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Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood is Surprisingly Conservative (and Surprisingly Good)

John on May 17, 2010 at 8:32 am

Yesterday some friends took me to see the new Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe. I’d read a couple reviews and they weren’t great. They said it wasn’t much fun, that it was long, etc. So I didn’t go in expecting much (besides some kind of liberal lecture about stealing from the rich to give to the poor) and to my surprise I liked it a lot. You get so tired of being beaten over the head by films with a liberal message that, after a while, you just flinch in anticipation when you walk in the theater. Turns out I didn’t need to with this film.

I’ll give away some spoilers, so be warned.

The heart of this story, which is really a prequel to the one we all know, is that there can be no taxation without representation. Seriously. The nobles are being oppressed with taxes and are eventually put under siege to pay or have their fiefdom’s burned down. This is government run amok. All of this turns out to be part of a plot by…wait for it…the French! Those cheese-eating bastards in Europe have their eyes set on England and they might get it unless someone can find the right words to rally the nobles and their king into a unified fighting force.

No surprise that person turns out to be Robin Longstride. At a critical point in the film (the second plot point), Robin gives a speech in which he says every man’s home is his castle and demands that men be free by law to care for themselves rather than rely on handouts. What he wants is for King John to sign the Magna Carta. This really is a movie about individual freedom vs. government control. In short, this is a movie about limited government. Dare I say it…Robin and his men would have fit in nicely at a modern day Tea Party.

Of course not everything about the film is admirable. Coming as it does from Ridley Scott, it’s no surprise that religion gets short shrift. Friar Tuck cares more for mead than he does for God. In another scene the despotic King John defends himself with explicit reference to the divine right of kings. In short, religion is portrayed as hostile to freedom rather than supportive of it. I could list many historical instances where this is the opposite of the truth, but why bother. It’s a fairly minor note in the script.

Aside from the politics there’s lots else to like about this film. The script is solid and even occasionally funny. The staging is impressive in scale, especially the final battle scene which is reminiscent of the battle of Helm’s Deep. Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett are excellent in their roles, as are all of Robin’s men. I especially liked Kevin Durand as Little John. If you don’t know the name, you may remember him as the evil soldier guy from Lost last season. He’s a real bright spot in this film, adding a lot of the humor without ever coming off false in the part. William Hurt has a smaller but pivotal role which he also plays very well. Finally, Mark Strong who also played the bad guy in Kick-Ass this summer (and will be Sinestro in the forthcoming Green Lantern movie), is exactly what you expect here. I mean that in a good way. He’s a great villain. He doesn’t chew the scenery too much, just enough to make it interesting.

If, like me, you read some of the moderate to poor reviews and were thinking of sitting this one out, I recommend you think again. Don’t go in expecting a masterpiece or even something as good as the 1938 version with Errol Flynn (which is still untouchable IMO). However, I thought this version was a big improvement over the Kevin Costner version in every way. And it doesn’t hurt that the political message of the film is one I can get behind for a change.

Update 6/3: I missed this at the time but A.O. Scott had a similar reaction:

You may have heard that Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but that was just liberal media propaganda. This Robin is no socialist bandit practicing freelance wealth redistribution, but rather a manly libertarian rebel striking out against high taxes and a big government scheme to trample the ancient liberties of property owners and provincial nobles. Don’t tread on him!

So is “Robin Hood” one big medieval tea party? Kind of, though that description makes the movie sound both more fun and more provocative than it actually is. The film’s politics, in any case, are more implicit than overt, so that the filmmakers can plausibly deny any particular topical agenda. Which is fair enough: the fight of ragged warriors against sniveling and sadistic tyrants appeals across tastes and ideologies. In our own minds, at least at the movies, we are all embattled underdogs standing up for our rights against a bunch of overprivileged jerks who won’t leave us alone.

Yeah, he’s right.

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