If you want to enjoy this film, ignore the fact that its title is Robin Hood; treat it as a historical fantasy and you will find some entertainment value out of this slightly above average but inoffensive action film. I’m not saying that Robin Hood should be historically accurate – the mythological idea of Robin Hood is much more real than any ancient documents could ever provide – or should slavishly follow the Walter Scott-inspired storylines that we know so well, but don’t use the name Robin Hood to tell a different story.
You know the tale of Robin Hood – in Sherwood Forest, with his Merry Men, robbing from the rich, giving to the poor, fighting against the Sheriff of Nottingham. Right? Well, not here because that’s too small for such a legendary figure. Instead, he is an archer in King Richard’s army (as Richard fights his way back from the Crusades), who has a chat with Richard, ends up bringing back the crown and sceptre to England when Richard is killed (historically inaccurate) by pretending to be a knight, ends up impersonating him for the dead knight’s father, and stops an invasion of England by the French. And, in addition, this Robin Hood’s father came up with the original idea for the Magna Carta. A little bit different, I’m sure you’ll agree.
If you want to know why this story is such a mess, then you might find the story of how this film moved into production more interesting. An original spec script by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, called Nottingham, was bought by Universal Pictures after an aggressive bidding contest with other interested parties (including Ridley Scott, who was then brought in to direct). It was an intriguing twist on the myth: it told the story from the point of view of the Sheriff of Nottingham, a man with a tough job of taxing the people under the orders of the king, and how he has to deal with the threat of a brigand stealing from him; this he does with vaguely scientific methods. Now, if you’re going to make a new film on an old tale, this is exactly the sort of thing to do. However, what happens next changes everything: Russell Crowe is attached to star. At 45, Crowe is the oldest actor to play Robin Hood, older even that Sean Connery when he played an old Robin Hood in Robin and Marion, which is why they had to get Cate Blanchett to replace Sienna Miller as Maid Marion, because it would have looked like he was wooing his daughter; it’s hard to believe in Crowe as the starting point for the Robin legends in a film that is effectively Robin Hood: The Origin. Because Crowe is the money star, he needs a money director to keep him happy. He wants his chum, Ridley Scott. When Scott came on board, he is quoted as saying the script (which he wanted to buy) was ‘shit’ and needed a page-one rewrite. Because Scott wanted to do his take on the Robin Hood story (via his obsession with the Crusades – see Kingdom of Heaven), and was using this film to do it. Brian Helgeland was brought in to rewrite the script – i.e. come up with a completely new story – which is as feeble with historical fact as England’s defence was against Germany in the World Cup (something that’s more egregious when previous screenwriter Reiff is a bit of a history buff and points out the inaccuracies, such as Robin being an archer in the army when in fact King Richard was in trouble with the Vatican for his use of crossbows). For more details, see read this excellent blog post about it all by the screenwriter William Martel, this article in the Evening Standard, and go to this site for the script for Nottingham (which also has an interview with Reiff).
To counteract my negativity, I should say that there is some good stuff here. Ridley Scott, even though he hates writers, does direct a beautiful film and there are some well-choreographed scenes, such as the attack on a French castle and the repelling of the French invasion force on the beach. The acting is good – Cate Blanchett makes for a feisty and intelligent Marion, Mark Strong is excellent as the villainous Godfrey (making it a hat-trick of top bad guys after Stardust and Kick-Ass), and William Hurt brings some gravitas as William Marshal. Oscar Isaac has fun as Prince John, Danny Huston is fun as King Richard, and Mark Addy makes for a good Friar Tuck. However, the weakest aspect is Crowe – he makes for a suitably noble hero, all glowering strength (perhaps channelling Maximus a bit too much), but his accent really is all over the place: Yorkshire, Lancashire, Midlands, hints of Irish and even Welsh float through his flat delivery, which is frankly ridiculous (and I’m glad Mark Lawson pulled him up on it on Radio 4). At least Kevin Costner was using a consistently bad accent …
If this film had tried to be its own entity – there are constant little references to Robin Hood legend, such as the throwaway use of the phrase ‘Merry Men’, having him fight with Little John, Will Scarlet as a musician, which seemed tagged on rather than organic – it would have been much more enjoyable. It’s a complete fantasy about how one man can change the course of history, with plenty of action and some dry humour and warmth; however, by calling itself Robin Hood, effectively using franchise recognition to kick-start a massive Hollywood period blockbuster, it can only fail on its own terms and in comparison to other, better films.