Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Robin Hood

So everyone knows the basics of the Robin Hood legend, so I won't recount them here. One of the positives of the more recent Robin Hood movies is that they at least try to set it in the proper historical context. Compare this to the early movies such as the Errol Flynn version that were little more than dudes jumping around in tights. The Kevin Costner version clearly set the action against the backdrop of the Crusades, and the 2010 movie was set against both the Crusades (through a brief bit of dialog) and the early Plantagenet attempts to maintain the Angevin Empire. However,"try" is the operative word, as both movies mostly failed. As one reviewer said, Robin Hood: Men in Tights was probably the best Robin Hood movie of them all because it at least knew it was a joke.

OK, a short bit of background. The Plantagenet dynasty of England began with the ascension of Henry II, the thertofore Count of Anjou, to the English throne in 1154. If a count seems an unlikely choice to become king, Henry's mother was Matilda, who was the daughter of Henry I of England and herself fought a bitter civil war against her father's successor and her distant cousin, King Stephen. Stephen died without a living heir, and the younger Henry was then crowned. Henry II was then followed by his eldest surviving son, Richard I, in 1189 who was in turn followed by his younger brother, John, in 1199. These three kings - Henry II, Richard I, and John - are oftentimes called the Angevins (as in "from Anjou") to distinguish them from later kings in their dynasty because in the reign of John, Anjou was lost in the wars against the French kings. Thereafter, the English kings would (with only brief exceptions) no longer control their ancestral homeland.

As can be seen in the attached map, in addition to Anjou and Normandy (Normandy had been in the possession of the English kings since the Duke of Normandy, William, invaded England in October 1066), Henry also married Eleanor, the Duchess of Acquitane, and then the duo essentially conquered the Duchy of Brittany. Combined with Henry's early military pushes into Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, this all put an enormous amount of land under Henry's control, and this entity is now called the Angevin Empire. One can see why the French king, Philip Augustus, upon looking at this map in which one of his subjects controled over half of France while being backed by the military and financial resources of a separate and independent kingdom, resolved to break the Angevins and put the two entities on a course for war over the next several centuries.

So in the end, it was King John who lost much of the empire, and this is one reason, though not the only one, that he is normally considered a "bad" king while his elder brother and father are considered "good" kings. His father and brother gained and maintained the Angevin Empire while John lost it. In my opinion, it's an unfair criticism of John, as he ultimately suffered for his father's and (especially) brother's overextension of English forces, but it explains the basic backdrop of any Robin Hood story. Richard I is the good and just king while John is the corrupt and cowardly one.

With the background out of the way, there were a couple historical inaccuracies, such as the manner of King Richard's death, but the biggest problem was one that so many Hollywood films make in historical pieces and one that inevitably turns the films into utter dreck: namely anachronistic attitudes. This first creeps up in Robin's initial confrontation with King Richard. One night, the king walks around the camp to determine his soldiers' mood. He comes upon Robin and asks him essentially if he believes in the mission. Robin tells him no because of the massacre of the prisoners at Acre and that Richard's army is therefore damned by God...

Now does anyone believe a soldier in the late 12th century would think this way? Would anyone in the 16th century think this way? Yes, our 21st-century sensibilities balk at the cold-blooded execution of 2700 prisoners, but if any soldier in Richard's army thought the same way, he was 600-700 years ahead of his time. By the way, I'd say the exact same thing about any soldier in Saladin's army, lest anyone think there were significant differences in thought on this issue.

Then there was the whole Constitution/Magna Charta subplot. I'm a bit unclear as to what the movie was really trying to do here, but I'm guessing they were angling towards probably the only thing that the average modern viewer would know about King John: Magna Charta. Nevermind that Magna Charta was at the end of John's reign in 1216, not the beginning in 1199, but the interpretation was pretty daft. The movie shows the whole idea essentially spontaneously brought up by fields full of commoners who are being rallied by their local lords, but it's more anachronistic crap that should be saved for the 18th century. Unfortunately, Magna Charta is most often taught to American students as a sort of precursor to the Constitution, but this is a great disservice because it said virtually nothing about the commoners. Rather, it was initiated by the nobility as an attempt to curb the absolute power of the king and protect their own rights. It was a precursor to the Constitution only in that it theoretically broke apart rule by one man, but only then to allow rule by one man and a "Parliament" (yes, the term is anachronistic here) of a few of his most powerful nobles. A spontaneous eruption of the masses who yearn for their freedom? Give me a break.

Finally, the final battle on the beach was a bad joke. OK, I'm no military strategist, but even I know what was shown was diabolically bad. For those who haven't seen the movie, the French king has decided to invade England (btw, there's a nub of truth to this element, but nothing like what was depicted). The beach they land on is overshadowed by a cliff. As the French exit their boats and start to assemble, the English infantry and cavalry draw up at one end of the beach. The archers assemble on the cliffs and begin to pelt the French to great carnage and bloodshed. Then, for no apparent reason except that Russell Crowe needs some glory in some battle scenes, the English cavalry charge... even though the French army is being obliterated by arrows, are in total disarray, and have no chance of charging the archers due to their being on a cliff... not a hill, mind you... a cliff.

So the French army can be obliterated with no danger to you, or you can charge in like a jagoff. Now I understand that Russell Crowe needs to feel manly and simply sitting there while arrows finish off the army is pretty lame... but then it's his movie. Can't this crew construct a battle in a fictional movie, whose scenery you entirely control, to show the need for a cavalry charge? Dumb.

The truth is in that situation, the French army never would have landed. They may have put out scouts if the army was well-hidden, but hiding 5000 people massed on a cliff and another 5000 massed on a beach from a fleet out at sea with no visual barriers in the way is brutally difficult and would itself defy belief.

Assuming the French were dumb enough to get themselves in that situation, the English would never charge before the arrows were exhausted. In all medieval battles, the bane of armies was the inevitable shortage of arrows. It was a common tactic for each army to pick up the arrows of the enemy archers and fire them back. The great battle of Agincourt, famously won by the English archers, was nearly lost when those archers ran out of arrows and had to run out amidst the dead bodies to scrounge for whatever still-useable arrows they could find. Crecy, Poitiers, Hastings... any of a thousand battles from this era fit the mold. The movie could have shown the arrows running out and THAT necessitating the cavalry charge while the French were still recovering. That would have been easy, but no, the only rationale was the need for an epic climax. Again, dumb.

And then there was the grand PC moment of Cate Blanchett running out onto the battlefield with her army of little boys on "cute" ponies. Could there have been anything more 20th-century than this? If it had been Narnia, I'd have accepted it as part of the created world but not here. In real life, Robin would have laughed at her crew and told them to get the hell out of there, but then that would have meant Crowe would have needed to do something other that glare menacingly across the battlefield as he mulled his glorious charge, and there was simply no time for that.

And so, as I've said about The Tudors, of which I've been generally positive, I can forgive movies for incorrect facts. I'm far less forgiving for getting the "feel" wrong, and this movie was crap in that regard. I'd have thought better of the film if they'd dropped the commoners yearning to be free and instead dressed them all in Reeboks. It still would have been ludicrous, but I could have handled it better.

Now let's look at the merits of the actual artistry of the film. In case it's not clear, I'm not a big fan of Russell Crowe. I think he's a bastard in real life, and he's not a good actor. I thought he was great in Gladiator until I realized that was all he had, and Robin's essentially the same character just 1200 years later. Cate Blanchett, on the other hand, I generally love, but I can't help the feeling that she's checked out as Maid Marian. And the two of these budding lovebirds together generate enough heat to make fire freeze. I'd love to know what Blanchett was thinking when she signed up for this. Maybe she was drunk, but my advice to her from now on is to (1) read the script a second time before accepting a movie and (2) if it has Crowe, then it's a no.

Mark Strong as Sir Godfrey is really making a career out of being the Big Bastard in every film he's in (see also Sherlock Holmes and The Young Victoria). Honestly, I didn't care that much about him here. Again, they tried to make him bad because he's a traitor to his country (i.e. betraying England for France), but the whole idea of the nation-state is a modern concept. The movie had set up that he had personal ties with the Kings of France as well as England (not uncommon in this era), and in a feudal society, personal ties are far more important than the exact spot you were born, especially as members of the nobility often had land grants from all over the place in both England and France and often beyond. As I said, I didn't care.

One performance I did enjoy was Max von Sydow's Sir Walter Loxley, the land barron that adopts Robin after the death of his true son to prevent his lands from returning to crown after his own demise. Incidentally, this little plot device was one of the few from the movie that genuinely intrigued me. Anyway, von Sydow brings both humor and gravity to the role and provides some of the genuine high spots of the movie. Because he draws the viewer in with his performance, his death is the only one that brings genuine sadness, and I can't help but think that the old man blindly waving his sword against his attacker shows a great deal more genuine courage that Robin ever does. He also raises Blanchett's game in their scenes together, as she actually displays genuinely believable emotion in his presence. Mostly this is exasperation, but there is clearly a warm regard between them. Amazingly enough, Crowe almost attains acting respectability in their scenes together as well, as his bemused expression at von Sydow's antics show the first glimmer of something new... although, it may also be that Crowe is actually not acting at all, but rather is genuinely bemused at witnessing someone who can.

Oscar Isaac's performance as King John, once you accept the characature the movie makes of him, is also pretty good. Isaac turns from a groveling prince to a sneering and domineering king chillingly well. The whole performance would easily lend itself to total ham complete with hand-wringing and maniacal laughter, but he never goes over the top. Rather, Isaac's John is no stranger to charm when he needs it, and the fact that the audience feels there is a constant interior scheming behind the smiling exterior only adds to the character's menace.

Music? Check. Costumes? Check. Yup, the movie had them, but I can't remember much about them a month later. Take that for what it's worth. I do remember thinking that the green leggings from one of Robin's early costumes could have been taken straight out of Men in Tights. Maybe it's historically accurate, though I doubt it, but it looks ridiculous either way. The cinematograhy was good for the most part, but I can't forgive Ridley Scott, the director, for his diabolical set-up of the final battle. That's all on him.

So that's it. There were a couple good efforts from minor characters, but they can't save this dreck. It's anachronistic and has poor performances from its principals. Personally, if you haven't already seen it, save it for the 99 cent rental. It might be worth that.

2 comments:

Jclef said...

Great review!

Maerduin said...

Yep, great review. You dash the ettin heads of historical inaccuracy/bad acting against the rocks with aplomb. Now I don't have to see it. It's a pity--I usually like Cate Blanchett too (but Notes on a Scandal was not great).