Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” (2010)

Notable Festivals: Cannes

If mainstream American cinema in the 21st century has been marked by any one dominant trend, it is this: intellectual property.  As studio budgets soar ever higher, necessitating inflated ticket prices at the box office, producers have found they need to hedge their creative bets in order to draw increasingly choosy audiences.  The best way to guarantee an audience, it turns out, is to have an audience already built in. Enter: intellectual property, a broad and rather vague term that describes an avalanche of pre-existing content that can be licensed, borrowed, or purchased, with a pre-existing audience that can be harnessed to produce blockbuster returns.  As a result, studios have sacked original ideas in favor of an endless parade of sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, YA novel adaptations, and “shared universes”. Another avenue, which has resulted in some of the more morbidly curious (if not outright awful) “units of content” this decade, is the “reimagining” of a public domain property.  Arguably the most cynical of major studio strategies, these stories are free to use by all, so executives can skip the optioning cost as they commission the latest writer-du-jour to rework or “update” these inherently-old ideas for modern tastes.

One need look no further than this weekend’s theatrical offerings to see this strategy in sad, unimaginative motion: Otto Bathurst’s ROBIN HOOD (2018) endeavors to update the swashbuckling vigilante for the Snapchat generation with a pandering H&M street-art aesthetic, only for its efforts to be rewarded with one of the most abysmal critical and financial performances of the year.  It’s ironic to be writing this article as the film self-immolates in an inferno of laughter and humiliation, if only because Universal already failed eight years ago with its own “dark-and-gritty” approach to the character. That film, also titled ROBIN HOOD (2010), shares its successor’s sad distinction of flaming out in a spectacular display of capitalistic hubris.  The meddling of its director turned what was originally one of the more promising takes on the property into a bland, occasionally-entertaining film that’s forgotten almost as quickly as it’s taken in.  The project originated with a script by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris called NOTTINGHAM, which sparked a seven-figure bidding war simply by flipping the moral polarity of Robin Hood and his arch nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingham (1).  Structured as a crime procedural, NOTTINGHAM could have played like a medieval HEAT (1995), accomplishing the rare feat of actually adding value and insight into the adaptation of centuries-old material.  Producer Brian Grazer, of Imagine Entertainment, would ultimately win said bidding war, subsequently attaching Russell Crowe in a peculiar scheme that would have seen the actor play both roles.  

As painful as it is to say, things began to go off the rails when director Sir Ridley Scott became involved.  After previously attempting to secure NOTTINGHAM’s rights for himself and Twentieth Century Fox, he leveraged his relationship with Grazer from AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007) so that he could make the film anyway (2).  The seasoned director seemed the perfect fit on paper: he had a fruitful working relationship with both Grazer and Crowe, he had an unimpeachable track record for navigating large-scale production logistics, he had a profound interest in medieval history and culture, and he felt there was much more to say with the character in the cinematic medium— indeed, he cited 1993’s ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS as the only version of the story he found worth a damn (1).  For all of NOTTINGHAM’s buzz, Scott’s ultimate dissatisfaction with the script compelled him to ditch such an extremely revisionist take in favor of a mildly-revisionist one that could subsequently launch a successful franchise.  Screenwriter Brian Helgeland was brought aboard to dramatically rewrite the film, shifting the focus back towards Robin Hood’s favor, and ultimately dropping everything that made NOTTINGHAM so distinctive.  Instead, Scott’s take on the Robin Hood legend would ditch any high-concept pretenses whatsoever in order to craft a straightforward adventure that’s bogged down by a slavish devotion to realism and attention to historical detail.  The end result is an autopilot epic, driven forward only by the demands of narrative rather than any genuine inspiration.

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Much like BATMAN BEGINS (2005) and other gritty reboots of the day, Scott’s ROBIN HOOD orients itself as something of an origin story, giving audiences a glimpse of the man behind the legend.  It is the turn of the 12th century, and the future Prince of Thieves is a common archer in King Richard The Lionheart’s army.  Last seen in Scott’s own KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005) as he set off on a crusade to retake Jerusalem, King Richard (played here by a bearded, wild-eyed Danny Huston) is now returning to England with his vast army— of which Crowe’s Robin Longstride is a lowly member of the rank-and-file. He’s a natural leader of men, but his quiet virtues haven’t been given much of a chance to present themselves until now.  Donning a similar haircut to Crowe’s character in GLADIATOR (2000), Robin is introduced as a man who could very much be a Maximus in his own right, and perhaps that’s why the actor’s portrayal is so lackluster.  He’s already played this character before, and yet he doesn’t seize the opportunity of ROBIN HOOD to add anything new to the archetype.  Arguably the most fascinating aspect of Crowe’s performance lies on the other side of the camera lens— after four smooth and successful collaborations, Crowe and Scott’s chemistry was reportedly beginning to fray (1).  At the risk of speculation, the key factor at play here could very well have been Crowe’s promotion to a co-producer role, where he had previously only been the talent. The director-actor relationship had likely kept these two considerably large egos in check, but one can see how Crowe’s direct challenges or contributions to Scott’s decisions might have caused the relationship to go south, to the point that they haven’t worked together since.  

The story begins in earnest during King Richard’s unsuccessful attempt to invade Chalus Castle in France— an act that results in the King’s untimely death.  Already unhappy with the King’s leadership, Robin takes the opportunity to desert, taking a handful of cohorts with him who will eventually become his fabled Merry Men.  They come across the bloody aftermath of an ambush on the English royal guard in the woods, their mission to deliver Richard’s crown to his successor cut violently short by Sir Godfrey, a treasonous English knight secretly in league with the King of France.  Fresh off his first collaboration with Scott on BODY OF LIES (2008), a bald Mark Strong breathes deceptive, calculating life into the unfamiliar character of Godfrey, becoming the de facto antagonist of Robin’s origin story as he carries out a plot against his own country.  Discovering Richard’s crown still tucked away in the saddle of his trusty horse, Robin and company disguise themselves as the massacred royal guard members and make their way back to England.

Upon their arrival, Robin and his men deliver the crown to Richard’s brother and successor, Prince John.  Like Strong, actor Oscar Isaac delivers his second consecutive performance for Scott after appearing in BODY OF LIES, receiving a much meatier role this time around as England’s cruel and vindictive new ruler, who immediately embarks on a bloody campaign to recoup taxes owed to the crown.  After the coronation, Robin fulfills a promise he made to Robert Loxley, one of the dying royal guard members back in France: return his sword to his father, Sir Walter Loxley, a property owner of modest wealth who reside in Nottingham, outside Sherwood Forest.  Played by prestigious character actor Max Von Sydow, the blind Loxley proves a compassionate, father-like figure to Robin, his agrarian spread a welcome place to put up his feet a while. He also, unexpectedly, finds love— in having to continue assuming the guise of the late Robert Loxley in order to evade suspicions of his desertion, Robin develops a relationship with the dead man’s widow, Marion.  Played by Cate Blanchett, this version of Marion is certainly no Maid; she’s every bit the fighter Robin is. Fierce, independent-minded, and defiant to unjust authority, Blanchett’s characterization of Marion is a testament to her unique strengths as an actress, as well as Scott’s rich history of well-developed heroines. Her affections are not awarded so easily, taking nothing less than Robin’s recovery of the village’s unjustly-tithed grain to win her over.  

The major players of the legend now established, Scott and Helgeland concoct an action-packed plot in which Robin can emerge as the age-old hero we know and love.  Robin’s reputation of “stealing from the rich to give to the poor” grows as he fights back against King John and Godfrey’s campaign to hoard the country’s riches for themselves.  This being a $200 million epic, however, this scenario alone doesn’t satisfy the “high-stakes” requirement of a major studio tent pole, so naturally Robin, Marion, and his Merry Men inevitably find themselves swept up in the grand scope of history, propelled along towards the white cliffs of Dover to meet the King of France’s invasion forces head on in a bloody battle for England’s future.  This imperiled future concerns several other notable characters, played by a variety of established and emerging performers that imbue ROBIN HOOD with a prestigious pedigree.  There’s William Hurt, playing a noble counselor to King John, as well as Lea Seydoux, playing a conflicted French princess who graduates from John’s mistress to his new Queen.  Robin’s band of Merry Men benefits from their close-knit friendship, made palpable onscreen by virtue of their real friendship off-camera. Mark Addy (Friar Tuck), Kevin Durand (Little John), Scott Grimes (Will Scarlet) and Alan Doyle (Allan A’Dayle) were cast by Crowe himself, who leveraged his co-producer credit to ensure he and his Merry Men would have a strong, pre-established chemistry.  An assumingly-essential character, however, is lost in the sweep of ROBIN HOOD’s scale: the Sheriff of Nottingham, played by Matthew Macfadyen.  His limited screen time is all the more perplexing when reminded that the original incarnation of the project positioned him as the protagonist.  Macfadyen plays the Sheriff as a corrupt, yet ineffectual bureaucrat; more of a laughing-stock than a feared man of power. It’s only towards the end that his role in the proceedings takes on any clarity, setting up an arch-rival relationship to Robin that could be explored in theoretical sequels.  

If ROBIN HOOD ultimately fails as a rewarding film, it’s certainly not due to a lack of top-notch effort on the part of Scott’s technical collaborators.  ROBIN HOOD reunites most of the core GLADIATOR team, including cinematographer John Mathieson, production designer Arthur Max and editor Pietro Scalia.  Adopting the template established by Scott’s 2000 masterpiece and further built upon in KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, ROBIN HOOD aspires to be a monumental historical epic in the director’s signature style.  Scott’s execution plays like a strange hybrid of Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON (1975) and Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), mixing classical camerawork with chaotic and visceral handheld movement during action sequences like the climactic beachside battle (which plays very much like the medieval version of D-Day, complete with soldiers jumping off protective landing boats to storm the coast amidst a hail of lethal projectiles).  At this stage in his creative partnership with Scott, Mathieson can replicate his director’s distinct aesthetic in his sleep, resulting in a visual experience that seemingly retreats two steps back towards safety for every step it takes towards artistic evolution. Like most of Scott’s previous work, ROBIN HOOD was shot on 35mm film in the appropriately-epic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, rendering his signature atmospherics like smoke, candles, silhouettes, and beams of concentrated light with a moody blue/orange color dichotomy.  The film does, however, attempt to expand upon Scott’s tried-and-true aesthetic by employing the conspicuous use of helicopter aerials and recurring, sometimes-jarring slow zooms that immediately call to mind BARRY LYNDON’s distinct visual style.  Scott further hammers home the BARRY LYNDON reference with the use of “Women Of Ireland”, a composition that marks the opening passages of Kubrick’s stately masterpiece; in ROBIN HOOD, it appears during a dance between Robin and Marion during a party in the village.  Its tender, romantic flavor complements Streitenfeld’s adventurous score, which leans in to its medieval backdrop with the deployment of bagpipes and choral elements against traditional orchestration.  

Indeed, ROBIN HOOD comes across as much-more overtly romantic compared to similar historical epics like GLADIATOR or KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.  In a way, it wasn’t so much those films that adequately prepared Scott to construct this balance of adventure and romance, but rather works like LEGEND (1985) or even A GOOD YEAR (2006).  Scott’s balance doesn’t seem quite as level as he intended, however— he’s clearly more interested in the medieval warfare and his Iron Age mise-en-scene than the sappy stuff.  Thankfully, he excels at making his interests our interests, employing his longtime collaboration with Max towards evocative and immersive effect.  The production design is arguably ROBIN HOOD’s strongest suit, perfectly capturing the grit and grime that pervaded pastoral towns and stone fortresses alike.  Nottingham comes alive like no other adaptation has done before, benefiting from Scott and Max’s exacting attention to detail in both the micro (rats picking over the leftovers of a feast) and the macro (the distinctive colors worn by opposing armies as they charge towards one another).  One could argue that it’s all a little too much, to the point that Scott’s biggest strength tips over into ROBIN HOOD’s biggest liability.  The legend of Robin Hood is one of swashbuckling adventure— a tone that’s buried underneath the densely-layered and historically-accurate worldbuilding, or the gravely-imperial machinations of medieval politics.  Indeed, it seems that the only fun Scott allows himself to have lies in the closing credits, which render key images from the film in blustering brushstrokes not at all dissimilar to the treatment of the Scott Free logo that precedes his recent features.

Scott has always been an exceedingly ambitious filmmaker, but his particular ambitions with the top-heavy ROBIN HOOD threaten to topple his reputation as a deft navigator of intimidating production logistics.  The inability to nail down an exact story until relatively late in the game (famed British playwright Tom Stoppard was reportedly on hand throughout the shoot to deliver last-minute rewrites (1)) caused ROBIN HOOD’s budget to balloon to $200 million, ushering in the need for a huge box office take in order to make the whole endeavor worthwhile, let alone justify a sequel.  The prospect of a franchise was quickly ruled out by a disappointing bow of $320 million worldwide: a profit, technically-speaking, but low enough to qualify as a belly flop here in the States (1).  The film’s opening of the Cannes Film Festival remains the highlight of its release, with critics thereafter delivering mostly-negative reviews. Relevant Magazine’s David Roak would express the general sentiment best when he wrote: “Scott had turned a myth… into a history which emerges as dry, insensible clutter” (3).  Any hopes that Scott had a BLADE RUNNER or KINGDOM OF HEAVEN-style hidden gem stashed away in the form of an extended cut were quickly dashed upon ROBIN HOOD’s arrival on the home video market.  The included “Director’s Cut” would add an additional fifteen minutes to the overall runtime, but little else.  More of a marketing hook than an actualized expression of some compromised vision, Scott’s “Director’s Cut” fails to yield any substantial — let alone transformative — insights.  If anything, its existence only reinforces the notion that ROBIN HOOD’s flaws were not the product of studio meddling, but that of Scott’s general approach to the property.  First-rate production value aside, ROBIN HOOD embodies a top-form, world-class filmmaker simply treading water.  There are far worse ways one could spend two hours, but Scott’s shot at the Prince of Thieves is so loaded down with the baggage of medieval politics that it can’t help but miss its mark.

ROBIN HOOD is currently available on 4K ultra high definition Blu Ray via Universal

Credits:

Produced by: Ridley Scott, Brian Grazer, Russell Crowe

Written by: Brian Helgeland

Director of Photography: John Mathieson

Production Designer: Arthur Max

Edited by: Pietro Scalia

Music by: Marc Streitenfeld

References:

  • IMDB Trivia Page