Ridley Scott, who will be 73 later this year, knows how to direct a movie. He is a master craftsman, and must necessarily be a perfectionist. He may not quite have the drive and vision of Stanley Kubrick, but he is almost in the same league. Scott has an impressive track record in several genres. Besides having directed two of the greatest science fiction movies of all time – Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) – he has also done a good handful of well-produced historical movies. The Duellists (1977), 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), Gladiator (2000), Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and American Gangster (2007 – set in the 1970s) all fall into this category. And so does his latest film, which is a fresh take on the folk-tale of Robin Hood, set in the year 1199.
Here, as in the director’s other period efforts, the feeling of historical authenticity – of historicality – is key. The surroundings are deliciously dirty and compellingly convincing, presenting a world you can believe in. However, in order to ground Robin Hood in a thorough historical setting (and, perhaps more significantly, also to provide a background story for a Robin Hood whose legend doesn’t start until he’s in his mid-forties!), Scott has had to make some interesting changes to the myth we know. And why shouldn’t he? How many times are we supposed to sit through the same old clichés, anyway? I have to scoff at the critics who complain that this is not the “classic” kind of Robin Hood they wanted and expected. A good storyteller like Ridley Scott should not give you what you expect, but offer endless new twists. And he does.
Russell Crowe plays Robin Longstride, a competent but lowly foot-soldier and archer in Richard Lionheart’s crusade. One of Lionheart’s right-hand men is Robert Loxley of Nottingham, who on the way home ends up dead. Longstride happens along, and promises the dying nobleman to return his sword to his father, Walter Loxley. It turns out that old man Loxley knows Robin Longstride from somewhere (where, he will not divulge), and he offers him to take over the entire identity of his dead son Robert, household, title, wife and all. Robin, who has nowhere else to go anyway, accepts, and the servants of the household are simply ordered to recognize him as Robert Loxley. Very soon Robin is heavily involved in national power politics, as the northern barons are rising against the mean and incompetent king John, who has inherited the throne after Richard Lionheart’s death on the battlefield. As Robin helps unite king John and the rebellious barons against a common enemy – not the Judean People’s Front, but an invading French army – Robin (now generally known as the nobleman Robert Loxley) becomes so popular that John can only see him as a threat to his power. So in the aftermath of the battle, John goes back on their deal and declares Robin Longstride an impostor and an outlaw. Longstride takes to Sherwood Forest, bringing his wife and merry men, and Robin Hood is born. Barring sequels, the legend can live happily ever after.
The above is a simplistic and incomplete summary – the story is a detailed and duplicity-ridden one, featuring the excellent Mark Strong in the role of the main villain, Godfrey. The sheriff of Nottingham is a minor character, mostly used for comic relief, which I thought worked perfectly well. Mark Addy plays a very likeable and not very pious Friar Tuck, while most of the other “merry men” (Little John, Will Scarlett, Allan A’Dayle) have small but integral roles. And so does nothing less than the Magna Carta.
Thus far the good. I had a great time in the cinema and enjoyed the movie very much, up until around the time of the French invasion towards the end. A few flies start appearing in the ointment, starting with the fact that Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett) plays a much too modern woman. The dignity becomes her, and Blanchett plays it well, but it does not ring quite true in 1199 AD, especially not at the end (which I can’t talk about since it would be a spoiler).
The main thing that puzzles me in this movie, though, is the obviously fresh pine-wood bows and arrows. They look very much like factory-produced movie props. Why didn’t they at least darken the wood, making it look used and worn (after all, we’re talking about weapons that have been on a crusade to the holy land and back!)? I am forcing myself to wonder if it might be authentic after all, and made to look that way on purpose, but I have to say it’s a bit of a camel to swallow. It interrupts the suspension of disbelief, which is a shame.
Another thing is the band of boys who roams Sherwood Forest. All of a sudden, these thieving rascals become excellent soldiers and bosom buddies of the people whose pantries they robbed only weeks earlier – with no explanation.
By the end, in the Sherwood outlaw camp, everything is idyllic beyond compare. Birds singing, nature providing, yadda yadda yadda. The movie practically does an about face from history to fantasy, from reality to Disney. To be sure, it’s a neat set-up for a sequel, and I do believe that a properly rugged sequel could make up for the misplaced nature romanticism appended to this movie. But I’m a bit skeptical – the sequel could also turn out to be the worst congregation of clichés ever, since this ending is prefiguring all the elements of the Robin Hood legend that we know and cherish, complete with an evil king John (and sheriff of Nottingham) all set to be taunted by well-placed arrows.
Still, if there is a sequel I will give it a chance. Because this movie really was, despite a few flaws, quite excellent, just as we have come to expect from Ridley Scott, and the already announced expanded DVD version will undoubtedly be even better. I went into this movie with no expectations beyond a well-crafted piece of movie-making, and on the whole my expectations were both met and exceeded.