Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ridley Scott's Robin Hood is a Subversive Act

Ridley Scott's Robin Hood is a Subversive Act

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.)

He doesn't fire the bow often but when he does it is bat-shit insane!
Determining intentions from watching a film is always tricky, but from my completely uninformed status as an observer, it seems to me that for Brian Helgeland, Ridley Scott and (one suspects) Russell Crowe, that making this version of Robin Hood was a highly subversive act.

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 only way to save your honour is to abandon it!
I have a lot of respect for Roger Ebert, but I am going to flat-out disagree with him on this one. First of all, heroes in Ridley Scott films do not dash. In his films, heroes sweat, they get dirty and bloody, they make mistakes, but are the more heroic for having to wipe away the blood and sweat and dirt and overcome their own foibles. Even going all the way back to Ridley Scott's first film, the unjustly neglected masterpiece 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.

For an outlaw, this Robin Hood sure bathes regularly!
More importantly, Robin Hood is an archetype, a piece on the chessboard of film. One who has to follow certain constraints, but who can be used in many more ways than just that of the dashing swashbuckler. Not to say that 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.

Purest example of the Robin is never in any real danger genre
In this first half of the Robin Hood legends, King Richard is the roi ex machina lurking in the wings, the giant reset button waiting to be pressed. Since Robin is responsible for stealing the money that will ransom his King, it is a reset that is earned, but it still limits the stakes of the Merry Men's adventures.

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.

Connery was telling his fans he was getting old for a long time. It took even longer for those fans to listen!
The only previous film to tackle this aspect of the Robin Hood legend is Richard Lester's 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.

Robin in front, the 3 Stooges bring up the rear.

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.

King John and his second wife Isabelle.

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.

The family that plots like the Borgias together...

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.

A variation on the Odysseus returns home a changed man legend
Robin Hood's plot is busy and byzantine filled with plotting and counter-plotting, impersonations (a la 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.

One of the most important places in Constitutional History and it's a sad gazebo named after droopy beer.

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.

The Great Charter
When the old studio moguls ran Hollywood, making a film about an important historical moment was seen as a public service that the studios did to justify their massive control over everything we watched. And on a good day, these historical epics even made money or returned their investment by being played for generation after generation of school-kids. In today's world of soulless corporate behemoths the only way that such a film could be made is if the historical context of the story was used as sub-text: Robin Hood's Hidden History.

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...

GITNO! Missing the Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here sign

Seems to me that Robin Hood is a more subversive film than I thought and more necessary than I had dreamed.

(All images are copyright to their appropriate owners.)


  1. Good gracious! At LAST a reviewer who's got the goods to see what the heck this movie is all about! This is absolutely the definitive review of the film and so on beyond and above anything else that has been written about it as to boggle the mind that anyone ever was able to write it. It''s...intelligent, thorough, insightful, and so long overdue in the face of such overwhelming negative reviews that I kneel before your perspicacity and kiss your shoelaces...or velcro...or whatever. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!
    Jo in Pittsburgh

  2. Thanks for the response. Always nice to know that people read what I write, especially when I go noodling off in what seemed to me to be an odd direction. is an interesting site. The idea of building a shared universe based on characters played by Russell Crowe is not something that I would have imagine existed - let alone done so well.

  3. Finally! Someone who GETS it! Bless you, dear fellow!

  4. At last, a reviewer who doesn't stop at the surface of this great film, but actually gets at the meaning underneath!

  5. At last someone with insight,I suspect Robin Hood will be the subject of articles and theses for many years to come. Iwould say that I love Gladiator, nothing in my opinion has supassed it equalled it perhaps, But Robin Hood is a more complex story.

  6. Wonderful, thought provoking analysis. Thank you!

  7. The true motive of Robin Hood is thought-provoking and believable, making him earn a more than mythical place in history. No Disney-green costume here; no clowns, but a man with a mission. The best I ever read on Robin Hood.

  8. Freedom is precious and self governing a right and one that needs to be brought back into balance from glutinous government. One hopes that those in the know, will soon outnumber those of the uninformed by enlightening them to the true significance of the Magna Carta.

  9. SilvrcrowegrammaMay 28, 2010 at 11:10 AM

    Finally someone who is intelligent enough to see this film in it's greatness...thank you for your profound insight..the fans thank you, Ridley thanks you, Russsell thanks you and I thank you BRAVO

  10. Brilliant mate.
    You have hit the ball out of the park.
    I hope Ridley gets to read this, he'll think you've been stalking his imagination.

  11. When I read blog articles like this one , I am a proud and grateful movie-goer ! Thanks for this !

  12. Great article,objective and informative. So many of those negative reviews were really miles away from what I saw on screen Some reviewers said that Scott had made a pro-tea party movie, which is the reviewers invention. Then we had the ,why didn't Ridley make a fun,jolly romp of a Robin Hood.Throw in some wizards, Druids and nymphs and voila yet another boiler-plate summer movie. How different is that? Thanks for pointing out that Scott and Crowe did a great job with the legend of Hood.

  13. It's been said before by others but- Thank you !
    This is why we need to see a sequel.

  14. Brilliant & gratifying - lovely to know I'm not alone out here... Through all the years of reading, viewing, & loving the Robin Hood tales, Ridley's & Russell's is the one I've been waiting for all along. Thank you so much for this thoughtful & accurate treatise. I want to see this sequel!

  15. I have seen the movie and intend seeing it again. Now I've read and understood this brilliant review so am even more anxious to have another viewing as I did enjoy it first time around. I've grown up with the Robin Hood legend as many others have too and I loved the most recent BBC TV version but your review fits perfectly into place now. Thank you.

  16. I applaud your intelligence, insight and erudition. Great review of an excellent film. I attended Robin Hood with two others, a man and a woman. We all have differing tastes in movies, yet we each thought this was a great story, beautifully filmed. I was surprised to see so many negative reviews for a movie which managed to please such disparate tastes, though admittedly there wasn't a 20-something male among us.


  17. thanks, friend. job well done and carefully written. i've seen the film six times and will go again, but i now have a slightly different context in which to view it. as a history scholar (albeit 20th century), i loved seeing a film that was thoughtfully researched, carefully planned and lovingly photographed. i truly hope the positive response of the general movie-goer, rather than the negativity of the press, will convince sir ridley and russell that the sequel must be made.
    even rc himself approved your review. well played!

  18. Thanks for the kind comments everybody!

    Even though I would love to believe that "RC" is Russell Crowe, I think the odds against are roughly a gazillion to one.

  19. I have seen Robin Hood 5 times and like it more each time I have seen it. This is a very smart film which draws on The Lion In Winter and Robin and Marion to tell a sophisticated story. Thanks for your review

    Clay Skinner

  20. I disagree intensely with the conclusion you've made here, because it seems to hinge on the Magna Carta which, in its time, was a rather feeble document, and certainly not the revolutionary one you think it to be.

    For starters, secular rule by divine right did not exist west of the Danube at the time of the Magna Carta. Period. What existed at the turn of the 13th century in England was an extremely powerful king, which was the result of Henry II's intense programs to expand his own power. Even in the time of Henry, far more of a king than Richard and John put together, rebellion was relatively commonplace, and was considered a viable form of political dissent. This was due to the understanding of the system of governance at the time, feudalism, wherein the vassal and the lord entered into a social and political contract. If either one disobeyed the terms of this contract then the other one was free to legitimately punish the oath breaker (as the lord would) or to declare independence (as the vassal would). Indeed, when Prince Louis of France and Alexander II of Scotland arrived on the scene before the signing many of the rebelling barons swore fealty to them, and remained their vassals until John's death.

    Now that we've got the system of government sorted out, let's consider the Magna Carta itself. You, even more than Scott, ascribe a ridiculous amount of power to a document which did little. John contravened it soon after Runnymede, and the version that the child king Henry III was forced to sign was less limiting still. Further, the fact that the rebellion ceased with the death of John shows that the rebellion itself was not a principled attack on monarchical power but rather a simple power struggle. Indeed, the man who created the House of Commons, Edward I, was an immensely centralizing figure in the story of English royal power. The English Civil War, in all its merciless brutality, did infinitely more to limit monarchical power. The implication that the MC was ever meant to benefit anyone but the nobility who wrote it is ridiculous. Indeed, the affection placed upon the MC was more a retroactive search for legitimacy by the powerful parliaments which embraced Whig historiography than anything the original writers hoped for.

    I also find it galling that you suggest a link between the MC and the 95 theses. Why would Luther need to look to the English limiting royal power as an example for limiting ecclesiastical power when there were much better examples, both much closer to home and more in line with his ecclesiastical education? Hussites, Taborites, anti-papists, hell, maybe even the Lollards.

    There are more criticisms to be made, but I will reserve them for the other article you produced on the film since they are more relevant there.

  21. You're looking through the microscope at the wrong end my friend. I am not talking about the meaning that the Magna Carta had then, but the way that we (and especially in this case Ridley Scott) look at it now.

    In other words, you are doing historical criticism and I am doing film criticism.

    "For starters, secular rule by divine right did not exist west of the Danube at the time of the Magna Carta."

    In the film, John makes the secular rule by divine right argument. History be damned, in this film, secular rule by divine right exists because John says it does.

    "I also find it galling that you suggest a link between the MC and the 95 theses."

    You have a point about Martin Luther. I was stretching to make the point, although if I had a week to do the research and prepare my defence (which I do not) I think I could probably make a convincing argument of at least a second-hand connection (theologians who influenced Luther being influenced by English common law/Magna Carta.)

    "You, even more than Scott, ascribe a ridiculous amount of power to a document which did little."

    My reading is not of history but of Ridley Scott.

    Historically, you are absolutely right, while I would argue that the Magna Carta was a transformative document, it was definitely more of an evolution than a revolution. Even the document that acts as the foundation for English common law is the one ratified in 1297 not the one John signed in 1215 at Runnymede. Although the 1297 document is a variation on the original 1215 document.

    But... and surely we will come to this in notes that you will add to my annotated review... when we argue about the prisoners at Gitmo what are we arguing about? The right to a fair trial in front of a jury of your peers; the right not to be held indefinitely without the benefit of that trial; the right to habeas corpus. That right in British common law, which even the legal system in the United States is inspired by, flows from the Magna Carta - modified by years of subsequent documents, rulings by judges, acts of Parliament (or in the case of the United States acts of Congress) but the source of that right is still the Magna Carta.

    Art, especially historical art, is about transforming the past to inform the present. That is what Ridley Scott is doing and that is what I am responding to.

    Thanks for your comments!