It’s all about story for Sir Ridders, which is why he signed on to a direct an original take on Robin Hood that he promptly disabused and changed into something much more run-of-the-mill. The same Ridders who cocked a snook at the entire history of big screen Sherwood Forest forays by suggesting Men in Tights was the best version of Robin Hood, yet managed to make a picture inferior to most of the ones he probably sidelong glanced at en route. Robin Hood is most definitely not one of Scott’s best movies, and yet, the first half has just enough pissed-away potential to leave one with a whiff of what might have been.
Scott had been angling for a Robin Hood picture before seizing on Nottingham by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris (Brimstone, Sleeper Cell). Their take flipped the protagonist and antagonist, with Robin as the villain and the Sheriff of Nottingham as the hero. They also had – I know, not exactly vouching for its quality – a serial-killer plotline (Robin would be unjustly accused) and the Sheriff as “a CSI-type” investigator (an exaggeration according to the writers, but he was “a man of science“). A bidding war ensued, Universal won, and Ridley Scott agreed to the screenplay because of his American Gangster relationship with producer Brian Grazer (whose Imagine has offices on the Universal lot). And then threw it away. Brian Helgeland wrote his own version, in turn subject to rewrites by Paul Webb, again by Helgeland and then Tom Stoppard took a stab at it while filming was underway.
Scott dictated the initial main thrust of the Helgeland take (with the emphasis on initial): the idea of the Sheriff and Robin being the same guy, “kind of like Fight Club. He’d be chasing himself for the whole damned movie!” Now, in anyone’s hands but Scott, I might have gone for this on the grounds of how bug-out, batshit bizarre the notion is. But look at the final movie and wonder how that would have fitted in any way that was remotely fun or deliriously demented. More likely we’d have got Matchstick Men meets Robin Hood. Which wouldn’t have been nearly crazy enough.
This is the guy who’s all about story, remember, and that was his premise. There’s a germ of this remaining, when Crowe’s Robin Longstride takes the sword of the dying sheriff (Douglas Hodge, of the recent Red Sparrow and on scene-stealing form in the BBC’s Decline and Fall) and returns it to his father (Max von Sydow), where he’s persuaded to assume the man’s identity.
But going from a starting point focussing on the Sheriff to one where he’s barely in it is the kind of thing Scott, the master of narrative, who labelled the Reiff and Voris script “fucking ridiculous… It was terrible…“, decides over a fat stogie. Like requiring Helgeland to churn out rewrites “to focus on archery and archers” because the director has become obsessed with the subject. Or having the Sheriff chasing himself around for the entire movie.
The various rewrites and production delays resulting from Scott’s erratic demands saw the budget spiral to $200m (again, this is the guy who berated exorbitant price tags when Alien Covenant, a notorious underperformer, was released). If it had come in for less, Robin Hood would probably have been regarded as a hit (it grossed $322m worldwide), but any talk of a sequel promptly expunged itself.
Notably, the latest take, imaginatively called Robin Hood (!) has been shuffled in the schedules twice. Like Scott’s, it’s an origins tale (and like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, it comes replete with brazenly anachronistic costuming), but unlike Scott’s it doesn’t star a 45-year-old (Taron Egerton’s nearly two decades younger than Crowe was).
Yes, the decision by Ridders to go with an actor older than Connery was when he played a veteran Robin in Robin and Marion is one that made very little sense, any more than his accent (which saw him curtail an interview with Mark Lawson when he was accused of forcing Irish tones on East Midlands ones). Ironically, the delays on the picture led to tension between actor and director, and they haven’t paired since.
King Richard: Will God be pleased with my sacrifice?
Robin Longstride: No, he won’t.
King Richard: Why do you say that?
Robin Longstride: The massacre at Acre, sir.
Crowe’s merely okay in the movie, which means he’s far and away better than the lead in Scott’s previous period romp, the era-near-identical Kingdom of Heaven (both also featured Richard the Lionheart). But there isn’t enough to make the character stand out, brogue aside. And (whisper it) he looks a little silly in those Sherwood greens (and much more “Russell Crowe, fearless warrior” when clad in chainmail).
As with Balian in Kingdom, Robin speaks his mind via a very modern strain of enlightenment. The screenplay during the first half, however, manages to juggle plot and character engagingly, such that the deficiencies don’t intrude on an engrossingly established series of conflicting perspectives and goals.
We have Mark Strong’s Sir Godfrey, English when he wants to be, plotting with King Philip of France (Jonathan Zaccai). There’s a nice visceral moment where he eats the bloody oyster the king has just cut himself opening. There’s Robin, masquerading as a knight, returning the crown to John, a scene pregnant with potential exposure as both Sir Godfrey and William Marshal (William Hurt) know he isn’t what he seems. William Hurt sounds like a strangled budgerigar attempting his English accent; it’s a shame he’s distracting, because there’s another interesting plot strand of the loyal Marshal dismissed when he’s unable to disguise his contempt for the new king’s methods.
Then there’s Isaac, really good as John in an oversized crown. Such that it’s a shame there’s nothing mould-breaking about his craven, leching incarnation, aside from having a mum (Eileen Atkins) who gives him a hard time. If Scott wasn’t upsetting the applecart with the Sheriff and Robin, he might at least have given John a bit more nuance. As it is, Peter Ustinov’s is probably the definitive portrayal. There are occasional nice touches, such as John’s promise of a charter of rights for the people in return of fair rule over the land (“I give my word. Such a charter shall be written. Upon my mother’s life“). Naturally, he hates his mother, so changes his mind at the first opportunity (“I did not make myself king. God did“).
Sir Walter Locksley: I woke this morning with a tumescent glow. I feel invigorated. 84. A miracle!
There are also some highly enjoyable scenes between Crowe and Max von Sydow, even if they’re weighed down by the turgid Robin backstory, whereby Crowe just happens to have forgotten his heritage until Max’s Sir Walter nudges him (dad’s a stonemason, visionary, philosopher) with a man-of-destiny spiel. When brute Sir Godfrey kills blind old Walter, Robin’s rise to people’s hero is assured, leading to revenge by dint of that there archery Scott got so obsessed with (“This is for you, Walter!” cries Robin, operating at a cheese factor of maximum gorgonzola).
Other traditional elements of the story are damp squibs. We barely see Robin doing any outlawing (this is only an origins, after all), merely stealing a grain train. I suspect this is the first Robin and Marion where Aussie actors play both leads, but unfortunately, the main takeaway is that their romance fails to blossom. Scott and Helgeland’s pallid idea of beefing up Cate Blanchett’s character is to have her ride into battle wearing a knight’s helmet at the end à la Éowyn in The Return of the King. Which, frankly, just comes across as desperate and naff (as Robin says, “For God’s sake Marian!“) The beach invasion is at least noteworthy for there being useless kings on both sides.
Robin Longstride: If it is illegal for a man to fend for himself, how then can he be a man in his own right?
And the merry men are given short shrift, thus fail to become very interesting, despite the efforts of Kevin Durand and Mark Addy as Little John and Friar Tuck respectively. Blink and you’ll miss Matthew Macfadyen as the new Sheriff of Nottingham (“I’m French, on my mother’s side” he protests to Strong and his men).
I think I saw the Director’s Cut on first viewing, but I’ve little desire to revisit it. Scott takes too long getting to the punch anyway, and then decides to add fifteen minutes? By the time we reach the big battle, any interest in this telling has been long exhausted, and the glimmers of wit and intrigue have given away to clumsy, ham-fisted character moments and plotting.
This does, at least, represent the final chapter of an autopilot trilogy on Ridders’ part, telling unremarkable tales in routine fashion, and it is, nominally, the best of the three. It’s also the Crowe-led bookend to a decade of (mostly) bankability Scott probably never thought he would see, but one that confirmed he didn’t really have much to offer apart from technical prowess. The irony was, just as you thought it was time to give up all hope, Scott would appear piqued once more in his next two movies. Of course, the responses to those two movies were even more mixed, but at least Sir Ridley seemed awake.