Historians reckon Robin Hood is a 16th century story. At least, the guy we know: who robs from the rich, gives to the poor, romances Maid Marion and kills bad people with a bow and arrow. I imagine Robin was pretty appealing to the average 16th century peasant…stuck in his home village, married to his homely cousin, unsure what Shakespeare was on about, or whether he was Protestant or Catholic that week. Then, as now, Robin Hood offered escapism. Our 16th century guy wasn’t bothered if Robin was real, or whether Robin spoke with a regional accent; he wanted a peasant to get one over on the rich boys. Could someone explain this to Ridley Scott?
In the new Robin Hood movie, Robin is firmly rooted in the grim, muddy, short-lived realities of the 12th century (the appropriately named “Dark Ages”). He looks like he’s eaten thatch. His beard is unkempt. He thinks Richard the Lionheart is an asshole. (The king dies, and Robin looks bored.) His only joy in life is thunking arrows into people’s necks. He, and his archer buddies, have been busy killing Palestinians for ten years, now Robin wants to go home. One day, he swaps identities with a knight escorting the king’s crown. He takes the crown to ye olde London. But the new king is (also) an asshole. Dourly, Robin decides to fight, and love, and never, never, to laugh.
Watching this movie is like hugging Sherwood Forest: it’s hard. Everyone in it is so po-faced, so gritty, so realistic…true adventure becomes impossible. Does Ridley Scott honestly think this tale has endured because it depicts a disillusioned war veteran ad-libbing the Magna Carta? This is a story about a guy who lives in the forest, with his mates. He hates income tax, loves posh girls, and stays out most nights, thieving. Robin Hood’s life is a bachelor party (silly costumes included). You can criticize Kevin Costner all you want, but he understood the basic attraction of the premise: Robin Hood does bad things for noble reasons; authority (in the shape of the nefarious Sheriff of Nottingham) is revealed as corrupt; the pretty rich girl prefers the poor boy; and everyone has a damn good time.
Russell Crowe should not have bothered trying to do an accent. He’s all over the place. Half the time, you can’t tell if Robin is Irish, or from Liverpool. Any sentence longer than three words takes a linguistic tour round Britain. And he’s so dour! Is someone stealing arrows from Robin’s quiver? He looks about as merry as a church massacre. This is a man who’d live in a forest because he finds doors ostentatious. His romance with Maid Marion seems to soften him a bit, but he still seems best suited to the muck and suffering of the battlefield. If there hadn’t been a Crusade, you figure he’d have invented one. This Robin needs anguish the way a tree needs sap.
I suppose when the guy from The Seventh Seal is your adoptive father, you’re bound to feel sombre. Casting Max von Sydow is typical of Robin Hood’s anti-panto approach (NB. For non-British readers, “panto” here refers to “pantomime”, wherein the Robin Hood story is acted out like an episode of The Benny Hill Show, and a woman plays the lead role). It’s like Russell Crowe wanted to make the Ingmar Bergman version of Robin Hood, with a dead knight on a beach, and no faith in God’s benevolence. Nottingham is dank with moral rot, and even Friar Tuck isn’t allowed to fall over for comic relief. Where’s all the derring-do? Where’s the movie’s sense of fun?
People forget that there was another version of Robin Hood the year Prince of Thieves came out. The forgotten version starred Patrick Bergin as Robin Hood, and it was dour and realistic, and no-one gave a crap about it. The reason everyone plumped for Prince of Thieves (besides the fact we were all – admit it – Bryan Adams maniacs back then) was that Prince of Thieves offered you a good time. It was an unabashed adventure story, a movie-movie. Kevin Costner didn’t bother with an English accent. Alan Rickman didn’t bother with realism. And the story was better for their lack of earnestness. If Robin Hood can’t offer escapism, we’ve all been robbed.