We all know Robin Hood, or perhaps think we do. A hero of English folklore who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, who wore green tights and a feather in his cap, Robin Hood’s tales of bravery and camaraderie have been retold countless times in ballads, books, a television series with music by Clannad, and numerous movies of varying quality.
Ridley Scott, seemingly dissatisfied with previous movie incarnations of Nottingham’s most famous hero, has swept much of the character’s previous trademarks into a bin. The cap and tights combination immortalised by the chipper Errol Flynn are gone, replaced by the chainmail and leather of a glowering Russell Crowe.
Scott’s Robin Hood works like a sprawling hero origin story, opening with Hood, here called Robin Longstride, fighting as a common archer alongside Richard the Lionheart (who, brilliantly, looks and acts like a proper lion) in the bloody Third Crusade of the 12th century.
When Richard abruptly dies in a routine sacking of a French castle, Robin and his band of less than merry men, including Little John (Kevin Durand) and Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes), find themselves in the possession of the late king’s crown, and take it back to England.
There, Richard’s smarmy, duplicitous brother John (Oscar Isaac) seizes power and immediately begins a far reaching and cruel taxation of the already poverty stricken poor, sending out his shaven-headed attack dog, Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), to collect the groats for him.
Unfortunately for King John, Godfrey has made a secret deal with King Philippe II of France, who plans to wait until England is on the brink of civil war before he sends his armies in by sea.
Robin, meanwhile, heads to Nottingham and meets the fiercely independent Lady Marian (Cate Blanchett), whose supplies of grain have been raided by a band of topless young boys. “What are we supposed to eat this winter, dandelion soup?” she rants to a passing peasant.
Fortunately for Nottingham and England, Robin proves to be the ultimate man of the people, finding time to melt the frosty heart of Marian, steal some grain from the rich to plant in the fields of the poor, as well as prevent a civil uprising and a full-scale invasion from the French.
If this overview of the plot seems long and overwrought, it’s nothing compared to the cavernous, needlessly intricate narrative of Scott’s film, which meanders all over the place. Dozens of characters are introduced for no obvious purpose, and writer Brian Helgeland seems intent on creating an air of historical verisimilitude for a character that was almost certainly a myth in the first place.
Which brings us to Robin Hood himself, played with leaden gravity by Crowe. Perfect as the grumpy, vengeful Maximus in Gladiator, Crowe brings that same surly, simmering aggression to a role that requires more levity and dramatic range.
It doesn’t help that Crowe never chooses one accent and sticks to it. Assuming an Irish lilt in one scene, opting for a Scots brogue in the next, with occasional excursions to Yorkshire and Northern Europe thrown in for good measure, Crowe’s Robin is arguably the most well-travelled outlaw in cinema history.
Cate Blanchett fairs little better as an oddly stiff Lady Marian, who looks and acts like a sulking Pre-Raphaelite painting.
Fortunately, Robin Hood‘s moribund leads are shored up by a huge roster of supporting talent. Mark Addy is good value as the cheerfully drunken bee keeper Friar Tuck, Matthew Macfadyen gets all the best lines as the spinelessly self-serving Sheriff of Nottingham, and Max von Sydow is reliably sympathetic as the blind, avuncular Sir Walter Loxley.
The problem is that, with Robin Hood stuffed with so many secret plots, half remembered histories and other sundry intrigues, each character barely has a chance to utter more than a handful of lines before they’re shoved aside for yet more exposition.
Robin Hood improves greatly after a particularly dry first hour, and for the period where Robin and his moderately cheerful men settle down in Nottingham, the film begins to find its feet, before Scott switches gear again and concludes the film with an oddly anachronistic restaging of the Normandy landings scene from Saving Private Ryan.
Constantly shifting register between dour historical epic, light-hearted popcorn movie and back again, Scott’s film is sporadically entertaining but perpetually muddled, as though neither the director nor his team of writers could quite decide who their movie is aimed at. Worse still, it never truly feels like a Robin Hood film.
By consigning so much of what is commonly known and loved about the outlaw so hastily to the bin – the tights, the sweet hat, the sparkling, cheerful camaraderie, and even a particular emphasis on archery – Scott has also shorn the character of much of his warmth and charm.
In aiming to make a more serious, historically accurate portrayal of a folk hero, Scott’s Robin Hood flies depressingly wide of the mark.
Ridley Scott’s characteristically beautiful cinematography looks spectacularly sharp on Blu-ray, though this high definition transfer reveals one or two surprising flaws. In one sequence, where Robin Hood’s companions enjoy an evening of mead-soaked merriment, certain shots are notably grainy, as though the scene’s been cut together from unused footage found on the floor of the editing suite.
More often than not, however, Robin Hood looks sumptuous, and filled with crisp detail, but like the story itself, is oddly drab and colourless, with Scott apparently using a special filter that makes every scene look like a wet weekend break in East Anglia.
The disc comes with the theatrical cut of the film or an extended director’s cut, which adds an extra 26 minutes of historical intrigue and grumpy dialogue. Joy.
The retail Blu-ray of Robin Hood also comes with a second disc, which contains a selection of deleted scenes, a 15-minute ‘making-of’ feature, a TV spot and trailer archive.
Robin Hood is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.