By Dr. Craig D. Reid
As a kid growing up in England, I’d hear that the kids in America would often play cowboys and Indians; cowboys being the good guys and Indians being the bad guys, which of course really was a skewered teaching tool of good vs. evil, and impressed upon the children the “importance” of playing with guns. However, in England, we grew up playing knights of the roundtable and humming the words from our favorite 143 episode TV show’s opening theme The Adventures of Robin Hood (1960), starring Richard Greene. “Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the Glen. Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men, robs from the rich, gives to the poor. Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood.” Of course, if you’re a fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, you’ve heard the song when they parodied it on the show (more on this later).
With makeshift bows and arrows made from twigs and twine, I learned how to shoot a bow and arrow, and there was never a question, including society wise, as to who was good and who was bad. Traditionally it is Robin Hood and his Merry Men, yet in the Ridley Scott directed, Russell Crowe starring Robin Hood, the film takes the old narrative ideas and twists them around. For example, Hood’s Merry Men are not so much as merry as they are having a good time emerging into their new alter egos as pseudo-knights of the realm under the leadership of a man named Robin Longstride (Crowe) posing as the Earl of Loxley who eventually finds that the root of his flim-flam energy actually attends more to reality than chicanery.
When the publicity machine of Robin Hood requested my opinions about the first Robin Hood trailer, months before it was showed to the general public, I shared that I was not impressed and the visual look of the trailer looked like a watered down version of Michael Mann’s well crafted and evenly paced film Last of the Mohicans (1992). So prior to attended a screening of Robin Hood, I was already biased toward expecting a poor film trying to relive a classic tale. Furthermore, being a former fight choreographer in Chinese and Hollywood movies, I thought the mayhem action revealed on the trailer was disjointed and trying to look like something it was not…a movie featuring great action set pieces that tied together an enduring story with power and emotion. But at the end of the day, the action was not necessary to define the story because it is ultimately the story that sells the film.
However, although parts of the action looked just plain wrong, such as the landing boats used by the invading French fleet as they approached English soil, and the swordfights merely being clips of period piece Englishmen swinging swords like baseball players swinging baseball bats, to Scott’s credit, he resisted using highly stylized sword choreography. By keeping the fights simple and the shot selection casual (no tricky camera angles or adjusting the camera speeds to make the fights look frenetically paced), the action in the film is honest and true, void of superficiality and suspensions of disbelief. Jolly good Ridley.
Based on a true legend, Robin Hood is a story retold so often that this folklore hero has become an integral part of English culture, where the archetype of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor is a heroic tale against the unjust. This updated “the man-the myth” rendition does not rehash the usual Robin Hood lore but instead endeavors to expound on Hood’s origins as we are introduced to archer Robin Longstride being an infantryman in the ranks of King Richard’s army as it returns from the Third Crusade in the Holy Land. Richard, in a bid to reclaim monies paid to the French king who held him hostage as he returned from his Crusade, is laying siege to a French castle. As history records, during the siege Richard suffered a neck wound from an arrow and died soon thereafter. This shattered his mother, Eleanor, and resulted in the crown being passed along to his younger brother Prince John.
With the death of Richard the Lionhearted, Robin, who has suffered a restless childhood overseas, seizes an opportunity to return to his native England for the first time since he was five. After he lands on its shore, Robin discovers a nation crippled by poverty and robbed of its men by Richard’s reckless bid to fund his wars. The specter of French invasion looms on the horizon, and Richard’s incompetent brother is content to let his people suffer while he fills his coffers.
Maid Marian, beautifully portrayed by Cate Blanchett, is a steadfast gutsy yet feminine lady taking care of her waning father, played by the engaging Max Von Sydow (who dominates each scene he’s in), who is forced to engage in a subterfuge of the heart in order to save her family’s lands and protect the plebeians who reside on it. Robin arrives amidst John’s heavy taxation, where citizens are being targeted to pay beyond their means and given little in food, clothing and shelter. Robin’s defiance of the ruling class inspires his countrymen to take charge of their destiny and wins the heart of Marian. Yet as Hood says, “Something is a foot.”
Which comes to a duo of interesting Ridley Scott-isms that may be overlooked by the average viewer, but the humor is intentional, yet sublime. It’s no coincidence that the villain in Robin Hood, Godfrey, and the villain, Lord Blackwood, in the recent Robert Downey Jr. starring Sherlock Holmes (2009) are both portrayed by Mark Strong. Thus when Hood and Holmes both say, “Something is a foot,” each character is referring to the evil doings of the villains in each film both played by Strong. In all my years reading Robin Hood books and comics, and watching umpteen films and TV shows, Hood has never said, “Something is a foot,” which is of course a classic Holmes quote. It is Scott’s nod to Strong’s cinematic appearances in both films.
Furthermore, as previously mentioned, Monty Python parodied in song and story the aforementioned The Adventures of Robin Hood (1960) TV show in a 1972 episode about a man named Dennis Moore who steals lupins (a kind of flower) from the rich and gives them to the poor. Scott couldn’t resist counter-parodying the Python parallel as an ominous knight in the woods grunts out to Robin and his men, “None shall pass.” Does it ring a bell? If it does, then “Good, knight, ding, ding, ding…5, 4, 3, 2, 1.”