Do we really need another Robin Hood?
That’s the question begged by Ridley Scott’s new version.
Starring action-lunk-with-acting-gravitas Russell Crowe in the title role, and an A-list supporting cast of Cate Blanchett, William Hurt, and Max von Sydow, the new Robin Hood also features a budget and production values on an epic scale. Men in Tights, Mel Brooks’ 1993 send-up, this is not.
Scott’s Robin Hood is the latest of some 50 movie and television adaptations chronicling the life and exploits of our favorite do-gooder thief—an impressive run that begins with the silent Robin Hood and His Merry Men in 1908.
You’d think viewers would be weary of another retelling of this gallant, often green-clothed folk hero who selflessly stands up for the common man. But few other stories have enjoyed such a continuous reworking as good old RH, who began appearing orally in legends, ballads, and outlaw stories around the reign of King John (1199-1216) and, in print, in Piers Plowman (circa 1377).
Despite its age, the Robin Hood mythos remains fresh and relevant. Each iteration reflects its particular times and tribulations. And, sorry, many fans want him NOT to be the lightweight, listless Kevin Costner of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) anymore.
In most versions, Robin is portrayed as a loyal follower of King Richard the Lionheart, driven to outlawry while Richard is away at the Third Crusade and his incompetent and evil brother, John, assumes the throne and drives England into social ruin. But like King Arthur, a single historical Robin Hood probably never lived. Rather, Robyn Hood, Robert Hood, and Robehod were 13th century nicknames for those who had run afoul of the law.
So what if no real Robin Hood existed? It’s the idea that endures: this hope for a savior to restore the balance of power. Even today, he remains a powerful symbol against tyranny, injustice, and over-taxation. This is especially appealing to Tea Party types: Robin Hood is anti-big government, and stealing from the rich to give to the poor is egalitarian.
Egalitarian... or socialist? If you believe in redistributing the wealth a little, Obama-robin is a force for good; for those who see this nation’s economic policies as troubling, not so much. But this goody two-shoes / bad-boy schizophrenia found in Robin Hood actually fits with the historical legend.
He used to be mean, killed lots of people, even robbed from the clergy. The dashing Robin Hood character doesn’t emerge until the Renaissance, when he sheds his cutthroat image and becomes an outlaw with a heart of gold, dispossessed of his property and exiled to Sherwood Forest. Around this time, he also picks up his “girlfriend,” Maid Marian.
In the 1922 silent, stylized version with Douglas Fairbanks, the Robin character is swashbuckling for sure. But he also plays against the backdrop of two wars: the Crusades, and the Great War—both supposedly “the war to end all wars.” Likewise, in 1938, the famous Technicolor version with Errol Flynn was released on the brink of World War II. Again Robin Hood becomes a safe way to engage with the experience of war. Robin Hood films have a habit of surfacing during major conflicts, right up to “Prince of Thieves” during the Gulf War, and the BBC's three-season series debuting shortly after the start of the Iraq War.
As the 20th century progresses past men in tights, Robin Hood becomes less of a fairytale. Robin’s story is grungier, more violent, and more realistic.
One harbinger of the change is the 1976 revisionist tale Robin and Marian, starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as the couple in their sunset years. Robin is back after 20 years abroad in the Crusades, where he’s seen atrocities and seems lost in a haze of PTSD. Our Hood is a troubled hero. He questions military objectives and his king. Parallels to Vietnam abound. That this version ends in tragedy fits with the pessimistic seventies.
Then there’s this odd take: Terry Gilliam's comic Time Bandits (1981) which includes an imbecilic and condescending Robin Hood played by John Cleese. “The poor? Oh you have to meet them,” he says, and hands out booty to the downtrodden just as an assistant punches them in the face.
Disenfranchisement—namely, of the Saxons, who are being replaced by the Normans as England’s ruling class—is the theme of a few Robin Hoods. In director John Irvin’s 1991 movie starring Patrick Bergin and Uma Thurman, the Normans are the invading elites and the Saxons are the lower-class peasants. Guess which side Robin fights for? That film also shows realistic bandit life in the forest; the Merry Men live like guerilla fighters in the jungle. We also see Maid Marion’s transformation from wimpy damsel in distress to plucky, independent feminist who likens a marriage against her wishes to torture. “What's the difference?” Uma-as-Marian quips.
More than anything, the appeal of Robin Hood proves we have fairly predictable needs. In these disillusioned days of robber barons and Bernie Madoffs, authority figures take a beating. Where we are powerless, Robin Hood fights in our stead. So it makes sense that, in Ridley Scott’s newest of Hoods, which imagines a rich backstory for RH of unfinished father-son business and betrayal by the king, Crowe-as-Hood doesn’t simply steal from the rich and give to the poor. He becomes a Gladiator-like national emancipator, protecting England from civil war and restoring the nation to glory once more. Taking the law into his own hands, he becomes a freedom fighter.
Naturally, the ruling class finds a ragtag hero challenging the status quo an enormous pain the saddle. Especially when the downtrodden mobs cheer for Robin and his Merry Men, and lob rocks and garbage at the Sheriff of Nottingham and his henchmen.
“Have you tried to fight a legend?” complains an underling to an impatient King John in the Connery/Hepburn Robin and Marian. No easy feat.
For these reasons, the spirit of Robin Hood endures. Perhaps more than ever, we need someone to come to the aid of the common man and woman. That’s the Robin Hood we deserve, and desire, most.
Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. He contributes regularly to The Boston Globe, New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, and The Christian Science Monitor.