Origin stories are big these days. Recently studios have shown us how James became Bond, how Bruce Wayne became Batman, and how Captain Kirk met his crew. Now with Ridley Scott’s take on Robin Hood we get to see how an archer from the crusades called Robin Longstride would become an outlaw called Robin of the Hood and steal from the rich to give to the poor. His first crime is to steal seeds to give to farmers, but you have to start somewhere.
All the usual suspects are there: Russell Crowe, an expert at playing mythological heroes who are great at both decapitating people with a sword and giving a great speech to fire up a crowd, plays the titular hero. His Robin Hood is a practical one. When he hears that King Richard the Lion Heart (Danny Huston) has died in battle, his first thought is to make for the coast and to hell with the wages. “Imagine how hard it will be to get paid now that he’s dead” he points out. His merry men are not so much merry as feisty and looking for a place to crash after a long fight with the French. There is Little John (Kevin Durand), who has one of the most ironic names in history, Allan A’Dayle (Alan Doyle), who carries a lute as well as sword, and Will Scarlet, who doesn’t really stand out when compared to the rest of the gang. In the Nottingham they meet Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) who is also a beekeeper with the ability to turn his honey into booze. Praise the lord.
What is new is the road to Nottingham. On their way to the coast, Robin and his pals find a slain party of knights who were taking the crown of the late King Richard back to England. They were ambushed by French soldiers led by an English knight called Godfrey (Mark Strong) or Godefroy depending on the language of the person he is talking to. Among the casualties Robin finds a knight called Robert Loxley whose dying wish is that his sword be returned to his father. It is amazingly convenient that people who have been mortally wounded in movies always have the time to convey their last wishes right before closing their eyes. It would have been a shame if he had died two minutes earlier.
Robin’s cunning plan is to take Loxley’s name, sword, and armour in order to hitch a ride to London, give the crown to Prince John (Oscar Isaac), and hopefully leave the scene before anybody realizes he is a deserter. What he did not plan was to have to carry on the charade after meeting Walter Loxley (Max Von Sydow) who believes Robin pretending to be his son is the only way to avoid his land being seized. This also means Robin needs to pretend to be married to Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett). Not a bad deal.
This Marion is no damsel in distress. She is initially disgusted at her father-in-law’s idea to pretend to be married to a perfect stranger and has him sleeping on the floor with her dogs on their first night together. But of course eventually they bond together, someone says “I love you” and they even ride together in battle.
The villains in this particular story are not the usual ones from a Robin Hood story. The actual sheriff of Nottingham (Mathew MacFadyen) is a minor character who will eventually have a much harder job than he imagined. The main villain is Godfrey who is scheming with King Philip of France (Jonathan Zaccaï) to weaken England in preparation for a French invasion while Prince John is angry that his coffers are empty and sees massive taxation as the only way out of bankruptcy. To appease the grumbling masses, Robin makes the suggestion that the king sign a document that would give more power to the people. If Robin Hood had played such a big part in politics, wouldn’t he be mentioned more frequently in history books?
Seeing the hero make a grand speech about freedom for all and later charging head first into a massive battle reminded involving thousands of extras me more of William Wallace than Robin Hood. It is only towards the end that we see these familiar characters in a more familiar setting. Still, it all makes for an interesting, if somewhat hard to believe story, with humorous moment sprinkled between action scenes expertly directed by Ridley Scott who knows his way around battle fields.