The number of times Sherwood Forest’s legendary twelfth-century outlaw-hero has appeared in movies and on television is so great as to be pretty much uncountable, and the quality has been incredibly variable. On the screen we’ve had one great boys’ adventure version (the 1938 Errol Flynn classic) and, more recently, a decidedly mediocre one (the 1991 Kevin Costner misfire). Where does Ridley Scott’s new “Robin Hood” place in this overabundance or riches and junk? Pretty high, actually—though because the competition includes such wretched stuff as Mel Brooks’s ghastly “Men in Tights,” that doesn’t mean much.
The movie reunites Scott with his “Gladiator” star Russell Crowe, and comparisons with that blockbuster will be inevitable. Once again the result is a gritty, brawny adventure, but in this case the treatment changes the received template. “Gladiator,” after all, was nothing more than a virtual remake of the 1964 Samuel Bronston epic “The Fall of the Roman Empire” on steroids. This “Robin” doesn’t go as far as it might have—the original idea behind the project was revisionist, with the story told from the perspective of the Sheriff of Nottingham, who was to have been recast as hero rather than villain; but that interesting take was rejected in favor of something much more conventional, though still different from the Sir Walter Scott-inspired norm. (Of course the unconventional doesn’t always work—Richard Lester’s 1976 “Robin and Marian” was different, but not very good—but one might have preferred a bit more of a re-imagining.)
Still, what the movie offers is a sort of prequel to your standard-issue Robin Hood story. Robin (Crowe) is introduced as Robin Longstride, yeoman archer in King Richard’s army, which is returning through France to England after the Third Crusade. When the monarch’s killed during a siege (that’s how he actually died, eventually), Robin and his cohorts—including Little John (Kevin Durand), Alan A’Dayle (Alan Doyle) and Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes)—take off for home, only to happen upon an ambush of Sir Robin Loxley (Douglas Hodge), who’s carrying the now-vacated royal crown back to England. He and his crew drive off the attackers, led by the malevolent Godfrey (Mark Strong), who pretends to be a supporter of Richard’s snotty brother John (Oscar Isaac) but is actually working with King Philip Augustus of France to invade England and add it to Philip’s continental holdings. Longstride promises the dying Loxley to return his sword to his father, and he then assumes Loxley’s armor—and identity—to bring the crown across the channel.
Back in England things are extremely complicated. At court John is trying to annul his marriage to an English wife in order to wed the lovely French damsel Isabella (Lea Seydoux) and dismisses faithful chancellor William Marshal (William Hurt) in favor of the double-dealing Godfrey, whom he sends north to collect taxes (so brutally that Godfrey hopes it will cause a rebellion against John in preparation for Philip’s invasion). This outrages John’s mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins), but she’s helpless in the face of her son’s oblivious obstinacy.
In Nottingham to the north, Loxley’s wife Marion (Cate Blanchett) is trying to maintain the family lands for her aging father-in-law Walter (Max von Sydow) in the face of the tax demands and unwelcome advances of the Sheriff (Matthew Macfadyen) and the depredations of local kids who have become a forest gang. When Longstride arrives, Walter asks him for practical reasons to maintain the imposture of being his son (and Marion’s husband). He also reveals to the orphan that his real father was a stonemason and visionary who led a movement for a charter of liberties on behalf of the people but was executed for his actions. Everything comes to a head when Longstride, under Marshal’s prodding, rallies the rebellious northern nobles to set aside their anger over John’s unjust exactions and join the king to repel the French and defeat Godfrey. The price is John’s promise to issue the charter of liberties that Robin’s father had dreamed of. England is saved as a result, but John does not prove a reliable man, and in the end Robin is outlawed to become the legendary leader of the Sherwood merry men.
So if what you’re looking for is the standard tale of Robin Hood, Maid Marion, Prince (or King) John and the Sheriff of Nottingham, you’ll need to wait for the sequel to Scott’s film, or just go back to Flynn’s incomparable movie. But one shouldn’t complain that Scott and scripter Brian Helgeland have concocted a new narrative, since the stories about Robin Hood have varied so enormously since the first ballads were produced in the thirteenth century. The question is whether the new narrative works. As history, certainly not; chronological absurdities abound, with the last five years of Richard’s reign simply ignored (he was actually back home from crusade in 1194) and all the stuff regarding the origin of Magna Carta simple fabrication (it wasn’t even thought of until the end of John’s reign, not the beginning, and then only after an invasion not by the king of France but his son). It’s even ridiculous topographically—we’re supposed to believe that an army could speed from Yorkshire to the southern coast breezily to confront an invasion, and arrive well-rested and ready for battle, when such a trip would have taken days for both cavalry and infantry.
But condemning what’s essentially an adventure fantasy for historical mishaps is really beside the point (the same applied to Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven,” to which this movie is a sort of sequel). The question is whether it works as a Hollywood adventure flick, and the answer is not terribly well. Simply from the perspective of an average viewer (or the historically uninformed thirteen-year old boy who’s the usual seat-buyer nowadays), the plot is terribly complicated—a fact exacerbated by Scott’s exhausting habit of informing us of every change of locale with an establishing shot and a title card. And with the exception of some passing macho jollity of the locker-room variety, there’s precious little humor in a treatment that takes itself extremely seriously, straining to be “Braveheart” as much as ”Gladiator.”
Nor are the characters very well fleshed out. Robin is a gloomy, curiously gentlemanly fellow and Crowe mostly underplays him, while Marion is portrayed as a sort of proto-feminist—a snug fit with Blanchett’s customary crustiness. An almost unrecognizable Hurt plays Marshall as a saintly sage, Huston is an imposing (if grimy) Richard, and Atkins’ Eleanor a stern old biddy, while Isaac takes the easy way out with John, presenting him as a petulant egotist, as does Macfadyen with the sheriff, who’s really a bit player here, and Strong, who’s just a one-note, snarling villain. Robin’s merry men don’t make much of an impression either, apart from Mark Addy, who’s reliably jolly as Friar Tuck. (In his case Helgeland follows Chekhov’s old formula about the gun in the first act, with the necessary twelfth-century variation: Tuck’s introduced as a beekeeper, and his hives are “fired” before the movie’s over.) In fact, the person who makes the greatest impression is that shrewd old vet von Sydow, who uses every device in his formidable bag of tricks to make Walter a lovable old coot.
Visually “Robin Hood” is impressive enough, although John Mathieson’s widescreen cinematography lacks the lushness one might expect, preferring a grittier look until the final scenes of Robin’s quasi-communist remaking of Sherwood, when everything appears idyllically green. One must also wonder at the battle sequences, which as edited by Pietro Scalia (presumably following Scott’s vision) are messy and chaotic, without the sense of organized mayhem one finds in the best such episodes. Nor is Marc Streitenfeld’s score much above rote.
So the verdict on this latest stab at the Robin Hood legend is that it’s a slightly soggy popcorn adventure. Far from being a Robin for the ages, it’s a retelling you’ll hardly care about while you’re watching it and barely remember after the lights come up.