Robin Hood has been popular for a while. The character first appeared in English ballads dating back to the mid-14th century. The story is of a man who robs from the rich and gives to the poor, fighting back against the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham. A classic tale of a champion of the downtrodden fighting against corrupt authority for the betterment of all, a story that will never grow old. Joining Robin in his righteous fight are Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller’s Son, with Maid Marian and Friar Tuck being added to the merry band in later ballads. Robin is always portrayed as a fine archer; English longbowmen had a reputation for accuracy and lethality. Originally, Robin was a yeoman, a freeborn commoner elevated up. Later adaptations turned him into a proper landholding noble.
The tales of Robin Hood have been adapted many times, for stage, for film, for television, live action and animated. A rare few Robins, though, had a proper English accent. Cary Elwes of Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Brian Bedford of Disney’s Robin Hood are a minority, though other regions of the British Isles are represented in the actors who have played Robin. The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn is considered to be the best version, though Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves has been influential despite Kevin Coster’s lack of English accent.
Given that Robin Hood, the character, is in the public domain and tends to be popular thanks to robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, it’s natural that the legends wouldn’t lay untouched for long. In 2018, Appian Way, Thunder Road Films, Summit Entertainment, and Safehouse Pictures released Otto Bathurst’s take on the legend, Robin Hood. The film stars Taron Egerton as Robin Hood, Eve Hewson as Marian, Jamie Foxx as Yahya ibn Umar aka “John”, Ben Medelsohn as the Sheriff of Nottingham, Tim Minchin as Friar Tuck, Paul Anderson as Guy of Gisborne, and F. Murrary Abraham as Cardinal Franklin. Egerton is Welsh, so not quite English but close.
The film starts with Robin and Marian meeting, with her trying to steal the manor’s young toff’s horse and the young toff letting her. After a montage of young love over time, Robin is drafted by the king to join the Third Crusade. Robin sees action in the Middle East, fighting alongside Guy of Gisbourne. Gisbourne takes his duty and orders to kill infedels to heart. Robin, while fighting for the king, isn’t a fan of massive slaughter. There’s dying in a fight, then there’s executions.
One execution is the son of a man who fought hard against Robin, stopping only because his hand was cut off by a sword during the fight. The man, soon to be revealed as Yahya, reveals the details that Guy is looking for, but Yahya’s info is out of date. Robin tries to interfere in the execution of Yahya’s son and is shot in the leg for the effort. Guy sends Robin back home on a hospital ship.
When Robin returns to Loxley, the manor is in disrepair, almost ruins. A notice posted by the Sheriff on the remains of the main doors says that the contents have been taken due to failure to pay taxes. Robin later finds out from Friar Tuck that he was decalred dead two years prior. The commoners, especially those working in the mines, are paying even more taxes than before, all to subsidize the war overseas.
Robin also discovers that there has been a stowaway on the hospital ship, Yahya. Robin managed to impress the man because he tried to stop the execution of the son. The pair work together, training Robin in the use of the recurve bow, allowing for a more powerful shot and quicker reload time. The pair become partners, with friendship looming, though Yahya tells Robing to call him John instead of butchering his name. Their goal, steal the taxes from the Sheriff to fund Robin’s return to polite society.
Robin has some early success, but overhears Marian complaining about the Hood’s thefts. If the Hood wanted to be a hero, he’d give the money stolen back to the poor. Since Robin isn’t stealing the taxes to get rich himself, he sees it as a way to gain popularity, and gives the bulk of the stolen goods back to the poor.
The Sheriff doesn’t like the embarassment of the thefts, especially with the Cardinal coming to visit to make sure that Nottingham is provinding its share of funds to the war efforts. After every theft, a hood gets nailed to the church. The Sheriff recruits a hardened band, Sir Guy of Gisbourne’s, to hunt down the Hood. Gisbourne has no trouble being a hired killer; it’s what he does best.
Adding to the chaos, Marian and Tuck are also working to undercut the Sheriff. The Hood’s appearance is a wild card to their own plans, but they’re willing to work with the newcomer, using him to cover their own acts. Eventually, Robin and Marian discover each other’s secrets, reuniting completely.
One final heist remains as the opportunity is too good to pass up. The Cardinal’s arrival isn’t social; he’s there to take possession of the taxes raised for the war efforts. The Sheriff is also aware that the gold is too tempting to a thief. In the final battle, the Sheriff manages to capture Robin, but the gold disappears under his and his guard’s noses. With the help of John, Robin escapes, then leads the outlaws to Sherwood Forest.
While the movie got nominated for Golden Raspberries, it’s not that bad. It’s also not that good. The biggest problem the film has is trying to be relevant in 2018. In that year, anger in the US over police shooting minorities, especially unarmed minorities, had hit the boiling point. Anger towards the corrupt, venal Trump presidency also hit the boiling point. While Trump had the backing of evangelicals, he also had the backing of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. The Republican Party, which had flirted with evangelicals under Nixon with the Southern Strategy and Reagan during the Eighties, but by the time George W Bush became president, the religious right had taken over the party. The climax pulls from protests that got pacified hard by riot police; the shields used by the Sheriff’s men have more than a passing resemblance to police riot shields, and the troops are all faceless with their helmets, clubbing down like their swords were batons.
While sometimes the message has to be hammered home, Robin Hood might not have been the best vehicle. To most audiences, Robin Hood is a light tale, with the villainous nobles losing to the hero of the people. The movie spends most of its run time on just that, though there are times when it feels more like Arrow. Granted, the Green Arrow was partially inspired by the tales of Robin Hood, but it wouldn’t have been surprising for Robin in the movie to shout, “You have failed Nottingham.” The result is a film that has tonal issues.
However, how is it as an adaptation of the legends? The tales are centuries old, and have been changed over time. Marian and Tuck weren’t in the original ballads, and Morgan Freeman’s Azeem in the Costner version was an organic addition to the legend. Even the “giving to the poor” was a later addition to the ballads. There’s room to play with the legends. The characters are recognizable for the most part, thanks to the broad interpretations of the characters in the past. Marian is not passive, but that’s not a bad thing necessarily. Tuck is a man of God, not a man of the Church. The Sheriff is corrupt, as is the Church. Broadly, it’s a decent adaptation, with no real problems with the characters, bar one. Will Scarlet got the short shift in the film, becoming the third edge of a not quite realized love triangle.
The other problem, though, is that while the film is set during the Third Crusade, the fashion and weapons technology don’t quite fit. The Muslim defenders in the Middle East used repeating ballistae; the scene looked more like a modern war movie except for the use of bows and swords instead of M-16s. However, repeating ballistae did exist; the Greeks had the polyboros, that used a chain drive to reload the weapon instead of the magazine used in the movie. The Sheriff’s men also used repeating crossbows; again, such weapons existed but mainly in China as the chu-ko-nu. The weapon wasn’t used in Europe as the bolts fired had little penetration against armour. However, for an action film, rapid fire looks impressive. The fashion, though, was all over the place. Marian’s early outfit didn’t look out of place for a general medieval setting, but her later ones felt closer to the Seventies or Eighties than medieval Britain. The film needed to pick a style and stayed with it.
Overall, the film is decent, not bad but not great. It tries hard to be relevant to the 2018 audience but can’t handle the tonal shifts that happen. There is an idea within the film worth pursuing, but Robin Hood might not have been the best vehicle.