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.”