Robin Hood directed by Ridley Scott, screenplay by Brian Helgeland based on a story by Brian Helgeland and Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris
(N.B. In order to properly discuss Robin Hood, I am forced to discuss the entire film. There will be spoilers.)
The immediate consequence of their subversion is a profoundly misunderstood film. It is a fiercely intelligent film that like Russsell Crowe's Robin conceals its' brains. This has led to critics like Roger Ebert in his review, bemoaning the fact that this Robin Hood is not the "dashing swashbuckler" pf previous Robin Hood films.
The Duellists, the director took a story about a series of duels between soldiers in Napoleon's army and turned what could have easily been a treacly bit of turgid nostalgia and instead delivered an angry battle hymn damning the lie of so-called honor.
Errol Flynn or the charming fox of the Disney Robin Hood aren't fun, but those Robin's also suffer under a certain disadvantage. The stakes of the game that they play are limited, because they live in an England that has been interrupted.
Traditionally, the stories of Robin Hood break down into two halves. In the first, brighter half, Richard the Lion-Heart has been captured and is being held prisoner. Prince John controls England and drags his feet on either rescuing or ransoming his brother, the King. Robin, in addition to robbing from the rich to give to the poor, is usually the prime organizer of the collection of the ransom that will eventually release the Lion-Heart and restore him to his throne. The ultimate impotence of Prince John as an enemy is that he can do nothing truly permanent to Richard's kingdom. As long as Robin and his Merry Man can avoid being captured long enough to be hanged, they can expect a pardon from King Richard eventually.
The second half of Robin's legends are darker. After Richard dies, John becomes King and to be blunt, at that point, Robin Hood is fucked. He is now older and his enemies are both more powerful and now permanent. Again Robin is an outlaw, but now no pardon, no mercy will ever be offered. The legend usually ends with a dying Robin firing his last arrow and asking to be buried where the arrow lands.
Robin and Marian, a dark tale where Robin makes the old jokes, but they fall flat in a kingdom that is no longer funny. Notable for introducing the trope that Robin Hood is returning from the Crusades, the film did very poorly at the time despite (or perhaps because of) Sean Connery as Robin Hood and Audrey Hepburn as Marian. Many critics and fans were not interested in a film that told them of the end of the legend especially since it also told a meta-tale about the aging of their beloved Connery, five years removed from playing James Bond. (The Man Who Would Be King is another great overlooked film from the same period that was shunned by the public because it painted Connery as mortal and aging.)
The cruelty of the traditional legends is that Robin's life becomes more challenging and dangerous when he is too old to rise to the new challenge of Prince John becoming King John.
The genius of Ridley Scott's take on Robin Hood is that it starts the legend at the death of Richard the Lion-Heart. Crowe's Robin Hood faces the dark danger of the second-half of the legends, but is young and vital enough to rise to those challenges.
The downside to thrusting Robin into the dangers of King John's England is that it allows very little time to indulge in the tomfoolery of the medieval Three Stooges: Little John, Will Scarlet and Allan A'Dayle (played by the aptly named Newfoundlander Alan Doyle of the Great Big Sea). Friar Tuck fares slightly better as the only man in the film as smart and perceptive as Robin; able to see both the rogue and the philanthropist. While Alan, John and Will are content to follow Robin's lead and Kate Blanchett's Marion is slightly baffled and befuddled by him, Tuck is delighted to conspire with him.
Equally getting short shrift is the Sheriff of Nottingham - shunted aside but for a few cameos, because Robin's true antagonist is King John (Oscar Isaac). In the first meeting between Robin and John, their relationship and the nature of John's character is neatly summarized when John removes a ring to present to Robin for bringing him the news of Richard's death (and Richard's crown) only to meanly take back the ring to cover back-taxes. It is John's lack of empathy that dooms him to be a poor King, hating Robin for being brave while John sees himself as a coward, not realizing that it is not the fear that makes a man a coward, it is overcoming that fear as John does - recklessly leading a charge - that makes a man brave.
What the film loses in pushing the Merry Men and the Sheriff into colourful background, it gains by making the bitchy back-stabbing of John's court into the engine that propels Robin Hood's plot. The politics of the film play like a highly condensed sequel to The Lion in Winter. The only way to walk a straight line is to be a crooked man; you can best serve the King by lying to him; everyone is amazingly intelligent but they all act like fools and at the center of everything is John's Mother - Eleanor of Aquitaine - constantly frustrated at being the best qualified person in England to rule, but forced to use her family as crude puppets instead of directly wielding power.
The Return of Martin Guerre) hidden inscriptions, buried memories, lost fathers and hidden sons. It may all seem to be spiralling out of control until you see Robin Hood's goal and all those scattered gears turn into a smoothly ticking clock. The dashing swashbuckler Robin Hood has a goal: rescue Richard and return to England its' better King. Russell Crowe's Robin has a similar but different goal: make John into a better King.
Robin's tool to reform King John is a legally binding contract or charter between the King and the people and peers of England. Robin's goal is to get John to sign the "Great Charter" - the Magna Carta. In fact, Ridley Scott makes the case that Robin Hood is the living charter, literally the son of the man who wrote the first draft of the doscument. The first hint of this relationship is revealed when Robin gives himself a stigmata, pricking himself on a concealed inscription on a sword - the hidden motto of Robin's Father and the Charterists; the famous line from the trailer, "Rise, and rise again. Until lambs become lions."
If this film becomes the first in a series, we can see where the series has to end: at Runnymede, June 15th, 1215 and the signing of the Magna Carta - just as it starts in 1199 with Richard's death and John's coronation. It seems clear from the martyr's stigmata that Robin receives from his Father's inscription that while Robin Hood will fulfill his Father's quest and force John to sign the Great Charter, Robin will also not live to see the document signed, but die a martyr's death sometime before the actual signature.
In short, Robin Hood is a cinematic love letter to the Magna Carta in disguise. This is the subversive act that Ridley Scott and Brian Helgeland and Russell Crowe et al have been engaged in - singing the praises of a legal document nearly 800 years old and hiding that love letter within an action blockbuster.
And if any document deserves to receive love letters, it is the Magna Carta. Without the Great Charter, there is no parliament, no common law, no US Constitution, no Bill of Rights, no Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
There is an argument to be made that without the Magna Carta circumscribing the divine right of Kings; a written document that blasphemously curtailed the power of God; without that example does Martin Luther write the 95 Theses? - Trying to curtail the power of the Church in what became the Protestant Reformation just as the Great Charter curtailed the power of the Crown.
Without the Magna Carta, there is no habeas corpus, no right of the accused to face his accusers, no right to a fair trial in front of a jury of your peers, no right not to be tortured into a coerced confession...
Seems to me that Robin Hood is a more subversive film than I thought and more necessary than I had dreamed.
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