May 18, 2010

Sir Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood turns out not to be the expected proto-superhero summer blockbuster. Instead, it works best as an intricate political allegory about how the recently defeated New Labourites of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown betrayed England through their stratagems of invade the world, invite the world, and in hock to the world. 

It’s 1199, and King Richard the Lionheart has bankrupted England with his military adventuring in Muslim lands alongside other Western leaders. Richard’s brother and rival, King John, in a naïve alliance with rapacious foreigners, sets out to tax the freemen of England dry. The true Englishmen finally rise up, demand a great charter of rights from their ruler, and then fight the Continental invaders on the beaches and on the landing grounds.

In globalist Cool Britannia, this manner of blatant English patriotism is tolerated mostly just during the quadrennial World Cup soccer tournament (which begins in three weeks in South Africa). Yet, xenophobia, especially an irrational loathing of the French, has historically served the offshore islanders well. Paul Johnson wrote in A History of the English People:

“Isolation… is the most consistent single thread running through the tapestry of English history…[It is] the attitude of mind of a people who live on an island and wish to keep the sea as their frontier… It inhibits the systematic involvement with the land-mass which diminishes, and in the end destroys, the island privilege.”

Not surprisingly, the film has opened strongly in the U.K. American audiences, however, have been puzzled (not without reason) over why Robin Hood doesn”€™t have much to do with, well, Robin Hood.

Five screenwriters—including Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) and the brilliant Sir Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), who did emergency script-doctoring while the film was already in production—toiled to come up with something new to say in this 84th entry in‘s “Robin Hood” genre.  The only two things most people could remember about King John is that, in legend, he battled Robin Hood, and, in history, he was forced to formally concede the traditional rights of Englishmen. In combining the two stories, this Robin Hood subordinates fantasy to politics. This film is much more about the anti-tax unrest leading up to the Magna Carta in 1215 than it is about the merry men of Sherwood Forest. 

“One oddity of summer blockbusters is that they”€™ve gotten so expensive that they”€™re now mostly entrusted to people with long box office track records: in other words, old.  It’s a little alarming to imagine just how fat Crowe will be in Robin Hood 2 in 2012.”

As pretty boy King John, Oscar Isaac delivers an enjoyable parody of little Orlando Bloom’s disastrous star turn in Scott’s 2006 Crusades film Kingdom of Heaven, which ended with King Richard on his way to the Holy Land. Russell Crowe stars as a weary yeoman archer named Robin Longstride trudging back to England after a tour of duty in Palestine. Crowe’s Robin is a natural leader of men, determined and decent, like his General Maximus in Scott’s Gladiator. Unfortunately, he’s also utterly lacking the Cyrano de Bergerac-like panache associated with Robin Hood—at least since Errol Flynn’s 1938 performance. (Nor does any character notice that Robin possesses superhuman accuracy with bow and arrow.)

After he drives off a French ambush of King Richard’s retainer Sir Robert Loxley, Robin assumes the identity of the dying nobleman, just as Heath Ledger’s commoner did in Helgeland’s 2001 jousting movie A Knight’s Tale. (Helgeland’s favorite plot twist sounds ridiculous, but impostors were a recurrent feature of medieval life. For example, the reign of Henry VII in the late 15th Century was twice threatened by armies led by impostors pretending to be the murdered princes in the Tower, rightful heirs to the throne.)

In Nottingham, he meets Loxley’s widow Marion, played by Cate Blanchett. One oddity of summer blockbusters is that they”€™ve gotten so expensive that they”€™re now mostly entrusted to people with long box office track records: in other words, old. While Flynn was just 28 in 1938, Crowe recently turned 46 and Blanchett 41. (Sir Ridley and Sir Tom are both 72.) Similarly, the love interests in last week’s Iron Man 2 are 45-year-old Robert Downey Jr. and 37-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow. Because Robin Hood winds up an origins story prequel setting up a more traditionally swashbuckling sequel, it’s a little alarming to imagine just how old and fat Crowe will be in Robin Hood 2 in 2012. On the other hand, the two old campaigners, Crowe and Blanchett, generate rueful romantic chemistry together.

The outcome of all this high-priced talent is a movie overstuffed with characters, some of them preposterous. For example, Blanchett plays a butt-kicking Maid Marion who wields an English longbow as tall and slender as herself. In reality, no woman could draw the string of the longbows of that era.

Yet, Robin Hood is also a surprisingly intelligent action movie that often teeters, but somehow clings to that narrow path between being too complex and too dumbed down.


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