Today’s post is brought to you by Clint Alley, a digital archivist, history teacher, genealogist, catfish enthusiast, and author of the maternally-acclaimed blog Clint Thoughts.
When I was seven, my Aunt Pam gave a copy of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to my brother and me for Christmas. From that moment on, I have been hooked on the legend of Robin Hood. The story of Robin Hood embodies every boy’s dream life: living wild in the woods, hiding out in tree houses, drinking from creeks, fighting bad guys, and always proving to be the best shot around.
Despite what the critics say (and how disturbingly midwestern Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood sounded), Prince of Thieves has always been and remains one of my favorite movies. That movie did a lot to pique my interest in history at a young age, and I daresay it may have even fostered my preoccupation with guerrilla warfare. Two decades and two history degrees later, I found myself drawn to see Hollywood’s newest version of the ancient tale. Here’s what I thought.
Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s latest collaboration, Robin Hood, is a tale told in true Scott fashion. The scenery and costumes are breathtaking, displaying the meticulous attention to detail that has come to define Scott’s historical films. The weapons and armor, homes and churches, even the methods of farming used in the film appear to be true-to-form for early-thirteenth-century England. But, like Gladiator andKingdom of Heaven, Scott still does not seem interested in accurately portraying what the of the ancient people in his films really would have thought.
What Made Me Merry
I liked that the backdrop for the film was, from beginning to end, very rugged. Even in scenes showing how the nobility of the time lived, things are still grimy and dirty; people are grimy and dirty are always surrounded by animals, floors are covered with reeds, baths are taken only on special occasions, and everything revolves around the planting and harvesting of crops. Before I saw the film, I read that the writer’s strike had allowed the set of the movie to spend about a year growing into the natural surroundings, giving it that overgrown appearance that lends itself very nicely to portrayals of people living off the land. Those months were worth the wait as far as scenery goes.
Likewise, the presence of music–very catchy, earthy, foot-stomping music–permeated the film. As a fitting homage to the medieval minstrels who spread the first tales of Robin Hood, song and dance are never more than a few scenes away throughout the movie. And far from the sophisticated, operatic, high-brow poetry that usually passes as the songs of minstrels in other medieval films, the music of the minstrels inRobin Hood is rowdy, robust, and folksy. It is more akin to modern country or bluegrass music than the stuffy classical music of other Hollywood minstrels, as well it should; it only makes sense that the music of the common people would have lent itself more easily to dancing and partying than to quiet reflection and thoughts of gallantry, as is so often seen in Robin Hood movies.
Another thing I liked about Robin Hood was its realistic portrayal of historical figures. In most retellings of the legend of Robin Hood, King Richard is shown as a fair and jolly monarch, a man whose every move was dictated by chivalry and piety; a good-looking, tall man with a kingly bearing and an irresistible good humor. While most historians agree that Richard was, indeed, a tall, muscular man who exuded power, he was by no means the very picture of chivalry or fair-play. The character of Richard in Robin Hood (played by Danny Huston, also known as Colonel William Stryker of X Men Origins: Wolverine fame), is a rough bear of a man who loves to fight and who evokes as much fear from his army as he does respect. And he is by no means a champion of righteousness. In addition to the audience learning of Richard’s historical massacre of women and children in the Holy Land, at one point Richard claims to admire Robin’s honesty, but still punishes him for saying defamatory things about the Third Crusade.
Following the conventional Robin Hood storyline, King John (played by Oscar Isaac, who is also remembered for his role as Joseph in 2006’sNativity Story) is portrayed as childish, dishonest, foolish, and generally unequipped to lead. History will show that John was, indeed, dishonest and that he made some very costly poor decisions. But one part of history that many Robin Hood aficionados will often overlook in their zeal to make John the quintessential villain is the state of the kingdom he inherited, a point addressed very subtly in the film. Much ado is always made about John’s excessive taxation and cruel enforcement of the law. But it was Richard who had taxed his English possessions to the brink to fund ten years of constant war, leaving his realm in a state of financial distress many years before John took the throne. When Richard willed his kingdom to John at his death in 1199, he was leaving behind a region already in turmoil. One of John’s biggest mistakes was to continue taxing his overburdened subjects to pay for his less-popular and ill-fated adventures both at home and abroad. This crucial link to Richard’s burdens on his kingdom is mentioned at least once in the film when a nobleman refuses to pay John’s taxes based on the fact that he has already given everything he could to Richard.
I also liked that Robin Hood and his men are hardened combat veterans, and very skilled in the ways of guerrilla warfare, as they no doubt would have been in real life at the time. They carry out forest ambushes with ease and conduct themselves just as naturally on the battlefield as they do in the tavern, as a generation of men who share the common bond of a decade at war would have done. And, fitting this theme of a violent, unstable world, I appreciate that Robin Hood explained what it really meant to be declared an outlaw. Being declared an outlaw in Robin Hood’s day was one of the harshest sentences a criminal could receive. Outlawed persons legally lost his or her status as a human being, and could be killed on sight by anyone. It was a punishment meant to dehumanize criminals, stripping them of every legal protection and making them akin to wolves or other predators. Surprisingly, this form of punishment continued to live on in many British possessions until well into the 20th century. (Ned Kelly, the famous Australian bandit, was declared an outlaw after this fashion). Small details like this gave the film an air of realism.
And the aerial view of London from the east was further proof that the aesthetics of the movie were very well-researched. The Tower is painted white, with operational river gates, and St. Paul’s Cathedral can be seen in all of its Gothic glory in the background.
What Vexed Me
However, not every aspect of the film makes quite as much sense as its scenery and music. Many complex historical issues are boiled down to very basic, sometimes anachronistic, elements. Real events are taken out of sequence. Twenty-first century ideas escape from thirteenth-century lips. Nationalism sits side-by-side with loyalty to the king in a time when nations were the king, and men identified themselves by whom they served rather than by where they were born.
As we saw in the previously-mentioned Scott films, Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, the main characters of Robin Hood claim to fight for the equality of all men, a belief system that Robin Hood’s deceased father has encoded into an unnamed charter which many viewers will assume is the Magna Carta, although further research led me to the conclusion that the charter is actually an earlier, more obscure document known as the Forest Charter.
Robin espouses ideas of personal liberty and constitutional freedom that are very familiar to a twenty-first century audience, but which, by all rights, did not exist in England in the early 1200s. Indeed, one of the most difficult parts of the entire film to swallow is the fact that Scott’s Robin Hood becomes an outlaw more for his political philosophy than for robbing from the rich to give to the poor.
Similarly, while Cate Blanchett delivers a fine performance as a very headstrong, independent Maid Marian, (and would we expect any less from a Cate Blanchett character?) I was disappointed that Scott fell for the temptation to turn Marian into the medieval housewife-turned-warrior figure that I suspected she would be from the previews. I found nothing wrong with Marian being portrayed as headstrong or independent. Her character was refreshingly self-reliant, as a woman in her situation (with a husband away at war for a decade, a blind father-in-law to care for, and a manor-farm to operate) would have had to be. She is constantly working, she stands up to corrupt church officials and she maims would-be rapists in fine fashion. The audience rightly cheers her on as she does what needs to be done to keep things running in her dangerous, uncertain world. But I felt that the tough-woman persona was taken too far when Marian came riding to the battlefield in one scene wearing full armor, ready to do combat with the enemies of the king. Here’s why:
Anyone–man or woman– who had never experienced the years of training required for fighting from horseback in full armor as Marian is shown doing, could expect to be very ineffective on a thirteenth-century battlefield–just as effective as an average American would be behind the controls of a Stealth Bomber today. Since most of the weapons of war at that time relied on great physical force to bash, crush, gouge, and impale, incredible strength–the result of years of intense training–was required of knights and their fighting men. Most historians agree that the warriors of that time were probably built like professional athletes. Although she was, indeed, a no-nonsense, no-holds-barred medieval woman, without the necessary training and preparation for war, Marian would not have had what it took to simply gallop onto the battlefield and expect to survive among hundreds of trained enemy fighting men.
The most blatantly wrong of all the film’s inaccuracies, however, was the scene showing the public cremation of a nobleman on a funeral pyre. In the early thirteenth century it would have been unthinkable to set fire to a Christian body in a public ceremony. The church at that time taught that to destroy the body of a person on earth was to make it impossible for that person to rise again at Christ’s return. This is why the worst criminals were often dismembered at execution (à la Braveheart). Except in cases of extreme epidemic (as would happen decades later during the Black Death), to the people of Robin Hood’s time, the act of destroying a corpse was reserved as a means of condemning a person in the next life as well as in this one, and for an individual to request that his body be burned after death would have been a great blasphemy; the same as denying belief in the Resurrection. Indeed, it was 1963 before the Catholic church allowed cremation, and many conservative Catholics still look down on the procedure today as unholy or unnatural.
Aside from these errors (many of which I have come to expect when Hollywood does history), my biggest disappointment in the film was the absence of Robin as an outlaw. I didn’t know until the end of the film that Robin Hood was made as a prequel to the legend. There are a few brief moments at the end when Robin is shown as we expect to find him; living in the forest, making merry with his men while hiding from the law. But other than those few moments, Robin lives very much in the open, sometimes posing as a nobleman, sometimes as an archer returning from King Richard’s wars, sometimes as a Magna Carta-wielding champion of individual liberty.
Toeing the Timeline
Regardless of these major flaws in the film’s historicity, I recognize that Scott’s aim was to entertain a modern audience, not make a documentary about the history of nationalism and constitutional law for nit-picky historians.
Overall, I was impressed with the film’s pace. Robin Hood managed to fit a lot of activity into a small amount of time. At no point did the story quagmire or become burdensome. However Robin Hood sacrificed a great deal of historical accuracy to attain that swiftness of story. In the course of a few weeks during the film, Richard the Lionheart dies, his brother John becomes king, a subversive courtier stirs the barons into rebellion against John, John placates the barons with promises to seal a Magna Carta-like document, the barons unite to confront a French invasion, and John reneges on his pledge to seal the charter based on his belief that God has put him in power.
In reality, these events unfolded over the course of about two decades. And while the timing of Robin Hood was off in both sequence and closeness of events, I was pleased that Scott took the time to include accurate details such as John’s belief in his divine right to rule, the Barons rebelling, and John’s durressed promise to seal the Magna Carta. I was also pleased that the film stayed consistent in its seasonal backdrop; King Richard died in the springtime, and all throughout the film’s beginning, it is springtime, from the plowing and planting to the budding trees.
Although I would not recommend it as a source of good history, when the time comes, I will probably own Robin Hood. It is a very entertaining film, and it shows a different side of the legendary outlaw. But, without Robin living the outlaw life, the story is just not finished.
About the author: Clint Alley watches Jeopardy! with a Rainman-like compulsiveness. One night, while huddled beneath a Gopherwood tree on a cliffside during a hail storm, the ghost of Theodore Roosevelt came to him and told him that he must educate the children of Tennessee, an encounter which led him to earn a bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in journalism and a master’s degree in secondary education in the field of history from the University of North Alabama. He works with Beej’s wife Jennifer, who owes him a chicken biscuit.