In a short piece at Variety, Roger Friedman (hat tip: Peter Chattaway) writes about the upcoming Ridley Scott movie Robin Hood:
Now comes Crowe and Scott. I am told they’ve been screening the new Robin Hood for insiders. Everyone likes it. Universal is counting on a big hit leading into Memorial Day. Certainly the main actors at least have accents to begin with.
But wait: Does the public want a dark, brooding Robin Hood…? Robin Hood movies and TV shows are always fun. The Ridley Scott movie doesn’t sound like fun from what I’ve been told. It’s dead serious. “I don’t know if it will make money,” says a source. “But it will be respected. It’s dark, violent and very Gladiator.”
“Robin Hood” started out as “Nottingham.” Many scripts came and went, and along with them, many millions of dollars. The shooting script was revised a lot while the movie was being shot. Crowe is prone to clashes with Scott. The rumors fly! Something tells me Universal won’t let anything but a blockbuster be the final release.
Nottingham, the project that ultimately became Robin Hood, was originally conceived, according to an earlier Variety piece, as “a revisionist take on the Robin Hood tale, with Nottingham as a noble and brave lawman who labors for a corrupt king and engages in a love triangle with Maid Marion and Robin Hood.” At that point, Russell Crowe was set to play the Sheriff. The change of title and recasting of Crowe suggests that Robin Hood is at least the protagonist again; whether we can call him the hero remains to be seen.
The last really solid Hollywood take on the traditional Robin Hood mythos (not counting the Kevin Costner folly, because, well, it doesn’t count) was over 70 years ago, and is essentially the only one in its class (unless you want to go back to the silent era). A revisionist take on Robin Hood would be one thing if the traditionally heroic Robin Hood could be taken for granted as a cultural reference point. What have we come to if we can only view a legendary icon like Robin Hood through skeptical, revisionist lenses?
Fantasy heroes like Aragorn or Spider-Man are another story. Those we can still do more or less straight, even if Peter Jackson’s Aragorn had to be all self-doubting and reluctant (even more so than Tolkien’s character) to seize his destiny, because Hollywood equates certitude with folly and doubt with thoughtfulness. (The Aragorn Complex, as I call this doubtful-leader device, can also be seen in The Prince of Egypt‘s Moses and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe‘s Peter Pevensie.) Nor do I object to the deeply ambiguous recent Hollywood depictions of, say, Batman and James Bond, dark characterizations with well-established roots in those characters’ histories. (Efforts to rehabilitate traditional villains, like Wicked‘s take on the Wicked Witch of the West, are another matter.)
Robin Hood is an icon of our own legendary past as well as our cultural ideals of justice, courage and charity. Another example is King Arthur. Poor King Arthur has never gotten his due from Hollywood, even in the Golden Age, though Richard Thorpe’s watchable 1953 film The Knights of the Round Table was at least a stab in that direction, and a conspicuously Christian one. Boorman’s Excalibur was an interesting pastiche of Arthuriana, but didn’t pull it together into a coherent whole, and First Knight was just a stinker (though I like Arthur’s response to Mordred’s philosophy of might: “God makes us strong for a little while, so that we may help one another”).
Worst was Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur, which depicted Arthur as a well-meaning but naive Catholic loyal to “a Rome that doesn’t exist,” a figure of an enlightened but doomed Christianity strangely identified with the founder of the Pelagian heresy. Guenevere, here reimagined as a pagan Celtic warrior princess, taunts Arthur, “I belong to this land. Do you belong anywhere, Arthur?”
That sense of existential homelessness about sums up the kind of Hollywood revisionism I have in mind here as well as anything. Traditionally, stories about heroes like Robin Hood and King Arthur didn’t just entertain, they told us who we are and what we believe in. Our traditional heroes no longer know who they are or what they believe in. Self-doubt, self-examination and self-accusation are one thing. Take an axe to your own roots, and you wind up rootless.