Robin Hood postsTuesday May 18, 2010
Armond White's Review of “Robin Hood” —with Footnotes
Every Man for Himself
Russell Crowe plays Ridley Scott’s everyman again—this time with arrows
By Armond White
At a reported cost of over $200 million, according to the London Telegraph, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood refutes the old altruistic axiom “rob from the rich and give to the poor.” All the charm and meaning has been taken out of this reboot. It’s now a “history,” opening with a detailed inscription to establish the 12th-century tale’s seriousness: “In times of tyranny and injustice, where law oppresses the people, the rebel takes his place in history.” In other words, Gladiator II.
I assumed the title card was an homage to earlier cinematic version of “Robin Hood” rather than a call to seriousness. Who knows? But every major “Robin Hood” movie has begun with such a description.
Russell Crowe once again plays Scott’s everyman hero who rises above his taciturn machismo to avenge dreadful memories—clever shtick for the wealthy duo that like to pretend they’re doing something besides just raking it in.
Question: how is this not a potential criticism of any movie in which a star plays an everyman? Movie stars are wealthy; everymen are not. Was it shtick for Crowe to play an everyman hero in “L.A. Confidential”? And what’s the point of guessing at the motivations of Crowe and Scott? What does that have to with what’s on the screen?
Their nouveau-riche narcissism imagines having a populist purpose, yet the clichés of Robin Longstride’s archery skills, put to use in the English army’s campaign against the French while, back home, Marian Locksley (ludicrous Cate Blanchett) tills her impoverished, overtaxed fields, don’t speak for the people, except in distant, almost invisible metaphor.
I had to read this sentence several times to fathom its meaning... and I still don’t quite fathom its meaning: “...the clichés of Robin Longstride’s archery skills....don’t speak for the people...”? WTF? In general, White seems to be saying that the film pretends to be populist but isn’t. Maybe: It’s the one Robin Hood movie in which King John and Robin Hood fight side-by-side. On the other hand: It’s the only Robin Hood movie where Robin is a commoner, where none of the royals, including Richard, are particularly worthy, and where the end game is not the return of King Richard (and a more benevolent monarchy) but the adoption of the Magna Carta (and the beginning of liberty for all). Some might consider this a populist message.
And the motto these oppressed Brits live by (“Arise and arise until lambs become lions”) isn’t about Tea Party insurrection; it merely replaces poetic generosity with vengeance.
Does White want the motto to reflect Tea Party insurrection? Admittedly “Rise and Rise Again” is an odd slogan for this movie, since Crowe as Robin is always a lion, and so doesn’t need to rise and rise again to become one. But it works if one thinks of the Magna Carta as the end game. We all must rise again until we stop being sheep and become men.
Scott and Crowe return to Gladiator’s violent formula because the high-life confessions of their “A Good Year” collaboration didn’t click. But they also seem to be chasing after Antoine Fuqua (the director Scott replaced on American Gangster) in the way Robin Hood repeats the insipid realism of Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur, the grungy, anti-poetic reboot of Arthurian tales. Both films represent a dullard’s version of history; Hollywood’s commercial calculation has become so obvious that it removes beauty from storytelling. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland’s period setting over-simplifies the context for violence—reusing his Braveheart formula but without director-star Mel Gibson’s conviction.
Why would they be chasing after Fuqua—“King Arthur” failed miserably. And what exactly is the commercial calculation in removing beauty from storytelling? Let’s face it, there’s not much in the plot here that is commercial. It is, in fact, the least commercial of all the Robin Hood movies since it never even gives us Robin Hood.
Look at Scott’s superficial “beauty”: a couple of dusk landscapes (amazingly subtle lighting by John Mathieson) and a splendid view of French ships roiling on blue, misty waves. But these are not “cinematic” images; they’re mini TV commercials that lack existential vision. Ultra-hack Scott reverts to the slickness of his advertising background. TV imagery has pervaded cinema to the point that Scott doesn’t balance his over-cropped TV-style close-ups with the postcard vistas. Like Gladiator’s jarring F/X, it shows Scott’s disrespect for cinema.
White piles insults upon opinions here. It’s all air. There’s nothing to even push against.
Fake beauty and fake history rob Robin Hood of previous moral value. It’s no longer “legendary” because Scott and Helgeland’s sham realism trivializes history. They pretend how history happened (Monty Python-style) but their embarrassing, anachronistic rip-off of Saving Private Ryan’s beachfront battle scene shows no feeling for how history is constructed and passed down through ritual, repetition and affection. An abstract end-credits sequence is more imaginative (it’s in the style of Scott’s Scott Free company logo). In place of inspiration, Robin Hood has the bloat of a 1960s roadshow presentation: Costly, overlong but with no intermission—or reprieve.
The previous moral value of Robin Hood stories has been greatly exaggerated. In older stories, Robin is basically a noble fighting a disreputable royal until a better, war-mongering royal returns, so life can continue as is. This Robin is using his luck to actually push for reform. I’m not saying Scott’s “Robin Hood” is a good movie. I’m saying White, in his ad hominem attacks, doesn’t delineate any of the reasons why it’s not good.
Back in '38, when, according to White, “Robin Hood” had a true populist message: to fight and bow before a benevolent, warmongering monarch like King Richard the Lionheart (Ian Hunter, above).
Robin Hood — Libertarian?
Here's my favorite part of A.O. Scott's review of the new “Robin Hood”:
Meanwhile — and believe me, there is a whole lot of meanwhile in this crowded, lumbering film —...
Here's my least-favorite part:
You may have heard that Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but that was just liberal media propaganda. This Robin is no socialist bandit practicing freelance wealth redistribution, but rather a manly libertarian rebel striking out against high taxes and a big government scheme to trample the ancient liberties of property owners and provincial nobles. Don’t tread on him!
Yes, Robin Hood, in legend, is most famous for robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, but Hollywood, liberal Hollywood, has never followed suit. In the Fairbanks version in 1922, Robin and his men sing about it (“We rob the rich, relieve distressed...”), and an arrow quivers close to “the Rich Man of Wakefield,” but that's about it. Otherwise they're against Prince John's excessive taxes. The Flynn version during the Depression? That caravan they rob is full of Prince John's tax money. Costner? He does rob a wealthy man, and takes the necklace off of his comely daughter, but he, too, is mostly about getting back tax money. Ditto Patrick Bergin the same year. You can take issue with it, but don't pretend it's anything new. Hollywood always makes it personal, not political.
Plus the libertarian line is just silly. The libertarian assumption is that we're all free and government enslaves us. The 12th century assumption is that we're all enslaved, at the whim of a king who is chosen by God, so Robin tries to use government, i.e., kingly decree, to free us. We're talking different planets.
Most important, and please accept the usual SPOILERS here, the fault of the new “Robin Hood” movie isn't that Robin Hood does't rob from the rich and give to the poor; it's that he never becomes Robin Hood.
Ah, well. At least Scott's review isn't as bad as Armond White's.
Review: “Robin Hood” (2010)
WARNING: IN TIMES OF TYRANNY AND INJUSTICE, WHEN LAW OPPRESSES THE PEOPLE, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS
Last month, in touting “The Adventures of Robin Hood” with Errol Flynn, I wrote:
I kept thinking of this line while watching Ridley Scott’s new, updated “Robin Hood.” Because how long does it take Scott to get us to the point in the story where we want to be? Five minutes? Forty-five? An hour?
How about the entire frickin’ movie?
You know those scenes from the trailers? King John: “I declare him to be an outLAAAAAAAW!” Sheriff of Nottingham: “Nail, please.” [Cue arrow splicing between his fingers.] Those aren’t from the middle of the movie. They’re from the last three minutes. This is an origin issue. It’s a prequel. It’s “Robin Hood Begins.” You have the oldest Robin Hood ever (Russell Crowe, 46) playing the youngest Robin Hood ever.
Here’s the question: Is this a bad thing?
The movie begins in France, where King Richard (Danny Huston), returning from the Crusades, stops to sack a castle and get some dough to make up for all the money he lost in the Crusades. Among his men, some common archers: Robin Longstride (Crowe), Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes, Malarkey in “Band of Brothers”) and Allan a’Dayle (Alan Doyle).
At the end of a day’s battle, this Robin apparently likes nothing better than making a little money with the old shell game, but Little John (Scott Grimes) thinks he’s cheating. He’s not. They get into a brawl anyway. At that same moment, King Richard, with his right-hand man Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), is walking disguised among his troops, searching like Diogenes for an honest man. He finds one. “What is your opinion of my Crusade?” he asks Robin. “Will God be pleased with my gesture?” Pause. Pause. “No, He won’t,” Robin says in Crowe’s quiet, firm voice. Robin talks about the massacre at Acre, about the killing of women and children that Sean Connery’s Robin Hood referenced in “Robin and Marian.” He talks about the look a Muslim woman gave him before he beheaded her. It wasn’t anger; it was pity. “She knew when you gave the order,” he adds, “we would be Godless. All of us.”
Honest answer. Cut to: Robin and his men in the stockades.
The next day Richard is killed by a common French archer, and Robin gathers his men so they can attempt to cross the channel before the three thousand now-kingless soldiers try to get back on their own. On the way, they encounter the king’s horse, riderless and carrying the crown in a satchel, and discover the king’s men, including Loxley, ambushed. Ambushing the ambushers, Robin’s arrow cuts the cheek of the fleeing and treasonous Godfrey (Mark Strong), who has secretly allied himself with King Phillip of France against his old friend Prince John. Then Robin hears the dying words of Loxley. The nobleman asks the commoner to deliver his sword—with the words, “Rise and Rise Again. Until Lambs Become Lions” on the hilt—to his father. Robin nods. Loxley dies. Then Robin adopts Loxley’s identity. Few will question knights and noblemen carrying the king’s crown. Commoners would be lucky not to be hanged.
All of this, thus far, is pretty smart. The longer the legend of Robin Hood has endured, the more names he has been given. So why not have the confusion begin during his lifetime? Later versions of the tale, too, turned him from a commoner/thief to an aristocrat wrongfully dispossessed of his lands, and Hollywood, in its umpteen versions, has played along. So why not, in our more democratic time, explain it all away? Robin is a commoner. He’s merely disguised as a nobleman. The first of his many disguises.
What’s not smart is the way the 72-year-old Scott handles the early deaths. Richard is allowed final words and rising choir music. How much more effective if he’d just died. From king—ffftt!—to corpse in a second. Loxley needs to say his final words, to further the plot, but both he and Richard don’t need the rising choir music. They’re godless now, remember? Move along, Ridley. Move along.
That said, the scene where the crown is returned to London is surprisingly touching. The royals wait at the end of a long dock for Richard to emerge from his ship; instead there’s this Loxley man with the crown. No words are spoken. Everyone knows. Then Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins), accepts the crown with gravity, and with greater gravity, knowing the disaster that awaits, puts it on the head of her ne’er-do-well son, John (Oscar Isaac), while his French pastry of a girlfriend, Isabella of Angoulême (Léa Seydoux), trembles with excitement at becoming queen. The scene turns amusing as John, overcome, is about to reward Loxley, until he realizes, essentially, “Wait a minute. Loxley? Your father owes me back taxes,” and pockets the reward.
Robin, still pretending to be Loxley, plans on returning the sword to the father, Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow), and tells his doubtful men, “We can’t repay good luck with bad grace.” Great line. Also good move. His good grace winds up being repaid with even better luck. At the Loxley estate, Sir Walter asks him to continue a ruse the old man didn’t know he’d begun. He asks him to play his son. He likes the cut of Robin’s jib, he has no heir, and when he dies, Marion, Loxley’s wife (Cate Blanchett), will lose it all. It’s win-win for everyone. Robin accepts, and, for a time, the movie becomes a kind of “Return of Robin Guerre.”
Unfortunately the plot thickens and thickens. King John sends Godfrey to collect taxes from the northern Barons to pay for Richard’s wars, but Godfrey’s plan is to burn and pillage so that, when Phillip invades, the country will be divided. Meanwhile, Robin learns his father, a stonemason, was put to death when Robin was six for, in essence, creating one of the greatest documents in western civilization, the Magna Carta, giving rights to noblemen and binding the king to law. Thus when Godrey’s perfidy is discovered and Phillips’ intentions known, Robin, still playing Loxley, and still riding the king’s white horse, breaks the impasse between barons and King John by resurrecting his father’s old idea. The barons will fight for king and England, but John will grant them rights and bind himself to law. And off they go, almost two hours into the two hour, 20 minute movie, to the southern coast of England to fight the French. With nary a sign of Sherwood Forest in sight.
Going against expectations isn’t a bad thing—and in Hollywood, with its love of formula, it’s normally applauded—but “Robin Hood,” from title to trailer, feels like false advertising. Even “Batman Begins,” with “begins” in its title, gives us Batman halfway through. This thing is called Robin Hood, for god’s sake, and the opening title card tells us, “In times of tyranny and injustice, when law oppresses the people, the outlaw takes his place in history.” But Robin isn’t made an outLAAAAAAAW until three minutes before credits. Is it setting up another movie? And has that one been filmed yet? Because Crowe, bless him, isn’t getting any younger or thinner. It’s as if we were promised sex, but the girl frittered away the evening and left us with the mere hope, that maybe, in two years time, we might finally have that sex. We can’t help but leave her place confused and dissatisfied.
Listen: I love Crowe in these roles. Costner’s Robin Hood failed, in part, because he wasn’t much of a leader. Crowe is. One can’t imagine not following him into battle, and not because he gives this or that speech, but because there’s a stillness to him, a toughness, an honesty. The quieter his voice gets, the tougher he reveals himself to be. I go back to that early scene in “L.A. Confidential” when he confronts the wife beater. Standing on his lawn, hands in his pockets, relaxed and not, a conversational voice: “Why don't you dance with a man for a change?” He has that quality here. He can reveal his authority in acquiescence. “Ask me nice,” he says to Marion, as she, in their ruse, divvies up sleeping arrangements. Robin gets to sleep with the dogs. Others might be mad, but he’s half-amused, accepts it as a given, and charmingly seems at home on those dirty blankets. He rubs the belly of the mutt closest to him like it’s an old friend. I was reminded of Brando with the cat. Apparently great actors can act with animals without being upstaged.
But because Crowe works doesn't mean the movie isn't dry and overlong. Remember the thrill watching the guy become the guy in other recent origin tales, such as “Batman Begins” and “Casino Royale”? We don’t get that here. Maybe because it’s telling a different tale than the one we know.
For that, at least, give Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland credit. They are fixing what’s wrong with the Robin Hood legend from our more modern perspective. Generally the story’s about a nobleman surreptitiously fighting a corrupt usurper until the real ruler, a wayward, warmongering king, returns. You have to bend the language pretty hard to make anyone care about that these days. So they’ve given us a commoner who will force the king, the legitimate but corrupt king, into recognizing the legal rights of his subjects. Much better, thank you.
But a “Robin Hood” movie still needs a Robin Hood.
From the Old Man
“As long as you're grading all the Robin Hood movies by category, don't forget the score. The Errol Flynn version had, to my mind, the best movie score ever written. It was written by Erich Korngold, the greatest musical prodigy since Mozart, who emigrated to Hollywood from Hitler's Germany and didn't do much except write a hauntingly lovely violin concerto.”
—Bob Lundegaard, in an e-mail to his ne'er-do-well son, Wednesday.
Everything You Need to Know About Robin Hood... *
* ...but didn't ask. Review of the new movie will be up Saturday. Hopefully.
What’s Robin’s official name/title?
- 1922: The Earl of Huntingdon
- 1938: Sir Robin of Locksley
- 1976: Robin
- 1991 (GB): Sir Robert Hode, Earl of Huntingdon
- 1991 (US): Sir Robin of Locksley
- 2006 (BBC): Robin, Earl of Huntingdon, in the first episode. Sir Robin of Loxley when he marries Marian in the second season.
- 2010: Robin Longstride
Many faces. Fewer hats and feathers.
Who is his right-hand man?
- 1922: John Little
- 1938: Will Scarlett
- 1976: John Little
- 1991 (GB): Will Scarlett
- 1991 (US): Azeem, the Moor
- 2006 (BBC): Much, the Miller’s Son
- 2010: He doesn't really have one
Alan Hale played Little John three times: in '22 and '38 (above),
and in “The Rogues of Sherwood Forest” (1950), his final role.
Who’s Missing? (Or why Alan-a-Dale is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Merry Men)
- 1922: Much, the Miller’s Son
- 1938: Alan-a-Dale
- 1976: Alan-a-Dale; Guy of Gisbourne; and Much, the Miller’s Son
- 1991 (GB): Alan-a-Dale; and King Richard
- 1991 (US): Alan-a-Dale; and Prince John
- 2006 (BBC): No one. Yep, not even Alan-a-Dale.
- 2010: Guy of Gisbourne; and Much, the Miller’s Son. Which means we have our first cinematic Alan-a-Dale in 88 years! Welcome back.
The forgotten merry man, in 1922, 2006 and 2010.
Who's the main villain—Sir Guy of Gisbourne or the Sheriff of Nottingham?
- 1922: Sir Guy of Gisbourne, who tries to kill King Richard in the Holy Land and has his eye on Lady Marian Fitzwalter. The Sheriff of Nottingham is a walk-on.
- 1938: Sir Guy of Gisbourne, who duels memorably with Robin Hood in the end. The Sheriff of Nottingham, in comparison, is fat, cowardly, and used for comic relief.
- 1976: The Sheriff of Nottingham. There is no Sir Guy of Gisbourne in this version.
- 1991 (GB): Sir Miles Folcanet (basically Sir Guy of Gisbourne). Baron Daguerre (basically the Sheriff of Nottingham) helps unite Norman and Saxon in the end.
- 1991 (US): The Sheriff of Nottingham, who has his eye on the throne. His cousin, Guy of Gisbourne, battles Robin early and often but is killed by the Sheriff for a) failing to kill Robin, and b) getting robbed in Sherwood Forest.
- 2006 (BBC): The Sheriff of Nottingham. In the first season Sir Guy takes Robin’s lands, then tries to take Robin’s woman (and eventually kills her), but by the third season he actually joins the Merry Men. The Sheriff is always the bad guy and always the man with the real power.
- 2010: Godfrey. The Sheriff’s a joke. Sir Guy doesn’t exist. Yet.
Six faces of the Sheriff of Nottingham: From walk-on in '22
to a man eyeing the throne of England in '91.
How does Robin demonstrate his archery prowess?
- 1922: A piece of wood is tossed into the air and he shoots two arrows into it. Everyone else, at best, can only shoot one arrow into the wood.
- 1938: In the final round of an archery contest, Philip of Arras shoots a bullseye but Robin splits his arrow. As a child I thought: “Doesn’t that mean they tied?”
- 1976: In the end, posioned, he shoots an arrow out the window from his deathbed. Where it lands is where he’ll be buried.
- 1991 (GB): In a contest to prove his worth to a band of outlaws, their best archer, Harry, comes within inches of a piece of wood at 100 paces. Robin splits the wood.
- 1991 (US): He shoots a weapon out of Will Scarlett’s hand and splits a rope that is hanging one of his men. Also, in a nice touch, he run the feathers through his mouth before doing any shooting.
- 2006 (BBC): What doesn’t he do? He just doesn't kill anyone.
- 2010: He grazes the face of the fleeing Godfrey in France and later kills the fleeing Godfrey on British beaches with a distant, arced shot.
In what way does Robin rob from the rich and give to the poor?
- 1922: A poor boy gets coins. An arrow comes within a whisker of killing “The Rich Man of Wakefield.“ The Merry Men also sing a song (silently) about their feats: ”We rob the rich, relieve distressed/ On damned John to score/ We’ll take a life if sorely pressed/ Till Richard reign once more.“ But that’s about it.
- 1938: Robin makes his men swear an oath “to despoil the rich, only to give to the poor,” but we don’t see much despoiling. They memorably rob the caravan, led by Sir Guy and the Sheriff, but that’s guv'ment money.
- 1976: I’m not sure he does. When he returns to Sherwood 20 years later, he learns people are singing songs about him. “Everywhere we go, they want to hear the things that you did,” Will tells him. To which Robin replies, “We didn’t do them.”
- 1991 (GB): When the Baron raises taxes, Robin and his men steal the taxes. When the Baron raises the reward money on Robin’s head, Robin decides to give the tax money back to the people as a way to keep them on his side. “It’s their money anyway,” he says. Again, though, he’s mostly stealing taxes. The rich, wherever they are, are relatively safe.
- 1991 (US): Ditto. Although one rich man loses his purse and his comely daughter loses her necklace. Insert vice-versa joke here.
- 2006 (BBC): Yes, probably, but it's mostly a battle between Robin and the Sheriff, with the usual TV fluff.
- 2010: He doesn't.
Why do Robin and his men storm the castle at the end?
- 1922: To rescue Marian.
- 1938: To prevent Prince John from declaring himself King of England. Also to rescue Marian.
- 1976: He doesn’t; the final battle takes place in a field next to Sherwood Forest.
- 1991 (GB): To rescue Marian from a forced marriage.
- 1991 (US): To save his men from a hanging and to rescue Marian from marriage/rape.
- 2006 (BBC): They actually storm out of the castle, leave the Sheriff in it, and blow the damned thing up. Nice touch.
- 2010: The castle, French, is stormed at the beginning.
Guy: “Do you know any prayers, my friend?”
Robin: “I'll say one for you!”
- 1922: Guy of Gisbourne (by Robin Hood)
- 1938: Guy of Gisbourne (by Robin Hood)
- 1976: Robin Hood (by Marian); the Sheriff of Nottingham (by Robin Hood); and King Richard (to madness and disease)
- 1991 (GB): Sir Miles Folcanet (by Robin Hood)
- 1991 (US): The Sheriff of Nottingham (by Robin Hood); and his mother (by Azeem the Moor)
- 2006 (BBC): Robin Hood (by Isabella, Guy’s sister); Maid Marian (by Guy of Gisbourne); Guy of Gisbourne (by the Sheriff of Nottingham); Alan-a-Dale (by the Sheriff of Nottingham); and the Sheriff of Nottingham (by Robin Hood). The thing’s got more deaths than Hamlet.
- 2010: King Richard (to a French arrow).
Review: “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991)
WARNING: WHEN SPOILERS WERE ROTTEN
“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” is as uneven as Kevin Costner’s accent within it. It begins gritty and ends in high camp. Robin is heroic, then childish, then heroic again. He assumes leadership of a band of outlaws without being a leader, and he’s actually upstaged in almost every department (dignity, warmth, love) by his right-hand man, Azeem (Morgan Freeman), who demonstrates more leadership in professing to follow Robin Hood than Robin Hood does in professing to lead anyone. Robin can’t even win a swordfight against a high-camp version of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) without the old knife-from-the-boot trick. Aside from some pretty cool archery skills, one wonders why this guy became the legend. Shouldn’t we be watching the story of Azeem, Thief of Hearts?
“Prince of Thieves” is the third major film version of Robin Hood and it’s interesting to see how it deviates from the Fairbanks and Flynn versions. Most notably, the Crusades were still celebrated in ’22; and though the ’38 version mixed in a strong sense of post-WWI isolationism (get your own house in order, Jack, before traipsing off to foreign lands), the movie is seen from a wholly Christian perspective, beginning with the opening title card:
In the year of our Lord 1191 when Richard, the Lion-Heart, set forth to drive the infidels form the Holy Land, he gave the Regency of his Kingdom to his trusted friend, Longchamps...
The language in the ’91 opening title card is less dramatic:
800 years ago, Richard “The Lionheart,” King of England, led the third Great Crusade to reclaim the Holy Land from the Turks. Most of the young English noblemen who flocked to his banner never returned home.
Royalty disappears. In ’22, King Richard and Robin are best friends. In ’38, Richard and Robin fight side-by-side in the third act. By ’91, Richard, now with quotes around “The Lionheart,” is relegated to a last-minute wedding blessing, while Prince John, the main villain in the first versions, is nowhere to be seen. He’s been replaced by the Sheriff of Nottingham, who, in ’22, was a walk-on, and in ’38 was comic relief. Here he actually has his eye on the throne. He also has a name, George, which adds nothing, and a devil-worshipping witch-mother, which adds nothing but weirdness.
Right-hand man? From Little John (’22) to Will Scarlett (’38) to Azeem, the Moor.
Will Scarlett? Turns out he’s Robin’s illegitimate half-brother.
Marian? She’s nearly raped on camera, to comic effect.
The thing’s a mess.
It begins in a Turkish prison in Jerusalem, 1194 A.D., where Holy Crusaders are being tortured and maimed. Robin, with five years hair and beard growth, stoically volunteers himself for a maiming instead of his friend Peter. “This is English courage,” he says with an American accent. Then he breaks himself free, along with Peter, and a nearby Moor, Azeem, who promises to show the way out. In the escape, he loses Peter, brother of Marian, to an arrow, but gains Azeem. “You have saved my life, Christian,” Azeem says. “I must stay with you until I have saved yours. That is my vow.” He says all this with Morgan Freeman’s voice, which makes it even cooler.
We later learn that Robin was a bit of a brat as a child—the Sheriff calls him a “whelp” and Marian tells him: “All I remember of you is a spoiled bully who used to burn my hair”—but his years in prison seem to have changed him. Until he returns to England. Then he seems a child again. He guffaws when he finds out why Azeem was locked up. “Because of a woman? That’s it, isn’t it? That’s it!” A scene later, he sobs into Azeem’s chest when they find the skeleton of Robin’s father strung up in a cage at the remains of Locksley Manor. I suppose the filmmakers wanted character development but, for the viewer, it’s such a sharp contrast to our stoic English prisoner. The unevenness has begun.
Robin quickly makes enemies with Guy of Gisbourne (Michael Wincott), cousin to the Sheriff, and he, Azeem and the blind servant, Duncan (Walter Sparrow), flee into Sherwood Forest. There, across a large stream, he tangles with a band of outlaws, notably John Little (Nick Brimble), and bests him by taking him by surprise. Back at the outlaws’ camp, he suggests fighting back against the powers-that-be. Everyone scoffs but he makes trouble in town, cutting the Sheriff’s cheek, and raising the bounty on his head—a source of pride with him. There’s a nice dynamic here that should’ve been underlined: The more Guy and the Sheriff search for Robin, the more homeless people they create, and the more these people wander into Sherwood and become part of Robin’s army. Will Scarlett (Christian Slater), with a huge chip on his shoulder, blames Robin for their misery, and Azeem counsels against forging an army (“Christian, these are simple people, they are not warriors”), but it all comes together anyway. Arrows are made, people are trained, treehouses are created. Friar Tuck, a bit of a drunkard, is brought aboard and initially clashes with the infidel, until, for the 10th time in the movie, Azeem uses his superior scientific knowledge—this time to help a breach baby get born. Then they’re pals.
The Sheriff, meanwhile, flailing inside his castle, fights back with black arts, treachery, and fierce Celts from the North. After Marian is abducted, Duncan, the blind servant, unknowingly leads the Sheriff and the Celts back to Robin’s hideout. Though Robin’s army handle the first assault, they cannot withstand a barrage of flaming arrows and either flee, die or are captured. The Sheriff then threatens the lives of children to force Marian to wed him—to link him to royal blood so he’ll have an avenue to the throne—and, to honor their wedding day, he plans to hang 10 of the merry men in the town square. Robin, of course, and the few survivors (Azeem, Little John, his wife, Will Scarlett), plan otherwise. But no one’s plan works as planned.
Before the Sheriff goes off to camp.
The Flynn version was not only clean of grit and bad language, it was clean in terms of storytelling: 102 minutes and out. The Costner version, in comparison, rambles and shambles, hesitates and backtracks for either 143 minutes, or an interminable 155 minutes in the extended version, and a lot of this is unnecessary. Did we really need Celts, for example? Did we need the black-arts subplot? I’ll give you Will as Robin’s half-brother, even if it leads to one of the worst line readings in the movie (Robin: I have a brother? I have a brother!); but did we also need to find out the witch was really the Sheriff’s mother? Alan Rickman got raves next to Costner when the movie came out, but he’s so over-the-top he’s really in another movie. He’s in a comedy. Alright I’ll say it: he’s awful. The only thing more awful are some of his lines. When in angry mood: “No more table scraps for the orphans... And call off Christmas!” When visiting his torture chamber: “Sorry to keep you hanging about.” As for the end—when he tries to rape Marian at the altar in front of the Bishop? To what end? Look, he’s a smart-enough guy. His world is crashing all around him, and marrying and impregnating Marian would stop none of the crashing. It’s only there to provide this temporary tension for the audience: Can Robin stop the rape in time? Wow, he does.
Costner, whose acting I defended a few years back, has his moments, particularly when he needs to be heroic, dashing, athletic. He can do these things but seems reluctant to do them. At times he also has gravitas. Then he opens his mouth, trying for that British accent, and out comes mostly flat, nasal Californian. Planning for the final assault, he suddenly adopts what sounds like a Bronx accent. As a joke? Were there no other takes? Who edited this thing? His 1991 mullet doesn’t hold up, either. Can Robin Hood ever have a decent haircut?
He's good in the action scenes...and when not opening his mouth.
Tuck’s British accent—the actor is from Massachusetts—is pretty lousy, too. Mastrantonio is fine, beautiful, and Freeman as always is a joy. That look of pure delight on his face when the little girl at camp asks him if God painted his face. His speech before the townspeople after the hangings go awry: “ I am not one of you but I fight for you! I fight with Robin Hood!” It’s a great moment but it underlines Robin’s own lack of leadership. Shouldn’t Robin have given such a speech? At least once?
Michael Wincott makes an effective, scary Gisbourne. He’s the villain the movie should’ve had. But overall the thing is a mess. Director Kevin Reynolds gives us a long sloppy affair that’s full of movie clichés. Marian, scared, hears noises in her home. Oh, whew, it’s just a cat. No it isn’t! Battles rage, but, oh whew, the Sheriff and his witch-mother are dead. No, she’s isn’t!
So what did all of this mean? The second-highest domestic gross of 1991: $165 million. But gross doesn’t necessarily mean popularity. I’d argue “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” was one of those movies, like “Spider-Man 3” or “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” that everyone went to see, and then everyone agreed that everyone shouldn’t have gone to see it. It wasn’t necessarily robbing from the rich, but it was definitely robbing.
Robin Hoods: How Holy are the Crusades?
Very! “In far-off Palestine,” a title card reads halfway through the film, “Richard meets with victory and concludes a truce with the infidel.” Afterwards we see Arabs marched through the streets while an English knight on horseback takes a lazy bite out of an apple. There’s never a sense that the Crusades are not a good idea.
Mixed. The opening titles trumpet the Crusades: “In the year of our Lord 1191 when Richard, the Lion-Heart, set forth to drive the infidels from the Holy Land...” But, reflecting American attitudes in 1938, we also get a strong isolationist bent, as Robin blames King Richard and the Crusades for the recent unpleasantness with Prince John, Sir Guy and the Sheriff: “His task was here at home defending his own people instead of diverting it to fight in foreign lands,” Robin says. Appropriately, this Robin is also the only one who doesn't go off to fight in the Crusades.
Decidedly unholy. The crusades, reflecting post-Vietnam sensibilities, are a sad, dispirited affair, while King Richard, instead of being a great hero, is a near madman who kills women and children for, as Robin tells him, “a piece of gold that never was.” Robin relays the pointlessness of the Crusades to Marian back in Sherwood. She asks if he’s sick of the fighting and he responds: “On the 12th of July, 1191, the mighty fortress of Acre fell to Richard. His one great victory in the whole campaign. He was sick in bed and never struck a blow. On the 20th of August, John and I were standing on a plain outside the city, watching, while every Muslim left alive was marched out in chains. King Richard spared the richest for ransoming, took the strong for slaves, and he took the children, all the children, and had them chopped apart. When that was done he had the mothers killed. When they were all dead, 3,000 bodies on the plain, he had them all opened up, so their guts could be explored for gold and precious stones. Our churchmen on the scene—and there were many—took it for a triumph. One bishop put on his mitre and led us all in prayer. (Pause) And you ask me if I’m sick of it.”
Unholy. Robin’s decision to join the Crusades severs him from his father, who is killed by the Sheriff of Nottingham in his absence. When Robin returns to his father’s grave, he says, “I should’ve been here. [Father] called the Crusades a foolish quest. Said it was vanity to force other men into our religion.” Later, in rallying his not-so-merry men, he declares, “One free man defending his home is more powerful than 10 hired soldiers. The Crusades taught me that.” Plus the wisest man in the entire movie is Robin's right-hand man, Azeem the Muslim (Morgan Freeman), whose telescope frightens Robin (“How did your uneducated kind ever take Jerusalem?” Azeem says), and who gives a better rallying speech than Robin ever does: “I am not one of you but I fight for you! I fight with Robin Hood!” In a perfect world he’d be the star. OK, he was the star.
“Bloodthirsty.” That's how Robin reponds in the first episode when asked how the Holy Land is. Later he questions the whole enterprise: “Is it our holy war? Or is it Pope Gregory’s?” Turns out he’s developed a broad, 21st-century view of this narrow, 12th-century conflict. “You know why I went to war?” he says. “To recover Jerusalem, to recover our Holy Land. [But] when I got there I met the Muslims, I met the Jews. And I realized it was their Holy Land, too.” A Muslim girl, pretending to be a boy, Djac, joins the merry men for 22 out of 39 episodes. Like Azeem, she has a magnifying glass. Like Azeem, she’s rarely wrong. Like Azeem, she’s proud. In her first episode she refuses to renounce her God to save her skin: “Why would I pretend to be Christian?” she says. “You killed my people in the name of Christianity.” No one takes a lazy bite out of an apple.
Unholy. Early in the film, King Richard, sacking a French castle upon his return from the Crusades, walks disguised among his troops, searching, like Diogenes, for an honest man. He finds one in Robin Longstride and asks him: “What is your opinion of my Crusade? Will God be pleased with my gesture?” Robin pauses, then pauses, then says, “No, He won’t." Like Connery's Robin, this Robin talks about the massacre at Acre, about the killing of women and children. He talks about the look a Muslim woman gave him before he beheaded her. It wasn’t anger; it was pity. “She knew when you gave the order,” he says, “we would be Godless. All of us.”
Robin Hoods: How Tough Is Maid Marian?
1922: Enid Bennett as Lady Marian Fitzwalter:
Not. She fakes suicide to escape the lecherous advances of Prince John, then hides in a neaby convent while waiting the return of Robin, Earl of Huntingdon. Later she’s kidnapped, and Robin storms the castle to save her. When all hope seems lost, he hands her a knife so she can kill herself rather than be dishonored by the lecherous advances of Guy of Gisbourne. She’s basically a pale, frail thing who veers between death and dishonour.
1938: Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian:
Not much. Sure, she rides in the middle of the night to a Saxon pub and comes up with the plan that saves Robin from hanging. Otherwise she’s a very sweet Norman girl who starts out a bit prejudiced against the Saxons, then falls in love with a Saxon lord. Oh, and by the end she needs rescuing from a dungeon. Go figure.
1976: Audrey Hepburn as Lady Marian
This one’s tricky. In the beginning she gets punched in the face by Robin, then breaks down when telling him how much it hurt to lose him, so she seems a pushover. At the end she kills Robin with poison rather than lose him again, so she’s clearly not. Plus, for the first and only time, she gets equal billing. The movie’s called “Robin and Marian."
1991: Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Marian Dubois:
When we first see her she’s a masked figure who kicks Robin in the groin (always good for a laugh). By the end she’s nearly raped by the Sheriff of Nottingham (which the movie, with its tin ear, plays for laughs). She starts out tough then winds up weak and in need of rescuing—the opposite of Audrey’s arc.
1991: Uma Thurman as Maid Marian:
Not only does she staunchly refuse the hand of Sir Miles Folcanet (basically: Sir Guy of Gisbourne), but she pretends to be a boy to infiltrate Robin’s band. (Since this is Uma, that’s one helluva wrap job.) In the end, she is forced to go along with the wedding but is saved by Robin, whose forces she joins in battling Sir Miles. She swings down on a rope and takes out three knights like they're bowling pins.
2006: Lucy Griffiths as Marian:
She’s not just Marian, the girl fought over by Robin of Locksley and Sir Guy of Gisbourne; she’s also The Night Watchman, the masked avenger whose exploits around Nottingham predate Robin’s. So not only does she not need rescuing, thank you very much, she’s actually the world’s first masked superhero.
2010: Cate Blanchett as Marion Loxley:
Legally, she doesn't have many rights. Her husband dies and his father, Sir Walter Loxley, tells the messenger, Robin Longstride, to pretend to be her husband so they can keep their land. (If Walter dies, she loses it all.) But this doesn't mean she's not a tough cookie. She works the fields with her peasants, fends off the advances of the Sheriff of Nottingham, kills a French soldier trying to rape her, and, in the end, joins the barons, like a British Joan of Arc, in battling back a French invasion on southern British shores. Take that, Enid Bennett!
Manly, yes, but I like it, too.
Robin Hoods: How Grandiose are the Opening Title Cards?
1922 (The Douglas Fairbanks version)
“Medieval England—England in the Age of Faith. Her chronicles tells of warriors and statesmen, of royal Crusaders, of jousting knights. Her ballads sing of jolly friars, of troubadours, of gallant outlaws who roamed her mighty forests. History—in its ideal state—is a compound of legend and chronicle and from out both we offer you an impression of the Middle Ages – ”
1938 (The Errol Flynn version)
“In the year of our Lord 1191 when Richard, the Lion-Heart, set forth to drive the infidels from the Holy Land, he gave the Regency of his Kingdom to his trusted friend, Longchamps, instead of to his treacherous brother, Prince John. Bitterly resentful, John hoped for some disaster to befall Richard so that he, with the help of the Norman baron, might seize the throne for himself. And then on a luckless day for the Saxons...”
1991 (The Kevin Costner version)
“800 years ago, Richard “The Lionheart,” King of England, led the third Great Crusade to reclaim the Holy Land from the Turks. Most of the young English noblemen who flocked to his banner never returned home.”
Review: Robin Hood (1991-BBC)
WARNING: PIERCING SPOILERS
This one surprised me. It’s tough to make a legend like Robin Hood feel new but this one comes close for this reason: it doesn’t pretend to be legendary as it’s happening. Let’s face it, none of us really knows what we’re doing. We make up this stuff as we go, and only after the fact does a pattern (possibly) emerge. At which point we say, “Oh, I get it. This is the story.”
What’s the story, or the legend, of Robin Hood? He’s a man, a noble, who stands up to a corrupt prince and his minions during a time when the legitimate king, Richard the Lionheart, is away at the Crusades or captured in Austria. He’s the best archer in the land, and not bad with a sword, either. He’s a swashbuckler, and he and his men live in Sherwood Forest and rob from the rich and give to the poor. And they have a grand time doing it. Hell, they’re merry doing it. Oh, and there’s a girl, too, since there’s always a girl. And in the end Robin gets the girl, the bad guys get their comeuppance, and Richard is reinstalled as the one and true King of England. Sound trumpets.
Who is Robin Hood here? He’s Sir Robert Hode, Earl of Huntingdon (a perfect Patrick Bergin), a Saxon noble in a land dominated by Norman conquerors. Which means he’s privileged and not, master and not. Sure, he doesn’t like injustice, but he doesn’t like a lot of things. He does like women and drinking, however. He relishes a fight, too. Whenever someone lands a blow he comes up smiling, eyes flashing. He also has a sense of privilege (he’s a noble, after all), and a hair-trigger temper (ditto), and he tends to get involved against his better judgment. Then he shakes his head and thinks, “Crap, how did I wind up here?” Even though here is the legendary place we know he should be. His better instincts, in other words, are telling him not to become what he famously becomes.
The movie begins with Norman knights, led by the Norman Sir Miles Folcanet (Jurgen Prochnow of “Das Boot” fame), hunting a man who’s been poaching on royal lands. First the man tries to take his buck with him; then he abandons it, runs, but keeps falling; then, just as the hounds are upon him, he falls at the feet of...wait for the pan up...Robin Hood! Except he’s not Robin Hood yet, he’s Robert Hode, and even as the poacher, Much, recognizes him and says, “Help me, Sir Robert,” he simply stands there. He stands there as Much is caught, admonished, and—since this is his second offense—threatened with having his eyes put out. It’s up to Robert’s friend, Will (Owen Teale), to tell him what the rest of us are thinking:
Robert’s response? He rolls his eyes. Love that.
But once he confronts Folcanet he doesn’t do it in half-measures. He’s an Earl. He’s used to getting his way. And he gets pissed off when others, particularly Normans, stand in his way.
Hode: Leave him.
Falconet: Who do you think you are? This man is a poacher.
Hode: On my land. I have no objection to this man hunting on my land. He’s a useful member of our community. Who exactly are you?
Falconet: I am Sir Miles Falconet. And I am the guest of the Baron Daguerre to whom this land belongs. And certainly not to some Scottish Saxon.
But Hode is friends, too, with the Baron (Jeroen Krabbe), and in the next scene we watch them playing a board game while talking about the trial Hode will undergo the next day for confronting Falconet. Daguerre jokes, as he’s losing the board game, that he’ll have to give Sir Robert a flogging. Hode doesn’t see the humor. “You can’t do that,” he says. “I’m an Earl.” For good measure he adds, “Need I remind you that while your grandfather’s father was no more than a pirate, my great grandfather was chancellor to our King!” This pisses off Daguerre. Momentarily. He’s normally a diplomatic man, and at the trial the next day he weighs the offense and Hode’s title and recommends a public lashing: one lash. This pleases neither man but it’s Hode, with his hair-trigger temper, who’s more insistently displeased, and the number of threatened lashes keeps rising until Hode reveals the Baron’s corrupt, unnoble heritage and rails against the raping and pillaging of the Normans in general. At which point the Baron stands and decrees that Hode forfeits his title and land, and all things in his possession, and orders him shackled. Which is when Robin and Will take up arms and fight their way out to a nearby forest. I believe it’s called Sherwood.
This is not a California forest, by the way. It’s dark and cold, and as soon as Hode starts a fire with a flint it begins to rain. (“Bloody Normans,” he says.) The next day he has his legendary encounter with John Little (David Morrissey) on a log bridge over a roaring river, not a tepid stream. Hode: How are you at walking backwards?” Little: “I’ve never had to try yet, shortass.” Indeed. Hode gets knocked in and nearly drowns in the rapids. Little likes his spunk, though, and brings him and Will to a bandit/outlaw hideout, which is a dank, filthy cave, not an idyllic clearing. Much, the Miller, is there as well and Hode introduces himself, to Much’s amusement, as “Robin Hood,” since his status as an earl, even a deposed earl, would be problematic in the setting. The next morning Robin and Will are about to get kicked out again. Spunk only gets you so far. It’s one meal and off you go, Little tells them, adding, “Unless you can do something.”
Hode pauses, generally confused, and says, “I can shoot. A bit.”
This is not “The greatest archer in all the land.” This is a guy who knows he’s not bad with the bow-and-arrow but assumes others could be better. Of course when he goes up against the outlaws’ best archer, Harry (Alex Norton), the two of them aiming for a stick at 100 paces, Harry shoots his arrow right next to the stick but Hode, now Robin, to the astonishment of everyone—including, one assumes, himself—splits the freakin’ stick. There’s no feeling of inevitability here. On the contrary, you feel like Robin is telling himself: “You lucky bastard.” Equally surprising? This is the last time in the film he takes up bow and arrow.
Bergin's Robin Hood is one of the most underrated.
No, Robin reveals his true gift to the outlaws with his insider knowledge of the comings-and-goings of the rich. Told they’re staking out such-and-such a road to plunder, Robin suggests another, where he knows gold is being transported by Sir Miles Falconet. And that’s what they do. Robin leads the men on a chase to a valley where Falconet thinks he has Hode; but Robin and his men have him. In the skirmish after the trial, Will cut Falconet’s neck and Hode asks about it. “How’s your wound? Hm. It’s healing.” Then anger suddenly, astonishingly pours out of him. “But some wounds never heal. Tell that to Daguerre: some-wounds-never-heal” and he presses his knife back into Falconet’s neck and reopens the wound.
Falconet and his men are stripped and ride past Maid Marian (Uma Thurman), who had been with the initial caravan, and she and Hode, who have had several back-and-forths in the film thus far, have another. As good as the film has been to this point, the stuff with Marian is, unfortunately, just as bad. It’s like they’re trying to do “Big Sleep”-ish double entendres but it’s all cringe-worthy:
Marian: So. What are you going to do with me—tie me up?
Robin: Could be a lashing.
Marian: How many strokes?
Robin: As many as are necessary... Have you been lashed before?
Marian: I’ve never had someone make me beg them me to stop.
Robin: (smiles): Then you’ve never had a proper lashing.
Seriously? Thurman is bad in this, too. Her casting, which seems perfect, is actually one of the worst things about the movie.
Absolutely beautiful. But all wrong for the role.
So the two sides keep raising the stakes. Robin steals money? Then the Baron raises taxes to make up the difference. “That’ll make him really popular,” he says. The Baron raises taxes? Robin takes the taxes. Robin and his men save two children from hanging? The Baron burns down a village. They torture a man to death to find out where Robin is. They take everything—including a 12-year-old girl. Then they further raise the reward on Robin Hood. So what does Robin do? He gives the money back to the poor to keep them on his side. “It’s their money anyway,” he says. “Their taxes.” The response from Harry and some of the other outlaws is expected. “Give it away?” Harry says. “Are you crazy?” Thus are legends borne out of happenstance. We make this shit up as we go.
The Baron, in this version, is basically the Sheriff of Nottingham—as Folcanet is Gisbourne—but he’s not, despite the aforementioned tortures, outrightly evil. The Sheriff is normally portrayed as glowering and scheming in cahoots with Prince John, but here he has to answer to Prince John (Edward Fox). Prince John wants the money, the taxes, but the Baron doesn’t have them. John is both amused and not. “They sing ballads,” John says of the people and Robin Hood. “They see a new Saxon leader emerging.” So John leaves 40 soldiers with this incompetent Baron who let things get out of hand. Then he gets histrionic. “You will turn over every blade of grass in Barnsadle, Sherwood and Nottingham until this man and his cutthroats are brought to the gallows and disemboweled while they still breathe. I will not have my throne threatened! I will not have Saxon mark Norman! And I will have my money!”
Not much comes of this, and there’s too much subplot with Marian. She disguises herself as a boy to get close to Robin but Robin figures it out (it only takes a profile), then Harry finds out, then Harry, bastard, betrays everyone by returning Marian to the Baron and Falconet. He expects a reward but gets tortured for information. We last see him hanging eyeless in a cage outside the castle. Remember in the ’38 version when arrows pierced the chests of knights and no blood emerged? Those are stories for children.
Unfortunately it all comes down to Marian’s wedding of convenience with Folcanet, which leads Robin and his men to storm the castle during All Fool’s Day. Robin and Folcanet battle with broadswords while Will gets his big scene, convincing the Baron to lay down his arms, to join Norman and Saxon. The movie ends with the marriage of Norman (Marian) and Saxon (Robin), at which point the sun, which we haven’t seen during the film, and which will symbolize the modern British empire, finally emerges. Modern England can finally be.
The sun, which someday will never set on the British Empire, finally shows up and warms Friar Tuck.
What a shame. The last 15 minutes of this film do a real disservice to the first 90. Prochnow overacts horribly in the last half, too.
But the first 90 are fascinating. What a great story! An occupied noble with a hair-trigger temper and a love of fighting bands with commoners and uses his insider knowledge to bring down the occupiers. It’s not the stuff of legend, but it ain’t bad.
Review: “Robin and Marian” (1976)
WARNING: REVISIONIST SPOILERS
As “Robin and Marian” opens we see two medieval knights digging in the French sand. “For treasure?” we wonder. “Oh, to get a large stone. Oh, for a catapult. Oh, to shoot at yon castle.” Which they do—to little effect. The stone crashes impotently halfway up the wall and Robin (Sean Connery), on horseback beside Little John (Nicol Williamson), sighs deeply. A minute in, and everything already feels purposeless and dissipated.
If “Robin and Marian” is the least traditional of the Robin Hood feature films, it has less to do with being set 20 years after the famed Sherwood-Forest events than with being written and directed in the 1970s. That was a dispiriting time for all of us: post-1968, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate. Heroes weren’t believe in and authority was openly mocked. In both the 1938 “Adventures of Robin Hood” and the 1991 “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” Richard the Lionheart makes an appearance at the end and is venerated. He stands tall, acts noble, everyone bows. (In the ’91 version, he’s even played by Connery.) Here he shows up at the beginning—played with glorious panache by Richard Harris—and he’s as mad as a hatter. The absent lord of the semi-besieged castle has a three-foot gold statue hidden somewhere, but the one-eyed man minding the store, and protecting the women and children within, yells out that there is no gold statue. It’s stone. That’s enough for Robin. He’s about to leave when Richard comes charging up on his horse and demands the castle be taken. They argue:
Robin: Your statue is a rock.
Richard: I want it done.
Robin: There is no treasure.
Richard: Do it.
Robin: There are no soldiers in there, just children and a mad old man.
Richard: And what is that to me?
So the castle is taken and burned. Afterwards Richard's foot pokes a three-foot statue. “So it was stone,” he says with mild interest, as one hears, in the background, the cries of dying women and children. But the one-eyed man lives. “I liked his eye,” Richard says, as if recalling a striking painting he saw at a gallery. A scene later, after some drunkenness, Richard’s dead, and Robin and John, with no one to follow, not even a crazy king to follow, head back to England.
The things he carries.
What becomes a legend most? At this point, Robin doesn’t even know he is a legend. He and John return to Sherwood the way one might return to a high school haunt. Isn’t that the place where...? Hey, remember this? They run into Tuck (Ronnie Barker) and Will (Denholm Elliott) and it’s the latter who tells him he’s revered, that there are ballads sung about him:
Follow him, follow him, bloody and brave
I’ll follow Sir Robin into the grave
“They’ve turned us into heroes, Johnny,” Robin says to Little John, amused. Then this key bit of dialogue:
Will: Everywhere we go, they want to hear the things that you did.
Robin: We didn’t do them!
Will: (laughs) I know that.
The heroes aren’t heroes. At the same time, we’re never really told what they never did. Rob from the rich and give to the poor? Split an arrow at an archery contest? Rescue Maid Marian from Sir Guy of Gisbourne?
It’s apparent, though, that they did live in Sherwood Forest and fight, in guerilla fashion, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw), who’s still in power. Marian (Audrey Hepburn), meanwhile, has become a nun (“Not my Marian,” Robin says, shocked), and the day they visit her at Kirkley Abbey is, nice coincidence, the day the Sheriff and his men come riding by to arrest her for maintaining allegiance to the Pope rather than King John.
The Sheriff of Nottingham has been portrayed a thousand different ways. In the Fairbanks silent version, he’s an afterthought; in the Flynn Technicolor version a buffoon. Alan Rickman played him with over-the-top malevolence in the ’91 Costner version, where he’s the chief villain with an eye on the throne. He’s none of the above here. He’s not even a villain, really. He’s had 20 years to figure out what he did wrong and it’s made him patient and crafty. One could even call him wise. He’s not only the smartest man onscreen but possibly its most interesting. When Robin and John try to sneak into Nottingham he sees through their disguise from the castle above. “Ah Robin,” he says. “Three horses but two to push? I almost feel sorry.” When his headstrong lieutenant demands the right to pursue Robin, and then insults the Sheriff—claiming he’ll succeed where the Sheriff failed—there’s no anger in his response. “Raise the gates,” he says wearily. He knows the lieutenant will fail. He also knows enough not to pursue Robin into Sherwood. Even after King John gives the headstrong lieutenant 100 soldiers to take Robin, the Sheriff merely camps them outside Sherwood. And waits. And waits. He knows he’s the bird hopping around before the cat. Sooner or later the cat will pounce.
But it’s called “Robin and Marian,” that’s the key relationship, and it’s in their conversations that screenwriter James Goldman, brother of William and author of “The Lion in Winter,” has fun. “What are you doing in that costume?” he says when he first sees her in nun’s habit. “Living in it,” she responds. Seeing the austerity of her quarters, he says, “I thought I knew you. What’s happened to you?” “Good things,” she responds. She’s haughty. She’d given up on Robin, and was ready to give herself up to the Sheriff, too. In fact Robin has to knock her out to take her away, and the shock is less seeing Robin slug Marian than seeing Sean Connery slug Audrey Hepburn. That’s like coldcocking a fawn. Other crimes seem minor in comparison.
Marian’s haughtiness, of course, is poor cover for 20 years of lost love and pain, which she eventually confesses. There are scars on her wrists from when she tried to kill herself. “You never wrote,” she says accusingly. “I don’t know how,” he answers honestly.
The things she carries.
He has scars, too, from his countless battles, which she sees when she takes off his shirt. “You had the sweetest body when you left,” she says sadly. “And you were mine.” But these scars are nothing compared to his spiritual scars. The Crusades were celebrated in the Fairbanks version, and glossed over—in an isolationist fashion—in the Flynn version. Here they’re horrific. When she asks if he’s sick of fighting and death, he tells her a story:
On the 12th of July, 1191, the mighty fortress of Acre fell to Richard. His one great victory in the whole campaign. He was sick in bed and never struck a blow. On the 20th of August, John and I were standing on a plain outside the city, watching, while every Muslim left alive was marched out in chains. King Richard spared the richest for ransoming, took the strong for slaves, and he took the children, all the children, and had them chopped apart. When that was done he had the mothers killed. When they were all dead, 3,000 bodies on the plain, he had them all opened up, so their guts could be explored for gold and precious stones. Our churchmen on the scene—and there were many—took it for a triumph. One bishop put on his mitre and led us all in prayer. (Pause) And you ask me if I’m sick of it.
But he’s not sick of it. That’s what Marian suspects and that’s what the Sheriff knows. There’s a great scene where Robin and John rescue several nuns from Nottingham Castle. It’s great because it’s not. Robin Hood is now an old man, and, rather than bouncing and leaping, he grimaces and pants. He moves in slow-motion. Part of the point of “Robin and Marian” is to explore the story after the story. What happens after the happily-ever-after? History doesn’t have to be a tragedy to be repeated as farce.
At times, the film, directed by Richard Lester of “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” fame, is almost too farcical, as if it were dipping its toe into absurdist “Monty Python” territory. This absurd tone clashes with the bittersweetness of the overall tale. Robin keeps doing what he’s doing because he can’t do anything else. When the Sheriff succeeds in drawing him out, and they duel clumsily with broadswords, they’re like two old dinosaurs. Several of the men even have to turn away—as sportswriters had to turn away from watching the great Willie Mays, in his twilight, fall down in center field trying to catch a fly ball.
The Sheriff doesn’t get Robin here. Despite the Sheriff’s craftiness, Robin still wins. But he’s wounded and Marian takes him back to the Abbey, mixes a concoction and has him drink it. It’s poison. She wants a life with him, she deserves a life with him, but she knows she won’t get it because he won’t change. “I love you more than morning prayers or peace or food to eat,” she confesses. “I love you more than God.” This is what her feistiness was hiding. Initially incensed, he comes to accept it. “I’d never have a day like this again, would I?” he says. with that Connery half-smile.
“Robin and Marian” comes close to being very, very good—the acting and dialogue in particular—but its tone is slightly off. Plus it has the worst riding music I’ve ever heard (imagine instrumental Christopher Cross, but somehow schmaltzier), and it’s a little precious with its withering-fruit symbolism. I’m also not sure if I don’t buy or merely don’t want this end, which ignores why this particular tale is bittersweet. Think of the withering fruit. We all age and wither and die, even legends. In his day Robin Hood was a great thief—robbing from the rich and giving to the poor—and he deserved to be taken by the greatest thief of all: Time.
The final shot.
Review: “Robin Hood” (1938)
WARNING: ROPE-SWINGING SPOILERS
Whenever the film industry develops a new technology they tend not to scrimp. Sound? How about SONG! Color? We’ll make every red as succulent as a marichino cherry! 3-D? Let’s throw shit in your face for two hours!
“The Adventures of Robin Hood,” which was originally to be filmed in black-and-white and star James Cagney, was one of the first films shot with the three-strip technicolor process, and it shows, because the color really, really shows. Robin Hood was never so green, Will Scarlett was never so scarlet, and Sherwood Forest never looked like such a merry place to live.
Why is the movie still so good? Because it lives up to its title. These are adventures. They’re fun. Against a backdrop of oppression and tyranny, famine and regicide, everyone takes things about as seriously as little boys on a neighborhood caper. No one bleeds, the best fights are with friends, and you get to swing on rope swings. Grit hasn’t clogged the works yet.
Then there’s Errol Flynn. Douglas Fairbanks may have been more graceful, and subsequent Robins may have been more realistic, but no Robin Hood was more charming, romantic, or seemed to have more fun. Ironically, it was not the kind of role he wanted. He was after serious drama, Paul Muni roles, such as “The Life of Emile Zola” or “The Good Earth,” that won Academy awards and respect. Instead he got stuck playing the most famous film version of one of the most legendary characters of all time. We should all be so stuck.
There’s no fat here. It takes the Fairbanks version an hour, and the Costner version 45 minutes, to get us where “Adventures” gets us in five minutes: Robin Hood in Sherwood messing with the bad guys.
You know the backstory: King Richard’s away at the Crusades, he’s left Longchamps as Regent, but Prince John (Claude Rains) and Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone)—with the High Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) along as comic relief—plot, scheme and steal. When Richard is kidnapped by Leopold of Austria, John and Guy drink to a bright, evil future, then spill the wine and watch the red liquid drip on the floor with metaphoric delight. In quick order their men take meat from Saxon butchers and torture Saxon landowners. Then Sir Guy is about to kill Much, the Miller’s son (Herbert Mundin), for violating Forest law, but Robin of Locksley (Flynn) and his squire, Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles), appear on horseback and Robin shoots Guy’s mace from his hand. Now Robin has an enemy (Guy) and a follower (Much).
In every film version of the Robin Hood legend, the outlawed “merry men” are already in Sherwood Forest, either leaderless or led nominally by Little John, when Robin finally appears to offer true leadership. Except here. Here Robin appears first. He has a plan. He's so sure of this plan he saunters into the palace with the king’s deer over his shoulders, and, after annoying Sir Guy, amusing Prince John, and flirting with a put-off Maid Marian Fitzwalter (Olivia de Havilland), lays out his entire plan—the entire story, really—before his enemies:
Robin: I’ll organize revolt. Exact a death for a death. And I’ll never rest until every Saxon in this shire can stand up free men and strike a blow for Richard and England.
John: Have you finished?
Robin: I’m only just beginning. From this night on, I’ll use every means in my power to fight you.
Cue swordfight against a multitude, bows and arrows, escape into the night.
Why is this movie still so good? It’s exceptionally well-paced—mixing longer, memorable scenes with shorter, necessary exposition. After the above, for example, we watch the following:
Exposition: Robin is declared outlaw, his lands taken.
Long scene: The introduction of Little John
Exposition: Words spreads among the townspeople: “Robin in Sherwood.” “At the gallows oak.”
Exposition: The merry men, gathered together for the first time, take an oath to fight their oppressors to the death.
Exposition: Three examples of same: oppression of Saxons followed by a black arrow, Robin’s arrow, into the chest or back of a Norman knight.
Long scene: Intro of Friar Tuck.
At the end of Tuck’s intro, Will rides up to inform everyone that Sir Guy and the Sheriff are riding through Sherwood with a caravan of gold. And we’re ready.
The movie was initially directed by William Keighley (“Each Dawn I Die”), but Hal Wallis at Warner Bros. thought the Sherwood scenes, filmed on location in Chico, California, lacked vitality, and they replaced him with Michael Curtiz (“Angels with Dirty Faces”; “Casablanca”), who added just that. He filmed additional scenes of the merry men prepping for and then attacking the caravan, and all of that climbing, running and jumping, sometimes directly at the camera, feel like primers for the masculine energy of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”
The caravan includes, nonsensically, Maid Marian, which affords Robin the opportunity to woo her. Up to this point she’s believed the Norman lies about Saxons. But when the merry men display loyalty for Richard, and, more, when Robin shows her the Saxon poor and the sick that Prince John’s laws have created—living 10 yards from where his men are feasting and whooping it up—she’s won over. I wasn’t. It’s always dangerous for adults to critique the plot points of children’s stories, but the one thing that never made sense to me watching this movie as a child was this Sherwood Forest segregation. “How come the poor and sick haven’t been invited to the feast?” I thought at age 10. “How come they’re stuck in this cold, dark place, while the merry men are living it up over there? Seems unfair.” Thus are critics born.
Afterwards, the Sheriff, proving he’s not just comic relief, comes up with the plan for the archery contest, Robin Hood splits Philip of Arras’ arrow, and, in winning, is revealed, captured and sentenced to hang. It’s Marian, traveling to Kent Road Tavern, who nonsensically provides the escape plan. Following its success, we get a Romeo-and-Juliet-ish balcony scene between the two. Despite closed-mouth kissing and Hays Code proprieties, Flynn and de Havilland are still able to generate a great deal of heat.
Meanwhile, a disguised King Richard returns to England and allies with Robin even as Prince John tries to coronate himself. Marian is imperiled (though not, for once, her virtue—Hays Code again), and there’s the usual final assault on the castle and a duel between Robin and Sir Guy on the castle steps. Check out the long take, where, with Curtiz’s camera gliding back, the two men duel around a thick column and out of camera range but we continue to see their shadows clashing swords; then they come back on the opposite side of the column, foils still clashing. It’s dynamic and mythic, and surely influenced the light-sabre battles between Luke and Darth Vader in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Not many directors have used shadows better than Curtiz.
Question: Was the Norman-Saxon angle, absent from the Fairbanks version, a comment upon “master race” talk and events already eminating from Nazi Germany? The Crusades, on the other hand, so prominent in the Fairbanks version, are downplayed here, reflecting isolationist sentiment that was popular in the U.S. at the time. When a disguised Richard asks Robin how an outlaw who poaches the King’s deer can be a loyalist, for example, we get the following exchange:
Robin: Those I kill die from misusing the trust that Richard left with them. And the worst of these is Richard’s own brother.
Richard: Oh! Then you blame Prince John.
Robin: No, I blame Richard. His task was here at home defending his own people instead of diverting it to fight in foreign lands.
Richard: You condemn Holy Crusades?
Robin: Aye, I’ll condemn anything that leaves the task of holding England for Richard to outlaws like me.
In the end, with Sir Guy skewered and John and the Sheriff banished, King Richard commands Robin to take the hand of the Lady Marian; their friends all gather round to congratulate them but they slip out of the circle. It’s a replay of Robin slipping out from under a hogpile of Prince John’s men earlier in the movie. Here, he and Marian wind up by the door, where Robin, smiling, shouts: “May I obey all of your commands with equal pleasure, Sire!” Then they leave, the door closes, The End.
It’s what you’d call a Hollywood ending. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Movie Review: Robin Hood (1922)
WARNING: YOU’VE HAD NEARLY A CENTURY TO SEE IT, SO DON’T EVEN TALK TO ME ABOUT SPOILERS.
The title cards of silent films are fascinating for being overwrought—“All of England fell under the pall of John’s perfidy,” etc.—but one of the most startling in Douglas Fairbanks’ “Robin Hood” (1922) is rather straightforward:
From the mysterious depths of Sherwood Forest came whispers of the rise of a robber chief.
Why is this startling? Because it takes more than half the movie to appear.
Does any film genre age worse than action-adventure? You watch the quick-cut, world-traveling, big-explosion James Bond movies of today and then check out the first one, “Dr. No,” and it’s as if Bond has his feet propped up on a desk the entire movie. And that’s from 1962. Imagine an action-adventure movie 40 years before that. Before sound and color. When movies told us stories the way adults read to children: first the words (the title card), then the picture (two men dueling).
At the time, Fairbanks’ “Robin Hood” was the most expensive movie ever made ($1.4 million), included the biggest set ever assembled (Richard’s castle), and was the first film to have its premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. It also starred the biggest movie star of the era. Not only is the official title of the movie “Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood,” but when the man who will become Robin Hood is first introduced, the title card reminds us further who he is:
The Earl of Huntingdon,
Most Robin Hood stories begin with Robin returning from the Crusades, but this one begins the day before he and others leave for the Crusades. First there’s a jousting tournament: Huntingdon vs. Guy of Gibsourne (Paul Dickey). The latter cheats, loses, is bitter in defeat. Huntingdon, meanwhile, is wary of the prize: the veil of Maid Marian Fitzwalter (Enid Bennett). “Exempt me, sire,” Huntingdon declares, “I am afeared of women.” King Richard (Wallace Beery) laughs this off, Huntingdon receives his prize, then is chased by a multitude of women (like he’s a movie star), until he winds up in the moat.
Love between Robin and Marian blossoms that night. Initially Huntingdon is involved in rugged drinking and wrestling games with the men, and Richard objects:
Richard: Why hast thou no maid?
Huntingdon: When I return.
Richard: Nay, before you go, my good knight.
At that moment, as luck or chivalry would have it, Prince John (“sinister, dour, his heart inflamed with an unholy desire to succeed to Richard’s throne,” and played by Sam de Grasse) makes unwelcome moves toward Marian. Huntingdon intervenes. He wins the standoff but loses his heart to Marian. “I never knew a maid could—could be like you,” he says, holding both hands over his heart and descending to one knee. One wonders how long before that maneuver got corny.
The next morning, as the Christian soldiers move onward, Huntingdon leaves behind his squire, Little John (Alan Hale, who would play Little John twice more in the movies), whose job is to look after Marian. King Richard, less wise, leaves no one to look after Prince John, who, with the help of the High Sheriff of Nottingham (William Lowery), immediately sets about taxing and torturing. Marian, equally unwise, sends Little John off with news of Prince John’s perfidy, leaving herself unprotected. She winds up faking suicide to save her honor, while, in France, Huntingdon is suckered by Sir Guy, doubted by Richard, and he and Little John wind up in prison towers as the others head to Palestine. Little John subsequently frees them by bending prison bars with his bare hands; then they head back to England, where “sturdy men, rebellious to Prince John’s tyranny, sought refuge in Sherwood Forest... These lusty rebels only waited a leader to weld them into a band—an outlaw band destined to live immortal in legend and story.”
At this point, even for someone interested in cinematic history, the movie’s been a slog. I don’t know who needs Robin Hood more: the poor peasants of England or us. But then, an hour late, we get a fine introduction: 1) A boy brings coins and food to his starving parents; 2) the Sheriff of Nottingham is frozen in place by an arrow; 3) ditto “the Rich Man of Wakefield.” Finally Prince John orders a decree and a bag of gold to whomever can bring him this Robin Hood, but 4) an arrow pierces the throne and Robin Hood himself, in full gear, swoops down, takes the bag of gold, and leads the prince’s men on a merry chase through the castle. Fun!
When I first saw Douglas Fairbanks in a movie (“The Mark of Zorro” a few years ago), I was startled that he wasn’t Hollywood handsome—the way his son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., is Hollywood handsome. His face is somewhat fattish, without much of a jawline. But he is amazingly athletic and graceful. Even now, 88 years later, some of the stunts in “Robin Hood” are impressive, such as scaling down a castle corner by pressing himself against the adjoining walls. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jackie Chan got his falling-down-the-curtains stunt from Fairbanks, either.
Sherwood Forest looks cool, too, even by today’s standards. This was the age of the Hollywood extra, so dozens, maybe hundreds of Merry Men dot the landscape, while clumps of arrows stick out of nearly every tree. At one point one of the Merry Men shoots an arrow into a piece of wood tossed high into the air and dares Robin to match it; he does. He shoots two arrows into his piece of wood before it lands. That’s the great arrow stunt for this movie. No splitting arrows yet.
Sherwood Forest, back in the day of the cheap extra
The most aged aspect of the film, besides Huntingdon’s heart-holding, may be Robin’s “merriness.” He bounces. He prances. He skips like a little girl. It’s pretty funny to watch. Sometimes his merriness verges on the insane. He picks up a baby, who cries, and he laughs in its face. A reminder that recent portrayals of Robin Hood have toned down the one adjective associated with him. Wealth redistribution is serious business. Anyone anticipate Russell Crowe skipping?
Robin loses this merriness when he returns holy relics to the Priory of St. Catherine’s, where he discovers Marian alive. Alas, the Sheriff of Nottingham, listening outside the Priory’s walls, discovers this, too, then overhears a nun commenting on the mystery of the great outlaw. “Robin Hood to the poor, mayhap,” she says, “but he was born, Robert, Earl of Huntingdon.” This sets up our final act. Prince John seizes Marian while his men surround Sherwood. But the merry men—including a disguised King Richard—best the Prince’s men, while Robin takes the castle singlehandedly, kills Sir Guy, and holds off a dozen knights to protect Marian’s honor. For the sake of melodrama, he surrenders when he hears three blasts of a horn (signaling the three lions of King Richard), gives Marian a knife to kill herself if things get out of hand, and is tied to a stake before Prince John. He’s about to be diced by 40 arrows but Richard’s shield intervenes. The rest is mopping up. Prince John gets his comeuppance, but not in the bloody manner of today’s films. Instead Richard glowers at his brother, then picks him up and deposits him outside the castle. The drawbridge is raised and John looks around, scared. We can assume the rest: a slow death for a soft monarch or a quick death at the hands of an angry populace.
One tends to think of Robin Hood as a progressive (he robs from the rich and gives to the poor), but an argument can be made, particularly in this version, that he’s actually a religious conservative. A Richard loyalist, he fights for the Crusades and against excessive taxation. Only government men get robbed on camera. Meanwhile, both Robin and the film are devout. It begins where it begins because there’s no modern embarrassment yet over the Crusades. Far from it. “In far-off Palestine,” a title card reads halfway through, “Richard meets with victory and concludes a truce with the infidel,” after which we see Arabs marched through the streets while an English knight on horseback takes a laconic bite out of an apple. When conservative critics complain that modern Hollywood ignores traditional values, this is what they mean.
In classic pose: Showing good form and wearing a helluva long feather.
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