Director: Ridley Scott Writer: Brian Helgeland
Film Score: Marc Streitenfeld Cinematography: John Mathieson
Starring: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow and Matthew Macfadyen
After scoring such a major success in Gladiator
at the turn of the century, it’s no surprise that Ridley Scott would have brought back his star from that film to appear in another historical drama. While it may not have seemed at the time that Robin Hood
was a film that needed to be made, it is certainly a welcome palate cleanser after the embarrassment of the Kevin Costner version from 1991 . . . very welcome indeed. I’ve written on numerous occasions about the hit or miss—literally, one or the other—quality of director’s cuts. In most instances, the theatrical release is perfect because
of the cuts, and sticking unnecessary scenes back into the film only dilutes what was good about it in the first place. With Scott’s version of the Robin Hood legend, however, the reverse is true. Cutting scenes out in the theatrical version actually served to cripple that film, and were probably a major reason for the mixed reviews it received. So, I’ll go on record here to say that the only version you should ever watch of this film is the director’s cut. It’s a magnificent retelling of the story that rewards repeated viewings, a vision of screenwriter Brian Helgeland that, in conjunction with Ridley Scott’s direction, feels like the definitive version, with twists and turns that make it gripping to view—and much of which is destroyed by the theatrical cut.
The film begins with England’s King Richard, played superbly by Danny Huston, returning broke from the Crusades, sacking one last castle in France before he finally returns after a decade-long absence. When the king is killed in battle, Russell Crowe as Robin Longstride takes the most dependable of his fellow soldiers, and heads for England ahead of the hoard of soldiers to follow. In the meantime the French king, Jonathan Zaccaï, hires English mercenary Mark Strong to kill Richard. Instead, Strong finds only Sir Richard Loxley, Douglas Hodge, with the king’s crown and kills him and his men anyway. When Crowe and company—Kevin Durand as Little John, Scott Grimes as Will Scarlet, and Alan Doyle as Allan A'Dayle, a small band of merry men—run into the massacre, they take their own vengeance and only Strong is able to escape. But not unscathed as he takes one of Crowe’s arrows to the face. The dying Hodge asks Crowe to return his father’s sword, which Crowe agrees to, and after narrowly escaping the petulant, immature new King John, Oscar Isaac, Crowe heads for the midlands with his men to return the sword. There he meets Max von Sydow as Sir Walter, and Cate Blanchett as Marion Loxley. Sydow, however, comes up with a plan. As Blanchett will lose the estate once Sydow dies, he suggests that Crowe take his dead son’s place. Finally, the last of the merry men, Mark Addy as Friar Tuck joins the group.
The central conflict in the story is that King John, frantic to reclaim the money that his brother Richard spent, wants to bleed the nobles in the north dry collecting taxes. To achieve this, he fires the former tax collector, William Hurt, and replaces him with Mark Strong. What the king doesn’t know, however, is that Strong is working both sides to his own benefit, as he is also clearing the way for King Phillip of France to launch an invasion of England. It really is a tremendously satisfying story, though the more international flavor of the plot reduces the local conflict with Matthew Macfadyen as the Sheriff of Nottingham. But then we’ve all seen that a hundred times before. The new version isn’t necessarily better for it, but since all of the other changes by Brian Helgeland are absolutely brilliant, this major shift is a little easier to accept. In addition to the new story, the acting is tremendous across the board. Mark Strong’s sociopathic version of Guy of Gisborne is just right, manipulating the weak Oscar Isaac as King John to the dismay of the queen mother, Eileen Atkins. William Hurt's appearance is a surprise but he is solid as the former aid to the old king. And the merry men are also uniformly excellent. Kevin Durand is just right as the garrulous Little John. Scott Grimes, having acquitted himself admirably in Band of Brothers and E.R. is perfectly cast as the red-haired Will Scarlet, and Mark Addy as Friar Tuck is an absolute natural.
Supporting Crowe, however, are the two actors who really make the film. First is the late Max von Sydow, one of the most commanding figures of the screen for decades. And in the crucial role of Marian is Cate Blanchett, who is as comfortable in historical dramas as anyone in Hollywood. These three working together are so good that it would be impossible to imagine the film without them. The only disappointment as far as the story goes, is that Matthew Macfadyen didn’t have more of a major role to play. Ridley Scott’s vision was carried out to perfection by cinematographer John Mathieson—as well as what looks like teams of second units filming the climax. It’s also the most realistic setting of the tale by far, with incredibly believable sets, both interior and exterior, that feel exactly right. Finally, the film score by Marc Streitenfeld, while not particularly memorable—and to be honest, that may not be a bad thing, as it’s not intrusive either—holds the whole thing together. I’ve enjoyed the Robin Hood saga on film for years, from Douglass Fairbanks in 1922, to the iconic Errol Flynn version from 1938—and yes, on very rare occasions, the 1991 debacle with Kevin Costner. Of course, there are literally dozens of other versions of the story, but for my money this is hands down the most satisfying. Ultimately, Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood is wonderfully enjoyable and I give it it—remember, now, only the director’s cut—my highest recommendation.