Kingdom of Heaven Meets Monty Python in Latest Ridley Scott Flick
"Only one more castle to sack, and we're home!" shouts a stalwart in one of the film's many inadvertently laughable lines. King John is the traditional tax-and-spend (on himself) tyrant, but compared to Richard, heretofore the hero in Robin Hood stories, he's just the greater of two evils.
Oh, dear-my favorite character in Ridley Scott's long (2 hours and 20 minutes), didactic, and dour Robin Hood was King John. "King John was not a good man," wrote A.A. Milne in his famous children's poem. But roguishly played by Oscar Isaac, the cad twelfth-century monarch, lecherous, pusillanimous, duplicitous, and dapper in his brocaded robes, was full of life. The same couldn't be said for the rest of the characters in Scott's dreary backstory about the legendary outlaw, starting with Russell Crowe as a glum Robin Hood, walking through his part as though he owed a favor to Scott for making him rich in Gladiator.
Other characters in the film seemed like holdovers from better medieval movies of yore. Cate Blanchett, luminous as the elf-queen Galadriel in Lord of the Rings, made a gaunt and world-weary Maid Marian who would rather pick her horse's hoof than look her supposed love-interest, Robin, in the eye. Even a medieval alchemist would have trouble conjuring up chemistry between those two. Wandering in from The Seventh Seal was the venerable Max von Sydow as Marian's father-in-law, Walter (don't even ask about that convoluted plot detail). Eileen Atkins put in a steely performance as King John's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (my favorite scene: when she dealt her craven son a well-deserved slap), but I couldn't help thinking about Katherine Hepburn's playing the same role in Lion in Winter, down to the same starched white wimple.
The problem with this latest film versions of the Robin Hood legend is that Scott didn't simply want to retell the story of the cocky archer of Sherwood Forest who captured the imagination of Elizabethan balladeers, Victorian children's writers, and the makers of the iconic 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood, starring an exuberant Errol Flynn, famous for dumping a dead deer onto King John's banquet table as he feasts with his nobles. Scott wanted to tell a story with a portentous message for our time. And in our time, or at least among the Hollywood moviemakers of our time, every portentous message must be a political message. In our time also, the political message must always involve those favorite political themes of Hollywood moviemakers: class struggle, social inequality, and the evils of war.
In the Errol Flynn movie, Robin Hood and his merry men (seldom merry and reduced to bit players in the Scott version) robbed from the rich and gave to the poor because the particular rich people they robbed were genuine bad guys: John, who taxed the britches off his countrymen and usurped the throne while his chivalrous elder brother, Richard the Lion-Hearted (heretofore a hero in the Robin Hood stories), was out of the country fighting the Third Crusade, and the Sheriff of Nottingham (another bit part in the Scott movie), Robin's blustering and incompetent arch-enemy. In Ridley Scott's medieval universe Crusaders are never up to any good (remember Kingdom of Heaven?), so he makes Richard a bloated blowhard who plunders and pillages his way back from the Holy Land, since it's 1199 and the Crusade is over. "Only one more castle to sack, and we're home!" shouts a stalwart in one of the film's many inadvertently laughable lines. King John is the traditional tax-and-spend (on himself) tyrant, but compared to Richard, he's just the greater of two evils.
This moral murkiness is complemented by a general physical murkiness: central-casting peasants with dingy jerkins and bad teeth waving tankards ("More wine!") and stumbling through the thatch-roofed muck. It's "Kingdom of Heaven Meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail." Scott and his screenwriter Brian Helgeland throw everything but the kitchen sink into the plot: feral children, repressed-memory syndrome, a funeral pyre from "Beowulf," a bootleg mead operation run by Friar Tuck, and the White Cliffs of Dover, which figure in a French invasion across the Channel that looks like D-Day in reverse.
In the traditional legend, Robin Hood was a displaced nobleman, Robert of Locksley, banished to Sherwood for getting on the wrong side of King John. Here, because noble birth is infra dig in today's Hollywood, he's a peasant himself, Robin Longstride-Robin of the Hood in more ways than one. But he's a peasant with a political vision-of liberty, equality, and fraternity. It turns out, as repressed-memory therapy sessions with Walter reveal, that Robin's later father, who shared his son's ideological dream, was the drafter of the Magna Carta, that declaration of rights for Englishmen that the barons forced John to sign at Runnymede in 1215. (Another inadvertently hilarious line reminiscent of Steve Martin's Roderick of York skits on Saturday Night Live: "Let's call it a charter!" No, let's call it a great charter-and in Latin that would be "Mag...."). Indeed, Robin persuades the barons (in another convoluted plot twist that you don't want to know about) to confront John with the charter in return for their support against the French. Since it's only 1199, not 1215, John burns the document instead of affixing his seal to it. The barons look upset. I wanted to reassure them, "Don't worry, guys, you'll have another shot at it in 16 years."
Robin's banishment by John is his punishment for the Magna Carta caper. There, with his now somewhat merrier men, he builds the egalitarian society of which his father dreamed. "In the greenwood...there's no rich, no poor, and fair shares for all," muses Marian, playing Wendy and the Lost Boys with a sandwich line for the outlaws. This isn't simply socialism, reflecting Hollywood's recurring confusion of the Bill of Rights with income redistribution. (One of the ironies of the movie is that Robin, his men, and the barons, uniting against John in a tax revolt, resemble libertarian Tea-Partiers far more than the proto-progressives that Scott has in mind.). It's even more balloon-headed than socialism: a hippie utopia in the forest that rejects civilization itself in favor of a dreamy politics of union with nature. That's where the feral children come into play; they're the noble savages into whom Robin Hood and his band hope to turn themselves. I say: Give me Bad King John any day.