Robin Hood: a populist yarn and surefire crowd pleaser if ever there was one. He lives in the woods with his merry men, stealing from the rich, and redistributing to the poor; all the while engaging in a tit for tat with his arch nemesis, the feudal lacky the Sheriff of Nottingham. What could go wrong?
Apparently for Hollywood executives nowadays, though, this all must sound a little bit too much like class struggle, or terrorism, or ominously like piracy off the coast of Africa. For in the new retelling of the story, teaming up director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe again, there is not a lot of stealing from the rich to give to the poor going on.Where in the conventional story a band of nothings wage something of guerrilla war against Nottingham’s greedy nobles, in Scott’s version Robin Hood instead becomes a prophet of civil liberties—demanding legal rights for the regional barons of England.
To give a most cursory plot summary: set in the 11th century the new king John through a mixture of arrogance, greed and simple bad statesmanship, ends up fomenting civil war in his own country. After Richard the Lionheart’s crusades (which Robin of course rejects as an enlightened pre-post-Christian multiculturalist) England is a depleted nation; but it is only the shenanigans of the French which push the situation to the point of insurrection, as the barons rally against the new king. This turns out to be instigated and plotted for the purposes of disuniting the country to aid the French invasion (one can imagine Iranian President Ahmadinejad nodding knowingly along with all of this).
When king John goes to address the barons plotting war against the crown, Robin Hood steps into the fray, attempting to fulfill his fathers dream of inscribing a charter of liberties into the nation’s laws. When John mockingly asks Robin if he ‘wants all men to have castles’ Robin—recast as a good liberal, civil rights campaigner with no egalitarian, material aims—wittily retorts that ‘every Englishman’s house is his castle.’ Thus, for the sake of the support of the barons, and to reunite a country on the verge of civil war against the real enemy (perennial johnny foreigner trying to take the green and pleasant land), Robin proposes that the king give his word to sign the new charter. The king agrees; the civil war is snubbed out and all the barons in the land unite, with Robin Hood leading the charge, to give the French a good drubbing at the white cliffs of Dover. Foreign backed attempts at regime change are resoundingly defeated.
Then for no obvious reason other than sheer bastardliness John rescinds his offer publicly and declares Robin Hood an outlaw. The film ends, with the promise of potential sequels.
The problems with this new plot line are not just ideological, however, but dramatic. Like with many new Hollywood epics such as the Star Wars prequels, what was previously cast as a group of rebel underdogs fighting against the clear antagonist of the rich and powerful—that is, with a clear conflict of interests driving the narrative dialectically forward—is replaced by something more akin to a split within factions of the state. Consequently, there is no real drama, as there are no real clear lines of antagonism. Most of the film is spent documenting the various high political intrigues and horse trading, with no really obvious protagonist or antagonist, other than the cinematographic clues given by the inordinate amount of time the camera spends focused on Crowe. The different sides are reduced to national stereotypes (sexually promiscuous and untrustworthy French vs. stoic Brits), and superficial psychologising—Robin Hood is good because he is outspoken, loyal, respectful, and trustworthy; King John is bad because he is arrogant, nepotistic, has a bad temper and doesn’t keep his word.
The result is a totally denuded and dramatically incoherent retelling of the story that attempts to carry the viewer along with flashy battle scenes and, admittedly spectacular, set and costume design. If there is a moral to this story, then, it is that the world historical individuals Hegel once speculated would bring reason on horseback probably wouldn’t be doing it just to present a new charter of right to the King. Social change requires real antagonisms to resolve its contradictions; currying favour with the king and relying on his good will for modest legal reforms, well, even Hollywood seems to admit that will not cut it.