Any doubt of American hegemony over world cinema need only look this week to the Cannes Film Festival in France, where the opening-night selection was Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. Why? Well, this Robin Hood isn’t about robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Rather, it’s a two-and-a-half-hour epic about sticking it to the French.
Cannes’ masochism is understandable, given the dollars behind this Universal Studios release. Besides, it’s “history,” after all, starring Russell “Gladiator” Crowe as Robin Hood. Director Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (A Knight’s Tale) choose not to re-“print the legend,” despite the presence of Marion (Cate Blanchett), the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen), Friar Tuck (Mark Addy), Little John (Kevin Durand), and Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes). Instead, the tack is “Robin Hood Begins” (or “Robin Hood Royale”), with the story leading up to the ace archer’s days at odds with King John (Oscar Isaacs).
Until the closing moments, Robin mostly turns out to be a uniter, not a divider, using goodly speech to stave off medieval civil war and band brothers to face the common enemy of French invaders. The story closely follows the Braveheart model, alternating between ye olde publick struggle of poor, overtaxed civilians (most prominently the widowed Marion Loxley and her father, a retired knight played by Max von Sydow) and palace intrigue involving the newly ascendant King John, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Eileen Atkins), influential soldier-statesman William Marshal (William Hurt), and the like.
At first Robin and his small gang are runaway Crusaders who, on their return to England, disguise themselves as knights and deliver the crown along with the news of the death of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston). To protect the Loxleys from the seizure of their lands, Robin agrees to stand in as Marion’s late husband. The pair slowly warm to each other, especially after Robin goes on his incipient mission of armed robbery, recovering much needed grain from overzealous taxmen.
The medieval legend of Robin Hood has often been in transition over the centuries, with no version a definitive one, but the tale has always been essentially romantic escapism. The new film finds Robin playing at politics on the way to charging into epic broadsword-clanging battle. He’s a guy who makes a habit of speaking truth to power, telling kings off to their faces. But he takes no joy in it (sorry, Errol Flynn), and neither does Scott.
What will sink “Robin Hood” as popular entertainment is that Helgeland has obviously hijacked the brand in an attempt to dramatize a bit of medieval history. What sinks Helgeland is that he has to keep coming back to Robin, a walking fiction that keeps demanding to be at the center of it all. Impressive recreations of period locations and dress contribute to the dirty and mostly grim tone, but somehow it’s all either too tasteful to be interesting or, worse, faintly silly, as with a shadowy motif of forest-dwelling orphan boys, the revelation that Robin’s long-gone dad essentially wrote the Magna Carta, or the sight of Marion suiting up in chain mail. The result is a muddled compromise that likely won’t please history buffs, Robin Hood aficionados, or casual summer-movie viewers.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]