If, as the Gothic calligraphy tells us as the beginning of this film, tyrants inspire heroes, then the clear implication is that heroes inspire movies. And Robin Hood, who stole from the rich to give to the poor, has been one of the most frequently portrayed on screen over the course of the last century, beginning with a silent film in 1908 and continuing through portrayals that have included Disney animation, Mel Brooks comedy, a space-age version, a gangster version, and films with Robin as a woman, as a child, and as an old man decades after his famous adventures (played by Sean Connery at age 45, Crowe’s age when he made this film).
Pretty much, though, all versions have stuck with the idea of Robin Hood as a nobleman who valiantly defends the rights of the commoners against a corrupt prince who hopes to take over the throne and who falls in love with the beautiful Maid Marian. In this version, something of a prequel, Robin is not noble and Marian is not a maid.
The “Gladiator” director and star reunite ten years later with another story of a heroic rebel leader. Russell Crowe, looking a little more doughy than he did a decade ago in the toga, is Robin Longstride, an archer in the army of King Richard the Lionhearted who has the courage to tell the king he is wrong, landing in the stocks for his impertinence. The king is killed in battle and the knights taking his crown back to London are ambushed by Godfrey (all-purpose villain Mark Strong), a traitor close to Prince John (Oscar Isaac) but working for King Philip of France. Robin and his men pretend to be the knights so they can get back home. And he promises the dying knight whose armor he takes that he will return his sword to his father, Sir Walter Loxley, in Nottingham.
With John as the new king, Godfrey is given the authority to collect taxes from the noblemen, who have already been taxed into poverty. But Godfrey’s plan is to pillage the country so brutally that the nobility will no longer support the king, making the country more vulnerable to attack. Robin delivers the sword to Sir Walter (Max von Sydow), who asks him to stay and pretend to be his son, to help protect his land. Sir Walter’s daughter-in-law, Lady Marian (Cate Blanchett), the knight’s widow, reluctantly agrees. This puts Robin, now known as Sir Robert Loxley, in Godfrey’s path.
As you can tell from this rendition, it’s overly complicated and a lot of what we expect in a Robin Hood story is missing. But it is one thing to omit the archery competition and another to remove the key element of the story, the idea of a nobleman who fights for the commoners. While “Gladiator” did a masterful job of creating a sense of time and place, “Robin Hood” has some clanging anachronisms that take us out of the movie entirely, including some of the dialogue and a scene where von Sydow and Crowe have an Oprah-esque therapy session so that Robin can have an epiphany about his feelings for his father.
Scott and his CGI crew have put together a gorgeous and compelling re-creation of the landscape and architecture of the era, and the movie conveys the fragility of the overlay of civilization as unsettling new ideas about justice, equality, and self-determination are beginning to take hold. But the script itself has a sense of struggle behind it, with too many story lines and too little resolution. Retro elements like burning map montages to show the progress of the pogrom-like raids compete with winks to the future as scenes suggest iconic images like Joan of Arc in armor, D-Day, and the Holocaust. And the concluding scene is such a fundamental re-writing of history that we wonder whether it is not we who have been robbed.