All heroes have to start somewhere. Most of us know Robin Hood as the valiant hero who robs from the rich to give to the poor, fresh from the Crusades, harbouring a war of good against the tyrannous Sheriff of Nottingham. But who was he, really? Ridley Scott's 2010 retelling of the legend places a possible answer within our reach.
Beginning on the battlefields of France somewhere in the 13th Century, King Richard is not the jolly old lion he is in the Disney animated feature! He's a vicious, pillaging barbarian tearing France apart on his return leg of the Crusades. Robin is nothing but an archer. One of the King's Men. Following the slaying of King Richard, Robin Longstride (played with Gladiatorial grit by Russell Crowe) deserts with a band of men to return home before it's too late. But on reaching England, in the guise of the deceased Robert of Loxley - the man tasked with returning the King's crown, now in Robin's care, to his home - he finds a situation darker than that from which he ran.
Since this is by no means a classic retelling of the tale I won't give too much away regarding plot. It's fair to say that this is the most grown-up, realistic and believable telling of the story we all know that there has been, or at least that I have seen. In fact, it acts more as an origins story for Robin Hood rather than his story that we have read since childhood.
What makes this movie stand out as a decent film in itself, rather than another Hollywood raping of one of England's national heroes, is that it takes the characters you thought you loved - and indeed those you thought you hated - and blurs the moral line immensely. Is Robin a hero? Is he a coward who just happens to fall into even bigger trouble than that he was running from? Is the Sheriff of Nottingham a dastardly villain or a man who is struggling to uphold the law in lawless times? Is King John a bastard of the highest order or an unloved and unprepared youngster with a taste for gorgeous French princesses, thrown into power without warning? The whole thing plays out as an ensemble piece, despite Crowe taking most of the screen time. All of these stories are told, and told well. It's up to us as an audience to work out who's side we're on.
The cast are outstanding and, save a few predictable moments, the script is superb. I don't see why this movie wasn't raved about more on its release. Particularly terrifying is Oscar Isaac as King John; a man who has little knowledge of what he's meant to do, but knows just what he wants. A King about to be overthrown by his own (also terrifying) henchman, Godfrey, the movie's main antagonist.
I sat and watched this movie without moving a muscle. From the moment it begins you are told, visually, that there will be no stick fights in streams, no archery contests, no saucy sword-fights with Marion - no flirting with blades. England in this is not a happy place but a place at war. A country fighting poverty and lack of leadership more than anything else. The threatened onslaught of a French invasion led by an English traitor is more than this damaged isle can take.
If you want a comparison that sums up the feel of this film, I'd say this is "the Saving Private Ryan of Medieval Battle Pictures". It is a startling combination of CGI scenery (see The Tower Of London, above) and excellent sets which acts as a backdrop to some of the most interesting character interaction in recent times. It's not perfect but as Robin Hood movies go this is by far the best. Never have the characters in this so-well-known legend been given such a rich and detailed life. Never have the characters captured my attention so much; I don't usually like Robin Hood films.
Think you know the story of Robin Hood? Think again. The story is only just getting started!