As of Friday, May 28th, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood had made almost 200 million dollars world wide, which seems like a whole lot of coin, but the earnings don’t yet equal what the film cost to make (estimates range from 155 to 237 million). At the same time Robin Hood has been roundly trounced by most professional film reviewers. Entertainment Weekly, which I find to be surprisingly trustworthy, gave the film a C-, and A.O. Scott at The New York Times pronounced the film drearily un-merry.
The film opens with a gnarly battle scene, in which Russell Crowe plays a low-ranked soldier, Robin Longstride, in the post-Crusade army of King Richard the Lionheart. The English are attacking a French castle, igniting giant sacks of oil to set fire to the castle doors. In return, the attackers get boiling oil poured down on them through slats in the castle towers. During this battle Richard the Lionheart is mortally wounded.
The film then veers back and forth between palace intrigue, in which Richard’s little brother, John (who is petty, greedy and vindictive), succeeds his older brother as king, and the story of Robin Longstride, who sets out for Loxley, England, on a quest to return the sword of a slain knight. In a series of unlikely, yet compelling events, Robin Longstride poses as the slain knight Robert Loxley and pretends to be married to (old) Maid Marion, who is played with considerable verve by Cate Blanchett. In Loxley, Robin discovers that his own dead father was a talented stone mason who was executed for standing up for the rights of the people of England. Robin takes on his father’s cause and helps the people of Loxley outwit the government’s marauding tax collectors who are plundering what they cannot legally collect to fill the coffers of King John.
The film is meant to explain the origins of Robin Hood: where did he come from, and why did he assemble a team of merry men to rob noblemen traveling through the forest in order to distribute their wealth to the less fortunate? In Ridley’s tale, Robin’s origins are decidedly working class. He is the son of a stone mason and is poorly paid as a member of the King’s army. He is class conscious, too, as when he explains to his buddies why they must leave the army after the King’s death: “If you thought it was hard getting wages from him when he was alive, try getting wages from a dead king.” Cate Blanchett points out that Robin Hood reflects Ridley’s own working-class background: “He’s a working-class guy from the North, so he’s always had a healthy disrespect for authority, and he feeds that into this.”
On the other hand, if we are watching Robin Hood from an American perspective, where Presidential authority is embodied by an African-American Democrat, anti-authoritarianism can sound downright conservative. As A.O. Scott and other reviewers have noted, there is a whiff of Tea Party populism in Robin’s rhetoric. He crusades against the increased taxes of King John, and he also defends the right to bear arms: “If it’s illegal for a man to fend for himself, how can he be a man of his own right?” But Robin Hood’s more general cause is that of good old fashioned Libertas: “In tyranny lies only failure. Empower every man and you will gain strength.”
Perhaps the most interesting choice Ridley made was to insert Robin Hood’s origins into the political intrigue of Medieval England. Richard the Lionheart really did lead crusades in the Holy Land in the late 1100s; as part of this crusade he bore responsibility for an atrocious massacre of Muslims at Acre (pronounced Ak-ko, a beautiful city still standing on what today is Israel’s Mediterranean coast). His successor, King John, was a petty, tyrannical King, nicknamed “softsword” because of his general lack of prowess in battle. According to one source, his government’s policies “irrevocably estranged the lower classes.”
And thus the real message of this century’s Robin Hood may have as much to do with our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as is does with anti-tax populism or economic redistribution. The screenplay was written by Brian Helgeland, who also wrote last year’s fast paced anti-war thriller, Greenzone. This might explain why Robin, in response to a question from King Richard the Lionhart about the righteousness of the Crusades, recounts with considerably sadness how he felt as he looked into the imploring eyes of a Muslim woman before she was killed.
The myth of Robin Hood is one of the most indelible myths in Anglophone culture; ballads that first referenced the famed bandit appeared in Medieval England as early as 1429. Perhaps Ridley’s film is evidence that Robin Hood is one of the most plastic myths as well. In one film, Ridley has yoked the Robin Hood legend to a muddled blend of populism, socialism, peace activism, and strident feminism. Early in the story, for example, Marion tells Robin: “I sleep with a dagger. If you so move to touch me, I will sever your manhood.” Later she kicks some serious butt on the battlefield.
If Ridley’s version of the story is a bit dreary at times, and outrageously ahistorical at others, I’m OK with that. Our own moment is a bit dreary as well. We’re fighting two wars, struggling with how to restore dignity to labor, and fighting against a right-wing populism that is wrongly directed at the dwindling rights of those who have the least. When Robin Hood tells the people of England to “Rise and Rise Again until the Lambs Become Lions,” I hear strains of that old Civil Rights hymn, “We Shall Overcome.” And I hope, fervently, that we will.
Kathy M. Newman
Kathy M. Newman is professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. She was involved in the effort to unionize Teaching Assistants at Yale University in the 1990s and she is currently finishing a book, Blacklisted and Bluecollared: How Americans Saw Class in the 1950s.