Ridley Scott wants you to know that the Crusades were a bad thing. Five years ago he made a whole movie about it, Kingdom of Heaven, but you may have missed it, or perhaps you saw it and forgot pretty much everything but the battle scenes.
Now Scott has made another movie with a more formidable leading man, Russell Crowe, rather than Orlando Bloom, not to mention a more marketable title. While it’s not as central to Robin Hood, Scott would like to remind you of some of the finer points from Kingdom of Heaven you might have missed or forgotten: Christians committing atrocities against Muslims as well as their fellow Christians; the hypocrisy and corruption of bishops and even popes.
Like Kingdom, Robin Hood is replete with the opportunism and foolishness of the Crusades. That the whole business was originally a Christian reaction to aggressive Muslim expansionism is an idea even more studiously ignored here than in Kingdom of Heaven.
Once again, a peasant hero reminds us that no man is a knight or peasant, but thinking makes him so, and a blacksmith or a stonemason can, and in all likelihood will, shape the destiny of nations. Would you be astonished to learn that there is a proto-feminist heroine who dons armor for the climactic battle? That not only is Richard the Lionheart’s brother John a degenerate, perfidious schemer, Richard himself (briefly seen at the end of Kingdom of Heaven at the outset of his crusade) is a cruel and venal marauder, as bereft of honor as of funds?
So Robin Hood is better than Kingdom of Heaven, or at least more watchable in most respects. I’ll give it that. The story by screenwriter Brian Helgeland is more interesting, the moral issues less muddled, the hero more compelling, the heroine more relevant, and the romance at least relatable, if not especially engaging.
At this point, I suppose I ought to discuss how the film is a sort of revisionist origin story in the gritty epic mode of Braveheart, Gladiator, King Arthur and Kingdom of Heaven. It should be pointed out how the legend’s traditional themes of economic oppression, banditry and derring-do have been displaced by a Norman scheme of conquest, seditious Scottish noblemen, the sacking of England and the great principles of the Magna Carta.
Perhaps I should note the initially confusing introduction of a character called Sir Robert Loxley who is not played by Crowe, and how it comes about that Crowe’s character, a peasant named Robin Longstride, takes to calling himself Robert of Loxley after the real Sir Robert dies in battle in Normandy. Robin even goes to Nottingham and winds up helping Loxley’s widow, Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett), retain her husband’s lands by continuing to pose as the dead man. (There are shades of The Return of Martin Guerre, although Marion does make Robin sleep on the floor.)
There’s a scheming French monarch, a couple of bald bad guys, a loyal regent trying to save England from John’s folly, and some inexplicably masked feral youths running about in — no, wait. I’m sorry; I can’t pretend to be objective about this.
I’m just so sick of this: this grim, joyless faux-realist medieval world, with its constant brutality, hypocrisy and debauchery all but unmoved by beauty, serenity and humanity. I’m sick of movies in this King Arthur / Kingdom of Heaven mold that seem almost entirely lacking in sympathy and affection for their hero’s world, that celebrate a hero who stands apart from and over against that world.
I’m sick of movies that seem obsessed with rubbing our noses in the supposed harsh reality behind our romantic illusions, especially in an age when the harsh reality is taken for granted and the romance all but forgotten.
Here is a small example: On the eve of the siege in which he will fall prey to an archer’s arrow, King Richard takes note of Robin’s courage and honesty, and asks him candidly whether God will be pleased with Richard’s sacrifice.
Robin answers frankly that by massacring innocent Muslims they have become godless men (and recalls a Muslim woman whose last look was not one of fear or hatred, but pity). Richard’s response to Robin’s candor is to have him clapped in stocks. You see, he was brave, honest — and naive.
Now let me tell you another story about Richard’s death: from Wikipedia. Seeing a defender with a crossbow shooting at him from the walls, Richard was amused and applauded the archer — until a shaft went home. Later, the archer was captured and brought before the dying king, whose wound had become gangrenous. The archer expected to be executed, but Richard pardoned him, gave him 100 shillings and sent him on his way. Isn’t that a better story than Richard clapping Robin in stocks?
Where Kingdom of Heaven made a flawed but credible effort to treat the Church with some measure of even-handedness, Robin Hood can’t be bothered. “Between the sheriff and the bishop,” Marion snaps, “it’s hard to say who is the greater curse on common English folk.”
In previous productions, Friar Tuck often provides a more positive, if not especially pious, example of the clergy. Here, though, Mark Addy’s Tuck is at pains to make clear that he is “not a churchy friar,” and certainly he’s given nothing “churchy” to do or say.
At least Robin seems capable of a sincere expression of Christian piety, as when he buries his alter ego in France, crossing himself and uttering a prayer for the dead man’s acceptance into heaven. Later, though, Robin builds a funeral pyre for an old man killed by one of the villains. Wasn’t cremation pretty much unheard of at that point in England?
In the end, Scott tries belatedly to bring in the familiar iconography of the Robin Hood mythos: a carefree, idyllic existence in Sherwood Forest. Robin Hood, we are told, is an origin story for a new franchise. Can anyone imagine a sequel to this sprawling epic having anything to do with any of Robin’s traditional adventures? How do you follow up civil war and invasion with robbing from the rich and giving to the poor?
Register film critic
Steven D. Greydanus is
editor and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.
Content advisory: Battlefield violence and mayhem; an adulterous bedroom scene (nothing explicit); a brief assault on a woman; some profanity and crass language. Mature viewing.