiful English countryside is vibrantly displayed throughout, providing a sense of both historical realism and ethereal fantasy. And, as expected, the battle scenes are stupendous. The epic fights in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy didn’t feel entirely realistic – after all, they involved hundreds of thousands of computer-generated combatants. In contrast, the fights in “Robin Hood” rarely involve more than two or three hundred warriors, which makes combat a much more personal, visceral experience. (And if there were computer effects employed, I didn’t notice them.) This makes the movie seem far more realistic and intense.
The acting is also strong. Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett (as Robin Hood and Lady Marion, respectively) are effective in their parts – although there seems to be rather a lack of chemistry between them. Mark Strong is appropriately villainous as the evil traitor Godfrey, and newcomer Oscar Isaac perfectly portrays the grotesquely immature Prince/King John.
But perhaps most surprising about this new version of “Robin Hood” is its political philosophy. Robin Hood has always been a traditional liberal poster boy, with his mindset of “robbing from the rich, to give to the poor.” This Robin Hood, on the other hand, is a libertarian conservative committed to small government and individual rights. When King John scornfully asks Robin if he wants to give “every man a castle”, Robin boldly replies, “A man’s home is his castle!”
Robin’s ultimate goal is to make King John sign a statement guaranteeing the liberties of the individual (read: the Magna Carta). He rejects the oppressive taxation policies of “big government” and believes that the regional barons should be empowered to help their people. Overall, it feels like a modern Tea Party parable – during one of Robin’s particularly dramatic speeches, I found myself noting just how many Republican ideas he was proclaiming. It’s quite a refreshing change from the typical “politically correct” storytelling that usually comes out of Hollywood.
Sounds great, right? Well…not exactly.
The most fundamental problem with “Robin Hood” is that the filmmakers obviously tried to cater to to too many audiences. By reuniting Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe in a swords-and-horses war movie, they aimed at fans of “Gladiator.” By aiming for a PG-13 rating and toning down the bloodshed, they tried to appeal to families and younger viewers. By introducing historical context such as the Crusades and the Magna Carta, they targeted medieval history buffs. The result is a movie that feels strained – like it couldn’t decide what sort of film it wanted to be.
In my opinion, Robin Hood should be a charming young outlaw who spends his time stealing the Sheriff’s gold, exploring Sherwood Forest, and trying to win Maid Marion’s heart. Russell Crowe, although he’s an excellent actor, is (at 46) far too old for that sort of role. Someone like David Wenham, Nathan Fillion, or even Orlando Bloom would be better cast as Robin Hood.
Perhaps a superhero movie analogy is in order. Both “Spider-Man” and “The Dark Knight” were critical and box-office successes – yet they are fundamentally different films. “Spider-Man” was about fast comic-book action and witty dialogue, whereas “The Dark Knight” was a gritty psychological thriller exploring much “heavier” topics. Robin Hood should swing towards the “Spider-Man” end of that spectrum – not embracing the modern “darker” trend, but standing in contrast to it. This film is a great medieval war movie – but it isn’t Robin Hood.
Worldview elements are mostly muted, although there are a few points of note. At the beginning of the movie, Robin says that after the Crusades, he and his companions have become “godless” and that they have compromised their faith through their murderous deeds. However, he obviously retains some personal convictions, as evidenced by his prayer for the soul of a departed soldier. For the most part, the Church is portrayed as an organization of greedy thieves in league with King John – one element, at least, that’s consistent with the original Robin Hood stories. Overall, the movie takes a fairly ambiguous stance towards religion.
So is it worth seeing?
From a content-advisory standpoint, there are a couple of considerations. The violence is about on the level of “Lord of the Rings” – it’s not bloody or overly graphic, but scores of people end up getting stabbed, sliced, burned, and shot with arrows. (It doesn’t come close to the amount of violence present in “Gladiator.”) There is also one scene of sexual content involving Prince John and his French mistress – it’s fairly brief, but viewers may want to be aware that it’s present.
My biggest issue with “Robin Hood” is its title. If this movie had been called “An Archer’s Tale” or something like that, without the Robin Hood connection, it would rank among my favorite historical movies. But by linking this story to the Robin Hood legend, director Ridley Scott is asking filmgoers to completely reevaluate one of their most beloved characters. That’s a risky proposition…and it doesn’t work here.
It’s still worth seeing. But I’d recommend waiting for the DVD on this one.
A good historical epic. A weak Robin Hood retelling.
Normalized Score: 2.4