By Jay Stringer
I think back in my first stint at DSD (over a decade ago, yikes) it took me four weeks to break away from crime fiction. Well, this time round I'm beating that by a week.
Or am I?
I'm going to talk about Robin Hood movies, and I would argue that Robin Hood is crime fiction. The stories as we have them grew out of middle-ages ballads and poems on the exploits of a criminal. So.....crime. Which means I guess I don't beat my record.
There was a clickbaity article from a formerly reputable newspaper a couple weeks ago labelling Robin Hood: Prince of thieves as joyless, gritty, and dull. I'm not going to link to the article. Why give them what they want? But it did set me thinking about Robin Hood movies.
Long-time readers may know Robin Hood is a mini obsession of mine. I have a novel I want to write when I can justify doing it. And I've watched almost all the screen versions over the years. I have opinions on all of them. And so, today, for no real reason I can think of, I'm going to defend two often-maligned Robin Hood movies.
In defence of...Prince of Thieves (1991)
We develop a sort of zeitgeist shorthand when it comes to pop culture. Opinions on movies that don't always seem related to the movies themselves. Like 'Tim Burton's Batman was dark’ when it was very cartoony. And so, let's look first at the case against the movie, and see how the charges stack up.
"The film isn't historically accurate." Well...there is not 'real' history to be accurate about. We don't know if there was a real Robin. We don't know what decade -or even century- he was active in. We don't know which King or Sheriff he encountered. We're not even sure he was from Nottingham. So, when it comes to accuracy, the best you can do is make a film that evokes some form of accuracy. Something that sets up a world and stays true to it. The best big screen Robin is an animated Fox, there are no rules.
"He walks from Dover to Hadrian's Wall in a day, and neither of those are in Nottingham." I mean...yeah. We see him arrive at Dover's white cliffs and then, 'by nightfall' he has arrived at a tree in the north of England. But...so what? It doesn't really matter where the tree is. It's just a cool looking location, and that's how movies work. The geography is never accurate. Last Action Hero features Arnie on top of a Long Beach hotel (same one used for Bouchercon a few years back) and then climbing a crane and dropping across the street in the La Brea Tar Pits. In Los Angeles. Nowhere near the hotel. That's just....movie magic. Sure, you can't walk from Dover to Nottingham in a day but....do we care? Really?
"The film is dull and gritty. “It’s really really not either of those things. Prince of Thieves teeters on the edge of camp throughout its run time. It's full of well-directed action sequences, sword fights, and jokes. The accepted wisdom is that Alan Rickman was in a different film to everyone else. The truth is that Alan Rickman was in the same film as almost everyone in the cast. They're all having a great old time hamming it up playing mythical characters. The odd one out? Well, that brings us to...
"Kevin Costner's accent is terrible." Uhm. Yeah. His accent isn't great. He starts the movie trying some kind of semi-English, transatlantic thing, then finally gives up right around the time he finally starts to look like he's having fun. But here's the thing I never get about the 'accent attack' when it comes to these movies. How do we know? How do you know? How do I know? Sure, I know what English accents sound like, I know what Californian accents sound like, and I know which one of those Costner is closest to pulling off. However, there are no audio tapes left over from the thirteenth century. The English language (which wasn't even the English language at that point) has changed massively over the centuries. All mom the sounds have shifted. The way we say the alphabet now is not even the way we said the alphabet in the time the Robin Hood ballads were first sung. None of us really know what Robin would have sounded like, and since we also don't know if there even was a Robin, can we give actors a pass on their accents? Please?
I'm not a fan of Costner's performance in the film. I think he's what stands between it being 'a fun Hollywood flick' and a classic. There are many things Costner is good at, but he's just not a swashbuckling hero. It's Costner, not Rickman, who is in a different film to everyone else.
But despite that, the film is a lot of fun. It has one of the all-time great Hollywood scores, 99% of the cast are having fun, the action works, the story is clear, and the jokes are funny. It's not a film without problems. The devil worship sub-plot (largely cut from the theatrical version, bar a few vestigial traces, but more on show in extended versions) feels like a hangover from the satanic panic of an earlier era, as if some producer or studio exec somewhere had been trying to force that into a movie for five years. The treatment of the Celts is, simply, awful. Right out of the 'woad-faced barbarian' cliche. In addition, the final showdown between Robin and the Sheriff comes right after sexual assault is played for laughs, and your mileage may vary on whether they get away with that, since the Sheriff is supposed to be a bad man.
In Defence of...Robin Hood (2010)
Ridley Scott's 2010 film is another that suffers from a form of received wisdom criticism. It's dour, it takes itself too seriously, it's a gritty reboot, and....yes....the lead actor's accent is said to suck.
I've already covered the accent issue. But I'd add here that Russel Crowe has a really good go at doing an accent. Impossible as it is to ever say one is accurate, he's researched what people from Nottingham and Yorkshire sound like and given it a solid try. And sure, it veers across the map a little. At times crossing over to Ireland. At times sounding like nothing. But the dude comes from New Zealand, literally the other end of the planet. If he's not able to always pull off a flawless English accent while playing a mythical thirteenth century outlaw, I'll give him a pass.
Ridley Scott has a few weaknesses. His sense of narrative gets easily distracted by cool ideas. His most cohesive films tend to be the ones in which he's inherited a story ready to go, like Alien or Blackhawk Down. When he's left in charge of overseeing the story from scratch...things can get a bit muddled.
At the same time, there are things Ridley can do better than just about anyone else in the industry. He can immerse the viewer in the world of the film. You can feel the ground beneath your feet. You can smell the air. Taste the atmosphere. And, man, he paints a brilliant picture on the screen. His movies stay with you, even if I don’t always find the narratives satisfying.
Robin Hood is a perfect case in point. From the opening shots, you're in that world. I would argue it's the most immersive Robin Hood film ever made. You're taken on a trip to the middle-ages. And the music...the music is amazing. I listen to the soundtrack sometimes when I'm writing.
The story has an interesting take on the legend and attempts to show how the reality of a yeoman archer could morph into the myth of an outlawed noble. Cate Blanchett brings real life and depth to Marian, and Oscar Issac has an absolute ball as Prince John. Russel Crowe is good. He's a much more rounded actor than Costner, and we see flashes that he could pull off the swashbuckling hero if the film leaned into it a little more.
And that, really, is the heart of the problem. This is two separate movies pushed together. For the first half we get a well-made, well-acted, well written story that leads us up to the moment Robin Longstride embraces becoming Robin Hood. Robin, and his friends, pull off a heist in the forest while a jaunty tune plays, and announce "we are men of the hood, merry now at your expense." And the film feels...fun. Everything is on course to deliver a stone-cold classic swashbuckling tale with a mega budget. And then it turns in another direction, and slows down, and starts to try and tell a weighty tale about Magna Carta, William Marshal, and that time a gorilla force of English archers -led by an outlaw- repelled a French invasion. (And that did happen. But it was Wilikin of the Weald, not Robin Hood, who fought back against the French in 1217.) This is where I think Ridley's inherent Ridleyness got in his own way. Researching Robin Hood throws up many cool options, many different directions to be taken, but at some point, you must commit to one of them and shut all the others out. Here, I think Ridley tried to push two different takes together. It's not until the very end, in the final scenes, when we veer back to the fun, mythic, forest-dwelling outlaw tale, with hints of what a fun ride the sequel could have been.
But despite these flaws -or maybe because of them- 2010's Robin Hood is a film that gets better each time I watch it. I'm starting to think it has a dark horse chance of becoming my favourite Hood movie, even more so than the one with the fox. We'll see.