Since I’m finishing up my PhD in history I think I have stronger views about historical dramas than most. I’m not sure why a filmmaker wants to make a movie about an historical figure or event and completely disregard accuracy. I get that some events are so complex that adhering to an accurate account would sacrifice dramatic and narrative coherence. So then the question I ask is, why make a movie about it? If it is so complex, why muddy the waters even more with deliberate misinformation? In the case of Ridley Scott’s new film Robin Hood, supposedly the story of what happened before Robin Longstride became Robin Hood, a bastardization of a mythical story is superimposed over an historically unrecognizable Medieval England. While watching I began to wonder why they even bothered to use real figures from the past like King John, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and William Marshal when they were going to butcher their legacies and just have them do whatever their script needed them to do to get to the next fighting sequence.
Forget historical accuracy – they don’t even get the legend of Robin Hood right. By all accounts that I knew (and from my research since seeing the movie), Robin Hood was supposed to have terrorized the rich in favor of the poor while King Richard was away fighting the Crusades and King John acted as ruler in his place. In this incarnation of the legend, Robin is off fighting with King Richard. He returns, impersonating a slain knight, after Richard’s death. What Ridley Scott has done has streamlined the legend. No messiness: the good king is dead and there is a bad new one. They leave out most of the true family drama of the Plantagenet family that resulted in kidnappings, imprisonments, revolts, betrayals, and deceit, all handled much more skillfully (and that isn’t saying much) in the play and movie The Lion in Winter. Scott makes it look like John was just sitting around waiting for Richard to get back. (Let’s not even consider the revolt led by John’s nephew Arthur over his succession; that would make it even messier and harder to follow.) Robin travels to Nottingham with a few other soldiers from Richard’s army to return a sword to the father of the knight whose identity he assumed. Once in Nottingham the elderly Sir William Loxley (Max von Sydow) convinces Robin to pretend to be his son so that when he dies his widowed daughter-in-law, Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett) will not lose her land. Robin agrees to the charade.
This might have been a fairly serviceable story, but there is a lot thrown in about King John’s quest for tax money to replenish the coffers after Richard’s overseas campaigns and his need to be obeyed at all costs. King John (Oscar Isaac – gleefully evil and one of the bright spots of the picture) sends a trusted adviser north to collect taxes from recalcitrant barons. Godfrey (Mark Strong) has convinced the king that he can reign in their rebelliousness and collect the taxes he needs. What John doesn’t know is that Godfrey is an agent of the King of France. His actual mission is to terrorize the north so completely that the barons will rise up in revolt creating a perfect opportunity for the French to invade. None of this works as a history lesson, a compelling story, or even an action movie. I felt like it needed to be the story of Robin Hood or the story of royal machinations. Either story could have been strong on its own accord without the distraction of the other.
The best historical movies tend to focus on a small aspect of a larger story without struggling to be all places at all times. Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe (1991) is a fantastic movie about a French missionary travelling through Canada to a remote Algonquin mission. Beresford saw the natural limits of the story and didn’t try to stretch it too far. In this way he constructed a clean narrative without having to sacrifice much historical accuracy. It is impossible to do the same about the ascension to the throne of King John and his early reign. It is too complex of a time to be reduced to the limited scope of a movie. Scott should have focused on a more controlled story. There would have still been plenty of time for swordplay and battles, but it wouldn’t have treated the audience like we are idiots and it wouldn’t have created more misinformation about a time which most people already know little.
Russell Crowe also weighs down the part. He plays it all so soberly without a smidge of humor that it almost gets unintentionally funny. The character is written so sickeningly principled that it was probably the easiest way to go. A more creative actor, not burdened by the constant need to prove his worth as a leading man by huskily exhaling all his masculine lines, would have played this variation on a prophet with some panache and humor. Instead we are forced to suffer through more than two hours of listening to Crowe glare and philosophize about the rights of man. (I bet you didn’t know that the catalyst for the Magna Carta was really Robin Hood.) Cate Blanchett does what she can opposite one of the worst leading men in movies, but all she can do is liven up her scenes. This Lady Marion is left to hold her land and her villagers together after her husband and all the men of the village leave. She works well as a strong woman, forced to a place of authority contrary to the customary position of women at the time and I liked the direction the movie took her. That is until the script called for her to ridiculously enter the fray in the climatic battle, armor and all. That was a head smacking moment.
All in all, there isn’t much to recommend Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. If you want a good Robin Hood movie rent the old Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland picture The Adventures of Robin Hood. Flynn approached Robin Hood as a gallant crusader against tyranny, but with wit and grace. Even the old Disney animated feature is more entertaining than this preachy slop.