Thu
May 13 2010 11:43am

Do we really need another Robin Hood?

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.

29 comments
dpomerico
1. dpomerico
You forgot the best one: Disney's animated version!
Teresa Jusino
2. TeresaJusino
I think the major advantage to Ridley Scott's upcoming version is that it's essentially a prequel. It's not a retelling of the same Robin Hood story we've gotten before. It's a telling of how Robin Hood became Robin Hood in the first place. That's an important distinction. I, for one, am really excited about it! :)

Also, Cate Blanchett can do no wrong.
Mouldy Squid
3. Mouldy_Squid
Interesting article, but a couple of things.

1. Cate Blanchett is indeed infallible.

2. "Begging the Question" is not "raising the question". Sorry to sound pedantic, but "Begging the Question" is a logical fallacy where the proposition to be proved is assumed implicitly or explicitly in the premise. The word "beg", when used in this phrase, does not mean "asking for something", instead it means to dodge or avoid. Using this phrase incorrectly shows a lack of grammatical awareness and is quite infuriating. I keep seeing this mistake more and more often by people who supposedly know how to write. Your bio looks impressive, but if your editors at places like The Christian Science Monitor or The New York Times haven't pointed this out to you, then I fear that modern news media is devolving to the same level as popular music.
Marcus W
4. toryx
I'm excited about Cate Blanchett more than anything else. She looks like she'll be fun to watch.

I'm worried, however, because I really didn't like Gladiator. Consequently, my expectations are low.
Megan Messinger
5. thumbelinablues
dpomerico @1, I had such a crush on that animated fox! Him and Justin from The Secret of NIMH. Great version. Also, though I see it's gone now, the Wikipedia article on Eleanor of Aquitaine used to list PJ's cries of "Mother!" under pop culture references. :-P

And, while searching for that reference again, I ended up at the page for the animated movie, which lists an alternate ending I really want to see:
As Robin Hood leaps off of the castle and into the moat, he is wounded (presumably from one of the arrows shot into the water after him) and carried away to the church for safety. Prince John, enraged that he has once again been outwitted by Robin Hood, finds Little John leaving the church, and suspects the outlaw to be there as well. He finds Maid Marian tending to an unconscious Robin Hood, and draws a sword to kill them both. Before Prince John can strike, however, he is stopped by his brother, King Richard, having returned from the Crusades.
So much more dramatic!

I have to re-watch the Patrick Bergen/Uma Thurman version, too. My favorite line from that one is when Robin, John, and Marian are all standing around, and Robin clearly wants some time alone with the laydeh; John finally gets it and says "Oh! I have to go, my bow needs..." And Robin supplies "Grommeting." "Grommeting, yeah." Hee!

Okay, now I'm all excited. And I did enjoy Gladiator, so even if this is Gladiator with more clothing and longbows, I can dig it. Cate Blanchett with a sword, Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea as Alan Adale...I'll be entertained. :0)
Nathan Horn
6. CaptCommy
@Mouldy_Squid Although, if you continue reading the wikipedia article you took that definition from, you'll see in the Modern Usage section the definition of "Begging the question" has changed.
Megan Messinger
7. thumbelinablues
Mouldy_Squid @3, What Ethan means, as I read it, is that the Robin Hood film, by its existence, takes the question of whether we need another Robin Hood as a given, proceeding from that position without discussion of the kind Ethan raises here. The "proposition to be proved" ("Do we need another Robin Hood?") is "assumed...explicitly" (by the the filmmakers) "in the premise" ("Well, we've just made one.")

CaptCommy @ 6, The modern usage frustrates me, too, actually; we already have the phrase "raise the question," and we don't have another one that means "beg the question," so why sacrifice a neat concept just because people can't be bothered to use it properly?
dpomerico
8. reattmore
Not to mention Monsieur Hood in Shrek I, getting his clock cleaned by Princess Fiona . . . :)
Irene Gallo
9. Irene
@thumbelinablues...I feel an image heavy post coming on. (Who's job was it to add more hours in the day? They need to get on that.) I have a huge crush on just about every Robin Hood painting and drawing ever done. Including anything Robin Hood-ish. And I can't say that I dislike looking at Russell Crowe. I'll be in the theatre.
Chris Meadows
10. Robotech_Master
I remember when Ridley Scott used to make great science fiction and fantasy. Alien. Bladerunner. Legend. Even great modern action movies, such as Black Rain.

Why the heck has he gotten off track into making historical Russell-Crowe-with-sword dramas?

Maybe someday he'll make a SF movie again…
Mouldy Squid
11. Mouldy_Squid
@CaptCommy

Not to flame, but "Modern Usage" has given us such gems as "chillaxin'" and "boiee". I fail to see how "Modern Usage" makes our language better, more easily understood or more eloquent. Some changes to the English have removed certain grammatical constructions that are archaic or simply confusing. Languages need to evolve; but such a basic misunderstanding does not, and should not, be excused by "Modern Usage". I see that lame excuse for all kinds of egregious grammatical and spelling errors. It is lazy and sloppy. This board isn't 4chan.

I don't mean to thread jack, but...

@thubelinablues

Good point. I can see how Scott could be begging the question with yet another Robin Hood retread. Seems to me that it does take a bit of mental gymnastics to fit the definition though.

The main problem I have with this film, however, is the marketing. All of the adverts I am seeing start with "The Truth Behind the Legend" rubbish. There seems to be a psychological need for Hollywood to justify its fantasies with the gloss of historical accuracy.

In some cases it can lead to better films in a sense. We get to see the grime, the blood and the meanness of medieval life that would not have been shown even as late as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The directors, producers and production staff do take some pains to get the costume, sets and historical minutiae authentic. We get a "more accurate" presentation of history, but only in those things. Take, for instance, The Kingdom of Heaven.

Considering the historical license Scott took with Gladiator, the whole marketing thrust of "The Truth Behind the Legend" is suspect. The truth behind the legend of Robin Hood is that Robin Hood is a legend.

I have no doubt whatsoever that Scott has made a great film. It will have fast paced action, masterful dialogue, wonderful acting and amazing cinematography. I will go and see it just because I love Ridley Scott movies and I am almost entirely certain that I will enjoy it. But for the love of cinema, producers and marketers, stop selling fantasy as history!

Do we need another Robin Hood movie? No, not really. But legends are told and retold for every generation. Their meaning and presentation reflect the generation they are being told to. In this sense, sure, we need another Robin Hood. This generation hasn't had one yet.

Do we need another Ridley Scott movie? Abso-freakin'-lutely.
dpomerico
12. Farah Mendlesohn
The earliest socialist Robin Hood I know of is Geoffrey Trease's _Bows Against the Barons_. Published in 1934, Robin leads a peasant's revolt, calls his merry men "Comrades" and persuades the villagers to weild the hammer and the sickle! It didn't do too well in the 1930s Britain, but it was a hit in the USSR.
deviousjen
13. deviousjen
dpomerico @ 1 - Hear, hear! Casting Robin Hood as a fox was brilliant.

Ridley Scott's foray into Sherwood forest reminds me of the first version of the Robin Hood tale I read as a child. It was pretty dark, given most adaptations: Robin Hood was poisoned by the daughter of the Sheriff and Marian ended up in a convent... Although, if we're going to talk about more radical interpretations of Robin Hood, I feel like we should mention Stephen Lawhead's King Raven trilogy.

The author's comment "Robin Hood films have a habit of surfacing during major conflicts" also makes me think of Arthurian legend, which has also been used to make political statements over the years. I wonder how they stack up against Robin Hood... and who people tend to identify with more.
Jordan Dennis
14. jddennis
Another interesting take on the whole Robin Hood mythology is the webcomic Much The Miller's Son by Steve LeCouilliard. He makes Robin into a philanderer with an ego problem, which is interesting to read. You don't see very many negative portrayals of him.
j p
15. sps49
"...even robbed from the clergy."

Howard Pyle's adaptation included this, at least one victim was the Bishop of Hereford. The clergy of that time could be just as avaricious and opressive as the nobles could be, just armored in "the will of God".
dpomerico
16. a-j
In the UK we also had three major TV series. In the '50s was 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' which is partly famous for the fact that a fair number of episodes were written by US scriptwriters in exile having been blacklisted in the McCarthy era (an excellent film 'Fellow Traveller' is a fictionalised account of this with an unsettling story-within-a-story version of the Robin Hood story). In the '80s there was 'Robin of Sherwood' which added mysticism and a saracen to the merry men, a new tradition held to in 'Prince of Thieves' and the most recent BBC version, 'Robin Hood'referred to above. I can't speak for the '50s version being at a time of turmoil, but the '80s one certainly was with the Miners' Strike and a split country.
Jeff Weston
17. JWezy
And let us not forget the definitive Daffy Duck/Porky Pig version!

"Hmm? Prithee? Hmm?"
dpomerico
19. Bill Altreuter
All Robin Hood movies are great; great things are necessary; therefore Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood movie is necessary.
Jason Pitzl-Waters
20. jasonpitzl
Let me second a-j's mention of "Robin of Sherwood", in my mind one of the best television interpretations of the mythos. Certainly the most fantasy-driven of all the modern Robin Hood re-tellings, chock-full of pre-Christian gods, sorcerers, magical items, and various mystical plot-lines. I'm a little surprised it didn't get a mention.
dpomerico
21. pbjeffrey
"He becomes a Gladiator-like..."

I think this is what's holding me back from real excitement. I don't want a Gladiator-like anything. I watched Gladiator. I enjoyed it immensely. But sadly, Russell Crowe exudes Maximus in the trailers for RH so far, and I'm not interested in another Gladiator. The trailer just did not look appealing at all, and that makes me sad.

That said, my favourite is a tie between Men in Tights and Disney's version!
dpomerico
22. Foxessa
Of the very many Robin Hoods I've encountered my favorites are probably my first ones.

1 -- Robin Hood and His Merry Men as Retold in a very cheaply produced edition, pulp paper, barely cardboard covers, as part of a series aimed at teachers in rural districts during the Great Depression of the 1930's. Handed down, as were most of the books on the shelves when I was growing up, my mother had several of these, which included King Arthur and His Knights, a collection of fairy tales, a Song of Roland, and other such works. This Robin Hood began with the beginning, provided a tale in which we encountered each of the featured players in the tradition, and in which then, in the later tales, most of them got a role. It concluded with the traditional ending, Robin's death by the treacherous nun who bled him too much, the arrow, and then his loving wife retiring to a convent.

2 -- Robin Hood in Scott's Ivanhoe -- and in which Friar Tuck almost puts King Richard in his place, but, that's a very dangerous thing to play at with a King, no matter how he presents himself to you.

After that, the screen Robin Hoods -- my favorite remains the British ITV 1980's series, Robin of Sherwood.

All of these feature Robin helping the poor and fighting the oppressors, as well as an active, loyal, smart Marian.

Love, C.
dpomerico
23. XtremeCaffeine
a-j@16

You forgot the fantastic Maid Marion & Her Merry Men, which showed a lot of the muck of medieval life in a child-friendly format.
nancy evans
24. shaynatower
I am sorry, but I can not abide another Robin hood movie! I disagree with many here, but I love the "Robin hood" movie with Kevin Costner! Matter of fact, i find that the best movie of this genre was made with Errol Flynn! How can you resist that beautifully done piece of art and history!! I find that a lot of people i have spoken with are asking the question..."Of all movies He could use his acting abilities in...why on earth would he want to take up a movie which has been done at different intervals through the years already?" He could be doing so much more and yet, and yet again, he wastes his time on films already done so many ways!! I think this is a lack of judgement on his part and his agents' for not looking into other roles and screenplays he could be doing!
john mullen
25. johntheirishmongol
The best version is definately the Adventures of Robin Hood. The iconic scene is the swordfight between Basil Rathbone (who was an olympic fencer) and Errol Flynn (who was actually a boxer, Rathbone taught him to fence).

Ivanhoe, with Robert Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Fontaine was a great movie, that also had Robin as a secondary character supporting Ivanhoe.

I did enjoy the disney version as a child.

There was a tv version that was enjoyable in the 60's.

I absolutely detested Robin and Marion. Maybe the worst thing Sean Connery ever did.

Men in Tights was fun, but not really one of Mel Brooks better efforts.

The Kevin Costner version was too silly to be taken seriously, especially when they decided to be PC and add a black guy. Sorry, but Morgan Freeman as one of the merry men was idiotic.

I don't really have much hope for this new version. Russell Crowe is a bit aged for the part, especially if they are going to have it as a kind of prequel. I suspect I will see better battles at the next SCA event.
Martina Berg
26. ekohudvard
Another prequel, another Robin Hood, another Ridley Scott fast pace action movie staring Russell Crowe. My need 4 it? None.
Dave Thompson
27. DKT
Heh. I loved Prince of Thieves. (It probably helps that I first saw it when I was like 12.) It was cheesy and silly, I admit, but it was fun. And this new one doesn't look like fun at all. It looks more like the King Arthur movie which came out a few years back with Clive Owen and Kiera Knightley.

It's really impossible for me to get excited about "the truth behind the legend," when the truth is so obviously an invention.
dpomerico
28. Foxessa
No buy ticket, no watch.

All the reviews today speak to its badness in great detail, all speaking to bloat and incoherency, and that it is a tbagger screed to boot!

They do not get my 12 dollars. Yes, that's how much it costs to go to the movies for one person here. No, there are not matinees. But if there were matinees I still wouldn't go.
dpomerico
29. SW Sinclair
I remember seeing a film called "Son of Robin Hood" 45 to 50 years ago. I think it was of english origin. The plot twist was that the "Son" was the "Daughter" in disquise!

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