An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

December 26, 2018

Robin Hood, dir. O. Bathurst (2018)

Robbing the Hood:
Robin Hood, directed by Otto Bathurst, 2018.
Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty
La Salle University

The legend of Robin Hood celebrates transgressive behavior.  King Arthur is authoritarian—the focus of a structured legend rooted in long foundational medieval texts by the likes of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes, and Sir Thomas Malory.  Robin Hood is anti-authoritarian—the focus of an unstructured legend rooted in popular culture and shorter anonymous texts.  In literature, the Hoodian legend begins as what Roman Catholics used to call an occasion of sin.  In the B-text of Piers Plowman, William Langland in the late fourteenth century presents an idle priest, a figure of sloth, who has failed to learn his prayers but who knows instead the “rymes of Robin Hood.”  Those “rymes” mark the literary beginning of a legend that would grow by bits and bobs and cross genres for centuries, adding along the way characters and incidents with which we have become more than familiar, and, at one point, resituating itself in the time of King Richard I, some two hundred or so years earlier than when it sprang up.

Film began its fascination with Robin Hood at least as early as 1908; television, in 1950 in the United States, and three years later in England.  Rarely, it is safe to say, no matter what genre or media is employed, does someone retell the story of Robin Hood without nodding to earlier versions of the tale and to contemporary politics.  In the case of cinema, arguably the three best Robin Hood films react to world conflicts past (the 1922 Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.), present (Richard Lester’s 1976 Robin and Marian starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn), and future (the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn).  The Robin Hoods of television have similarly been used for political purposes: opposing the Hollywood Blacklist (the 1950s’ The Adventures of Robin Hood), opposing pollution and attacks on the environment (the 1980s’ Robin of Sherwood), and opposing the policies of Mrs. Thatcher (the 1990s’ Maid Marian and Her Merry Men).

Film’s latest foray into the Greenwood—Otto Bathurst’s 2018 Robin Hood—nods to earlier versions of the legend and to contemporary politics.  We have some of the usual suspects—Marian, Little John, Friar Tuck, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Guy of Gisborne, Will Scarlet (identified in the final rolling credits as Will Tillerman).   Prince John, Queen Eleanor, and King Richard, along with a number of the usual merry men, are AWOL.  Parts of the plot seem familiar enough.  The Sheriff, here in cahoots with the Church, is taxing people to death.  Robin is intent on stopping him.  Robin’s weapon of choice is a bow and arrow—his archery skills unmatched.  But as familiar as all this may sound, the film as a whole takes a decidedly different course with already well-known Hoodian naremes, and not with total success.  Indeed, it is fair to say of the film that its whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.

As the film opens, Robin of Loxley (Taran Eggerton) is leading a devil may care life comfortably ensconced in ancestral family home.  He stumbles on a horse thief, the not very well disguised Marian (Eve Hewson), who advocates a sort of income-inequality-is-bad philosophy light.  Marian’s costumer designer for this scene seems to have decided for some unknown reason that she needs to display as much of her breasts as it is possible to do so.  To be fair, the camera’s cinematic gaze here knows no gender prejudices.  Later in the film, Robin is wounded in the thigh by an arrow but must remove his shirt, and thereby display his twelve pack, to receive treatment.

In this Hoodian cinematic enterprise, Nottingham seems at the center of all things England, as the Crusades are being waged off in the East and need conscripts, so Robin receives, in a wonderfully retro scene, what else but a draft notice, duly signed by the Sheriff (a wonderfully dastardly Ben Mendelson).  But that notice sends Robin off not to the Holy Land but to the Arabian Peninsula, where there are medieval versions of weapons of mass destruction (a Gatling gun-like weapon that fire arrows), snipers (Arab and English), and extra-judicial killings of POWs (Abu Ghraib meets My Lai) under the command of Gisborne (Paul Anderson, who will later return to England as a member of a medieval Black Ops team).  A wounded Robin, who has challenged Gisborne’s actions, is shipped back home after having been away from Nottingham for two years, accompanied by the film’s version of Little John (Jamie Foxx, playing an Arab who has watched his son be killed by Gisborne).  Ever since Kevin Reynold’s 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, we have come to expect that Robin will have a Muslim sidekick, though here Foxx merges the 1991 Morgan Freeman role of Azeem with the character of one of the Hoodian legend’s original merry men.

While Robin has been away, all has not been well at Loxley Hall.  Indeed, the Sheriff has declared Robin dead and confiscated his lands.  Marian, who had pledged undying love to Robin when he set out on Crusade, has found consolation in the arms of Will (Jamie Dornan, late of The Fifty Shades of Grey franchise who, in a wonderful visual joke, only wears grey costumes throughout the film).  Dornan’s Will is some sort of labor organizer as Nottingham is not only the center of all things England, but the city also sits atop a huge mine into which workers are sent at their peril.  Exactly what is being mined is unclear, but the working conditions seem to have been inspired by those in any number of sci-fi intergalactic prison films (think Judge Dredd).

The Sheriff is intent upon exploiting the citizens of Nottingham to raise as much money as possible, supposedly for the Crusade. In his endeavors, he is aided and abetted by the local clergy who attach themselves to a huge cathedral that seems the center piece of Nottingham, though the cathedral doesn’t look all that medieval, nor do the costumes of the clergy, of the Sheriff, or of the other characters in the film.  My guess is that the Sheriff shops at Kenneth Cole; Robin, at Alexander McQueen; and Will, at Abercrombie & Fitch.  Even Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin), who functions as an agent provocateur within the church, sports a bright green tunic, which seems as far removed as possible from what we might expect for a medieval clerical habit—the same is true of the costumes of his clerical superiors.  Indeed, the film’s costumes and the sets are at times designed consciously not to be medieval.  The costumes in particular remind me of the wonderful exhibit last year at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art called Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic, which displayed papal regalia along side nearly 150 contemporary ensembles inspired by them.  The film’s costumes resemble the contemporary ensembles more than they do the vestments which inspired them. And Nottingham Cathedral seems modelled on the Temple of the High Sparrow from Game of Thrones more than on any genuinely Romanesque or Gothic structure.

Tuck, Will, Marian, and Robin are convinced that the Sheriff is up to no good—when is he ever in a Hoodian narrative up to anything but no good?—but the Sheriff’s aims and motivation escape them, so Robin pretends to ally himself with the Sheriff against the peasants who in the film are—bad pun à la Mel Brooks coming here—always revolting.  We soon learn the Sheriff was an orphan cruelly reared by abusive clergy—nod here to the ongoing clerical abuse scandal involving the Catholic Church—but he himself is the creature of the film’s true villain simply called the Cardinal (played by an oleaginous, snarling F. Murray Abraham).  What the two are up to is raising great amounts of money to support the Arab efforts in the Middle East, so that, once the Arabs win, the Cardinal can basically rule the world with the Sheriff at his side.

Robin, after some training by Little John in a sequence that nods to, of all cinematic predecessors, Rocky, then springs into action to defeat the Sheriff and the Cardinal—Will advocates a less confrontational response, which only exacerbates the tension between Robin and Will over the affections of Marian.  Robin, Tuck, and Marian manage to hide all the wealth that the Cardinal and Sheriff have accumulated in Sherwood, but Will becomes a casualty in the final battle. Wounded and horribly disfigured, he appears in the film’s final scene as the Sheriff’s new sidekick intent upon opposing everything we previously advocated, think Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight.

As I indicated earlier, this latest Hoodian film is, in the final analysis, less than the sum of its parts.  The film’s opening and closing graphics are borrowed from Arrow, the popular Hoodian television series on the CW channel. Familiar characters appear in unfamiliar situations—not unheard of in previous Hoodian films.  Bathurst’s film gives us Robin Hood before he took to Sherwood and began to rob from the rich and give to the poor—but so did the last Robin Hood film, Riley Scott’s 2010 Robin Hood with Russell Crowe in the title role, and Cate Blanchett as a Marian modelled, it would seem, on Ingrid Bergman’s Joan of Arc in Victor Fleming’s 1948 film. Throughout the 2018 film, there are nods to earlier films, Hoodian and otherwise.  Contemporary political and social issues get thrown into the mix higgledy-piggledy.  Bathurst’s film even presents a Hoodian bad-boy parallel to the King Arthur whom we had from Guy Ritchie in his 2017 film, and, like King Arthur, it was clearly filmed with a series of sequels in mind—in neither case, however, will such sequels be forthcoming, so badly have both films tanked at the box office.  But to be fair, the Ritchie film offers a fresh take on the Arthuriad, as I have argued earlier in Medievally Speaking, and deserves a better critical reception and more appreciation than it has received.  The same can’t be said for Bathurst’s film—here the legend of Robin Hood gets robbed!

Robin Hood, directed by Otto Bathurst. Screenplay by Ben Chandler and David James Kelly.  Summit Entertainment, Appian Way, Pixoloid Studios, Safehouse Pictures, and Thunder Road Pictures. 2018.  Running time: 1:56.