Robin Hood (2010)
A film review by Richard Hands
A discussion about the 2010 Russell Crowe Robin Hood came up at Virtual Chestnut on June 14th 2022, and Jim Wallman mentioned he’d just very recently seen the film, and was ‘interested’ in my perspective on it. The implication was that he hadn’t thought highly of it. I must admit it had passed me by when it had a theatrical release, but I was mildly curious, especially when I read that it had tried to work in real historical events from the reign of Richard I and John, a period I actually studied for an MA. So I watched it later that night, and ended up writing this based on the experience. Spoilers follow, if you care about such things.
To begin with, let’s say that no-one really expects historical verité from a Robin Hood film, any more than one should from a King Arthur film; it’s a legend, not a real thing that happened. However, this particular version muddies the water by trying to work in real medieval politics and events. Ridley Scott even dared to claim it was the “most realistic” portrayal of Robin Hood yet put to celluloid. We shall see. Again, it’s perfectly possible to try and work Robin Hood into a plausible historical context, and to do it well. Unfortunately that’s not what happens here.
As contexts go, and as is traditional these days, the film puts Robin Hood into the period of Richard I’s absence on the Third Crusade (1189-92), the death of Richard (1199) and later the reign of King John, leading to Magna Carta and the First Barons’ War (1216-17), roughly a period of 30 years at the end of the 12th and start of the 13th centuries. The idea that that’s when Robin Hood ‘really’ happened was not a medieval one. It comes from a 17th century play and was later popularised in the Victorian era by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe. In fact the earliest Robin Hood stories, mainly written down in the 15th century, set the story in the reign of Edward I, almost a century later. Still, the association with Richard and John seems to have stuck fast these days, and so we get a version set there. I don’t have a problem with that – the historicity of Robin Hood is tenuous at best and it’s as good a setting as any. There is some indication ‘Robyn Hod/Hode/Hoode’ became a generic nickname used by bandits in the late 13th century, but arguing that makes it ‘real’ might be like suggesting that Ned Ludd and Captain Swing were real weavers who started breaking looms. Setting it in the reigns of Richard and John usually allows the story to draw a ‘Good King – Bad King’ opposition between the two, though I was pleasantly surprised to see that this version was at least a *little* more nuanced about that (if only a little). Richard was, though a better warrior than John, a hothead who bankrupted the Crown with his wars, and certainly not a fraction of the politician that his and John’s parents, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, had been.
The opening credits confused me a bit by claiming to set the story “at the turn of the 12th century”, which to me suggests the start rather than the end of the 12th century, but in retrospect I can see it might mean ‘at the turn from 12th to 13th’. It also described it as: “a time of tyranny and oppression for the people”, although in fact England was relatively rich and prosperous at the time and the Plantagenet kings were no more tyrannical than any other medieval rulers. John’s reign was certainly a time of high taxation on nobles, the church and rich merchants, and they made a lot of noise about that, but the degree of ‘oppression’ of the average serf was no more than usual.
Anyway, we begin at the siege of Chalus in 1199, a real event. The story portrays this as Richard ‘ravaging’ his way back home after the Crusade, though in fact Chalus was in the Limousin region, part of Richard’s own lands in Aquitaine, and the siege took place five years after Richard had returned from crusade and captivity, after being ransomed back from the Holy Roman Emperor for 150,000 marks in 1194. The siege of Chalus was merely a punitive raid on a rebellious vassal, the Viscount of Limoges. There is some set-up to show our hero, Robin ‘Longstride’ (Russell Crowe, typically dour) in action. He is an archer with the army, which probably would have made him Welsh in that era. His actual background in the film is muddy, though apparently he’s supposed to be from Barnsley. I think this may be a mistaken identification with the Edward I era Robin stories saying he was from Barnsdale, 50 miles south (and much closer to Sherwood and Nottingham). It certainly isn’t clear from Russell Crowe’s accent, which flits from Irish to Scots to a reasonable approximation of Yorkshire, bless him. But it’s better than Kevin Costner’s be-mulleted Rabbanhood so I’ll forgive him that. There follows some medieval heroics as Longstride’s Spec Ops team try to plant something on the portcullis of Chalus castle while under crossbow and arrow fire (and cauldrons of boiling pitch, sigh). I think this is supposed to be skins full of oil, to be burned and presumably hence burn down the portcullis, though when shot they explode like they’re full of Greek Fire. The modern obsession with trying to put explody things into medieval and ancient warfare can be a bit tiresome. Yes, it’s visually impressive, but needless to say it definitely isn’t how medieval siege warfare worked. But I realise showing people sitting around waiting for the inhabitants to starve or digging tunnels and greasing pit props with pig fat is less heroic.
Some of Robin’s men are killed in this suicidal raid, leading him to get snarky with King Richard and for no readily apparent reason bring up his treatment of Muslim prisoners at Acre in 1191, eight years earlier (Richard had 2,700 prisoners massacred after Saladin refused to ransom them). It’s unclear as to whether women and children were also killed, as Robin claims, but it’s certainly possible. This was a black mark on Richard’s career, but probably not the best thing to bring up to a man who had an infamously short temper and had killed men for less. Robin and his men end up in pillories awaiting some unspecified but presumably cruel and medieval punishment for this act of lèse-majesté. But! Richard rides too close to the castle walls and is brought down by a crossbow bolt. This is absolutely true, though in fact he died from gangrene contracted from the wound two weeks later rather than being insta-killed as he is here. Still, it sets the scene for a daring escape. As an aside, Danny Huston was 50 when he played Richard and did so with paunch and grey beard to make him look even older, which feels a bit odd. Richard was generally pretty fit and healthy and only 42 when he died. Likewise King John, here played by Oscar Isaac, is portrayed as he so often is these days with black hair and goatee beard; a bit of an old evil Mephistophelean stereotype. He was actually reddish-blond like his brother and usually shown as clean shaven in contemporary illustrations, but there we go.
There’s a side scene that sets up King John, in bed with Isabella of Angouleme (something he liked to do a lot, reportedly), and scolded by his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor is played brilliantly by Eileen Atkins as the fierce Plantagenet matriarch she was, but it’s worth mentioning that in 1199 Isabella of Angouleme (here a winsome Lea Seydoux, who captures some of her legendary beauty) was only about 12 years old. John did infamously sleep with Isabella when she was just 14, and the film condenses timelines a lot, so let’s pass over that.
Now we’re on the road, and there’s an ambush of English troops by some dastardly French, here speaking (modern) French to differentiate them from the ‘English’, though of course the King, the nobility and most of the churchmen would have been Anglo-Norman and should presumably therefore also be speaking French. As the siege is at Chalus, most of John’s soldiers would probably also be from Aquitaine, whose people, like Richard I, spoke Occitan rather than Norman French. The ambush is led by ‘Godfrey’, whose position is never made clear. He seems to be working for King John but secretly conspiring with King Philip of France. Philip was a notorious conspirer, so that’s fine. Godfrey seems to be a composite character of John’s hated mercenary captains like Philip Mark, Faulkes de Breaute and Engeland de Cigogne. They did a lot of his dirty work like tax collecting, were promoted into positions above native English barons (most were from Poitou and west France) and often ended up as Royal Sheriffs. One of them, Philip Mark, was actually Sheriff of Nottingham from 1208-1216, something I would have expected the film to make more of.
Anyway, the French ambush is in turn ambushed by Robin and his deserters and driven off. Godfrey gets an arrow scar to his cheek for his pains. They then come across the dying body of Sir Robert of Loxley, who begs Robin to take word of his death to his father. I do like this conceit, as it nicely merges two of the Robin Hood traditions – of him being an ordinary archer and outlaw, and of being a local noble who gets on the wrong side of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Also found in the ambushed column is the Crown of England, bizarrely. Why Richard would take it on campaign with him is beyond me, though John did later lose some Royal regalia crossing the Wash, so who knows.
The deserters, now posing as Sir Robert of Loxley and his retinue, head for home. There is a lovely scene of a CGI medieval cog sailing ship here, and CGI Tower of London – in general the film looks very nice, and mostly authentic, though Nottingham looks a bit more like a hamlet than the fair-sized medieval city it was. Robin ends up at John’s coronation, where John beomans England’s debts bequeathed him by his brother (true) and therefore announces new harsh taxes (true-ish – they were relatively light to begin with but progressively got more onerous over the next decade and a half). His Chancellor, here played by William Hurt as William Marshal, disagrees and is fired. William was a key figure in John’s reign, and was to begin with a rising star, garlanded with possessions like Pembrokeshire, then fell out with John (over Irish policy and his possessions in Normandy, it’s a long story), so there’s a grain of truth. Marshal looks convincing as the burly old warhorse he was – he mainly commanded John’s army, that’s why he was called Marshal, but he was never Chancellor – that would have been the formidable Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1199.
There’s some intrigue introduced in Nottinghamshire. Marian de Loxley (Cate Blanchett on great form), running the family estate now her father is in his dotage, suffers from a bandit raid of some kind, and then argues with some venal monks who refuse to share their grain. Friar Tuck (out of time period – mendicant friars were a creation of the 1220s – one reason for preferring the Edward I setting for Robin Hood) tries to argue with Father Tancred to show more charity, but is quickly shut down. Church greed and corruption was a very popular trope of the era, so this is all good stuff. But later, the poverty that has been inflicted on the estate leads to Marian helping drive a plough. That feels very odd – surely no Norman noblewoman, especially one who is later said to have “5,000 acres” – 40 hides or several knights fees, so a substantial baron in her own right – would be seen dead grubbing about in a field like a peasant, however compassionate or tomboyish she is supposed to be?
Robin finally makes it to Loxley. Here there is a strange plot point. The elderly Sir Walter Loxley (a slightly hammy Max von Sydow) argues that when he dies (the implication is soon), the estate will be forfeit to the crown as Marian can’t inherit it and she’ll lose everything. That is not how medieval law worked. She would have been given dower lands on her wedding day that were hers outright, and as the widow of the heir she might have also held the remaining lands as a ‘ward’ of the crown, with a Royal ‘guardian’ appointed to oversee the lands (for a percentage) until she remarried. Possibly she might even be married off to whoever the King chose for her, e.g. one of his mercenary captains as a reward – but the land would still be hers and her heirs. Still, it was questions over the treatment of widows, heiresses and underage heirs and John’s abuse of the inheritance system for his own gain which dominated a lot of Magna Carta, so I can see why it was done in the film. It’s why Magna Carta was essentially a noble tax revolt, and not to do with the rights of man and all that, but more on that later. But anyway, this legal fiction drives the plot. It means Robin now has to continue to playact as Sir Robert as per The Return of Martin Guerre, which draws him into the family’s inheritance struggle against John’s taxes (was there no-one who would have recognised him as being Not-Sir Robert?)
There are some good bits here, as Robin arranges an ambush of the church grain shipment to redistribute it, Little John, Will Scarlet and Alan A-Dale all turn up, and Friar Tuck joins the Merry Men, and in general it’s about getting the band back together. There’s also some amusingly awkward domestic comedy with Robin and Lady Marian, and I think this is basically the best bit of the film.
Some confusing shenanigans follow. The evil French king gives ‘Godfrey’ 200 men at arms, who turn up and raid English villages under the guise of collecting taxes, to make King John look bad. Eh? The idea that taxes were conducted under the guise of some kind of chevauchée that lays waste with fire and the sword is bizarre – I mean what would you collect next year if you burned everything down? Also – you tax nobles, not peasants. Peasants have nothing anyway and have already given a tithe to both the church and their feudal overlord. And burning down villages was just not done in peacetime – it would mean instant rebellion – indeed, you’d only do that kind of thing to vassals who were already in rebellion. Well, here it seems to lead to the Northern Barons deciding John is bad and so their falling into the orbit of the King of France. The northerners did indeed get fed up, mostly because they didn’t feel obliged to pay to help John recapture Normandy – the loss of which is for some reason never mentioned. Anyway, it’s true enough that by 1215 the northern barons (though not just them) were in open revolt against King John. In the film the French King sees this as making England ripe for invasion. This is sort-of true, but the timeline is very confused here – in reality the French invasion did not happen until months after Magna Carta, when John had gone back on his word and open war had already broken out between John and the Barons. For dramatic effect the film also makes a period of 15 years seem like a few weeks. This means that characters like Eleanor of Aquitaine are still around at the end, when in fact she died in 1204.
Now comes one of the most bizarre bits of the film, where Robin finds a charter of liberties his father had just happened to draw up and then bury under a monument (he was a mason, it seems). This journeyman craftsman was apparently a 12th century Rousseau and had all kinds of unhistorical 18th century thoughts on equality and liberty and the like. Robin decides to present this at a crucial meeting of the Barons and King John, who all decide it is the best thing they have ever heard, and lo and behold Magna Carta is a thing. This is clearly preposterous. The charter, mainly about Baronial tax concerns, was probably the brainchild of then-Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton (John’s conflict with the Pope and the whole Papal interdict also seems to have ended up on the cutting room floor). It has precisely two (out of 61) clauses about free men not being arrested unlawfully and not being denied justice, but the rest is all fish weirs, carriage rates for wagons, writs, wardships and death duties. Anyway, the barons are trusting fools who think that King John actually means all of the stuff he has just signed up to about freedom and liberty (they didn’t). And so with John now pledged to defend English liberties (lol) they can all go and fight the ‘French’ together, who are just about to land on the south coast. Hurrah! The fact that the King of England owned half of France in this era and a lot of English Barons also had lands in France is conveniently lost in some anacrhonistic nationalistic tub thumping.
First however Robin has to take a detour to Loxley, where Sir Walter has been killed by marauding Sheriffs men, and so he and his Merry Men defeat them and there is time for a funeral for Sir Walter before Robin goes off to help fight the French invasion. For unspecified reasons Sir Walter gets a Viking-style funeral pyre, which led to me shouting “BURY HIM PROPERLY, YOU BLOODY HEATHENS!” at the TV screen. Catholics were not so big on cremation until 1961. If your body was gone, how could it arise at the last trumpet?
OK, so Robin can now help out against the French. What follows is one of the most ridiculous scenes in any historical film I have ever watched, and I think what Jim was probably alluding to. The French invasion plays out like a recreation of Le D-Day, with French landing craft arriving on the beach by Dover, bow door ramps swinging down to let men at arms in chainmail run out of them into the surf like something from Normandy 1944, and with arrows being rained on them from the white cliffs like MG-34s on Omaha Beach (clearly not enough catapult bombardment in the run-up to the landings). There are even underwater shots like from Saving Private Ryan with arrows instead of bullets. Some fighting ensues and the French are defeated; I was too busy laughing to tell you much of what happened here. In reality, once King John died, while still campaigning against the Barons, William Marshal, now Regent, reissued a compromise Magna Carta that brought a lot of the barons back on-side, and *then* he defeated the French at Lincoln, and then again at the naval battle off Sandwich. The real events are dramatic enough in my own opinion not to need this kind of nonsense.
Aaanyway, in the film, King John goes back on Magna Carta, literally setting fire to it, but only *after* the French are defeated (very wrong), and when Robin protests at this, he is finally outlawed and heads into Sherwood Forest with Marian and the Merry Men, to hang out cosily and set up camp, as though everything we had just witnessed was some kind of superhero origin story – a sequel was apparently planned but perhaps fortunately never happened. End titles.
So, summing up. It was visually pretty good, at least for the first three quarters. There was some good acting, some nice bits and a nice conceit of Robin having to play along as Sir Robert of Loxley, but the attempt to weave the legend into real 13th century politics felt confused and confusing, often simply wrong, and also quite po-faced – there was very little swashbuckling, which surely is the point of a Robin Hood film? The film is strangely plodding and uninvolving. And then there’s the history. As a depiction of early 13th century Anglo-French politics, it isn’t even as good as Ironclad (don’t get me started). The idea of finding a draft Magna Carta under a rock was weird, and the French invasion was utterly laughable. As much as I hate Kevin Costner and that bloody Bryan Adams song, I have to admit 1991’s Prince of Thieves was much more fun, though I’d personally take Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn in the 1973 Robin and Marian over all of them. And for the wargamers – this is for CLWG after all – the scenes of medieval combat either rely on unhistoric tropes or, for the end scenes, are literally taken from WWII.