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5.17.2010 Straight arrows
By Anthony Lane


What do you get if you mix “Gladiator,” “The Return of Martin Guerre,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Elizabeth,” “Troy,” “The Seventh Seal,” and a hundred buckets of mud? The answer is “Robin Hood”—the latest version, that is, directed by Ridley Scott. Our hero is one Robin Longstride, played by Russell Crowe, who seems a bit short for the name; it suggests someone rangy, whereas the dauntless persona that Crowe has constructed, over many films, owes less to his gait than to his lightly submerged temper and his bearish build. The solution would have been to call him Robin Phonethrow, but Scott has a thing for historical details, so I guess that didn’t wash.

We first encounter Robin in France, at the butt end of the twelfth century. He is part of an unruly British force, hacking its way back home from a Crusade, under the command of King Richard (Danny Huston). The King dies, under castle walls, from an arrow to the neck—as did the real Lionheart, and as did Richard Harris, when he played the role in “Robin and Marian” (1976), although that movie stressed the parched futility of the scene, whereas Scott brings us boiling oil and heaving hordes. The result cleaves so close to the opening of Scott’s “Gladiator” that you half wonder whether he filmed the two stories back to back and held this one in reserve for ten years. Crowe certainly has the air of a man who has darted off camera, swapped his Latin grammar for a longbow, and returned to the fray. The only substantial difference is his accent, which in “Gladiator” was a rootless growl, but which now takes careful aim at a Nottinghamshire burr before veering so wildly off course that Robin sounds like an Ulsterman trying to imitate John Lennon.

Also on hand is Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), a knight of the realm, who is waylaid and slaughtered in a French glade by the glowering Godfrey (Mark Strong), a traitor so unscrupulous that he takes orders, and oysters, from the French king. Longstride, who chances upon the same glade—the whole movie seethes with geographical unlikelihood—inherits not just the sword but also the identity of the dying man. It’s a long day’s journey into knighthood, and it takes him across the Channel, up the Thames, and eventually to Nottingham, where he meets Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow), the sightless father of the deceased. Will the old man notice the difference?

You can feel Scott and his screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, toying here with notions of camouflage and doubling—themes that pierce to the heart of Hood lore. Nothing about him is more slippery than his social status, which has shifted alarmingly over time. According to J. C. Holt, in his 1982 study of the legend, “There is no doubt about Robin’s status. He is a yeoman, not a peasant, nor a knight, still less a dispossessed nobleman.” Such, at any rate, is the hero first mentioned in medieval poems and ballads—a man without a Marion, without any connection to King Richard, with no thought of robbing the rich to pay the poor. All these are later encrustations, as is the theory, given dramatic form by the playwright Anthony Munday, in 1598, that Robin was in fact the Earl of Huntingdon, cleverly slumming it as a commoner. That is a baseless but compelling fiction, to which, centuries later, the cinema was instinctively drawn; Allan Dwan turned to the Huntingdon fable for his crisp and spacious “Robin Hood” of 1922 , with Douglas Fairbanks in the title role. Even more telling was the genesis of “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” Michael Curtiz’s Technicolor pageant of 1938, which began, in an early draft, with Robin as a yeoman—and with James Cagney, no less, in line to play him—but cranked him up the ranks until, in the finished film, he became Sir Robin of Locksley, immortalized by a beaming Errol Flynn. (Mind you, wait a few more decades and you find the fellow sinking back down, to a point where the grizzled, creaky Hood of “Robin and Marian,” played by Sean Connery, can be fondly derided by his monarch as a “peasant bastard.”) And so when Crowe’s Robin tells his pals, “There is no difference between a knight and any other man,” what he claims is both demonstrably absurd and somehow true to the deep, liberating elusiveness of Robinry through the ages.

All of which makes it surprising that Scott, having raised the subject of an alter ego, tosses it aside. Robin drops his pretense, whereupon, for some reason, Sir Walter invites him to hang around anyway as a replacement heir—and an ersatz husband for Marion (Cate Blanchett), Sir Robert’s widow, who looks none too wowed by the arrangement. Not that Longstride gets to rut with the fair lady; this is a family movie, so she takes the downy bed and he has to lie on the floor beside a deerhound. Before long, however, Robin starts to prove himself, pilfering seed grain that was destined for the Church and sowing it in local fields. The Church is, as usual, the institutional villain, taking its place in a roster of foes, whose competing depredations confuse the film no end. First, we have Godfrey; followed by the French (a perennial standby); King John (Oscar Isaac), the petulant invertebrate now on the English throne; and, at the bottom of the heap, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen). Oh, dear. Why hire Macfadyen, who made an astringent Mr. Darcy in the recent “Pride and Prejudice,” and then muscle him out of the movie? My suspicion is that, after the embarrassment of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991), when Alan Rickman, as the Sheriff, stole from Kevin Costner and gave to the viewers, a dictate was nailed to every tree in Hollywood, declaring that the tale belongs to Robin and to him alone.