Being the rabid Ridley Scott fan that I am, last week I went to go see his new movie, Robin Hood, at the theatre. (Being the cheapskate that I am, I went in the morning and paid four dollars less than going at night, because really, ten dollars to see a movie is ridiculous.)
Robin Hood isn't Kingdom of Heaven, let's start with that. I know a lot of reviewers, myself included, went in thinking it would be much of the same material, and it wasn't...to a point. Robin Hood takes place about nine years after the events in KoH, close to the end of Richard's wars in France, which come to an unforeseen halt when Richard dies. The main character, Robin Longstride, is an average man in the ranks of Richard's army, pulled to the king's attention when Richard, on a whim, goes through the camp looking for 'an honest man.' Scott set out to retell Robin Hood, and in that he succeeded, but while he was doing it he took a lot of the fun out of the Robin Hood story and inserted a lot of politics.
I think the big draw of Robin Hood is that he's a man that exists outside of political interests, or if he is involved, his intentions are always very clear -- he's King Richard's man, he supports Richard's causes, and he supports the people. Simple and easy to remember. Scott's Hood should be simple, but instead comes off as much more complicated and politically embroiled than a character who up until a half hour into the movie was just a common archer. He expresses himself much better than a commonborn would have. That's kind of a theme in Scott's movies, but Balian somehow got away with it in KoH. On Robin, the high-handed speeches just sound dull.
What's interesting to me about this movie is the extremely mixed response it got throughout the reviewing world. Most people disliked it, and I can see why. Two sources that liked it a little more than the rest, however, interested me. Feministing.com's regular contributor Anna Marie reviewed it with evident enthusiasm, reporting that she loved the strong female lead offered by Cate Blanchett (appropriate sentiments for a feminist blog) and the revolutionary aspects of the idea that you didn't have to be a noble to speak up an affect change in a society.
The other interesting review is from the National Catholic Register, which is the only weekly paper my house now recieves. Thier film critic, Steven Greydanus, the writer of The Decent Films Guide said it was "more watchable in most respects" than Kingdom of Heaven (a statement I'd like to vehemently disagree with) and judged that "the moral issues [were] less muddled, the hero more compelling, the heroine more relevant, and the romance at least relatable, if not especially engaging."
I've read Greydanus' review at least three times now and I still can't decide if the man liked the movie or not -- halfway through the article he lashes out at Scott's conception of the medieval world, saying that "I'm sick of this...grim joyless faux realist medieval world with its constant brutality, hypocrisy and debauchery" but adding at the end that the movie should get some points for portraying its main character as a man capable of piety. I agree that the medieval world does get a bum rap in Hollywood, but after that he kind of lost me with his more compelling hero/ relevant heroine argument.
As much as I love Blanchett and the idea of a feminist Marian, that was one of the elements in the movie that didn't sit well with me. Both critics bring it up as something to be praised in Scott's epic, and I'm going to have to disagree. Kingdom of Heaven had a strong female lead in Princess Sybilla, a woman who was interesting because she was hard to understand at times and remarkably transparent in others. Sybilla made sense in the context of her story -- for part of her life she had been a political pawn and needed to continue being a political pawn (something that went against her personality) if she wanted to see her kingdom survive. Marion, on the other hand, makes less sense. Even if her husband had been gone with Richard for ten years, the idea that she would have become this Amazonian leadership lady in that time didn't seem possible in England circa 1200. Is she more relatable? Yes, more people could probably relate to Marion than they could to Sybilla. That doesn't necessarily mean she belonged in the story. A woman taking up a sword at the end of the film? It doesn't even begin to make sense. The feminist element in Robin Hood contributes just as much to the revisionist view of history that Greydanus (rightfully) accuses Scott of as any of the other wildly inaccurate historical elements in the film.
As I tried to figure out how to write this post, I attempted to find some lesson I could take away from the different ways these different people reviewed this film. Anna watched it as a feminist and found something she liked -- Steven watched it as a Catholic and found it lacking. As for myself, watching the film as both a Catholic and a self-identified feminist as well as a lot of other things, I found my lens as an amateur historian taking more and more of my attention away from the others.
I won't claim that I took note of all the inaccuracies in Robin Hood, and I'll certainly admit to ignoring some of the revisionist elements in Kingdom of Heaven. But both movies inspired me to do more research on the period in question -- I have four books from the library on William Marshall (a small character in Robin Hood) and a growing collection of literature on what life was like in Europe and the Latin East in the 1100s. To me, the idea that a piece of media can be a gateway into a wider world of fact-checking and research is a valuable one, and one that is helping me find the joyful Middle Ages behind Hollywood's "faux-realist medieval world", the real links of mutual respect between the Muslim world and the Christian one, and the real proto-feminist figures in the medieval history, women like Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hildegarden of Bingen and Queen Melisande of Jerusalem.
Overall, I'd recommend avoiding the admission price (however low) at the theater and waiting for the DVD of Robin Hood if you were thinking of going to see it. In the meantime, you'd be welcome to join me in reading "Warriors of God" by James Reston or "Four Queens" by Nancy Goldstone for a more historical look at the the Crusades or women in the middle ages.
And if you must have your ridiculous but fantastic crusades, there's always the other Scott named Walter.