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Robbin’ the Hood: Give The People What They Want…

I’ve been thinking (dangerous, I know). Specifically about Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. I’m going to be honest with you, I was more than a little surprised at the way the film was put together. The film is, to borrow from the parlance of the times, an “origin” story. It’s about Robin, but before he was Robin. There is a single robbery over the entire course of the film, and it doesn’t really amount to much – it’s hardly the stuff of infamy. Instead, Robin is off doing battle with the French in a very manly, water-logged fashion. I tried to judge the film on its own merits (and I think my review is fair), but I’ve found myself thinking over the same question a lot since I saw it: Aren’t a lot of people going to be disappointed that there’s essentially little-to-none of the conventional tropes of a Robin Hood movie present?

Bringing the Hurt...

To give you an idea of the kind of conventional Robin Hood imagery, while keeping spoilers to a minimum: the Sheriff of Nottingham’s role consists of pretty much an extended cameo from the superb Matthew Macfadyn; the main badguy of the piece is a tall, bald Frenchman I’ve never heard of; Robin himself fires less than half-a-dozen arrows over the course of the film; and nobody lives in the forest (well, of the main cast, anyway). It’s very odd to see this in a movie with the title Robin Hood.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for a single moment insisting that Ridley Scott must dutifully tick off those clichés and tropes from a list when putting together his film. It is, after all, his film. And you could argue that the imagery I’ve suggested above is so associated with the character that there’s simply no way to serve it up to an audience again without boring them to sleep. Even more than that, though, surely – in this era of remakes and sequels – surely we should laud Scott for daring to do something original – and original it was. Next-to-nothing save the bare outline of his film and some of the characters can be deduced from the title, which is great. And, given my severe anticipation for Inception, you’d be forgiven for believing I’d welcome such unpredictability.

However, what makes it a Robin Hood film, then?

I’m not being smart or anything, I’m just posing a question. Scott has put together a swords-and-whatever-the-British-wear-instead-of-sandals epic, with big battle scenes and a plot spanning the British Channel. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that and (if not for a few missteps) it would make a great movie in its own right. However, how is this a Robin Hood film?

Of course, it features the characters we are all familiar with. King John and Richard the Lionheart, Maid Marion and Friar Tuck, Little (sorry, “perfectly proportioned”) John and Will Scarlett and even Robin himself. The movie deals with the issue of unfair taxation introduced in order to finance the Crusades, and explores the concept of social justice which is at the core of the mythos of the folk character. I’d even argue it does these relatively well.

However, it seems somewhat wrong to transition Robin from the man who was effectively a bandit hiding in some trees mugging passers-by into a man who effectively coded human rights (and years before the French as well), before single-handedly defending the crown against the French invaders. It just seems somehow inappropriate for the character to be engaged in international battles along the British coastline, while floating in and out of British royal politics. I wish I could articulate it better, but it just feels wrong.

Maid for each other?

You might argue – and you’d be entirely right – that it isn’t the job of a director to simply give the audience what they want or what they expect. it’s that sort of thinking that inevitably leads to the “lowest common denominator” approach to mainstream cinema we get so often. All those lifeless romantic comedies and action movies represent attempts to give “the people what they want”. It’s rare to find a masterpiece that simply panders like that – I’ll generalise and suggest that what makes a masterpiece is the fact that it challenges its audience.

However, I think there’s a difference between challenging audience expectations and simply ignoring them all together. The name Robin Hood has connotations and recognition. That was why it was chosen. It just seems rude to completely ignore the core ideas that come with that title. I’m not suggesting that the movie should have offered a fencing scene or more trick archery, but merely that it should have acknowledged the notion of Robin Hood just a bit more. I would have had no problems with a movie toying with the audience’s expectations. It’s akin to, for example, writing a Terminator movie that is actually about the blood diamond trade in Africa or a Sex in the City sequel which sees the four leads move to the country and discuss local politics.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the “birth of the legend” part of the film is that it seems to imply that everything that followed – every story we’ve heard, every other film we’ve seen, is just an after thought. It’s as though Ridley Scott is raising a middle finger to the original story, trying to upstage it. Here we see Robin take on an entire foreign nation state – holding up the occasional horse-and-cart just can’t compete. Hell, he could probably storm the royal palace, through King John from the roof while making out with Maid Marion and pulling off trick shots with his bow, but it would still seem like an afterthought compared to that time he drafted a human rights charter, united England and waged a war on France. It just feels like an insincere move on the part of the film. It doesn’t feel like the film intends to complement its source material, or to grant us insight into it. Instead it seems like the entire effort exists solely to upstage what we already know – as if it’s seeking to belittle the tale we all know and love. It certainly doesn’t feel “perfectly proportioned”.

In fairness, it’s wrong to single out the movie as an example of this, as it could equally apply to any film which takes a core concept and decides to do something completely different than what the audience expects. There are any number of crap-but-faithful adaptations, and who are we to argue that just because you use a name you should use everything associated with that name? I am not convinced. I still think it’s odd to take an established name like Robin Hood and turn it into a war story between France and Britain – perhaps even more odd than it was to play the admittedly lighthearted cop show Starsky & Hatch as a flatout spoof.

I don’t know, maybe I’m too old fashioned for my own good.

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7 Responses

  1. I know what you mean about it feeling not quite ‘proportioned’, it’s difficult to put into words but you’re right, it didn’t feel like everything they did they did for us. Not that they should, necessarily, but it’s nice to be acknowleged. Whether or not that’s a win for Ridley and Russell (like they care), it took half a star off my rating of the film.

  2. At the risk of descending into a summary of my university dissertation (on Robin Hood obviously), I am a little concerned by this interpretation.

    Robin Hood, fact or fiction, was a character that was created to make a commentary on the English political situation of the time. Over the decades he has appeared repeatedly to act as a hero for the people of England in various circumstances from depression to war etc. The robbing the rich to give to the poor element has some truth in it because the character, throughout most interpretations, sticks up for those without a voice.

    Robin Hood should ALWAYS be in England. Robin Hood was more than likely a yeoman i.e. an archer predominantly based in the woodlands. Robin Hood always had Little John by his side and Robin Hoods sole goal should be to represent English people. Unless these boxes are ticked off, it can’t be a Robin Hood film.

    You don’t even need a Maid Marion or Richard the Lionheart (especially since it was more than likely Edward) or a Sheriff of Nottingham (considering that most evidence points towards Barnsdale) but a Robin Hood film should not be concerned with politics outside England with fleeting references to traditional elements of Robin Hood stories.

    I know that there are very, very little Hollywood films that are true to the original poetry and that the stories about the character over the years have evolved into something very different from the original, but the fact is that Robin Hood was created by English people for English people and used when they needed him and a war with France should never come into it.

    Call me traditional but that’s just how I feel about it.

    • I think you may just have summed up what I was trying to say better than I was able to. Wow, neat – you should really give film criticism a try.

  3. whats wrong with something different when we go to the cinema? no wonder theres so many shite sequels and remakes out there
    get off ridley’s back.
    love RH or loathe it, you cant deny he tried to do something different with the story

    • Don’t get me wrong. I love something different. Inception, arguably the most original movie of the summer, is the one I’m most looking forward to. I think it’s easy to mistake my argument for “it’s different so I don’t like it”, but it’s more “it’s not what it said it was, isn’t that a little bit disingenuous?”

  4. Cheers Darren! I’m just a complete Robin Hood geek *red*

    Re: Ross McG – There is trying something different and then there is trying something new altogether. There are certain elements about Robin Hood that you CAN’T change otherwise it is not a Robin Hood film. That’s like having a Western set in India or a film about Sherlock Holmes in which he doesn’t solve crimes.

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