The critics are unanimous. Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is a bad bad bad film. Converted into martini glasses, reviewers’ impressions show as empty or upside down. And what do reviews actually say? The hero is stout. The battles have a stodgy obligatory feel. The plot is contorted. The history is distorted. The cinematography is a sepia disaster—and no one is merry. I went to see it anyway. I’m a Robin Hood junkie.
The Right ContextLittle by little, as I watched this Robin Hood, I found myself thinking of the stubborn insurgencies that wrack our own world and how they began, with injustice. Read about the Maoists in India, for example. Think about Afghanistan. Or Nepal. Or the pirates in the Niger delta. Or about Aceh before the Indonesian government came to its senses. And so on. Which isn’t to say that justified rebellion can’t, in turn, morph into even worse ugliness, but that’s another story, another film.
Gradually I realized that we shouldn’t be judging this film by the ho hum genre criteria of standard summer entertainment. Battles there may be, but it isn’t an action film. It’s not about salvation through robotic or human superheroes. It’s not a sexploitative, skin-rich love story or a male-bonding buddy film–too bad for the guys who play Little John, et. al. Nor is it a hilarious send up like Men in Tights, as if there’s no way to play the story straight (a contention of some critics).
The Past as PresentConclusion: medieval trappings notwithstanding, this Robin Hood is a full blown critique of the world we live in today—and this Robin Hood gets it right. It’s hard for an ordinary honest man and/or woman to get ahead, or even to tread water, in a world of pitiless crooks masquerading as economic and political leaders.
One of Robin Hood’s critics complains about the dirt-smeared, rag-wearing urchins who scuttle through the twilight in shadowy packs to burn and pillage, then melt uncatchably back into the forest. Not enough is done with these urchins, he carps. Wrong. They perfectly symbolize the vague fears and chafing discontents, the unsatisfied hungers, the corrosive subliminal malaise, of a sick society gnawing upon itself.
Things are also out of balance at the top of the social pyramid, among the barons, whose powers are being usurped by the ruthless centralization of a dimwit king with an empty treasury. Speak about kleptocracy! Drought or not, even the church is on the take; if peasants starve and the minor gentry lose their land, so what? Let them eat communion wafers. Ultimately, a bankrupt, divided England itself is up for grabs. The slimy oyster-eating French are on the prowl.
Law vs. Divine Right
At this point, a note on history: it’s been condensed, manipulated, toyed with. How else to make a film of the required length? But the essence survives: King Richard the Lionhearted dies in France. He is succeeded on the English throne by his brother John. John’s vicious attempts to centralize power lead to a revolt by his barons who, in return for loyally helping him defeat an impending French invasion, have forced him to sign a document that will establish the rudiments of the rule of law and an independent judiciary in England. In the film version, King John tears up the document once the French are driven into the sea. The Church, he says, recognizes the divine right of kings to do what they want on earth.
Foolish idealist that he is, Robin of Locksley—I have no space here for the somewhat hokey but dramatically functional new-fashioned back story he gets in this film—speaks out, before John and the barons, on behalf of this new vision of limited government. Result: he's outlawed as a threat to John's regime. Escaping, he becomes the elusive, forest-dwelling Robin Hood—and those shadowy urchins find in him a protector (yeah, a little treacly here) and a leader for the long struggle ahead.
Eventually, as we know, English royalty is reduced to lap dog status, but history provides us with an important early stage: the real King John was indeed forced to sign the real Magna Carta in 1215. No ruler since has succeeded in abrogating this pesky document, although its principles were badly bruised in the United States under the Bush 43 administration. (Another John was one of the culprits here. That’s John Yoo, the Bush administration legal toady who tried to return jurisprudence to the benighted pre-1215 period of unchecked autocracy. Watch him carefully. He’s still on the loose.)
When Institutions Betray TrustSo what else is happening in Scott's medieval England that’s also happening today? Let’s start with poor leadership, absolute or otherwise. The usually lionized Richard comes in for serious criticism in this Robin Hood: his expensive crusades and wars have bankrupted the kingdom. Tax revolts ensue when the next monarch attempts to refill the treasury by confiscatory methods, and disaffection grows when a predatory state is unable or unwilling to provide security for property or person. Polls tell us that American have little confidence in any branch of government today. They don't feel safe. Unemployment is high. Standards of living are falling. What is a disheartened citizen to do, especially if faith in the fairness of the electoral process has also been undermined? Join an angry-as-hell Tea Party, perhaps, until an intelligent approach to reform arises? Maybe we should be glad we've only got to the Tea Party stage, though there are some pretty scary people with guns out there. The Second Amendment, you know. They talk of rebellion and secession. They train, too. Islamists aren't our only worry.
Meanwhile, Richard’s savage rampaging across France and John's campaign against the northern barons bring to mind the disproportionate violence of some American military units as they break into houses and terrorize innocent civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan. On a less violent level, the privacy of American citizens has been threatened by warrantless wiretapping in breach of the ancient belief that a person’s home is his or her castle. Absolute monarchs and those who rule by terror always run very effective internal surveillance operations. John certainly did.
And so on. In short, I was totally fascinated once I realized that I was watching a critique of our own era.
As to the Love Story
And now a word for the stars as lovers and allies. No, Kate Blanchett is not conventionally beautiful. Her mouth is much too wide, her nose is too big, and she’s too skinny to be a sex pot. But she has fire and flair, which make her beautiful in a far more vital way. Those qualities come through as she brings to life a resourceful woman who is about to lose everything, land and title, when her father-in-law is murdered. Why is she in such a precarious position? Women cannot inherit land in medieval England. (They couldn’t in Jane Austin’s day either.) A widow without a son (or a rich father) has no future. So why shouldn’t she fight the French (Joan of Arc fought the English) and take to the woods instead of going to a nunnery? As for Russell Crowe, gravity is at work on his face and the rest of him is not centerfold material, but those eyes! When they smile, nothing else matters. So we have here a convincingly played, grown up love story that isn’t wrecked by inappropriate decolletage or repeated, excruciatingly long, rumpled sheet scenes for sex-starved adolescents.Conclusion: see Robin Hood. If you are a grown up and don’t go with irrelevant expectations, you might enjoy it.