This week sees the release of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood adaptation, starring Russell Crowe as the titular outlaw, and Matthew Macfadyen as the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. Scott is no stranger to epic historical action, having previously directed Gladiator, which also featured Australian actor Crowe.
Scott’s Hood is just the latest in a long line of Robin Hood films, dating back to 1908. Since then, there have been at least 25 cinematic versions of the story (some say over 50), ranging from action/adventure with the Kevin Costner vehicle Prince of Thieves, the Disney animated version, and even musical comedy in the form of Mel Brooks’ Men in Tights. Along with this, there have also been several television versions. So what is it that makes Robin Hood such an enduring character? Why has the movie industry made such use of the tale, whilst ignoring many other characters from English folklore?
There is a huge question mark over whether Robin Hood was a real person. Despite Scott and Crowe’s claims that this latest version is ‘historically accurate’, there has been no definite evidence produced to either prove or disprove the outlaw’s existence. The first mentions came from ballads and folktales, which were subsequently expanded upon in literature. For this reason, there is no ‘owner’ of the story of Robin Hood, and never has been. Because of this, there are no rights issues that relate to the making of a Robin Hood movie. Whilst there have been numerous different versions of the story, it would be impossible to show that any elements had been taken from someone else’s work, and with the writers that explored the history of Hood long dead, it really isn’t an issue anyway.
The fact that there have been so many different tellings of the tale, and that there is no ‘accepted’ real version of the character’s life, means that there is no need for filmmakers to be overly concerned with historical accuracy. The settings, and technology of the time need to obviously fit to the period the story is set in, but most of the characters, and events can be altered and deleted at will. Whilst fans of the character may object to this, there is no definite source to point to in an argument about what is true or not. This makes it much easier for writers and directors to use the basic character to tell the story they want to tell, though most of the time the generally accepted timeline and plot elements are followed.
For some adaptations, the opposite might be true. By basing a film on widely accepted events and plots, you minimize the amount of work required for constructing a storyline. All the groundwork has already been done, several times over, meaning the basic structure is already well in place. This makes it much quicker (and therefore cheaper) to get a script put together.
Robin Hood is a globally recognised franchise. As a property, it already has a considerable following, those that are fans of the character, who will instantly want to see a movie based on his story. Marketing is easier for this same reason. The trailer can be free to show fantastic action and drama, without having to convey any of the already well known plot.
So why is the character so appealing? Robin Hood in the generally accepted mythos was an ordinary man, a soldier in the crusades. He robbed from the rich, and gave to the poor. This noblest of quests, an outlaw selflessly risking his life to help the peasants and yeoman, is compelling enough. But throw in the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, the face of a corrupt governing body ripping off the common man, and you have the recipe for a true underdog story. A selfless hero, sticking it to the man is a theme that can have resonance in any era. We all look at our governments as corrupt, those with political power bending it to their own will. Robin Hood is the hero that stands against that.
Thanks to years of storytelling, and the generally unchanged structure of storytelling convention throughout history, this is all done in a format perfectly styled for an entertaining movie. Robin arrives back from the Crusades to find these corrupt guardians have come to power. He sets about assembling an army, falls in love, and eventually overcomes the villains. All the elements are in place for a compelling film. The complex romantic relationship between Robin and Marion, and the obstacles they must overcome allows for many twists. The overbearing powers that be, and the way they mistreat their subjects makes for great political drama. And there is thrilling action inherent in the tale. This can be particularly unique too, with Robin’s weapon of choice, the bow and arrow, allowing for some great set pieces.
Taking all this into account, the reasons for Hollywood’s love affair with the medieval English outlaw become obvious. Ridley Scott’s adaptation is another unique take, with a much darker, grittier look at the popular anti-hero. It won’t be the last time the story of Robin Hood is committed to film either. It has the potential, however, to be the best version, combining the acting prowess of Crowe with the fantastic filmmaking talent of the experienced Scott. I’m very much looking forward to seeing it, and discovering their take on a storied and well loved folk hero.
Bazmann – You can follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/baz_mann