Sunday, May 23, 2010

Trouble in Sherwood Forest

Ridley Scott’s new Robin Hood film has proved about as popular among movie critics as the Gulf Coast oil spill among ecologists. There are three sources of disapproval: 1) the film isn’t historically accurate; 2) it doesn’t reflect the traditional Robin Hood narrative; 3) Russell Crowe is a failed gangsta.

It is truly astonishing how quickly movie critics transform into accomplished medieval historians the moment a period movie hits the screens. Apparently they dash off to consult Wikipedia, following which the urge to play “spot the anachronism” seems all but irrepressible.

Granted that the present film seen as a historical exercise is skewed beyond all recognition. Richard Lion-Heart had no interest in England, spoke no English, died ingloriously, and was thought by some contemporaries to be gay. In effect he was a more or less failed war-lord who accomplished little, unlike the incomparably more genial King Philip Augustus of France.

Naturally Philip never invaded England, as depicted in the Omaha Beach invasion sequence beneath Dover Cliffs. Philip was far more concerned with breaking up the Angevin Empire, whose fate was sealed at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214. And Magna Carta was of course a revolt of the barons, not the peasantry, who couldn’t get a decent insurgency off the ground until the 1380’s.

History coincides with celluloid phantasy only in the person of King John. Generally viewed as a jerk who lost his empire, he was interdicted by the Pope, lost authority to the barons and was respected by no one. Within his kingdom, however, the basic antagonism was between Normans and Saxons, not between “England” and “France,” as was touched upon more successfully in Anouilh’s Beckett play.

That’s just to mention the larger, aristocratic narrative at the butt-end of the 12th century. One reviewer was distressed at the drabness of medieval country life -- but that part at least seems reasonably authentic -- colored cloth was unavailable to the masses, who must have been pretty filthy after working in the fields all day, where almost all of the population was employed. Americans would probably be as happy living in a medieval village as when suddenly teleported to somewhere in North Korea.

But the larger point is that all these historical issues just don’t make any difference. Films about the Middle Ages should be understood as acts of the imagination -- as medievalism, not medieval history; as food for thought, not for their accuracy in historical representation.

Who cares if King Phillip of France never invaded England? Isn’t it more interesting to ponder how it would have looked if he had been stupid enough to do so on Dover Beach? Would he have used D-Day-type landing craft? Wouldn’t you have deployed your archers upon the cliffs? Could a skilled archer really have shot the fleeing Godfrey of Boulogne through the neck at a hundred yards? And wouldn’t the siege of a Norman castle shown at the beginning of the movie really have looked something like that?

What I tend to think more distasteful is the depiction generally of all this aberrant male behavior: guys endlessly stabbing each other with spears or showering opponents with projectiles. But it’s of course exactly these battle scenes which make the movie really interesting.

Seen as a work of imagination, Ridley Scott’s movie takes on a different significance. And if it doesn’t follow the traditional story of Robin Hood in Merrie Olde England, are modern viewers really so keen on seeing a bunch of operetta bandits prancing around in green tights in the woods? Must we absolutely have to watch Robin and Marian screwing each other to confirm that they’re in love, as one reviewer was kvetching -- does there always have to be a sex scene to authenticate romantic love?

It has also become fashionable for journalists to dump all over Russell Crowe lately -- British reviewers question the validity of his movie accent, which for Americans is recognizable only as a kind of sullen grunting noise. But despite his proletarian demeanor, nobody seems to question his acting skill (just compare him to the disastrous Kevin Costner in the last Robin Hood film), or that of Cate Blanchett, who is a welcome relief in all this heavily gendered mayhem, but to which she too eventually succumbs.

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