Whenever I think of Robin Hood, one story comes to mind. No, it’s not Kevin Costner’s take on the legendary folk hero, nor is it Mel Brooks’ depiction of his merry men in tights. I’m reminded of a notorious wedding disaster that happened to a friend of a friend of a relative of mine (or something like that). The unlucky bride and groom went to the church a couple of weeks before their nuptials to meet with the octogenarian organ player. They made a small request: instead of having a traditional wedding march, could she instead play Bryan Adams’ love theme from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as the bride walked down the aisle? “Easy enough,” the organ player insisted. And so came the wedding day. As the bridal party all made their way to the altar, there was nothing left but for the blushing bride to march down to her groom. As she waited for the soothing Canadian strains of Adams’ “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)”, the organ player instead kicked into high gear, singing “Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen. Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men…”
At no point in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood does Russell Crowe burst into a rousing rendition of this classic theme (despite his penchant for public acts of musicianship). Scott’s adaptation isn’t about balladeering, or wisecracking antics, or even acts of bravery. It’s about separating the legend from the man; it’s about bringing Robin of the Hood out of the stratosphere of adulation and presenting him as a regular, human man. In fact, this Robin Hood only steals from the rich to give to the poor on one measly occasion, spending the rest of his time just being a friendly dude. Yes, Ridley Scott has successfully knocked Robin Hood out of his untouchable perch of folk heroism and made him seem like a real person. But at what price? Is it not the job of folk heroes to remain just that? To remain untouchable and have their valiant tales seem like the stuff of myth? Even after Scott’s take on the subject matter, it seems as if the ‘wedding march’ disaster will remain my favourite Robin Hood tale.
Russell Crowe gets his ‘Maximus’ on once again in Robin Hood, playing the eponymous hero as you would pretty much expect him to. Of course, he’s not yet a ‘hood’ when the film begins. He’s simply Robin Longstride, an archer in the crusading army of King Richard (Danny Huston). Consider this his origin story. After Richard is killed in the heat of battle, Robin and a couple of hangers-on decide to get the hell out of dodge. Longstride hitches a ride back to England – posing as the deceased Sir Robin of Loxley – to deliver the late king’s crown to the sniveling heir the throne John (a scene chewing Oscar Isaac). Once back in England, Robin and his merry men head to Nottingham, home of the real Robin of Loxley, to inform Loxley’s wife Marion (Cate Blanchett) and father Walter (Max Von Sydow) of his passing.
“Uhh, isn’t he supposed to steal from the rich and give to the poor at some point?” As you may have noticed, there is a lot of exposition that the film has to get through before it can establish Robin as a hero of the working class. I haven’t even mentioned the films many, many villains yet. You have the taxation-happy King John, whose outrageous demands almost tear his nation apart. Then there is King John’s hired goon Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong – playing his billionth villain in only 18 months), who is in cahoots with the French King Philip, himself eager to invade England. Oh, and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Remember him? Robin is barely aware of half of the villains in this film. He spends the majority of the film wooing the spunky Maid Marion, leaving little time for any good vs. evil battles (or even any defending-of-the-working-class; the very reason for his lasting idolatry).
Scott has a hard time juggling the various plot strands and seemingly infinite number of characters. Brian Helgeland’s script (based on Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris’ far different original draft) is impressive in its attention to period detail, but too often feels as if he is simply name checking as many notable people and places as possible in under two hours. By sacrificing the joyous, ballad-inspiring heroics of Robin Hood, we are left with a slavish biopic of a man who may not have even ever existed. Surely the point of folklore is to contribute to the ever-growing strand of tales, not to stifle the imagination and attempt a definitive, all-encompassing version.
Thankfully, Scott is able to fall back on his more than capable cast, which also includes William Hurt and Kevin Durand. And as far as gorgeous period pieces go, this might well be the new benchmark. The film is dazzling to behold; so authentic you can practically smell the mead (or alternatively, the horrendous odour of dental disease). Also, the film’s final action sequence is stirring enough to make up for the film’s languid second act. Ridley Scott’s more recent projects may not reach the heights of his early, iconic work, but the man knows how to make a solid film. Robin Hood is just that – solid, if unremarkable. Whether that’s enough for the tale of history’s most beloved scoundrel, I’ll leave up to you to decide.